By BOB McCARTHY
The Florence and Sarnia Plank Road was built at a cost of forty thousand dollars, half from Sarnia, with the rest put up by Malcolm Cameron, George Durand and other gentlemen, using their own money. Started in late fifty-eight, the new road was finished by summer of fifty-nine.
The main reason for the planked road was to get the newly found oil from Oil Springs and beyond on to Sarnia where it would be refined at the Black Star Refinery.
Let’s travel by stage along the new plank road with Samuel Johnston, operator of one of the stores that sprung up in Oil Springs to serve the needs of the many men who came to this new community to hopefully claim their share of the fame and fortune of this booming town.
New Plank Road – 1870’s
Since I last travelled this way near a year ago, the owners of the road have added three toll gates, the first just outside Sarnia’s limits. The second is at a small community building up because of the planked road. It is called Smithville and be near the Lucasville Post Office. The third toll station is at the eighth line of Moore Township.
Signs at each toll booth indicate that tolls of five to fifteen cents must be paid, depending on destination, type of vehicle, contents, number of passengers on the vehicle. I noticed on the sign that ministers were allowed to travel along the Plank Road without paying a toll. Guess Uncle Joe would like that.
This last trip has been a real delight, especially the return run. I travelled first class, meaning I got to sit inside instead of outside on this stage run from the livery stable of Pette, Guston and Company.
We started out ‘bout mid-day yesterday. The stage had pulled up right in front of our hotel. I was just standing waiting patiently with others when I heard a voice call out “All of you folks. Listen up here. By my watch, it is now the hour of twelve and thirty-five in the afternoon. This here stage will be aleavin’ in twenty-five minutes by my watch.
“Now, all who will be aboardin’ this stage, bring your luggage and ticket to me and I will pass you on to board. Now, who is first?”
It was the voice of the stage driver, a tall wiry man wearing a ten gallon Stetson and leather chaps. Exactly twenty-five minutes later, the stage pulled out. Inside were three men, including myself, all sitting facing forward and three ladies facing to the rear.
Not right to judge people, but one of the ladies looked to me like she might be heading to the Springs to pursue employment at one of the entertainment palaces.
For the first part of our ride, going out of Sarnia, the stage moved at a slow but still jostling pace.
It was about an hour and a half before we reached the first tool booth.
Since I was sitting on the right side by a flap covered opening. I could hear the man at the toll booth ask when we stopped at the gate. “What do you carry and how many passengers do you have on board.”
The stage driver answered, “I have three gentleladies and two gentlemen and one clergyman in board and I have eight in total plus myself on top here. Alls I be carrying is their luggage and mail and goods, no animals and no fowl.”
The man seated next to me inside the coach asked what was happening.
I turned in his direction and said “You have probably not travelled along this route. The driver must pay a toll for all living things on this stage, whether they be people or animals or fowl, except for the Reverend here, of course. No charge for ministers of the Lord. The driver will have to pay tolls here and again at each of the other two toll booths.”
The man then handed me a card showing that he was one Horace Greebs, a financier headed for the oil fields of Oil Springs
“Sir,” he said “I have in recent months been reading so much about the Village of Oil Springs in the Toronto Globe. You know, sir, that I am acquainted with George Brown, the owner of the Globe. He is the same man who founded Bothwell back in eighteen fifty-four.
“When I spoke to him about a month ago, he suggested that there might be both an opportunity and a need for someone such as myself to assist miners with financing.
“Why, I have here a recent article about Oil Springs. You might like to read it.”
As he handed me the article, he continued “Sir, are you from there?”
I replied “Indeed, Mister Greebs. I am from there, have been since fifty-eight. A moment please while I read what was printed in the Globe?”
“Sir, it was written but two weeks ago. Please read it for yourself.”
The concluding paragraphs of a rather long article read:
The fact has been established that it is almost impossible to bore a deep hole without finding oil. Professor S. S. Cutting, whom we have previously quoted, alludes to this subject, as follows: ‘The larger number of wells in the district are near the creek; but the valuable wells scattered here and there on the level, with no manifest signs of preference of one spot over another, demonstrate that the district is saturated with oil, and that it is likely to be found, seek it where you will. At the back door of the hotel at which I stopped, they undertook to dig a well for water, and to their great consternation it yielded oil.’
Just as the stage once again began to move forward, I commented that perhaps the story was just a tad exaggerated.
Knowing from experience that it would be most difficult to carry on a conversation with the stage moving, I passed the article back and said to him “Mister Greebs, we will talk further when the stage stops once again.”
As the stage picked up speed, I thought to myself what a wonderful form of conveyance this is. At the front, I knew, there were four strong stout looking horses, all black, obviously matched for their endurance and their ability to pull in unison.
Following the leads of their reins back to the top of the coach, I knew there was a driver who, once we got on to the open road, would tightly hold on to those reins, controlling his team while he would no doubt be bouncing up and down on the wide plank with no back support that served as his seat.
Behind him, on top, were eight other men travelling second class, also holding on for their lives. Further back, piled high in the bin on the back of the stage, was luggage belonging to the passengers plus bags of mail and local goods being carried on to the Post Office and merchants in Oil Springs.
The toll must now have been paid. We were once more moving. As we picked up speed, I knew that the four black steeds would be pulling in unison. I could hear the wheels squeaking on their axles, the snap of the reins and harness crackling, the eerie sound of the springs creaking, the whole box of the stage groaning as it was jostled back and forth through a quick up and down motion as we passed over each plank spread across the road.
An Indian I had spoken to several months ago said that a stagecoach looked to him like a small house being pulled over bumps by the horses.
Then, quietly, in as few words as possible, he told me that we would be better off and probably a lot safer travelling in a saddle or on a travois pulled by a horse just like his people.
When I pointed out to him that the stage could move us a lot faster, his only comment was “Why must you go so fast? Why do you not slow down and enjoy your life?”
As I smiled at the recollection of his question, all of us bounced up and down, right and left.
The stage jounced and it quivered. It quaked and it swayed. It floundered and it tumbled.
No two motions seemed the same as it bobbed up and down on its leather springs, moving at what seemed to me then to be such a great rate of speed.
What the six of us were riding in was just a wooden box about four feet wide and four and a half feet high on the inside, padded leather seats the only protection we had to at least absorb some of the effect of the many bumps.
All six of us, crammed tightly inside this bouncing, shaking, lumbering box, were doing our individual best as each one of us tried desperately to remain seated without jostling one another.
The three ladies held kerchiefs to their noses trying to mitigate the effect of the dust entering in to the carriage through flopping flaps of leather mounted on the doors to cover the window openings.
It was nearly five hours before we approached Lucasville, only about five miles from the hotel in Sarnia. The reason we took so long was that we had to slow down and pull off onto side-offs at least twelve times.
Because we were travelling in the opposite direction from the tanker waggons full of oil, we had to give way each time one approached from the south.
We had dinner and stayed overnight at the Lucas House, an inn for stage travellers. It was so crowded that I had to share a room with five beds with nine other male travellers.
At dinner at the hotel that night, I was informed by our waiter that the main intersection of town offered salvation, education, cultivation and damnation, take your choice.
When I looked later, I saw that he was right. Located at the main intersection I could see a Methodist church, a public school, a farm and a saloon.
I did not visit any of them that night or in the morning before the stage pulled away just as the sun was rising. Our first stop was the second toll gate just past Lucasville.
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
The Sarnia and Florence Plank Road, originally planned to run from Florence in south-east Lambton north-west through the county to Sarnia, was built in 1858-59 at a cost of $40,000.00, financed by the Sarnia and a private group including Malcolm Cameron, George Durand and others.
Oil was originally teamed by horse-drawn jumpers and scows to the village of Wyoming and from there, by train to Sarnia on the recently completed Great Western Railway and then on to the Black Star Refinery which was located at Christina and Exmouth, the same property that the abandoned Holmes Foundry still occupies.
There was a need for a more direct way to move the oil on an around the clock basis.
The above story and more notes about the Plank Road will continue in the next “Voices from Lambton’s Past”.