The Time Traveler this week takes a trek all the way back to the Fifties — the 1850s, that is, and more specifically July 12, 1854 when the “Phenix” newspaper recorded the fact that the Hernando Plank Road was at last completed and open for travel.
The State Legislature had chartered a corporation to build the plank road from the Town of Panola, in Panola County, across the Coldwater River, through Hernando, to terminate in Tennessee at or near Memphis. The capital stock was to be $200,000 and was to be sold to the public at $50 per share. The name was later changed to the “Memphis and Hernando Plank Road” and it started instead at Hernando, rather than Panola.
When completed, the road was 22 miles long with a toll gate every eight miles. Charges were established for a man on a horse at 10 cents, 25 cents for a carriage, and for a wagon and team 25 cents.
The reason for a paved or plank road was obvious. It’s not that hard to imagine with all the recent rainfall, but with heavy downpours during the spring, dirt roads were often muddy and nearly impassable. The Hernando Plank Road was quite an engineering marvel of its time, with sturdy cypress planks, hewn from the Delta swamps, that were laid down so that stagecoaches, wagons and even teams of mules and soldiers, North and South, could navigate the road in order to get to their destination. The newspaper heralded the fact the plank road was open for business.
“At last the Hernando Plank Road is finished and in good style. And it will be found to be most convenient to the people of DeSoto, Panola and Shelby (Tenn.) counties. A traveler can now leave Hernando by sunrise, come to Memphis and transact such business as he may desire and still return home by sunset. It used to be a hard day’s travel to come from Hernando to Memphis. Such is progress.”
A small-scale version of the Hernando-Memphis Plank Road graces the front portion of the grounds of the DeSoto County Museum in Hernando, leading from the parking lot to the museum’s front door. Its wood planks are similar to the planks that once comprised the famous road.
Everything from cotton to hogs was transported across these plank roads to major markets in Memphis and beyond.
Most of the area’s major roads were originally Native American trails. Pigeon Roost Road winds from the Tennessee state line through Olive Branch and Marshall County. Named for the legendary but now extinct carrier pigeon that nested in the Nonconnah River bottoms, millions of these pigeons would roost in trees throughout the area, with some limbs breaking under the weight.
Accidents on these rural roads were common. The People’s Press newspaper, edited by W.S. Slade, who would later publish the Press and Times, wrote in 1866 about the unfortunate passing of a man named Bushrod Perrryman, an ex-Confederate soldier, who was driving a mule team down the hill of the Hernando train depot. According to the late historian Mildred Scott, “the mules became unmanageable, threw him off, with the wagon passing over his body … from the effects of which he expired in the course of a few hours.”
Fast forward a few more years until Jan. 29, 1914 when a carload of renowned citizens had an unfortunate accident that left at least one of them slightly injured.
The headline in the newspaper read in glaring type: “Automobile Turns Over.” Automobiles were a brand new contraption and their mishaps made news. “Messrs. Walter Davis of Olive Branch, Will Harris, A.D. Cleaves, and Ronie Harris started for Memphis in Mr. Entrinkin’s car. While descending the hill just north of the public square, the car carrying these squires of DeSoto County suddenly became unmanageable. The brakes were applied and as the car slid down the hill the two rear tires burst, causing the automobile to turn across the road and tip upside down. Mr. Entrikin was badly bruised about the body and his face was scratched. The other members of the party escaped unhurt.”
Speaking of roads and traffic, one of the upcoming exhibits at the DeSoto County Museum will showcase the building of I-69 and I-269, the nation’s newest super corridor.
History didn’t stop yesterday and this major road continues to change the face of the county from a sleepy community to a thriving, bustling metropolitan region.
The late DeSoto County Supervisor Gene Thach was among our local and state leaders who made this “road to the future” possible.
The Time Traveler looks forward to seeing you, dear readers, along life’s long and eventful highway.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.