Friday, March 5, 2010

Landforms of the Chesapeake: 19th Century Corduroy Roads

We were doing some restoration work in an eroding marsh in southern Maryland...and looky looky! A 19th Century "Corduroy Road"
Alright, so this isn't even a "landform," nor is it unique to the Chesapeake Bay, and I actually have "real landforms of the Chesapeake Bay" in the queue to tell you about, but this one is neat, and speaks to our history, so here we go (here's a link to the slowly growing list of "Landforms of the Chesapeake" I've started to describe). Since the peak of the last Ice Age around 18,000 years ago, the "climax vegetation" of the Mid-Atlantic (south of Pittsburgh or thereabouts) has been some variation of oak-chestnut, oak-pine, pine, or cedar/cypress forest. Native Americans utilized existing clearings (from fire, flood, ice, and wind damage), but also cleared some of their own. Since the last horse native to North America died some 15,000 years ago, the recent Native Americans (populating Maryland only in the last few thousand years) only moved on foot, and did not really need roads - prefering to use existing migratory and feeding routes of the bison and deer that lived in the area.
When the English and Dutch came to trade in the 1600s, they immediately started clearing roads for horses and carriages. Since all trade came by ship, and most settlements were located far enough from water to avoid regular flooding, the soft muck and peat of coastal wetlands needed to be crossed in order to transport any significant amount of goods, or number of people. Since the forest surrounded them, they cut the timber and built what are known as corduroy roads-parallel logs laid down in the mud, to distribute pressure from horses, carts, and foot traffic.
An interesting East Coast factoid is that these roads, often placed on Native American trading routes (which were based on large mammal travel routes), eventually became colonial roads, state roads, and in some cases, interstates. Yup. The wisdom of our interstates is derived from bison migration routes. Brilliant. But I digress.
Occasionally, these roads are dug up by road crews who are wondering (let's be accurate - they probably know - it's their bosses who can't figure it out) why the 2-year old asphalt on top keeps sinking into the surrounding marsh. Of course, it's because no proper road base was ever poured - the heavy duty asphalt was poured on top of gravel, which had been placed on top of the old corduroy road. Case in point - this happened recently in Annapolis (Maryland's capital), which was a critical slave and tobacco trading port for the English. It's a great article.

These logs are probably from now-rare Atlantic White Cedar - historically common in Maryland's forested wetlands - and impossible to rot.


So, yes, you'll be subjected to a future story about "AWC" swamps and their demise. But not just now. I guess you've noticed that the logs are now covered with 14 inches or so of material. This particular corduroy road was headed through the marsh, to the mouth of a small creek into the Chesapeake Bay proper. The road would have been used to haul out tobacco and furs to a ship's dingy, and haul in whatever supplies the colonists needed, in this area which is still fairly rural. What does that have to do with the dirt? As the forest upstream continued to be cleared for tobacco farming, 30,000 year old forest soils would have been exposed to rain and runoff for the first time. This mucky material is probably just topsoil that's washed from upstream since the road was abandoned (i.e. that small boat landing fell out of favor for some reason).
And just in case you're thinking that this is an ancient technology that has no bearing on the 21st century, the US Army Field Manual would like you to see this:

In 2010, soldiers still need to know how to build corduroy roads for jungle and marsh transport situations.

But before you get an idea of how comfortable these roads were to travel on, here's a rare photo of a pre-automobile corduroy road in California, circa 1880. Think about this as your only access to the rest of the world. Living in a Conrad-like "Heart of Darkness" in 18th and 19th century Maryland. Hot, humid, disease-filled summers, and short but cold winters. That's it for the history lesson. Thanks for stopping by!

Courtesy of the California State Archives


Toure Zeigler said...

Good post...I had no idea that's how the first roads were laid out.

Anonymous said...

Out west when I was younger, there was a stagecoach road between Tucson and Palm Springs, California. Bits and pieces of it would be uncovered by wind that blew the sand off.

There was a road like this you show through Ohio at one time - from Columbus to Springfield.

Kirk Mantay said...

Yeah, my suspicion is that this is how the Romans laid out the roads as they advanced through Europe in the first millenium AD. The technology transferred to the European tribes, and what can I say, good technology sticks around! Even 2,000 years.

Anonymous said...

Here in Karuah, NSW Australia, we've just discovered a section of corduroy road around 500 meters in length across a salt marsh. We've got an 1845 map showing the road which was originally built by convicts working for the Australian Agricultural Company around 1826.
Anyway, have a look at our blog: at

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