Lack of adequate transportation for pioneer settlers and their supplies and produce was a significant handicap to the advance of the American frontier in the first half of the 19th century.
To none was that more apparent than to the trickle of new arrivals who made their homes in northeastern Indiana during that time.
In 1836, at the urging of then-Gov. Noah Noble and other enterprising types at the forefront of new settlement and development, the state passed a 'mammoth' internal improvements bill. It was intended to stimulate trade by construction of a network of canals and new and improved roads.
Transportation routes in those early times included trails, both of Indians and early settlers, wagon roads, stage lines, plank roads and, finally, railroads. Among the most ambitious of these prior to the first railroad entering Fort Wayne in 1854 was the Lima Plank Road.
In 1843, Judge Samuel Hanna, enterprising Fort Wayne capitalist and judicial figure, chaired a meeting at which interest was shown in constructing new roads to connect Fort Wayne, the area's center of commerce, to such promising outlying towns as Lima, Goshen, Yellow River, Kendallville, Piqua and Van Wert, Ohio, Winchester and Huntington.
As a result, an improved road of sorts was put through from Fort Wayne to Kendallville and then straight north to Milford and Union Mills (Mongo) in LaGrange County, and then west to Ontario - so called because many of its early settlers were from Ontario County in western New York.
About 1847, another group of entrepreneurs, including John Mitchell of Kendallville, organized the Fort Wayne & Lima Turnpike Road that would transform the old road into a plank road. It would consist of 3-year-old oak planks laid down on sills at right angles to the road. This work was done in 1847-49 with toll gates established six to 10 miles apart along the route. A few small dividends were paid, but income did not meet maintenance and operating costs and the route was turned over to the Noble County Commissioners, who abandoned it.
As Samuel Alvord, later Noble County historian and office holder, wondered while trudging from Fort Wayne to Northport (Rome City) in 1849, 'how such a road through such a region could be profitable.'
Passing through Huntertown, LaOtto, Swan, Avilla and Lisbon, some of its signposts still reading Lima Road, it ends at U.S. 6 in Kendallville.
There it becomes Angling Road and its 16-mile northward route winds along the same right of way as did the Lima Plank Road of some 158 years ago.
It should be noted that Lima was designated as the road's northern terminus because from 1832 to 1844 it was the LaGrange County seat. While that capital was later moved to LaGrange, the plank road never went any further than Ontario, three miles east of Lima (now Howe).
In any event, wondering how time has dealt with the 16-mile stretch of the former Lima Plank, my daughter Sarah and I followed its course one recent cloudy day.
Making way around and through the road construction disarray at U.S. 6 and S.R. 3, we turned onto Angling Road at the site of the former C.P. Waterhouse mansion. From there it follows modest curves through gently rolling hills - the most prominent of which is just east of Latta Lake - to the Northport Road turnoff for those taking the back way to Rome City.
From there the next few miles, crops far outnumber dwellings and at the county line the road bends slightly around what once were marshy areas at Nauvoo Lake (where two Mormon families were said to reside before moving westward) and Tamarack Lake. In the 1850s, its swampy shores harbored the blacklegs and counterfeiters who plagued the area before being brought to justice by the Regulators.
Upon entering LaGrange County the road became rougher.
We found ourselves in a light fog while continuing through Woodruff, formerly Wright's Corners, and along the east shore of Adams Lake, lined with many substantial new cottages, although that term hardly seems to fit their opulence. U.S. 20 is crossed at Plato, whose name replaced Hill's Corners for some reason unknown to us.
In the final few miles before reaching Ontario, a number of mostly tidy Amish homesteads and farms are evident.
The best was saved for last - Ontario, the plank road's final destination. At its center are still discernible vestiges of a village green with a weather-beaten wooden sign reading 'Welcome to Ontario Park - Founded in 1837.' And the opposite corner of the park's open space looms the 153-year-old classic Greek revival frame church with three 36-pane windows on either side and a modest steeple. On the park's south side is a two-story well-maintained 1885 brick schoolhouse converted to apartments.
To the north the surging Pigeon River flows over a dam where once races were diverted to power flourishing woolen and flower mills. A 1937 plat of Lima Township shows Calumet Gas & Electric as owner of riverside property above the dam, indicating that perhaps hydroelectric power in modest amounts was generated there.
We will visit Ontario again when warm weather returns and pause then to contemplate the pioneer past it invokes for those willing to travel back in time.
BOB GAGEN'S mailing address is 328 S. Hickory St., Albion, IN 46701. Comments from readers are welcome.