Getting to Terre Haute was one thing. Going across the river to Macksville and other parts of Sugar Creek was quite another. Not yet bridged, the Wabash River had to be crossed on ferries. An illustration of how frustrating just getting to Sugar Creek could be was provided by perhaps the most unusual of early Sugar Creek “settlers.” Sr. Theodore Guerin had been sent from France to establish an academy for women in the United States. After a long sea journey from France and an arduous trip across the country she and five other Sisters of Providence arrived in Terre Haute, a town she described as “not pretty.”
The Sisters were then just about five miles from their destination, a small plot of ground in northern Sugar Creek Township. On October 22, 1840 they set out for their new home. Carrying provisions, they took a stage coach to the ferry, arriving there at 10:00am. If she thought the last five miles of her journey would be any less arduous than all those previous, she was quite wrong. She still had to cross the Wabash and the bottoms to get there:
“As there is no bridge we were obliged to wait our turn to be ferried across. We waited until three forty-five in the afternoon, that is, more than five hours and a half. At last we crossed, but scarcely had we been on the road ten minutes than were again in the forest, and the ground was so covered with water it was like a small pond. The plank road having disappeared, it became dangerous to travel on account of the trees that had fallen here and there. No matter! The horses were whipped up and they rushed into the water. At every moment we were on the point of being overturned, although Father Buteux went ahead with a pole to sound the road. At length, unable to go any farther, the water being too deep, wet to the skin he had to get up with the driver. Once the carriage struck a stumbling horse, and a wheel went over the trunk of a tree, and lo! The carriage was again thrown on its side. The water entered the coach and the horses were swimming rather than walking. It was like being in the middle of a sea, but in a sea surmounted by a thick forest; for the trees are so near together that it required all the experience of American drivers to be able to get through. There was imminent danger for us and we had two miles to cover in this way.”
What Sr. Theodore called a plank road was likely a corduroy road. It is hard to describe just how terrible dirt roads could become in wet weather. Nearly every account left by those who traveled the Midwest spoke of the horrible conditions of the roads. They were little more than quagmires in wet weather or rutted with deep furrows in dry times. Tree stumps often littered the pathway (The specifications for National Road only required that stumps be no higher than 18 inches, a height over which wagons could safely pass over without damaging an axle.).
As in many areas, attempts to make roads more passable in Sugar Creek focused on an abundant natural resource, trees. Logs were split in half to make puncheons, the same technique used as floors in early log cabins. The puncheons were laid perpendicular across other puncheons used as a base, rather like floor joists. The logs were held in place by lath-like strips of wood that also acted as curbs. Corduroy roads were often used to traverse low spots or swampy areas. That is why the Sisters encountered them as they crossed the bottoms west of the Wabash. They were also used in other such areas throughout Sugar Creek. The roads caused a jarring ride for those using them and soon deteriorated due to the ravages of traffic and nature.
Roads, whether of gravel, dirt or wood, were helpful to those living in Macksville and Sugar Creek, but there were still obstacles to making the area easily accessible. Most important was the lack of a bridge over the Wabash. Ferries still had to be used to get wagons, people and livestock across the river. The long waits at the ferry docks often caused traffic jams on both sides of the river. Ferries were vital but inefficient.
A bridge was needed. Most everyone said that (with the notable exception of the ferry keepers, one assumes). But, where was it to be located and who would pay for it? Vigo County did not have the money for it. No one wanted the city Terre Haute to foot the bill. Sugar Creek Township certainly couldn’t afford such an expenditure. That left it up to private enterprise. Some sort of company was needed to build the bridge. That company was indeed formed. In January, 1845 the Indiana Legislature passed a bill authorizing the formation of the Terre Haute Drawbridge Company. It was authorized to sell stock in the company in order to “erect and maintain a bridge across the Wabash river at any point within 500 yards of the National road, on the southside thereof or downstream.” The act fixed the tolls to be charged to bridge users.
The bridge was completed and opened to traffic in December, 1846. It became the focal point of local Christmas festivities that year. Hundreds strolled over and back across the bridge led by a band playing martial tunes, which seemed particularly apt as the country was at war with Mexico. At one point 500 people crowded the bridge and its approaches singing, dancing and Huzzah-ing the new structure that meant so much to the area.
The Wabash Express, a leading Terre Haute newspaper, was effusive over the bridge, calling it “an excellent and useful structure.” No structure,” it noted, “of a public character about Terre Haute, does more credit or will add more to the prosperity of the place, than the Wabash Bridge….” It noted that Ohio Street had been finely graded for an easily accessible approach to the bridge from the Terre Haute side. So, too, had been the western approach. Already livestock, goods and people were passing more easily across the river. Tellingly, the article stated the improvement most needed now was “to improve the road through the bottom to the bluff land at Macksville.”
And that was the crux of the problem still plaguing easier access to and from Sugar Creek Township. The bridge was a great addition, but the bottoms were still a barrier to movement. Muddy and rutted in the best of times, during high water the bottoms became little more than a bayou or swamp. Travelers crossed it with trepidation even in good weather. But a snow melt or heavy rains made it impassable. During those times the area was literally cut off from the east side.
This was not only a transportation dilemma, but had serious effects on the local economy. This worried many in Terre Haute who feared unless something was done that towns to the west or north of Sugar Creek would become an economic hub for the area instead of the growing city just two miles east of Macksville. An 1851 newspaper editorial in the Wabash Express took note of the potential problem and called for the building of plank or gravel roads to remedy the problem. It noted that those in the townships west of the river were already turning their attention and trade to Illinois, Paris in particular. They were doing so even those towns were more distant than Terre Haute. The paper called for something to be done about the bottoms.
It took four years but finally progress was made. In 1855 and 56 the “grading up” of the bottoms took place. Tons of rock, gravel and soil were hauled. Luckily there was a gravel pit on the southeastern edge of Macksville so it did not have to be hauled very far. Soil was dug from the bottoms or hauled in. Months of back breaking labor slowly built up a road across the bottoms. Inch by inch, layer by layer was compacted until the grade rose more than fifteen feet about the bottoms. It would be a major step for Macksville.