It took government, civic cooperation to build the first hard road system

Saw an interesting factoid the other day. Bucking the Republican Party’s fixation on cutting everything government does, the new Democratic governor of West Virginia has decided to make a strong push to sell bonds to upgrade the Mountain State’s roads and bridges.

As he lays the groundwork to get an increase in the state’s gasoline tax passed to retire the bonds he plans to sell to finance the program, he bucked another modern right wing idea—facts are only for elitists—and actually had a study done on the costs to the state’s drivers of the current, poorly maintained system. According to the study, done by TRIP, a Washington, D.C. based national transportation study group, poor roads in West Virginia cost each of the state’s drivers $1,357 a year in vehicle repair and maintenance, traffic accidents where poor road design and/or maintenance is a factor, and lost time and additional fuel use due to traffic congestion. That comes to more than $1.4 billion a year in additional costs for West Virginia drivers.

And the sad news is that with the right wing fixation on cutting taxes at all levels and not spending on even vital services, we’re gradually working our way back to where roads were more than a century ago.

For instance, Illinois’ early road system was a serious drag on its economy. Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of automobiles and, as they were called at the time, auto trucks were filling roads, the system was at the breaking point.

View from Poverty Point Oct 27, 1912 Photo: Dwight S. Young

Dwight Young snapped this photo near his home, Poverty Point, on what is now U.S. Route 34 just west of the Oswego Bridge on Oct 27, 1912. The road was paved with concrete in 1924. (Little White School Museum photo)

The township financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated areas—road mileage might be the same in rural areas as in heavily populated townships, but more urban taxpayers were helping share the burden.

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. And as soon as the state got involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was efficiency: It was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces and their performance monitored, averaging nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if motorists could save so much gasoline, state officials figured they might agree that part of that savings could be used to build the better roads. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half of them over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, on hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. After the calculations were complete, auto taxes were calculated not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

An interesting historical aside: That 23-cent a gallon gas  back in 1911 sounds cheap but it is equivalent to $5.64 a gallon in 2017 dollars.

With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), a statewide organization was formed to lobby and draw up specifications for hard roads.

1911-abt-washington-at-main

In the first decade and a half of the 20th Century, the transition from horse-drawn to motorized vehicles was well underway, as this photo of Washington Street in Oswego illustrates. (Little White School Museum collection)

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new rural free delivery system, which became a notable government success story. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker who was active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

With the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, Edens helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, whose first convention was held in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission (hope has always sprung eternal in Illinoi), use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the whole system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that the idea of hard roads had entirely clear sailing, of course. In particular, township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Farmers also protested about the cost and wondered whether better roads would even benefit them. But skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, finally tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed the Illinois General Assembly with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a Kendall County Superintendent of Highways. The county board appointed John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, to the position. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

1916-abt-rt-25-at-bh

In 1915, a demonstration stretch of concrete pavement 15-feet wide was built from Aurora to the Waubonsie Creek bridge in Oswego, one of the first all-weather hard roads in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hard road plans drawn up

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan for a state system of paved highways.

For instance, a stretch of 15-foot wide concrete pavement snaked along the Fox River from Aurora south to Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another shorter stretch was poured from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated demonstration stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

And when the final plan emerged, it turned out to be a classic bait and switch. In the end Kendall County didn’t have much to say about where the first trans-county concrete highway would be built. Nearly a century later later, we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of decisions on where the area’s major highways would be routed.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately got behind the good roads program begun by his predecessor, Gov. Edward F. Dunne.

“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden promised the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William Edens, then serving as president of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, to organize the statewide good roads campaign effort.

Unfortunately, just as pressure for good roads was reaching critical mass, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure was resoundingly approved by state voters. The vote here in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money, to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

Special interests awarded Kendall route change

In order to get enough votes statewide, the plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. During the referendum campaign, its route was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville where it would cross the Fox River and turn towards Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the same route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small replaced Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up locally. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street in Aurora and Montgomery, past Montgomery’s sheep yards, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy main line at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west on modern Route 34. To cope with angry Oswego and Yorkville residents, paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in in the two communities.

1924-abt-31-34-road-constr

In 1924, despite the controversy over its route, Route 18 (today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34), was built connecting Aurora with Sandwich. Above, crews pour concrete on the stretch of road at the west end of the Oswego Bridge. (Little White School Museum photo)

The route, the Kendall County Record fumed in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use the two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB&Q mainline at the Wormley crossing was required.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago that favored a direct route to Princeton rather than one that passed through local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May of that year, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete had been laid to the county line at Sandwich and was curing.

1936-eje-rt-34-overpass

In 1936, the final, short stretch of concrete linking Naperville with Oswego was laid, including the bridge over the EJ&E tracks just east of the modern intersection of U.S. Routes 34 and 30, as well as the Route 34-30 interchange. Above, construction on the bridge is largely finished, and work on the approaches is ready to begin. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the old demonstration concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the new Route 18 spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July 1924 a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek to carry the new hard road section connecting with the 1914-era road that stopped at the north bank of the creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.

The section of modern Route 34—originally called Route 65 by the state—from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start on that stretch until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, that section was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway (today’s U.S. Route 30), and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the EJ&E tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads. Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.

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Filed under Business, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

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