In 1918, with very few exceptions, Illinois’ roads were in the same condition in which they had been for the previous century. Virtually all roads were dirt tracks, dusty in dry weather and bottomless quagmires after rains. In order for farmers to get to town in spring, heavy teams of draft horses had to be hitched to wagons and buggies. Often the vehicles were dragged to town with the wheels unable to turn at least part of the time due to the sticky prairie mud. But voters were on the cusp of making a big change in the state’s road system.
By the 1850s, numerous railroad companies were extending tracks throughout the state with the goal of making money by helping farmers get their crops to market. However, farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to the nearest railhead. Livestock could walk to market, but crops had to be hauled there by team and wagon. Unfortunately, roads were often so bad that even short distances were all but impossible to travel. Spring was bad, but late fall rains also turned dirt roads into deeply rutted bottomless mud tracks, just at the time farmers were trying to get their crops to market. And when cold weather came, frozen, rutted road surfaces made travel especially destructive to horses and wagons, not to mention the people who rode in them.
Although farmers complained loud, long, and bitterly about the state’s roads, their cries went largely unheard. Instead, strangely enough, it is to the riders of high-wheel bicycles that we owe a large debt of gratitude for helping create the ancestors of today’s good roads.
With the arrival of the 1890s, the high-wheel bicycle craze was at its peak, a craze that encouraged crowds of well-to-do city dwellers to venture into the countryside and, for many of them, to experience rural life away from the railroad tracks for the first time. The cyclists called their machines “wheels,” and they named themselves “wheelmen,” especially because the vehicles didn’t lend themselves to being ridden by women dressed in the clothing of the era.
Kendall County, located just next door to more populous Kane County, proved a favorite destination for wheelmen who enjoyed riding down the East River Road (modern Ill. Route 25), just as their descendants still do on the Fox River Trail. For instance, on July 22, 1891, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “A string of about 20 of the Aurora bicyclists had an excursion to this town in the evening on their wheels Tuesday.”
Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a city bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then astonishing distance of 100 miles in a single day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling.
The upshot of Carter’s well-publicized efforts was that a growing number of influential people began demanding better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther.
It was about this same time that these same people were buying and tinkering with newfangled horseless carriages. Both their wheels and their new autos required better roads on which to drive. Where farmers alone had failed to interest state officials in better roads, rich transportation hobbyists succeeded.
Reacting to the strong and growing drumbeat for better roads by the coalition of cycling and auto enthusiasts as well as farmers, Illinois established the Good Roads Commission in 1903 to study the condition of all roads in the state and recommend changes. The commission decided that dirt roads were inadequate to carry the ever-growing volume of traffic. However, township officials and their rural constituents resisted early road improvement efforts, but not because they didn’t want better roads. The improvements would cost considerable money, they argued, and besides, there was considerable uncertainty how paved roads would be maintained. At the time, the old system of having townships responsible for road maintenance was in effect. Township property owners were responsible for working on the roads in lieu of paying a road tax. The resulting patchwork system meant that one township might opt for better roads, but the neighboring one would not.
But in I911, Illinois House Rep. Homer J. Tice of Greenview pushed a bill through the General Assembly that provided for automobile and truck license fees to be used for road and bridge construction. Tice and William G. Edens (the namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), chairman of the Good Roads Committee of the Illinois Bankers Association, contended that good roads would be an economic asset for the entire state, rural and urban areas alike. The efforts of Tice and Edens were quickly joined by the Chicago Motor Club in mobilizing support for good roads.
As a result of all this activity, Gov. Edward Dunne signed a law in 1912 transferring the townships’ responsibility for maintenance and construction of main highways to county government. The law required each county to have a qualified superintendent of highways who was to be responsible to a three member state highway commission and a professional state highway engineer. The law provided for the state to pay half of the construction and all the maintenance costs of county highways. In order to expedite the jobs, counties were authorized to sell bonds to finance new construction projects.
Some progress on better roads resulted. Here in Kendall County, the first-ever county highway superintendent was appointed. According to the Dec. 3, 1913 Kendall County Record: “Col. John D. Russell of Oswego was appointed County Superintendent of Highways by the board of supervisors Monday. His salary was fixed at $1,000 a year. This appointment was made from a field of five candidates, all of whom passed the state examination.”
But overall, the new law was a failure. Only 174 miles of road were improved under the program, all in Vermilion County. Paved highways, it turned out, were simply too expensive for counties to fund.
Then in 1916, Congress agreed to match state highway funds with federal matching funds. As a result, the state highway commission developed an ambitious plan to “pull Illinois out of the mud” with hard—paved—roads. Eventually, the plan called for construction of 4,800 miles of hard roads throughout the state. To help sell the plan, Illinois road officials pointed to a variety of studies that had been done showing that paved roads resulted in much better gasoline mileage for drivers and far less spent in vehicle maintenance.
State officials and the growing number of good roads organizations also sweetened the pot for voters by making sure every county in the state got at least one stretch of all-weather, paved highway. The $60 million bond issue to pay for the project would be retired through auto license fees, proponents said, so that non-motorists wouldn’t be paying the costs for something they were not using. Although the bond issue passed overwhelmingly in 1918 (the Kendall County vote was a remarkable 1,532–90), World War I intervened and only a two-mile road design strip was built.
But after the war, Governor Len Small pushed road construction hard, both to help the state and to enrich his friends. During his administration, proposed hard road mileage increased substantially and thousands were put to work building the new paved highways.
In Kendall County, the Small administration caused a huge uproar when the right-of-way of the newly proposed Route 18—the county’s promised paved highway under the bond issue—was changed. Originally slated to run from Aurora down the east side of the Fox River on pavement laid in 1914 (modern Route 25), pass through Oswego and go on to Yorkville via modern Route 71 to hook up with another paved mile on modern Van Emmon Road. From there it would go into downtown Yorkville and cross the Fox River before heading west to Plano and Sandwich all the way to Princeton on the route of the old Cannon Ball Trail Route.
To the considerable anger of Kendall County officials, however, the Small administration changed the route to run from Aurora down the west side of the Fox River on modern Ill. Route 31 and Route 34, bypassing both Oswego and Yorkville—and the paved stretches of road that already existed. Both towns were connected with the road via paved stubs that crossed the Fox River to get to their downtown business districts, although that did little to assuage county officials’ anger.
Even so, local folks were happy to be getting some all-weather hard roads even if not exactly the same ones they’d been promised.
But while hard roads were more economical for drivers, they did cost more to maintain using vehicle license fees alone. In 1929, Illinois became the last state in the union to levy a gasoline tax of three cents a gallon that was earmarked for road maintenance and construction. By 1930, the state boasted some 7,500 miles of paved roads (some of which, frankly, don’t seem to have been repaired since).
Oddly enough, we’re entering another era of decreasing funds for road construction and maintenance like the state faced in 1929. Given the heavy reliance on gasoline taxes to finance road maintenance at a time when electric vehicles are becoming ever more common and even conventionally-powered vehicles are far more fuel efficient than a couple decades ago, different methods of financing road maintenance will have to be found.
These days we’ve got a lot of things to worry about (dying in a plague comes immediately to mind), but seeing our roads disappear into bottomless mud pits every spring and autumn aren’t among them. Not too long ago, in fact, Kendall County’s last stretch of gravel road was paved.
Given the history of our modern road system, though, maybe the next time you are exasperated by a group of bicycle riders using the public highways, you might recall that if it wasn’t for Carter Harrison, his well-publicized high-wheeler, and his wheelmen friends, driving conditions these days might be very different.