The History of Roads in Michigan
This article was written by Dorothy G. Pohl, Managing Director for the Ionia County Road Commission, and Norman E. Brown, retired MDOT Act 51 Administrator. It was presented to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions on December 2, 1997 and is reproduced here by permission of its authors.
State Highway Department Created—1905
When Governor Fred Warner signed a bill creating the State Highway Department in 1905, his first and logical choice to head the new agency was Horatio S. “Good Roads” Earle of Detroit. Earle had just finished a two-year stint as Michigan’s “unconstitutional” highway commissioner, without pay or official title. He had been appointed to the job in 1903, but the attorney general declared that the law creating a highway department and financial aid system for road building was in conflict with the state constitution. Earle, undeterred, began a statewide campaign to amend the constitution so the state could pay “reward” money to counties and townships which improved their roads. In two years, he visited nearly every city and village in the state, spoke at county fairs, called on newspaper editors, addressed civic and farm groups and wrote countless letters. Opponents resisted him at every turn. They heckled him from audiences, occasionally hired drunks to disrupt meetings and on at least one occasion, paid people a dollar apiece to stay at home on the night Earle came to town.
Not everyone wanted good roads in those days. Even after the constitutional amendment was passed and the state legislature supported its use, rural opposition to the measure continued as farmers made several attempts to repeal the State Reward Law and to abolish the State Highway Department. Opposition to reforms in the administration of highways was not limited to farmers, however. The distinguished automobile pioneer, Henry Ford, gave little support to the good roads movement. He believed that his automobiles, especially the famous Model T, not only could withstand any kind of road conditions, but that roads required only minimal improvements to make auto travel passable.
Michigan’s state aid plan differed from many other states because it reflected the strong rural opposition to centralized highway administration. In addition to the establishment of a State Highway Department, the legislation included a State Reward Law with provided for state aid to townships and counties for roads constructed according to standards established by the State Highway Department. These rewards varied from $250 to $1,000 per mile, depending on the type of road constructed: clay base with gravel surface, all gravel, stone base with gravel surface, gravel base with stone surface and macadam. $90,000 was appropriated to carry out the work from 1905 to 1907.
In 1905, there were 2,700 automobiles in Michigan, each paying a nominal fee of 50 cents per year. They were considered pretty much a nuisance, particularly by farmers whose livestock was frightened by the chugging motors. According to the best available authority, there were 68,000 miles of road in Michigan in 1905. Of this total, about 30,000 miles were clay, more than 26,000 miles were sand, and nearly 3,000 miles were swamp roads. Less than 8,000 miles of roads were improved—7,700 with gravel and 245 miles with stone or macadam. The League of American Wheelmen, around 1905, gave way to a new organization—the American Road Makers Association, which was to become the parent of the American Road Builder’s Association.
Shortly after the State Highway Department was created, Michigan acted as host to the third annual convention of the American Road Makers. The convention was held in Port Huron in late August 1905. “Good Roads” Earle stirred the interest of Michigan motorists in the convention by offering prizes to those who made the trip in the fastest time. He was roundly criticized for making a “race track” out of early Michigan roads by the editor of the Grange’s “Michigan Patron”. In 1907, the legislature repealed the act which had permitted citizens to work out their road taxes.
State Trunkline Act—1913
In 1913, Frank F. Rogers became Michigan’s first elected commissioner, defeating “Good Roads” Earle, who ran on the Bull Moose ticket. Also in 1913, the legislature passed the State Trunkline Act. This amounted to approximately a 3,000 mile system to be built by the townships and counties with the state paying double the regular reward for each road type. Quick enthusiasm greeted the new trunkline highway act. This enthusiasm led to the first Road Bee Day in Michigan. The Huron Shore Road Association set aside June 9, 1913 for a day of work and festivity. A historian of that date reports 200 miles of road were improved during the Bee.
Six years later, the legislature authorized the State Highway Commissioner to initiate trunkline highways and to take full charge of their construction. It is significant that under the 1913 Act, the state gave financial assistance to local units of government in building state trunkline highways; whereas under the 1919 law, local units of government financially aided the state in constructing state trunkline highways.
Covert Road Law and Weight Taxes—1915
The Covert Road Law, enacted by the legislature in 1915, also encouraged road construction in Michigan, especially secondary roads. The Act also increased the counties’ share in the cost of building trunkline highways. The law permitted the organization of districts for the financing and construction of highways. This law became an effective agency for the development of many miles of improved local roads, although, in later years, it was put to such ambitious use that most of its provisions were repealed in 1933. The legislature also enacted a weight tax on motor vehicles and returning half of the revenue to the counties.
Federal-Aid Road Act—1916
Congress signified the importance of road building to the nation as a whole by passing the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916. This Act appropriated funds, which were to be matched with state funds, for the construction of rural post roads. In 1917, the legislature passed the necessary legislation, approved by the voters of Michigan, as an amendment to the Constitution of 1908, to qualify Michigan for aid under the Federal-Aid Act of 1916. In 1917, Congress stipulated that each state designate a Federal-Aid highway system which was not to exceed seven percent of total road mileage in the state.
Snow Removal Begins—1918
America’s entry into World War I brought a demand for a new type of maintenance service—snow removal. In 1918, the necessity for all-weather roads for the transportation of products from factories supplying war materials brought snow removal activity upon five routes, none of which were in the Upper Peninsula. The War Loan Board participated in the $13,200 snow removal appropriation for the 590 miles of these strategic routes. Three years later, the demand for snow removal had been sufficient that this service was desirable in some of the mining regions and in the vicinity of industrial centers in the U.P.
The legislature in 1925 initiated a series of far-reaching changes in the administration and financing of the state’s highway network. Other states by this time had begun to place a large share of the burden of road costs on the chief beneficiary—the road user—and Michigan followed the national trend. Passage of the Gasoline Tax Act in 1925 completed the structure which produced the normal revenues of the State Highway Department, although the levy was first fixed at only two cents. Two years later, the tax was raised to three cents a gallon. On January 1, 1926, the State Highway Department assumed the entire cost of construction and maintenance on the trunkline highways for the first time.