Michigan Highways: Since 1997.

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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.


The History of Roads in Michigan: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5.


Township Road Districts and Road Taxes

Under Michigan law, the townships which controlled the construction and maintenance of roads were divided into numerous road districts, each under the charge of a highway commissioner or overseer. These road overseers operated independent of other road officials in other townships, and constructed and improved roads according to the wishes of their constituents. There was no overall township plan of roads; therefore a county system would have been inconceivable. In fact, the position of road overseer frequently alternated among prominent township residents, and it was clearly understood that, during such terms of office, the overseer would concentrate upon those roads adjacent to or near his own property. Nor was there any system of classification of roads according to relative importance or use.

The practice of working off one’s road taxes, called the statue labor system, was the cornerstone of 19th century highway taxation policy in early Michigan. Each able-bodied male living within a local designated road district was directed to work off his road tax at the rate of not more than thirty days per year. The road supervisor, who was elected by residents of the road district, had authority to determine the time and place for each citizen to work. In the event that the citizen could not work, his road tax could be commuted at the rate of 62.5¢ per day. Every able-bodied male was expected to work a certain number of days a year on road construction or maintenance. The road overseer notified all such township residents of the time and place of work; those that failed to report were penalized. A resident who provided a wagon, scraper, yoke of oxen, team of horses, or other equipment would be assigned a reduced number of work days. The statute labor system provided little cash for the purchase of road equipment or the hiring of full-time road personnel. Indeed, there was the prevailing view that no experience or training was necessary to build or maintain roads. Anyone who could operate a scraper or yoke of oxen could build roads, according to common belief.

The results of such amateur efforts were detrimental to an efficient system of roads; in fact, such efforts often left roads in worse condition than they were before such “repair work” had been initiated. One shrewd contemporary of the time observed:

The experienced traveler who finds himself at the beginning of a newly mended road will betake himself to the nearest house and learn how far the improvement extends; if for the distance of 10 miles, he will then inquire by what circuit, not exceeding 15 miles in length, he can escape from the danger of repairs. After a time nature mends the damage done by the process of reconstruction, and the journeyer may find once again a way tolerable…”

Despite the inefficiency of Michigan’s highway system, it was strongly defended by farmers of the state. They not only favored use of amateur personnel as adequate for the task, but they stoutly opposed any attempt to abolish the statute labor system in favor of taxation to finance roads. The depressed economic plight of Michigan farmers in the late 19th century helps explain this fear of increased taxation.

Swamp Land Roads—1859

In the midst of the toll road experiment, the state become more intimately involved in road building with the assistance of what was essentially an early form of Federal-Aid. Congress had granted to Michigan in 1850 certain wilderness lands referred to as swamp lands, with the stipulation that these lands, or the proceeds thereof, would be applied, so far as necessary, to the reclaiming of said lands. The state legislature felt that one of the most efficient means of reclaiming these swamp lands was “the construction of roads, with proper ditches and drains, through the more unsettled parts of the state, where such lands are chiefly located.” Consequently, in 1859 the legislature designated certain state roads to be built by contractors who, upon completion of their roads, would be paid either with cash obtained from the sale of swamp lands, or with actual swamp lands. Approximately 5,700 miles of roads were built and financed by this method before the state’s supply of saleable swamp land was exhausted.

After the failure of the toll road companies and the approximately coincidental end of Swamp Land State Road building, it became apparent that the townships were not able to provide the necessary intercommunity roads in Michigan. Overall, the township road system exemplified the popular 19th century belief that highway development was essentially a local problem and that such roads benefited mainly those citizens living nearby.

Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century Reforms

In 1881, the state legislature altered the statute labor system to tie it directly to the amount of property owned within a particular road district. Under the new law, each able-bodied male taxpayer was given the option of working off his road tax or paying it off in cash. The tax was limited to one-half day’s labor or fifty cents for each $100 of property owned by the taxpayer. The total tax levy for a given year was determined by the voters of each highway district. The only form of indirect user tax enacted was the Wide Tire Law of 1887 which provided that persons using tires with rims wider than three and one-half inches would receive rebates of one-fourth their assessed highway taxes for each year.

The first significant improvements in the administration of Michigan’s highways took place in 1883 when the state legislature passed Public Act 278 which created a Stone Road District in Bay County representing eight townships. The Act provided for a district road board and authorized it to construct and maintain three stone or macadamized roads between and within the districts. The measure provided many noticeable advantages. It enlarged the road district, making possible a highway plan for a larger area; it created a more efficient road commission; and provided for the raining of funds for road improvements. The features of the Bay County Act, strongly supported by good roads leaders, resulted in the passage of the County Road Law in 1893 which encouraged other counties to follow the lead of Bay County. The legislature passed the County Road Act of 1893 which permitted a county, by a vote of the people, to establish a county road commission and levy a road tax. By 1905, only 18 of 83 counties has set up county road commissions; by 1916, 59 counties had followed suit. In 1907 another important objective of road reformers was achieved when the statue labor system was abolished and replaced by cash road taxes. This greatly improved the efficiency of road building programs throughout the state and made possible the hiring of full-time trained road personnel and the purchase of road equipment.

Impact of Bicyclists

In Michigan and elsewhere in the United States, there was a bicycle craze during the 1880s and 1890s. Clubs were formed and, besides riding in towns and cities, men and women made long trips. Prizes were awarded to those sturdy cyclists who rode one hundred miles in one day—small golden bars—and silver bars for 50 miles. So great was the desire for distinction that some riders earned a number of bars, which they wore on their shoulders as evidence of their prowess. The bicycle rider was the most persistent of those pioneers who were going about the country demanding better roads. Farmers were particularly bitter against the bicycle rider and his crusade for better roads. They labeled it as a selfish crusade and said that no one wanted good roads but the bicyclist. As their numbers increased, however, the bicyclists became an important force.

The League of American Wheelmen was organized in 1879 and became the pioneering good roads organization of the country. Michigan contributed much to the leadership of this organization. The leader of the movement in Michigan was Horatio S. “Good Roads” Earle, chief of the League of American Wheelmen in Michigan in 1899, and national president in 1901. In 1900, as chief counsel of the Michigan division of the league, Earle brought the first International Road Congress to Port Huron, and event that drew hundreds of good roads advocates from throughout the country. For the main event, Earle hitched together the first good roads train ever assembled—a traction engine, road roller, sprinkler, dump wagons and farm wagons—all loaded on flatcars and running on the railroad. They carried the delegates to a newly-laid one-mile stretch of macadam road, built as an object lesson to show ought to be done nationwide.

Earle, as a member of the State Senate from Detroit at that time, introduced a successful legislative resolution providing for the appointment of a committee to study the possibility of road improvements and to offer a plan for such improvements. The Committee’s report—which nowhere mentions the word “automobile”—advocated a constitutional amendment to remove the existing prohibition against using state funds for road improvements. In addition, it recommended that a state highway commission be set up and a state aid system inaugurated. Pointing out that New Jersey, Vermont and other states had recently adopted state aid systems, the report urged the legislature to “pass the necessary laws to enable Michigan to take a stand among other up-to-date states on this question, so that within a few years it shall not be true if said ‘can tell by the bad roads when we get to Michigan’”.


The History of Roads in Michigan: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5.