Repairing Roads in Early Indiana

In the early days of Indiana, there was no real system of roads. Most roads in the state were barely wide paths through the wilderness, hardly marked, and very rarely improved. Most of this came from the fact that traffic, at best, was light for distances longer than from farms to towns. But the government of Indiana realized very early that things would have to change when it came to transportation if the state were to grow.

One of the first, and longest lasting, ways to make this work was implemented in the law of the Indiana Territory in 1807. This created a system of “Road Supervisors,” a county office in charge of creating and maintaining a transportation system. This system relied on a “road tax.” But this tax wasn’t exactly what we would see it as today. It was more a forced labor system that would maintain roads in lieu of a road tax.

A quote at the time stated this: “There is probably no other feature in our road system which has so far served to maintain the low state of our American road-making as this ‘corvee,’ or forced-labor system on the highway.” This created a system where road maintenance was seen as a nuisance, and the concept of as little work as possible was the deal of the day.

In 1807, a law was passed that stated “all male persons of the age of twenty-one years and not exceeding fifty, who have resided thirty days in any township, of any county within this territory, and who are not a county charge, shall be liable yearly and every year, to do and perform any number of days’ work, not exceeding twelve, whenever the supervisor of the district in which he resides shall deem it necessary.”

This created a large number of road workers. It was also mentioned that if the person didn’t show up, or refuse to obey the instructions of the supervisor, or waste the day not performing the task assigned to him, that person would be fined 75 cents a day to be paid to the township supervisor. And if the worker asked of anything from travelers along the road, i.e. food, drink or toll, the worker would be fined $1 a day.

The territory of Indiana decided, in 1814, to change the age range to 16 to 50. This didn’t last long, and the lower age was returned to 21, where it remained until the road supervisor system was eliminated with the creation of the Indiana State Highway Commission in 1917.

The problem with this system came down to the fact that it didn’t lend itself well to any type of permanent improvement of roads. This work system created temporary repairs to keep them passable in certain seasons of the year.

Most of the argument against this system involved words like “forced labor” and “serfdom.” But it was in place for around a century to keep the state government out of the “road maintenance” business. Part of this would lead to the banning of state road maintenance responsibility in the 1851 Constitution of Indiana. That banning also led to problems when the Indiana State Highway Commission was initially formed in 1917. This constitutionality problem led to a recreation of the ISHC in 1919.

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