Motor Car and Era of Paved Roads. - One of the chief factors in the retardation of the development of McLean
County was the fact that while our soil was excellent for raising crops, it was abominable in its natural state
for the building of a road for constant travel. The nature of the soil was and is such that when it is soaked with
water it is of the consistency of putty or worse. This natural condition of the soil, added to the fact that in
the early years it was overgrown with long prairie grass, and its natural surface crossed by sloughs and shallow
streams, made the general body of the land in McLean County a terror to travelers. Before the land begun to be
drained or improved, it was for perhaps six months of the year so soft and yielding in its consistency that it
would not bear up a wagon and team, and hardly hold a horse and rider.
Indian trails formed the nearest approach to what we would now call a road in McLean County. The earliest immigrants
who settled here, soon found the shortest cut from grove to grove, and made a sort of rude kind of road along these
routes. The Legislature wrestled with road questions from its earliest years. It laid out many "state roads"
on paper, but these in fact were about as impassable as the uncharted trails of the Indians. Not many years after
the first settlers came to McLean County, there was what was called the Bloomington and Springfield state road,
and there was a general notion of a main traveled road from Peoria east, which crossed this county. The Galena
lead mines were one of the principal industries of Illinois in the '30's, and roads leading to them were laid out
from many points in the state. When stock dealers or others wanted to drive to Chicago, they just cut straight
across the prairie as best they could find their way. There was little semblance of a road to guide them.
The streams were of course unbridged for many years. The people had no money to build bridges, and no engineering
skill to construct them even if they had had the money. Sometimes farmers of a neighborhood would get together
and build some sort of a rough bridge that would support their wagons in crossing the Mackinaw River, Kickapoo
Creek, Money Creek or Salt Creek. It was not until after township organization had been adopted in 1858 that the
question of bridges received any co-operative attention. The townships one after another took up the subject and
voted funds to build the most necessary bridges.
By the time of the Civil War something of an attempt to make main roads north and south and east and west had been
accomplished. They might be traveled with some hope of progress in the summer and fall when the weather was dry,
but for the winter and spring months the people were practically marooned in their own homes, except as dire necessity
compelled them to undertake the hazards and discomforts of travel by horseback or team.
The "good roads" question has therefore been a constant issue with the people of McLean County, from
the earliest times until the very recent past, when a program of state and county aid in building roads bids fair
to at last "pull Illinois out of the mud."
Many a time has the question of road building become a live political issue for the past forty years. In the earlier
days of agitation for the improvement of the highways, it required a brave man to suggest that an artificial hard
surface could be applied to an Illinois mud road and make a construction that would stand up under the effect of
rains, at a cost that would not actually bankrupt the whole population.
One of the "good roads" conventions when the agitation became acute was that held in Bloomington on Sept.
19, 1899. This was a district affair, the delegates coming from McLean and many surrounding counties. Capt. S.
Noble King was the presiding officer. After two days of discussions, the meeting adopted resolutions to the effect
that paved roads were impracticable, but that the delegates would all go home and boost for the best dirt roads
that they could make.
This agitation had its effect nevertheless, and within a few years afterward, the people of Bloomington voted
a tax of something like $20,000 to construct two strips of "hard road" west and south of the city limits
of Bloomington. This road was built under the general direction of James G. Melluish and it stands today, although
nearly worn out.
Some of the outside townships, notably Lexington, many years ago took practical steps toward improving the roads
outside of Lexington for several miles in each direction. The people of that township were fortunate in having
a supply of gravel along the Mackinaw River bottoms, and the township road commissioners supervised the distribution
of this material along the roads. The consequence was that Lexington had graveled roads that were several hundred
per, cent better than the average dirt road, for many years prior to the general movement for improved highways
got under way.
But to return to the subject of paved roadways: Some fifteen years ago a number of enterprising farmers and other
people down the road toward Shirley, assisted by citizens of Bloomington, raised a fund for putting a hard surface
on the Bloomington-Shirley road. The Funks furnished a large proportion of the money for this interesting experiment,
which was the most pretentious road building enterprises that had been undertaken in McLean County up to that time.
The road was built of a composition of asphalt and other ingredients put down on a foundation of crushed rock.
It stood up under the traffic conditions for several years, until the multiplication of automobiles made it impossible
to hold up longer, and it had about gone to pieces prior to the project by which the State of Illinois built the
paved road from Bloomington to Shirley along what was known as the Illini boulevard road.
The factor above all others which contributed to good roads sentiment in McLean County, as elsewhere, was the advent
of the motor car, or as it was first known as the "horseless wagon." It is not the province of this history
to trace the origin of the invention of the automobile, but when this form of locomotion became a practical affair
in the United States, McLean County took up the new vehicle and adopted it for general use as fast as the people
understood it. The first motor vehicle brought to Bloomington was a steam engine propelled machine owned by E.
E. Ellsworth, an engineer on the Alton road. It was viewed as a great curiosity at first, but gradually other machines
came to the city and county, and the era of motor travel had dawned for this section.
Motor cars demanded a better and more constant road that they could travel. At first the owners of motor cars put
them up for the winter as soon as the roads got muddy in the autumn. But this was an uneconomical use of the expensive
machines, for from one third to one half of their time was wasted. Therefore people said that the all round year
round road must be made. Therefore under the administration of Governor Lowden the Legislature passed a law granting
permission for the state to embark upon a stupendous road building program. A bond issue of $60,000,000 was put
up to the people, and passed by a very large vote. The bonds were to be paid by license fees paid by the automobile
owners. There was very general support of the proposal by newspapers of all kinds, and by organizations of every
sort. The result was that out of 661,815 votes cast on the proposition, 507,419 were favorable to it. The vote
was taken in November, 1918, and at once thereafter steps were taken to bring before the Supreme Court the question
of the constitutionality of the law. The court sustained the law, and plans were made to carry out its provisions.
Illinois meantime had secured $3,300,000 from the government allotment as its share of the $75,000,000 appropriated
to aid states in building roads.
McLean County, however, had built some paved road prior to the letting of the first state contract for roads in
this county. A strip of about three miles in length was constructed east of the city limits of Bloomington on Empire
Street, and later another short strip to connect with it on the east end.
The state road building program got started so far as McLean County is concerned, in the years of 1922 and '23.
The hard road paralleling the Alton railroad extends clear across the county, this being part of the great Chicago-St.
Louis paved roadway to be known as the Illini boulevard. Another road, to extend eventually from Peoria east to
Paxton and beyond, is partly built, from Bloomington west to the county line and beyond. Still another state road
is under way, north and south, known as the Meridian Trail road, to pass eventually from Cairo to Rockford.