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Good Roads Movement

Beloit, 1914Kansas, situated in the center of the country, has always been the center of cross-country traffic. One would think that the state would be a leader in developing cross-state highways, but this was not the case. As late as 1928 Kansas was the only state in the Union without a state highway system.

The Kansas Constitution banned the state from financing any kind of internal improvements. This 1859 provision was intended to protect Kansas from falling deep in debt to railroad or canal promoters as some eastern states had done. Because of this mandate, however, all roads had to be financed, built, and maintained by counties and townships.

As early as 1890 efforts were made to improve the state's roadways. Interestingly, the early proponents of better roads were not motorists but bicyclists eager to use their new invention. The post office department also was an early advocate of improved highways. The new rural free delivery demanded serviceable roads.

In 1900 the Kansas Good Roads Association was organized. In that year Kansas ranked tenth in the nation in the number of autos.

The procedure required for improving roads had changed little from the 1860s. A majority of adjacent landowners had to petition the county commission or township board, which then created a benefit district and appointed road reviewers. The reviewers supervised the work, and the county assessed the landowners for three-fourths of the cost. Although the percentages required for petition were lowered and the county's share of the funding increased as the years passed, virtually all highways had to be improved following this procedure. Due to the constitutional ban on state funding, counties and townships exercised complete control over road construction; no statewide plan existed.

The 1909 Hodges Rock Road Law made it easier to petition counties and townships for improved roads and in that year a state highway engineer was hired at Kansas State Agricultural College to advise counties on road matters. Better roads were constructed but these changes did nothing to create a unified system.

The Kansas Good Roads Association, Kansas Highways Federation, 365 Days Road Club, and other automotive groups lobbied for a state highway department and removal of restrictions on state funding of roads. They also explained the law, organized groups to petition for better highways, wrote the petitions and proposed new benefit districts, and circulated information on the benefits of better roads. They printed and distributed maps and guidebooks to advise motorists traveling through Kansas.

Governor Arthur Capper proclaimed Good Roads Day on August 18, 1915, to observe across the state wherever weather permitted. The governor headed a group of volunteers who worked northeast of Topeka. The Arkansas City Commercial Club, Retailers Association and Automobile Club repaired nine roads. Newton drew 100 men and 90 teams to work on area roads, miles of road were dragged in Reno County, and Hays used a new $21,600 road-building machine. Rains and late harvest delayed work in some counties.

In 1920, faced with the loss of federal funds because of the lack of state control, Kansas voters passed a "good roads" amendment allowing state aid to counties for roads. The counties and townships still controlled the road system, an arrangement that violated federal law. In 1928, $2 million per year of federal aid for Kansas roads was stopped because the state would not fund a state highway system. In that year, Governor Ben Paulen borrowed money from Topeka banks to pay for the State Highway Commission and called a special session of the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment removing all obstacles to establishing a statewide highway network. In 1929, after passage of the amendment, Kansas joined the other 47 states and the state began building and maintaining a system of cross-state highways.

Entry: Good Roads Movement

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: September 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.