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Sep 03

[ARCHIVED] Kansas Highway Commission: Kansas Pulls Itself Out of the Mud

The original item was published from September 3, 2020 6:26 AM to December 20, 2021 1:42 PM

Kansas Highway Commission
Kansas Pulls Itself Out of the Mud

written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
KGI Online Library Blog -- September 3, 2020

(Digitized copies of newspaper articles cited here are found at

“Nature has provided the materials and the legislature has enacted the necessary laws, and now it is up to the people to finance the roads either by county bond issues or the benefit-district plan if they want to pull Kansas out of the mud,” wrote W. S. Gearhart, State Highway Engineer in an article entitled, “What Type of Road to Build in Kansas” printed in the first issue of the Kansas Highways publication for June 1917. The year 1917 would be a big year for road building in Kansas.

In 1911, when Charles Everett of Bonner Springs quit his job as the first rural mail carrier in Kansas in 1911, he had in his own estimate, traveled about 4,500 trips and driven on nearly 4,500 miles of roads, delivering around one million pieces of mail to one hundred families on the route. The federal Rural Free Delivery Act was established in 1896, to bring mail to the homes of rural families throughout the United States. (#1-The Topeka State Journal, February 24, 1911)

The majority of the 4,500 miles that Everett traveled while delivering mail was on unpaved, sometimes treacherous and poorly maintained roads. The Federal Aid Road Act passed by Congress in 1916 was the first federal highway funding law that provided revenue to all 50 states to improve the U. S. road system. 

Graphic 1-Fort to Fort Road

The establishment of the 1916 Road Act was championed by President Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson said, “My interest in good roads is not merely an interest in the pleasure of riding in automobiles, it is not merely an interest in the very much more important matter of affording the farmers of this country and the residents in villages the means of ready access to such neighboring markets as they need for the economic benefit, but it is also the interest in weaving as complicated and elaborate a net of neighborhood and state and national opinions together as it is possible to weave.” (“Federal Aid Road Act of 1916: Building the Foundation”, by Richard F. Weingroff, vol. 60, n. 1, Summer, 1996, Federal Highway Administration Publications.)

Legislation in each state was required to administer the federal aid for the improvement of road systems. In 1917, Kansas established the State Highway Commission Act. A three-member commission comprised of the governor and two members appointed by the governor was established. “The commission will have general supervision of all road and bridge construction in the state, where the roads cost more than $1,000 a mile or the bridge more than $200. The commission will also be responsible for laying out the maintenance of practically all roads that connect up with roads in other counties. The active technical work of supervision will be done by the state highway engineer, appointed by the state highway commission.” (#2-The Topeka Daily Capital, February 14, 1917)
Graphic 2-1914 Road Mileage

In the first official publication of the Kansas Highway Commission, “Kansas Highways”, Governor Arthur Capper, the executive chairman of the Commission, wrote, “It is the duty of every landowner, and indeed every citizen of Kansas, to study the new road act known in the legislature as House bill 601. This is the law which created the State Highway Commission. It is the law upon which all our road building in the next few years is to be done. When one considers that the road running past your door affects almost every human activity in town or country, one sometimes wonders why men and women know so little about the laws of the state affecting the business of getting roads.” (“The Kansas Highway Commission” by Governor Arthur Capper, October 1917-Kansas Highways, vol. 1, no. 1)

“The State Highway Commission was created for the purpose of utilizing the $2,148,000 offered by the federal government to be used for five years. In 1917, the state of Kansas had 111,000 miles of public roads. The Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering, Department of Agriculture, stated that Kansas has about 20% of road mileage that carries at least 75% of the traffic, and that about 7-8% carries at least 50% of the total traffic. The Commission selected about 3,270 miles of cross-state highways. Each year, $429,622.20 funds was available for road system improvement. The counties must issue bonds to pay for their pro rata cost of the highway project and confer with the Commission concerning the details of the application procedure.” (#3-The McPherson Daily Republican, September 28, 1917)

Graphic 3-Load of Hay and Automobile

One of the first projects to utilize federal funding was the building of a Topeka to Kansas City roadway. “Plans now are being made to start the Topeka end of the Kansas City-Topeka road. A preliminary survey has been made from Topeka to Lawrence and it is expected that the road to the east county line will be constructed this summer, and if Douglas county wakes up, the road to Lawrence may be built this year. The farmers along the route south of the river, the shortest line between Topeka and Lawrence, are willing to put up their share of the money. (#4-The Andale Globe, March 22, 1917)

Graphic 4-Highways of Kansas

The new Kansas Highway Commission received high marks for the uniqueness of their newly designed seal that would be used for legal documents and government publications. “Shortly after being appointed to the commission, W. C. Markham conceived the idea of a seal that would of itself, tell the story of Kansas road building and prosperous country life. J. C. Wonders, who has charge of the federal aid work for federal aid work for five states, says it is the most unique design he has seen for any state.” (#5-The Topeka Daily Capital, June 3, 1917)

Graphic 5-Seal of Kansas Highway Commission

In August, the Kansas Highway Commission, after numerous public hearings, selected the roadway projects that would be submitted to the federal government for funding through the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. “The most important decision made by the commission as affecting traffic into Topeka was the recommendation of a road running from Horton through Holton, into Topeka and southwest to Scranton, where it will connect with the old Santa Fe Trail. At Horton, the road joins the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean highway, one of the big roads running east and west through the state.” (#6-The Democrat-Opinion, McPherson, August 17, 1917)

The first issue of the Kansas Highway Commission’s quarterly publication, Kansas Highways, October 1917, gave a summary of roadway projects, county by county, throughout the state. (#9-Road and Bridge Work in the Kansas Counties”, Kansas Highways, October 1917.) The excerpt from this summary describes Johnson and Shawnee county projects.

Graphic 6-Shawnee and Johnson County Road Projects

The federal government had strict requirements for approval of funds. Road building had to handled by county systems and each locality had to petition for funding. These petitions had to secure 51% of the landowners, be approved by county commissions, and finally, the proposals would be submitted by the highway commission, who would act as the agent for the procurement of the federal funding.

Graphic 7-Road building Bourbon Co and oiled roads

“The federal government has decreed that Kansas counties will not receive any federal aid unless a sufficient number of counties petition for the entire amount of money appropriated for each year, there was some nervousness as to whether the amount would be secured; for should the entire amount not be petitioned for, the state would lose it all,” said W. C. Markham, the secretary of the highway commission. “Since it is necessary to begin from the bottom without any organization whatsoever, and the law creating the commission has required it to prepare a complete bookkeeping system for every one of the 1,492 townships of Kansas. As well as the 105 counties, it can readily be seen that it has been no small task to get the machinery in motion.” (#7-The Scott Republican, December 6, 1917)

Graphic 8-Federal Aid Granted by the SHC

The Kansas Highway Commission also oversaw the standardization of highway bridge construction. “Owing to the diversified practice of bridge building in the various counties throughout the state, and in consideration of the lack of uniformity in design as well as efficiency, it was found necessary for economic and aesthetic reasons, to design and adopt specifications for a set of standard culverts and bridges to be used by the county engineers in future construction. In accordance therewith, the bridge department of the State Highway Commission designed a set of structures ranging from the simple, plain, concrete pipe culvert to the more complicated reinforced concrete girder.” (1917-1919, First Biennial Report of the Kansas Highway Commission)

Graphic 10- Bridge Plans

Governor Arthur Capper, the first Kansas born governor, was an advocate of building a good road and highway system throughout the state. Governor Capper addressed the Kansas Good Roads Association at their January 1919 directors meeting. Governor Capper stated, “Good road-building, is to form one of the greatest activities of all the states of the Union during the reconstruction period.” (#8-The Woodston Argus, Woodston, Kansas, January 9, 1919)

Graphic 9-Good Roads Map

Another Kansas politician, President Dwight Eisenhower, also valued the necessity of a good Kansas road and highway system. President Eisenhower was instrumental in the passage of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate Highway System, which was as authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.