The perils and pitfalls of an all-volunteer road crew

There's a great, illustrated history of America's highway system—from the Colonial period to the 1970s—that can be read for free on OpenLibrary.

I've just thumbed through it a bit so far, but it reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago, Consuming Nature: Environmentalism in the Fox River Valley, 1850-1950. That book, by Greg Summers, a professor the University of Wisconsin - Steven's Point, is about how electric and highway infrastructures were built up in Wisconsin. It's also about the socio-cultural changes that led first to the construction of infrastructure and then, later, to fear over what infrastructure had done to the environment. Really super fascinating.

One of the things I learned in both of these books is that early road infrastructure was built and maintained by the local people who used it. In Colonial times, you owed the city or county so many hours of labor every year. And, when they called you up, you had to go out and work on a road crew. Sort of like jury duty. Only sweatier. (Of course, if you were wealthy enough -- or, in the case of colonial Virginia, owned enough slaves -- you could have other people do your labor for you.) In 19th-century Wisconsin, you could substitute labor on the roads for cash road taxes.

One of the fun outcomes of this system, at least in Wisconsin: Really craptastic roads. Turns out, a gang of random citizens, led by another random citizen, is not exactly who you want in charge of your infrastructure. Summers writes:

"Given proper direction, they might have been capable of maintaining the roads. Unfortunately, town officials tended to select overseers from the ranks of their own communities, leaving them with individuals who had no more knowledge or training in the principles of highway construction than the neighbors they were intended to supervise. As a result, the annual parties of local residents organized for the spring roadwork often degenerated into social gatherings, and little improvement to the highways was ever accomplished."

Thanks to Philip Bump for the link to the OpenLibrary book!

Image: Road crew, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from runran's photostream

25

  1. In Colonial times, you owed the city or county so many hours of labor every year. And, when they called you up, you had to go out and work on a road crew. Sort of like jury duty. Only sweatier. (Of course, if you were wealthy enough — or, in the case of colonial Virginia, owned enough slaves — you could have other people do your labor for you.) In 19th-century Wisconsin, you could substitute labor on the roads for cash road taxes.

    Are you sure about all that? Because I just read some comments from my Libertarian friends a couple of posts back which explained how Americans used to get by just fine without mandatory civil service or taxation.

    1. What’s even more unbelievable is that it didn’t work out so well. Who would have thought that government-built roads would actually be better than something built by yeoman citizens?

  2. Slightly O/T- I never understood why the US uses so many workers with Stop/Go signs – the rest of the developed world uses temporary traffic lights.  Is there something I’m missing?

    1. Sometimes the construction crews need to move heavy equipment or materials across the remaining lane so by radio the flaggers can do an “all stop” to vehicle traffic to effect those maneuvers.

      In cases where construction is put on hold (no crews present) or semi-permanent barriers separating the construction from traffic flows are in place , then temporary signals are used.

      Consider the case where there is a malfunctioning railroad crossing.
      (Gates down and lights on, but no train for 10+ minutes.)
      Personally I trust the humans in that you can roll down the window and ask; “What’s the delay?”

    2. Speaking as one with a friend who looks after the temporary traffic light situation for the roadworks company he is under the employ of, it’s because they never bloody work.

  3. I refuse to believe that a gathering of townspeople in rural Wisconsin could be turned into an excuse to get drunk!

    1. You got in ahead of me!  I’ve driven the roads between People’s Brewery and Point Brewery, er, Oshkosh and Stevens Point.   This post explains things about those roads that cannot be explained any other way.

  4. Why do I think this system was instrumental in the development of the more than 60 breweries that were located in Wisconsin at the turn of the century?

  5. What’s the problem?  Just arrange miles and miles of alternating blocked-off lanes with thousands of orange cones.  Do nothing for 4 months and then take the cones away (or wait for them to be run over or stolen).  How hard is that?

  6. Speaking of the OpenLibrary book that Maggie mentions, check out the cool “futuristic” font that the chapter headings use — what is it?

  7. This system of road-building was still in use in eastern Montana well into the 20th century. Many, many issues of the Jordan (Mt.) Times in the teens and 20s were filled with reports on county disbursements (of a dollar or two each) to pretty much everyone in town for working on the roads. And yes, the roads did indeed suck horribly (literally in the spring; the “gumbo” was famous for grabbing hold of a man’s boots and never letting go as he slowly settled into the center of the earth).

  8. Well, really, if you can’t afford to own and operate your own personal roads you’re a socialist leech anyway.

  9. This is an interesting piece, if only because it goes directly against the ‘The General Public Is Always Better’ ethos that a lot of posts here follow, certainly ones where Wikipedia or the word ‘Expert’ is seen.

    1. Yeah, too bad there isn’t a way to change bad edits or view the history of a person’s contributions to a digital edition, in order to get an idea of their quality of contributions or expertise.

  10. You always hear about Rome uniting western europe with paved roads, and then we come to blacktop.  I do know that the term ‘levee en masse'(sp?) came to be referred to as not just a form of public service for road, but as one of the foundations of the feudal form of government.
      Then you hear about post colonial America and its ‘log’ roads, where, in the clay of the deep south around here was akin to pressing straw into a brick, until the wood rotted.  Makes you wonder about the cultural necessity of the title and education of surveyor as it was applied to so many of the educated.

  11. The freeway I use every day has been under construction for ten years.  Ten years!  We can’t pretend that moving it from an inefficient local group to an inefficient federal group has made it better.  

    The problem is incentives.  If these guys were using their own money to build the road, they couldn’t just waste it.  They’d need to make their money back (or hopefully profit), or go broke by blowing their life savings on road construction-themed cocktail parties.

    What would you do if you could design your own road?  How would you make it better?  There’s a road idea contest over at: http://www.doublebirds.net/2011/08/why-roads-should-be-free-and-chance-to.html

  12. When I visited rural Haiti around 1989, I saw people filling (enormous) potholes in the road with gravel in exchange for tips from passing drivers.  Of course, my local expert told me that not much work was done when there were no drivers nearby!

  13. “…you owed the city or county so many hours of labor every year. And, when
    they called you up, you had to go out and work on a road crew. Sort of
    like jury duty.” – Or like a military draft. This is not “all-volunteer.” 

Comments are closed.