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Good Roads Movement

The decades between 1870 and 1900 were a "dark age" in the development, construction, and maintenance of rural highways in Wisconsin.  The railroad proved to be the most popular mode of transportation, and funding was focused on creating additional rail lines rather than improving highways.  Little effort was made to connect rural communities, and not much attention was given to the construction of a connected system of improved highways throughout the counties.  Although taxes were being collected to maintain roads, they were being spent poorly.  A movement began to create a better system of highways in Wisconsin.

During the early 1890s, years before the first gasoline-powered automobile appeared in Wisconsin, a movement to transform the state's country roads into decent thoroughfares began.  The Good Roads Movement, as it was called, was supported by a coalition of urban merchants and businessmen, progressive farm leaders, university and other educators, professional engineers, and, during the cycling craze of the 1880s and 1890s, bicyclists.  Influenced by highway movements in eastern states where state-aid for roads had become increasingly popular, the Wisconsin good roads promoters campaigned for improved road conditions and later for a constitutional amendment that would allow a state-financed highway program, administered by a state highway commission.


Early road conditions on State
Trunk Highway 80, south of
Elroy in Juneau County.
This truck had to be towed off
the highway due to poor road
conditions. Courtesy of Wisconsin
Historical Society Archives.

The major cause for Wisconsin's poor road conditions was the fact that the framers of the state constitution had inserted a clause that prohibited state appropriations or loans for transportation and internal improvement projects.  All responsibility of financing and maintaining roads had been delegated to local governments, which in turn was contracted to local residents through the supply of labor and materials in lieu of tax payments.  Bound to the tradition of building and caring for their "own" roads, rural residents were reluctant to give up their accustomed highway improvement practices in favor of a system that required payment of road taxes in money.  Acceptance of the state-aid-to-roads principle, therefore, came slowly because of rural opposition and the widespread belief that the railroads would continue to provide the bulk of the state's transportation needs.

Education of the rural public was a distinctive feature of the Good Roads Movement in Wisconsin.  Advocates of better roads pleaded their cause at public meetings, in campaign literature and posters, and through the state's newspapers and farm journals.  Pointing to the social imbalance between rural and urban life, which troubled numerous farmers, the road reformers claimed that poor roads put rural families "in the rut" and kept them there, whereas good roads provided opportunities for neighborhood social life, consolidated schools, prompt medical and mail service, and cheaper means for hauling produce to market .

During the period that public opinion was being transformed towards the acceptance of state-financed highways, the automobile age dawned in Wisconsin.  The first light, self-propelled highway vehicle in the United States, and probably the first in the world, was designed and operated in 1873 by Reverend Dr. J.W. Carhart of Racine.  Gasoline-powered motor cars began to appear regularly in the state by 1899.  As the popularity of the automobile increased, so did the number of registered vehicles in the state.  In 1905, 1,492 vehicles were registered in Wisconsin.  By 1916, the number of registered vehicles had jumped to 124,603, and in 1945 the figure had grown to 693,666.

Motoring became not only a new travel experience for people in the state, but also a boom to the state's economy as Wisconsin developed into a regional center for the automobile industry.  By 1906, early automobile assembly and manufacturing plants were established in Kenosha, Hartford, Racine, and Milwaukee.

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