Early road building and maintenance

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California and Cal Trans.

Today, we take road building and maintenance for granted. A nearby road becomes a potholed mess and pretty soon the guys in orange vests and handkerchiefs hanging from the backs of their hardhats to shade their necks, are putting out cones, rerouting the traffic.

Road improvements are often slow to happen, but they do happen, eventually. We, as individuals, don't have any physical responsibility for the upkeep other than paying our taxes so that city or Cal Trans employees will toil to keep our roads and highways drivable.

But, long before Cal Trans was created, roads and trails were built and maintained by the residents of a given area. If you owned a piece of property, it was your duty to see that your roads were taken care of.     

In El Dorado County in the early 1850s, the county's Court of Sessions decreed that every able-bodied man between the ages of 18 and 50 was liable for road taxes and two days (or however many more the court decreed) spent laboring on his assigned road per year. If, for some reason, a man did not pitch in and work, $6 would be collected from him for the year, to be used for the roads. What would you do if, in addition to your regular daily duties, you had to get out there and do some ditch digging? If you refused the El Dorado folks, you were assessed a fine of $20, a goodly sum in those days.

Every neighborhood had an appointed road supervisor, who was assigned a district to oversee, within 15 days of his appointment. It was the supervisor's duty to prepare a list of all persons residing within that district and, therefore, liable for road taxes and assistance. The supervisor then had to return his finished list to the clerk of the court of sessions within 15 days of his appointment.

It was his responsibility to keep all public roads within his district in good repair. This might include grading banks and building bridges and then maintaining them. He was also responsible for erecting signposts painted with directions and distances to the most noted places to which his road would lead.

In order to accomplish these tasks, he was given responsibility for calling out as many men as a job would require. If he could not enlist help because his men had already met their responsibilities, it was then up to him to hire workers, provided the cost would not exceed $50. If it did, he had to report the fact to the court. When the supervisor set about recruiting men, he had to give them three days' notice of the time and place where they were needed as well as a list of the tools they would need to bring.

Further more, he was given the power to prosecute those who neglected or refused to serve.

The supervisor, himself, was bound to complete his assigned duties. If he did not, he would be fined from $10 to $200.

As early as 1851 or 1852, the county consisted of 22 of these districts. James Nesbitt was the supervisor for the district that ran between Salmon Falls and Coloma Road, probably one of the most-used roads in the area at the time.

Apparently, this method of getting the needed road work accomplished was copied from the same tradition practiced in the southern and eastern states.

In my quest for genealogical information about my ancestors, I have found records showing that my great-great-great grandfather, John Bratcher, was supervisor of the road that ran in front of his farm in Kentucky. I found several public notices that appeared in his local newspaper, stating that he was planning a work party for a particular part of the road and a particular job. Happily, I didn't find any fines for him in any of those records.

By the last years of the century, California had created a Bureau of Highways Commission. R.C. Irvine, of Sacramento, was one of the three commissioners. In 1895, the three traveled over nearly 17,000 miles of rough roads, assessing the situation. Eighteen months later, they made their recommendations, which would result in a 14,000-mile network of roads that would evolve into today's state highway system. By 1919, that plan had been pared to 5,560 miles of roadway.

For the backcountry folks, it would not be until the 1930s that things were improved much. It was then that the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads asked the country to "get the farmer out of the mud," a slogan that led to the improvement and expansion of the system of paved rural roads.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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