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McHenry County DOT celebrating its 100th anniversary

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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The way people traveled in Illinois at the turn of the 1700s to the 1800s were in very few ways different from those at the advent of the transition from the 1800s to the 1900s, the dawn of the 20th century.

The difference was in the mode of transportation that was in its infancy, namely the automobile. With other fields of the economy blossoming (i.e. agriculture, industry, commerce, manufacturing, etc.), the need for better, permanent and more reliable roads was becoming ever greater.

After many other failed attempts, on June 27, 1913, Illinois legislation known as the Tice Law, House Bill 843, was approved and became law. This event allowed Illinois to begin pulling itself out of the mud, and with it the creation of county highway departments across the state, including the McHenry County Division of Transportation.

The fact that the county highway department is celebrating its 100-year anniversary probably would have been difficult to conceive at the time when it was created.

In 1913, the need for roads beyond anything necessary for a horse and a wagon would be akin to how we talk about flying cars today. Self-propelled transporting vehicles (anything but a horse) were for the wealthy and merely a novelty. Considered the first car maker, Benz (Mercedes-Benz) sold only 572 cars in 1879.

It wasn’t until 1920 that Henry Ford really got things going with the assembly line, making the car affordable “for the common man” by building more than 940,000 cars in a single year. So what was happening in Illinois in 1913 that led to the creation of the county highway system and the county highway superintendent several years before the big car boom?

Illinois was one of the leading states when it came to agriculture, industry, commerce and manufacturing. The railroads and riverboats were king when it came to long-distance travel for goods. They were reliable and were rarely affected by the weather. For everyone else, it was a different story.

Each spring (planting) and fall (harvest), when it rained, the dirt roads were quagmires for any car and even more difficult for a team of horses. If you weren’t near a railroad or river, it was difficult to make long-distance trips to get your product to market, straining a team of horses. Illinois was stuck in the mud, literally. Even the urban centers had their problems. City funds were exhausted trying to fix the dirt roads, and pedestrians discouraged from shopping left merchants frustrated. Illinois needed a reliable road system, and needed it immediately.

Many efforts were were made to accomplish that. But it wasn’t until Homer J. Tice, state representative from Menard County, sponsored Illinois’ first good roads legislation that became law, on June 27, 1913, that things started to happen.

Using the already established system of counties, the law put forth that each county would have a county highway superintendent, or county engineer. This individual would start a directed and coordinated effort to effect the improvement of roads and the road system to allow for their use by the new automobiles and trucks. Upon completing this task, the roads and road systems would be turned back over to the state, and this county level of road department would be disbanded. The disbanding part would never happen because the transportation system that had been created necessitated that the county highway system remain in place along with a professional engineer who could manage it.

The first McHenry County engineer was an ambitious and spirited young man by the name of Charles L. Tryon. The family surname may be familiar, as there are relatives and landmarks that still bear that name today.

Since 1913, there have been only six county engineers, each adding more to the ever-evolving position and agency. These changes not only have occurred within the field of transportation and technology, but also within the development of its facilities, equipment and operations.

The county engineer position is held today by Joseph R. Korpalski Jr. Continuing from his predecessors overlying goal, the county engineer works to provide a transportation system that is safe and reliable for all users. From laying out the first roads, to paving the first roads, to building new bridges or making them safer for today’s users, the county engineer takes the best of what his predecessors had formulated, and continues to work with improve and adapt these to the 21st century.

Over the course of the this year, MCDOT will be working with the Northwest Herald to present a series of stories and columns covering many topics, such as the history of key road projects in McHenry County; how traffic signals work; and how McHenry County became world-renowned in winter maintenance.

We hope readers will have a better understanding of the world of transportation that exists around us. We look forward to presenting the information, and hope that as the year passes and the next century of progress for the MCDOT starts, you will be on the cusp of what lies ahead.

• Ernie Varga is project/design engineer for the McHenry County Division of Transportation.

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