Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Idaho State Highway Commission Created to Improve Transportation System [otd 03/13]

On March 13, 1913, the Idaho legislature established the State Highway Commission. They thus joined a nationwide trend to raise highway planning and construction to the state level. Prior to that, roads had been almost exclusively a local concern.
Country "Road." National Archives.

Of course, emigrant wagons cut the first roads across Idaho, starting in the early 1840s. The pioneers naturally did only enough to make the route passable. In 1857-1860, the U. S. Army built the first planned roads in the area: The Lander Cutoff, shortening the distance to old Fort Hall, and the Mullan Road across the Idaho Panhandle [blog, Feb 5].

Aside from those exceptions, private companies built most roads, usually as toll routes. Thus, in 1886, Silas Skinner and his partners completed their toll road into Silver City, Idaho [blog, May 19]. Grants for toll franchises – roads, bridges, and ferries – filled the legislative records throughout the early Territorial period.

Some businesses and individuals opened roads on their own. In 1882, pioneer Charles Walgamott “built” a stagecoach road to carry patrons from the train station at Shoshone to his claim overlooking Shoshone Falls, perhaps the first tourist attraction in Idaho. They replaced the normal wheel tires (the outer metal strap) with a cutting band, and then simply ran their coach back and forth over the route. Charlie averred that the exposed edges “helped make the road, but say, for some time that was the roughest road any mortal ever traveled over.”

The action shifted to more local oversight as towns and counties became organized. Thus, County Commissioners denied a renewal of the franchise for the old toll bridge at Eagle Rock (soon to be Idaho Falls), and declared it a public highway in April, 1889.

Such fragmented control resulted in a patchwork of good to atrocious tracks that might or might not provide an actual transportation "system." The drive for greater state oversight began around 1891 in the heavily-traveled East, and slowly spread. The Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, June 7, 1912) noted that "Since that time about two-thirds of the states of the Union have adopted some form of state aid or state supervision."

Idaho's new state Commission immediately began identifying routes for an integrated array of state highways. One priority was a modern highway to more or less parallel, and replace, the old Oregon Trail route across the state. Another would bridge the central Idaho wilderness to connect Boise to Grangeville and Lewiston.

Construction of some parts of the new system began as soon as funds became available. In 1919, the state moved to consolidate its infrastructure development within a Department of Public Works. The Commission became the Bureau of Highways, reporting to that Department.
Idaho Highway Dept's “cook shack" and first truck, ca. 1920.
Idaho Department of Transportation.

Another reorganization followed in 1951, and then in 1974 highway-related activities became the responsibility of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). Eight years later, the state moved the vehicle licensing office from the Department of Law Enforcement to the ITD, where it became the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The ITD's role is to extend the trend started in 1919: to integrate road, rail, water, and air transport to best serve the needs of people and businesses.
References: [Brit], [French], [Hawley]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
“Idaho’s Motor Vehicle History,” Idaho Department of Transportation (2006).
Charles S. Walgamott, Six Decades Back, The Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho (1936).

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