Road funding has long been a challenge in Missouri and certainly in St. Charles County. Since the early 1800s, local officials have made the case to the state and voters for investing in transportation infrastructure. I can count myself among them. St. Charles County is the third largest county in Missouri and still ranks as one of the fastest growing. We cannot afford to neglect our roads; however, funding for state roads in our county and throughout the state is a concern.
Since 2012, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) has completed 14 major projects in St. Charles County at a cost of $195,925,000. Five of the 14 projects were constructed without having to contribute local dollars to the project and nine of the 14 were completed as a cost share partnership. Of these nine, 60 percent of the funding was provided by County and municipal funds (including federal funds secured by local entities). This is because MoDOT has chosen to concentrate on maintaining roads only, due to a lack of funding. Transportation funding in Missouri comes from a per-gallon fee on fuel, which has stayed the same regardless of the cost of fuel or the amount used. As vehicles have become more fuel efficient and inflation has shrunk buying power, MoDOT has not met the need to expand its system in St. Charles County and in other areas in the region. We are extremely fortunate that voters have reauthorized the half-percent Transportation Sales Tax three times, which provides approximately $20 million annually for road improvement projects. These funds have helped us work with MoDOT to fund the Page Extension, I-70 and Fifth Street improvements and more. Unfortunately, as our growth continues, we cannot afford to help maintain the state road and highway system.
This month and next, we’ll explore the history of our local road system to understand where we are today.
PART I - FARM TO MARKET ROADS
Roads were almost nonexistent during the period of French settlement and residents traveled by water whenever possible. After the arrival of American settlers, a system of farm-to-market roads was required to deliver farm products to one of several licensed ferries on the Missouri River. By 1814, legislation allowed 12 “house holders” to petition the District Court of Quarter Session, a forerunner of the County Court, to establish public roads. Sixty-two men from the southern part of St. Charles County petitioned Judge Nathaniel Tucker stating, “Your Petitioners, Housekeepers and citizens of Saint Charles County humbly represent that there are no public roads or highways running through their section of the county from which circumstances they labor under great & manifold difficulties & inconveniences. Your Petitioners therefore humbly pray that you will order a review for a public road to lead from the Town of St. Charles to Marthasville and to Luter (Loutre) Island as in duty bound they will ever pray.” The court established the Marthasville Road, branching off the Boonslick Road, and following the present route of Highway 94 South to Marthasville in Warren County.
The First General Assembly authorized county courts to establish roads and maintain them by levying a poll tax on each male, age 16 to 45. Most men received a credit against the tax due, based on the amount of work done under a road overseer appointed by the County Court. Gottfried Duden observed that, even though they might not do much work, even professional men, doctors and lawyers attended these semi-social gatherings. When the obligation was ignored, overseers like George Myers complained to the Circuit Court, “That John Baldridge did, on the 26th day of June last, fail to appear with proper tools (two days prior notice having been given him by the said George Myers) to clear and repair the said road, contrary to the statute in such cases made and provided.”
After statehood, the Missouri constitution called on the General Assembly to ascertain, “the most proper objects of improvement in relation to roads and navigable waters.” While Congress granted the state three percent of the proceeds from the sale of public land, the “road and canal fund,” also known as the “three percent fund,” was insufficient to meet the need for internal improvements. The legislature established, or allowed courts to establish, inter-county roads, but provided no money to pay for them. Residents of Cuivre Township petitioned the Circuit Court in 1820 stating, “the present road leading from St. Charles to Salt River is very advantageous to the people in general and if confirmed by the court and opened according to the law will be more convenient and of less injury to the community at large than any other road that which could be laid out from St. Charles to Salt river.”1
A state road was approved in 1843, “…from the Ferry landing in the Town of St. Charles, the nearest and most practicable route passing through the Town of Troy and Auburn in Lincoln County to the North East corner of the public square in the Town of Bowling Green in Pike County.”2
The Salt River Road left the Boonslick Trail and followed the route of present Interstate 70 to Dardenne Creek. It then followed the bluffs of the Mississippi River to Peruque Creek, before turning northwest along the route of present Highway P to Flint Hill, where it followed the present route of Highway 61 to Lincoln County. As new settlers passed through on their way to the Salt River, the villages of St. Peters, Flint Hill and Wellsburg grew up along the road.
In 1833, the St. Charles County Court authorized Ludwell Powell to receive from the state treasurer, “the apportionment of the three percent fund due the County of St. Charles.” The following year, the legislature distributed the $60,000 it had collected from two percent of the land sales into individual “Road and Canal Funds” established by each County Court and authorized those courts to borrow or lend from the funds. After the St. Charles County received $1,586.38 in 1835, the County Court, “sitting as a Board of Internal Improvement in conformity with the statute,” borrowed the sum of $1,000 at six percent interest, and lent $571.38 at 10 percent interest. The court used the increased funding to establish farm-to-market roads throughout the county, most of which survive today as state lettered routes.
To get farm products to market, it was also important to build bridges, which were much more expensive than the dirt roads of the period. The County Court approved a payment of $50 from the three percent fund in 1835 for the building of a bridge across Dardenne Creek. A year later, the court approved, “A sum equal to the sum appropriated by the County Court of Lincoln County for the erection of a Bridge over Big Creek, at or near the present crossing of the Salt River Road over said creek, provided the appropriation made by the County Court of Lincoln county shall not exceed two hundred dollars.” The court approved payment for bridges over the Gillette Branch, Scott’s Branch and Spencer Creek from the Road and Canal Fund in 1837. When bridges were not considered of sufficient public benefit to justify government paying the entire cost, a popular accommodation between the supporters and opponents of internal improvements was a “public-private partnership,” When Samuel S. Watson, son of Archibald Watson, suggested such an approach in 1837, the County Court ordered:
On petition of Samuel S. Watson, it is ordered that a bridge be built over the Slough above Alton at the place where the present Road crosses the Same provided that the same does not cost more than One hundred and fifty dollars. One half of the expense of building said Bridge is to be paid by said Samuel S. Watson as proposed by him. The other is ordered to be paid out of the Road and Canal fund of St. Charles County. Samuel Trenley is appointed to let out said Bridge and Superintend the Same and report his certificate of the completion and reception of the Same. The clerk is ordered to draw a warrant in favor of the contractor for one half of said amount. Said bridge is to be built of solid Oak and Walnut timber and built in a permanent manner so that it shall not be washed away by high waters and ensured to stand for forty years. Said Bridge is to be advertised and the contractor to give Bond as directed by Law.
Having reached the St. Louis County side of the river, their produce was still some distance from St. Louis, and St. Charles County government could do little to further assist local farmers. The St. Charles County Court, after receiving a request in 1833 from the St. Louis County Court to appropriate a proportion of the three percent fund to improvement of the road leading from the Missouri bottom opposite St. Charles to St. Louis, responded, “The court having maturely considered the said proposition are of the opinion that under the law they have no power to appropriate the said fund or any part thereof to be expended without the limits of St. Charles County.” With St. Charles County farmers reliant on St. Louis interests, Benjamin Alderson wrote, “Let the city of St. Louis do her part toward providing facilities for easy communication with the interior, and she may be greatly relieved of those sudden high prices which occur upon a change in the condition of the roads from dry to wet, and from dust to mud, knee deep to a horse, and especially when navigation is partially suspended by low waters in the upper rivers, or entirely closed by ice.”
While commerce on the roads was inter-county, and sometimes interstate, state and federal governments did little to provide adequate roads. Political pressure for them to do more mounted as settlers headed west in covered wagons came to greatly outnumber teamsters headed east with agricultural goods. The concept of limited government received its toughest test when both groups pushed state and federal governments to support internal improvements, including roads. The editors of the Missourian, the local newspaper published in St. Charles, applauded in 1820, when Congress appropriated funds to survey the National Road, intended to reach the east bank of the Mississippi River at a point somewhere between St. Louis and the mouth of the Illinois River. However, opposition to federal funding of internal improvements caused the Cumberland Road to fall 70 miles short of the Mississippi River, ending at Vandalia, Illinois. From there travelers made their way to Alton, where Rufus Easton had initiated a ferry service to St. Charles County in 1818. After crossing the Mississippi River at Alton, travelers proceeded to St. Charles on a trail that had been used by Indians, French traders, and early American pioneers. When a large contingent of Kentuckians, led by the Boone family, marched west from Cincinnati to the Mississippi River, they crossed that river into St. Charles County and followed the “Trail to the Village of the Missouris.” In bypassing St. Louis they avoided the necessity of crossing the Missouri River. It was reported in October 1819 that 326 vehicles passed, “Mr. Griffith’s in the point of the Missouri,” bound for the Boonslick. One commentator suggested the “well-mounted gentlemen cavaliers” used the trail to St. Louis “to see the famous city.”
Those who did go through St. Louis proceeded through St. Louis County on the St. Charles Road, improvements to which allowed St. Louis legislators to get to the legislative session in St. Charles in four hours by 1824. The trail west from St. Charles, originally identified by the Spanish, was used by the Boone family to reach the salt licks of central Missouri, an area that became known as the “Boonslick.” After settlers headed for the Boonslick began using the trail, Nathan Boone, James Audrain and Joseph Evans were appointed to mark the trail between St. Charles and Howard County, where it connected to the Santa Fe Trail. Stagecoaches ran weekly between St. Charles and Franklin, in Howard County, by 1819. Benjamin Reeves, George Sibley, and Thomas Mathers, commissioners appointed by President John Quincy Adams in 1825, met in St. Charles to write their report concerning the survey marking the trail to Santa Fe. By 1821, as many as five coaches a day left St. Charles for Fort Osage, more than 200 miles to the west. John Mason Peck, a Baptist missionary to the area, recollected, “It seemed as though Kentucky and Tennessee were breaking up and moving to the ‘Far West.’ Caravan after caravan passed over the prairies of Illinois, crossing the ‘great river’ at St. Louis, all bound to the Boones Lick.” Leaving St. Charles, the Boonslick Trail followed the ridge that separated the Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds. Camping sites and inns lock and dam were established along the trail, including Six Mile House, a favorite stopping place six miles from St. Charles. John Pitman and his family arrived from Kentucky in 1810, and the town of Cottleville prospered when traffic on the Boonslick Trail picked up after the War of 1812. When Dardenne Creek was at flood stage, or the flood plain was too muddy, travelers on the Boonslick Trail had to remain in Cottleville until conditions improved. With several hotels, blacksmith shops and stores, Cottleville had grown sufficiently that settlers petitioned the County Court in 1846 to make the town the county seat. Naylor’s Store on Dardenne Prairie was a popular stop for Boonslick Trail travelers.
After statehood, the Missouri constitution called on the General Assembly to ascertain, “the most proper objects of improvement in relation to roads and navigable waters.” While Congress granted the state three percent of the proceeds from the sale of public land, the “road and canal fund,” also known as the “three percent fund,” was insufficient to meet the need for internal improvements. The legislature established, or allowed courts to establish, inter-county roads, but provided no money to pay for them. Residents of Cuivre Township petitioned the Circuit Court in 1820 stating, “the present road leading from St. Charles to Salt River is very advantageous to the people in general and if confirmed by the court and opened according to the law will be more convenient and of less injury to the community at large than any other road that which could be laid out from St. Charles to Salt river.” A state road was approved in 1843, “…from the Ferry landing in the Town of St. Charles, the nearest and most practicable route passing through the Town of Troy and Auburn in Lincoln County to the North East corner of the public square in the Town of Bowling Green in Pike County.” The Salt River Road left the Boonslick Trail and followed the route of present Interstate-70 to Dardenne Creek. It then followed the bluffs of the Mississippi River to Peruque Creek, before turning northwest along the route of present Highway P to Flint Hill, where it followed the present route of Highway 61 to Lincoln County. As new settlers passed through on their way to the Salt River, the villages of St. Peters, Flint Hill and Wellsburg grew up along the road.
The General Assembly passed the Roads and Highways Act in 1845, requiring roads that passed through more than one county to be 60 feet wide, but providing no state funding for construction or maintenance. Two years later, the legislature passed, “AN ACT to establish a State road from the town of St. Charles, on the Missouri river, to the town of Mexico, in Audrain county.” Three commissioners, including Achilles Broadhead from St. Charles County, were instructed to meet and “mark out” a state road. The commissioners met in St. Charles and submitted their report to the County Court there in July of 1847. Since damages to any property taken for right of way were mitigated by any benefit the remaining property received from the improvement, the commissioners found that damages exceeded the benefits on only three of the 51 parcels in the county over which the road ran. They awarded $20 to George Sibley, $26 to Septimus Spencer and $60 to Octavius Spencer, for damages totaling $106, while commissioners and “hands” were paid $231.37 for their efforts in marking what became known in St. Charles as the Mexico Road. In this manner, private property owners and county governments financed the road system that, by 1850, included 400 miles of state roads. While the Boonslick Trail became a state road the following year, the General Assembly continued to provide no funding for road construction or maintenance. The inadequate and unpopular system of maintenance, which required all able-bodied males to perform equal labor on roads, caused Governor Dunklin to suggest, “Instead of making the apportionment as now, let it be made according to wealth. Make a man who is worth ten thousand dollars, perform ten times as much labor as he who is worth one thousand.”
When the legislature granted St. Charles a charter in 1849, it forbade the opening of new streets in newly annexed areas without the consent of the owners. When right-of-way was taken within the existing city limits, the mayor summoned a jury of six householders to assess the “damages” to the property. However, since damages were mitigated by benefits, the public treasury avoided much of the right-of-way costs of new streets. The charter required the consent of two-thirds of the frontage, before any street could be graded and paved. Since city streets were thought to benefit only those who lived along them, all costs were born by the property owners, who paid a tax based on the assessed value of the property. The concept of public benefit made little progress on the municipal level before 1850.
Despite such governmental regulations, as the period ended, people looked to entrepreneurial, rather than governmental action, to meet the transportation needs of the people. When the legislature granted a charter to the St. Louis and St. Charles Turnpike Company in 1841 to build a macadamized road between the two cities, the Missouri Republican suggested, “We hope that capitalists will pay some attention to this matter, and not let the opportunity pass of promoting the public good, and their own interests, at the same time.” Five years later, with work on the road not yet commenced, the Missouri Patriot argued, “The fact is that if works of internal improvement are needed, and they can be made to pay enough to justify the undertaking, they will be constructed…” Within two years, the three state roads that converged on St. Charles were carrying 25,000 head of stock annually, in addition to the stock from St. Charles County. A good road to get them to market in St. Louis was badly needed.
Plank roads, first built in Canada by private corporations which collected a toll for their use, became popular in Missouri, where there was an adequate supply of timber. The charter of the St. Charles and St. Louis Turnpike Company was amended in 1849 to build a plank road on the route of the St. Charles Road. The company’s successor, the St. Charles Rock Road Company, actually built a rock, rather than a plank road. Seeking to encourage such corporations, in 1851, the General Assembly passed an act, “relating to plank and macadamized road corporations,” and providing, “a stockholder in any company formed under this act shall not be liable for more than the amount of his stock.” That year, the Natural Bridge Plank Road Company was chartered to construct a road that eventually became Natural Bridge Road. The same year, the St. Charles and Western Plank Road Corporation was organized for the purpose of building a plank road along the Boonslick Trail between St. Charles and Cottleville. Some $34,000 in stock was subscribed, and plank toll road was built from St. Charles to Cottleville. The Plank Road Company built a plank road across the Portage des Sioux commons in 1853, connecting the ferry crossing the Mississippi at Elsah, Illinois with the Musick Ferry crossing the Missouri River to St. Louis County. German farm families named Dietrich, Jungermann, Muegge, Willott, Zumbehl, Kisker, Hackmann, Droste, Gutermuth, Orf and Ehlmann lived along farm-to-market roads that eventually bore their name.
Farm-to-market roads, built by County Government and paid for by a general tax, were a great benefit to farmers. After 1855, those previously required to work on the roads, were instead required to pay an annual poll tax of two dollars, and a road tax not exceeding 30 percent of their state property tax. Half of the amount could be paid by working on the road at the rate of one dollar per day. Nevertheless, Jacksonian reluctance remained about government financed roads that profited some more than others.
Even though Radical Republicans controlled the County Court, they appropriated $1,500, in 1864, “to the macadamizing of the Salt River Road, upon the condition that an equal amount be raised by private subscription, and paid in equal installments….” Citizens of Femme Osage Township, hotbed of Radicalism, complained that the “stone road to St. Charles” would be of no value to them,” and Senator William Follenius regretted, “we could just as well take a very heavy tax burden on ourselves that would bring little to a large part of the county.” Nevertheless, as the public came to accept the public benefit of a better road system, the County Court established a county road tax. Fully $42.52 of Thomas Howell’s tax bill of $193.68 was for “road tax” by 1869. Because it was in the floodplain, the Rue Royal, which had been constructed in 1810, was often impassable in wet weather. As a result, a toll road was constructed in 1865 under a franchise from the county court to cover the two-and-one-half miles from Tecumseh Street in St. Charles to the Royal Domain. The toll was removed and the road came under county control in 1886.
In 1870, there were only four bridges in St. Charles County: over Femme Osage Creek near the Missouri River, over Dardenne Creek at Cottleville, over the Peruque Creek north of O’Fallon and over Scott’s Branch on the Boonslick Road. While some public benefit was acknowledged, bridges were still thought to primarily benefit the local property owners. Therefore, when the County Court appropriated the sum of $400 in 1871 to build a bridge over Dardenne Creek at the Old Hay Ford, it did so, “upon the condition that an equal amount be raised by private subscription.” While the county’s road tax was two mills by 1871, the county was still not completely committed to a county road system until April of that year, when county voters approved an appropriation of $25,000 per year for five years, for the purpose of macadamizing the Boonslick Road, the Salt River Road, the Marthasville Road, the St. Charles and Alton Road, and the New Melle and Wentzville Road. An 1874 letter to the editor complained, “I think all three rock roads beginning from St. Charles should be completed – and at once and without waiting until the people at the other end of the road are dead… The county is capable and old enough to have had good roads long ago. Of course, nothing prevents the county from having such roads other than several “old fogies” who oppose all progress which could cost them a nickel. Fortunately, their number is small and grows smaller with every day.” As new county roads were built and existing ones improved, the road system eventually reached even into Femme Osage Township. Most of the present lettered highways in St. Charles County were establish as county roads by 1880. Pointing out that there was also a macadamized road running the 20 miles to St. Louis, the 1885 history recorded, “The facilities for the transportation of produce to market are unsurpassed by any county in the State.”
Unfortunately, road maintenance continued to depend on the poll tax and road overseer, most of which were patronage appointees. The Cosmos complained in 1890 that the state statutes did not provide for proper maintenance of county roads:
When the roads become impassable because of deep ruts, the neighbors are called together by the township road overseer; and if the weather is unfavorable for farming, they succeed in getting together two or three men and a team. Then the mud from the sides of the road is scraped up into the middle into that rounded form so familiar to all. This work is usually done hastily, for the road overseer is allowed pay at the rate of $1.50 a day for but fifteen entire days in any one year. Usually this important office, instead of being given to the one or two competent men in a township, is bestowed upon anyone who is willing to take it. The chances are ten to one that he has never in his life seen a mile of good country road, and that he knows absolutely nothing about their proper construction.
While certain Democratic leaders may have recognized the need for internal improvements, many Democratic voters remained skeptical. At the same election in which they elected Krekel, the voters of St. Charles County rejected a local proposal to build roads by a vote of 463 to 460. In St. Charles Township the proposal received a 96 percent favorable majority, while the vote in the heavily Democratic rural townships was nearly as strong against the measure. Two years later, in response to criticism that his candidates for county judge were, “old fogies, and would stop all internal improvements,” Krekel wrote:
…we ask the community to look to the position and interest of those gentlemen (the critics), and see whether something else other than the public good is urging them on. The treasury is now empty. Our people will hereafter have to raise, by way of taxation, the means for building our bridges, heretofore built out of the general improvement and road and canal fund; they will have to provide for at least $18,000 subscribed to county improvements; they must meet their subscription to the North Missouri Railroad Company. These things taken together, admonish to caution; yea, they call upon those who are truly friendly to progress to see that we do not injure ourselves and our internal improvements by attempting to do more than we are ready and able to do.
2. Minutes of the County Court, May 20, 1843, St.
Charles County Archives.