The History of New York State
Book 12, Chapter 16, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


On April 10, 1855, an act was passed to enlarge the powers and duties of commissioners of highways. "The commissioner or commissioners of highways in each of the towns of this State are hereby empowered to bring any action against any railroad corporation that may be necessary or proper to sustain the rights of the public in and to any highway in such town." On April 15, 1859, an act was passed to provide for an assessment of damages upon the laying out of public highways through unenclosed, unimproved and uncultivated lands, the damages bring assessed as if the same were laid out through cultivated land.

On April 15, 1857, an act was passed to allow the several towns in this State to raise an increased amount of money for the support of roads and bridges, and to provide for increased compensation of commissioners of highways and other town officers. A further act was passed on April 16, 1857, to provide for the raising of funds by tax to pay for the building or repair of bridges across streams dividing towns pr counties. On April 23, 1862, there was passed an act to prevent animals running at large on the public highways. "It shall not be lawful for any cattle, horses, sheep and swine to run at large in any possible highway in this State."

State-Aided Roads in New York.--New York adopted State aid in 1898. After various changes in the scheme of organization the work was placed in charge of a single State Highway Commissioner, who appoints three deputy commissioners. There are four classes of roads: (1) State roads, improved and maintained wholly by the State; (2) county roads,

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improved and maintained jointly by the State, county and town; (3) county roads, improved and maintained wholly by the counties; (4) town roads, improved and maintained by the towns, assisted by the State. A bond issue of $50,000,000 was authorized in 1906 for the improvement of a system of county roads aggregating 8,380 miles, to which was subsequently added a system of State road comprising 3,617 miles. A second bond issue of 50,000,000 was authorized in 1912, of which $20,000,000 was for construction and maintenance of State roads and $30,000,000 for the completion of the county highway system. The apportionment of the funds among the counties is on the basis of population, mileage of roads outside of cities and villages, and the total area, each factor having the weight of one third. The total sum expended by the State to the end of 1913 was approximately $97,000,000.

Another system of main market roads is improved and maintained jointly by the State and the counties, and county and town roads are improved and maintained by the local authorities under State supervision. In general the expenditure of State funds for road improvement has proceeded in accordance with on or all of the methods outlined above. The diversion of motor vehicle fees to state road improvement is practically universal, and the distinction between State roads and State-aid roads is quite common. New York cannot be said to have been the first of States to take up the work of highway improvement. In point of time, it stand only sixth in that work. New Jersey led all the other States in passing a State aid, or a State highway law. This was in 1892. Then followed Massachusetts in 1893; Vermont in 1894; Connecticut in 1895; California also in 1895; New York, as has been said, adopted State aid in 1898.

Joint Highway Committees.--The joint committee which fixed the policy which has since been followed in regard to the highways of New York began its public hearings at the council chamber in the city of Buffalo October 14, 1907, and closed its hearings in the city of New York, December 30, having held hearings at Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Watertown, Albany, Newburgh, and New York, and having given to the clerk and chairman of the board o supervisors of each county in the State due notice of the time of the several hearings and having offered an opportunity to be heard to the public officials of each county of the State, other than those whole territory was within the limits of a city. The committee was attended upon by the county representatives, including the chairman of the board, and county engineer where the same existed, and the chairman of the committee on good roads.

In many instances the full board of supervisors of the respective counties were present and all of the counties affected by the subject were heard in person except that in a few instances they communicated with committee in writing.

In the report the committee recommended the enactment of a revised highway code and inform made a complete statute governing the whole subject, repealing all previous high way legislation. It recommended the abolishment of the labor system and the placing of the 934 towns upon the uniform money system. It was this committee that recommended the creation of the Department of Highways for the State.

The committee recalled that the colony of New York received its original highway legislation from England and that the Canadian provinces and many of the adjoining States likewise built and worked their highways under the English law. From time to time the neighboring States had revised their laws and adopted what was known as the money system of repairing highways, and that the Dominion of Canada had found it necessary to make a complete recodification. The State of New York, instead of revising its highway law had sought to change the same gradually by means of amendments from year to year, and it had taken the English labor system statute and by amendment had gradually engrafted a permissive money system. The work of amendment had not at all times been carefully done, on or two sections having been amended by a bill and thereby other sections which were omitted in the process of amendment contained provisions inconsistent with the changed statute. Between 700 and 800 out of the 934 towns in the State were endeavoring to repair, and in some instances construct, their highways upon the money system while the statute was a patchwork of amendments to a law which has as its original basic principle the idea of the labor system.

Citing the village road as part of the State system, the report observed that no road for the purpose of conveying the farmer's produce to the market and returning his supplies to the farm was any better than at its weakest point, and from all over the State the investigators found the complaint that the improved highway stopped at the limit of the incorporated village and that between that point and the improved highway in the center of the village there was a road from one-quarter to one-half mile in length which at various season of the year was as impassable for a heavily loaded wagon as was the old unimproved highway, and that there was no provision in the statute except to build a connecting link where the village was less than one mile in length. Generally the incorporated village contributed largely to both the town and county tax which provided the locality's share of building the improved road outside the corporation. The committee could not see, therefore any injustice in proving that the improved highway need not stop at the corporate limits, bit if, because of the burden of travel, it requires a more extended method of construction and the inhabitants of the village desire it improved uniformly from curb to curb and thereby increase the expense within the corporate limits, it was provided that the additional expense should be a village charge and adequate machinery was provided so that the trustees might submit the question to the taxpayers.

Because of the principle that those who were to pay a portion of the expense for the road should have something to say about which road should be improved the committee recognized that so far as the locality was concerned, the original scheme of the Higbie-Armstrong law, to that time in force, permitted boards of supervisors to have the initiative in selecting roads for improvement. Yet, from this very fact, roads in general were selected by the board of supervisors from the standpoint of whether they were market roads and the selection was affected largely by purely local consideration. On the other hand those who dwelt in the cities of the State paid a very large proportion of the amount contributed by the State and under the prevailing system of selecting roads they had little or no voice in the designation of highways for improvement.

Certain of the rural counties which had within their limits a large city, notably Albany, Oneida, Onondaga, Monroe, and Erie, had made a broader selection than had many of the other counties. The committee was, therefore, of the opinion that under the clause in the resolution which required it to report upon "the general subject of a proper development of the whole system of highway improvement," it was called upon to submit to the Legislature for its approval a plan of what might be termed 'through highways" and that his plan of through highways should, as far as possible, be equitably divided between the several counties.

If the highways outlined were of sufficient importance to be deemed "through State highways" it followed, according to the committee's report, that when constructed they should also be maintained by the State. The committee therefore set forth a proposed plan of through routes comprising in the aggregate 3,332 miles, of which total mileage 560 miles had already been improved or were in the process of construction. In the selection of the respective routes the committee was governed by the general plan outlined in a map adopted the year before, but the members were careful so to phrase the description in the proposed statute that, while it should express judgment as to what routes were of sufficient importance for through connection to be entitled to be denominated as State roads and to be built and maintained by the State, a reasonable latitude was left to the discretion of the department so long as the result of connecting the cities of the State and building main routes was accomplished by the specific route selected by the department. To illustrate, one main route runs from Albany through to Buffalo and yet there was no attempt to fix by statute the question of which side of the Mohawk River should be followed when the commissioners designated and laid out the specific roads which were to be improved.

Joint Highway Committee of 1918.--There was another joint legislative highway committee appointed to investigate in reference to highways, the report of which referred to the original resolution directing the committee:

To investigate in reference to the highways to be designated for improvement in each county of the State containing towns, with moneys to be derived from Federal apportionment and State appropriates.

The committee was further directed by this resolution to submit to the Legislature, on or before February 15, 1920, a report and recommendations to be accompanied by a statement and map showing the location of the highways recommended for improvement with reference to the system of State and county highways and Federal and highways already improved and those now legally designed for improvement.

The committee organized by electing Senator Charles J. Hewitt as chairman and Assemblyman Warren T. Thayer as vice-chairman, authorized the employment of J., C. Finch as consulting engineer, together with such clerical and stenographic help as might be needed. The committee voted to not employ counsel or sergeant-at-arms.

The map of the State of New York showing the highways to be improved by Federal aid, pursuant to chapter 462 of the Laws of 1917 was adopted as the basis from which to work, the highways shown on this map being those already "legally designated for future improvement." This map was prepared by the highway department with the approval of the county superintendents of highways, boards of supervisors, and highway officials in the various counties, and is a plan whereby each succeeding year's construction of improved highways was intended to form a portion of the program to complete a connected system of highways cover the entire State. This map showed that the Legislature had accepted and designated 501 miles of improved highways to be built by Federal aid.

Exhaustive efforts were made by the members of the committee to obtain the sentiment of the people and of the highway officials in the various counties of the State in an endeavor to ascertain which of the most important roads of the State were most in need of improvement. Members of the committee visited almost every county, interviewed officials and inspected roads. Hearings were held in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and other cities in various parts of the State. Large representative bodies appeared before the committee and advocated the designation of certain roads. Various boards of supervisors and association petitioned the committee for certain designations.

During the course of these investigations it became more and more apparent that a change should be made in the statutes relative to Federal aid funds, such legislation to provide that in cases of roads other than State highways, the county in which the road might be located should bear a portion of the expense of construction or improvement.

Therefore, under authority of a concurrent resolution adopted by the Senate and Assembly on February 11, 1920, the committee was continued with all powers and duties previously conferred or imposed and additional powers and duties were conferred. This concurrent resolution provided:

That such committee shall investigate the State highway system and determine what highways shall be included therein for construction and improvement as State highways or State and county highways, so that together with those improved by Federal aid there shall be established a system of connected State highways.

This concurrent resolution further provided:

That such committee shall prepare a map and plan for such system of highways and shall submit the same to the legislature with its final report, on or before the fifteenth day of February, 1921, together with such legislation as may be needed to carry into effect its recommendations and completion of such system.

The Legislature, having thus widened the power and scope of the committee's duties and Assemblyman George F. Wheelock having been appointed on the committee in place of John F. Shannon, whose term of office had expired, a careful survey of the whole highway situation was made and it was found that in addition to the 10,380 miles authorized by the Laws of 1917, 2,000 miles of which were still unbuilt, approximately 700 miles would be necessary to close the gaps and constitute a complete connected system of highways, embracing the most important and most extensively traveled road, making a total of approximately 11,100 miles which the committee felt should constitute the ultimate highway system of the State, to be constructed and maintained by the state, including State highways and State and county highways.

The field work was commenced on May 17, 1920, with a hearing at Jamestown, New York, and during the balance of the summer and early fall hearings were held in practically every county of the State. Advance notice of all hearings was sent to the Senators, Assemblymen, county superintendents of highway, chairmen of boards of supervisors, and the highway committee of the boards of supervisors in their respective counties. The hearings were well attended, all of the above mentioned officials usually being present. In addition representatives of various automobile association, chambers of commerce, boards of trade, granges, etc., attended in most counties.

The many requests and suggestion made at the various hearings were given careful consideration, due regard being given to the percentage of the total mileage in each county already built and authorized.

The findings were embodied in a map, which was submitted. The map showed an ultimate system of State and State and county highways of 11,100 miles, of which approximately 200 miles were located on excellent macadam roads, which were, before that time, improved by the various towns and counties of the State and many miles of which would need no extensive repairs for years to come.

Of the ultimate system mentioned above, approximately 8,357 miles were constructed at that time, or under contract, having approximately 2,762 miles to be improved, of which 876 miles were located on State routes and 1,886 miles on county highways. Of the unconstructed mileage approximately 600 miles were designated as Federal aid roads. Assuming that the average cost of construction would be $50,000 per mile, it would cost to complete the unconstructed portion of the proposed system $82,000,000. Of this sum, there was available as follows:


From bond issues and reimbursements under chapter 891 of the laws of 1920


From the Federal government


From the State appropriations to meet Federal aid


From the counties as their share of the cost of construction of the 1,886 miles of county highways.




This left approximately $29,000,000 to be provided either by direct appropriations, bond issues or allotments from future appropriations by the Federal government.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie Axtman

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