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By Duane Raterman, P.E.
Knox County Engineer
August 2014

Many of you have probably heard that Wrigley Field is celebrating its 100 year anniversary this year. The Chicago Cubs have been playing there for 98 years. I'm guessing very few of you know that the County Engineers in Illinois are also celebrating a 100 year anniversary. In 1912, Illinois had one of the top economies in the country but had a road system that was much the same as it was after the civil war. The creation of the County Highway Superintendent position was in direct response to the deplorable state of Illinois roads. The position was established by the state in order to have a skilled engineer administering state monies in an attempt to develop a statewide road system that was critical to "pulling Illinois out of the mud."

County government in Illinois goes back to the founding of the state in 1818. There were fifteen counties created in the southern portion of the state. Counties were the local arm of state government and it was at that level that the orderly settlement of Illinois was dependent. During this time the Illinois Legislature allowed the counties to choose between the township and commission form of county government. In the early 1900's, township government, not the state or the county, was responsible for building roads in Illinois outside of municipalities. This fell on the townships because many believed that the responsibility for roads rested with the people living alongside the roads. Unfortunately, inexperienced citizen labor with inadequate supervision did not get the job done.

By 1912, there was very little progress on road improvement legislation. The Illinois Bankers Association, the Illinois Commercial Federation and the Chicago Motor Club decided if Illinois roads were to be improved, the creation of a statewide better roads coalition was necessary. The result was the creation of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association comprised of business interests, local motoring associations and biker clubs.

Within a year, the efforts of Governor Edward Dunne, Legislator Homer Tice and the movement, spearheaded by the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, led to the 1913 Tice Law. The law mandated the appointment of a highway superintendent in each county, chosen based on the results of a selective test as the counties took on the task of building roads. The counties were given jurisdiction of most of the roads previously under the jurisdiction of townships. The requirement that each county have a highway superintendent was a result of several factors. There was a concern that building a state road system by the townships was not possible because it was not focused and the lack of authority of townships. The prevailing view was that a professional person needed to be in charge rather than a political manager. The result was the requirement that a County Highway Superintendent in each county be required to pass a state test and be approved by the State Highway Commission.

In order to implement the appointment of a highway superintendent in each county, the State Highway Commission held exams in Springfield. Each county could send up to five candidates with 82 counties responding by the November deadline. Three tests were administered, one for the counties under 30,000 population, one for those over 30,000 but under 200,000 population with a separate test for Cook County. For those of you that don't know Cook County is the Chicago area. The initial offering for the six hour test was on October 13, 1913. The candidate qualifications, technical level of the test and the experience/education varied among the three tests. For example, a civil engineering degree was required for the Cook County exam and the group of smallest counties had a major difference in criteria requiring five years on "county road work" with preference given to those who "could run levels and do surveying". Many of the early highway superintendents had previously been a county surveyor.

On October 29, 1914, there were 16 Illinois County Highway Superintendents attending the North Western Road Congress in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and at that time held a meeting and decided to move forward with the formation of a permanent association. The following day a second meeting was held and a motion was adopted to create the Illinois Association of County Superintendents of Highways.

On January 1, 1992, legislation changed the position of County Superintendent of Highways in Illinois to County Engineers in all counties with a population less than 3,000,000. Cook County is the only county currently that exceeds the population criteria. The association then became the Illinois Association of County Engineers. The name change was warranted by an increase in the education, experience and professionalism required to hold the position. The county engineer is appointed to a six year term by the county board. Each county engineer must hold a current professional engineer's license, except those that held the office of county superintendent of highways in any county on January 1, 1980, shall not be required to hold a certificate. Each county engineer shall also have at least one of the following qualifications: (a) a baccalaureate degree in engineering from a reputable school and at least 2 years experience in civil and highway engineering or in the construction and maintenance of streets or highways, or both; or (b) at least 10 years practical experience in civil and highway engineering or in the construction and maintenance of streets or highways, or both, at least 2 years of which shall be administrative experience of a scope comparable to that of the office for which he is a candidate; however, each of the first 3 academic years attendance at a reputable engineering school shall be considered as equivalent to 2 years practical experience in civil and highway engineering or experience in the construction and maintenance of streets or highways.

On October 8-10 of this year, many current as well as past County Engineers and Superintendents of Highways will gather in Peoria, IL for the 100th Annual Fall Meeting of the Illinois Association of County Engineers. There will be plenty of fellowship and storytelling. We like to have fun when we gather like the rest of you at your state association meetings. We are all dedicated professionals that understand the need for a functional transportation system at the local, state and national level. Congratulations to the Illinois Association of County Engineers on its 100th Anniversary and good luck in the next one hundred years.


Plummer, Andrew V., County Surveyors and Highway Superintendents: Their Role in Building Illinois, April 2012. Mr. Plummer's father was the County Highway Superintendent in Cook County in the 1960's.