Illinois Internal Improvement System

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Improving the means of transportation was one of the most vexing problems facing Antebellum Illinois. Funding the construction of roads, bridges, dams, and other public works proved challenging for the Illinois General Assembly. One of its early gambits was to petition Congress to allow the state to sell portions of the Saline Reserve Lands, using the money realized therefrom for public works. To this end, the General Assembly petitioned Congress in 1827 to allow the state to sell 30,000 acres in Vermilion County. Half of the proceeds were to go to building the State Penitentiary and half to the improvement of rivers and roads in the eastern part of the state. In 1829, the General Assembly enacted a law establishing the mechanism for the sale of the Vermilion Saline Lands and appropriating the proceeds to counties for public works. In 1831, the General Assembly petitioned Congress for permission to sell an additional 20,000 acres in Gallatin County. Anticipating congressional approval, the General Assembly passed a law appropriating the proceeds to counties for public works. Congress granted both petitions, and by January 1835, the commissioners appointed to sell the land had disposed of 33,153 acres, realizing $23,444, of which sum they had deposited $15,734 in the State Treasury. Counties began drawing on these funds to improve rivers and roads.

Unsatisfied with this system and envious of more comprehensive systems established in Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, and other states, the General Assembly in February 1837 passed An Act to Establish and Maintain a General System of Internal Improvements. This act appropriated $10,250,000 for transportation: $400,000 for the improvement of waterways; $250,000 for completion of the Great Western Mail Route; $9,400,000 for the construction of railroads, and $200,000 given to counties through which no railroad or canal would be provided at the expense or cost of the state for use in improving roads, constructing bridges, and building other public works. The act created a three-person board of fund commissioners to negotiate loans, buy and sell bonds, deposit and withdraw money, and administer the various fiscal aspects of the internal improvement program. The fund commissioners were authorized to borrow on the faith of the state up to $8,000,000 at six percent interest to fund the program. The act also established a seven-person board of commissioners of public works to promote, maintain, supervise, and direct the system of internal improvements.

Work on the railroads and other projects commenced immediately. Engineers surveyed routes, and the Board of Commissioners of Public Works began letting contracts for construction. Construction of projects continued at a brisk pace in 1838 and 1839. In the winter of 1838-39, however, public opinion began to turn against the internal improvement system as costs skyrocketed and state finances worsened in the aftermath of the Panic of 1837. In the spring and summer of 1839, the public and the press clamored for a special session of the General Assembly to modify or repeal the internal improvement act. By the summer of 1839, the balance in the internal improvement fund dwindled to zero as the fund commissioners were unable to either sell state bonds or borrow money. In August, the Board of Public Works ceased work on many projects. In November, Governor Thomas Carlin called the General Assembly into special session to modify the internal improvement system. By December, the Board of Public Works had suspended construction on virtually all public works. The Board of Public Works reported at that time that the state had spent $2,625,803.39 on public works projects, and estimated that another $6,269,813.56 would be required to complete the system.

During the special session of 1839-40, the General Assembly began to dismantle the system. In February 1840, it abolished the Board of Fund Commissioners and the Board of Commissioners of Public Works and replaced them with a three-person board of public works empowered to adjust and settle liabilities incurred under the system and issue drafts to contractors for amounts due them. In addition, the General Assembly ordered all engineers and agents of the system to be paid and discharged, and all property belonging to the state that could not be used to be sold. Work on some projects continued in 1840; the Board of Public Works reported in December that the state had expended $4,107,746.99 on internal improvements.

By the time the General Assembly met in December 1840, work on all projects had ceased. In February 1841, the General Assembly abolished the Board of Public Works, and authorized the auditor, treasurer, and secretary of state to settle accounts of contractors and engineers not settled by the board. The internal improvement system thus came to an end, with contractors completing only one of the railroads envisioned. Left unresolved was how to pay the interest and principal on the huge state debt amassed, a problem that caused the state to default on its interest payments in July 1841. The state would finally pay off the debt in 1882.

John H. Krenkel, Illinois Internal Improvements 1818-1848 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch, 1958), 12-13, 47-76, 77-83, 99-102, 140-46, 157-60, 215; Newton Bateman and Paul Selby, eds., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois (Chicago: Munsell, 1901), 297; “An Act concerning the Saline Reserves, a Penitentiary, and the Improvement of Certain Navigable Streams,” 15 February 1827, The Revised Code of Laws, of Illinois (1827), 353-60; “An Act Providing for the Sale of the Vermilion Saline Reserve, and Appropriating the Avails Thereof,” 19 January 1829, The Revised Code of Laws, of Illinois (1829), 143-49; “An Act Appropriating a Portion of the Avails Arising from the Sale of the Saline Lands, in Gallatin County, to Internal Improvement,” 16 February 1831, The Laws of Illinois (1831), 12-16; U.S. House Journal. 1830. 21st Cong., 2nd sess., 14 February, 302; U.S. Senate Journal. 1831. 22nd Cong., 1st sess., 29 December, 49; 16 January 1832, 80; 27 January, 102; Appendix, 533; U.S. House Journal. 1831. 22nd Cong., 1st sess., 11 January 1832, 177; Illinois Senate Journal. 1835. 9th G. A., 1st sess., 488; Thomas Carlin to Illinois General Assembly.