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Portrait of a General: General Roy Stone

Part 5 of 8

U.S. Office of Road Inquiry

Rigid Economy, Strict Construction

At the suggestion of Abram W. Harris, Director of the Office of Experiment Stations, Secretary Morton agreed on March 11 to print the proceedings of the National League's Washington meeting and a transcript of its testimony to the House Committee on Agriculture. Harris justified the publication by noting that Secretary Rusk and Assistant Secretary Edwin Willitts' addresses to the National League were included.(145)

In June, Stone asked the Secretary for 10,000 copies of the proceedings. On June 29, the Secretary replied that "after due consideration" he increased the order to the Public Printer. Secretary Morton also commented on the March 3 appropriation:

I shall at an early date formulate a plan for carrying on the work assigned to me by the appropriation of Congress "To enable the Secretary of Agriculture to make inquiries in regard to the systems of road management throughout the United States," etc. I regard the necessity for road improvement as so obvious as to require no argument; but, as Mr. Thayer of the Iowa State Road Improvement Association expressed it, "The two questions now before the American people, touching the building of good roads are, first, 'How to build the best road for the least money,' and second 'Where is the money to build them to come from?'" The second question I regard as one to be solved by the inhabitants of the several States themselves. In the solution of the first, I trust that the appropriation assigned to this Department as above, will enable me to lend practical aid. So far and no further, in my judgment, can the National Government proceed in this matter.(146)

Stone submitted suggestions on July 25 to Secretary Morton on how to proceed. Although that letter is not available, it was apparently part of the process leading to the selection of Stone to head the road inquiry. In a January 1887 speech, Stone would comment on his selection:

The Secretary of Agriculture, finding that this had been brought about by the work of the National League for Good Roads, decided to put the administration of this appropriation into the hands, as far as possible, of that league, and I was accordingly appointed to take charge of it, and that made me, very much to my astonishment, a Government official in the interest of good roads.(147)

In a letter to General Stone on October 3, 1893, Secretary Morton established the charter for the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry. The letter reflected Morton's political philosophy of strict construction of the law, rigid economy, and opposition to all forms of government paternalism. After enunciating the ORI's four statutory goals, Morton added:

It will not be profitable to enter upon all these points at first. The work under the appropriation will need to be of gradual growth, conducted at all times economically. Therefore it is not expected that there will be any considerable force of clerical help, and, aside from your salary, no considerable expenditure for the present. It is understood that you have at your command the data for a compilation of the laws of several of the States upon which their road systems are based. It should be your first duty, therefore, to make such collection complete, and prepare a bulletin on that subject.

Morton also made clear what the ORI was to avoid:

There are certain restrictions I wish specifically to bring to your attention. It must be borne in mind that the actual expense in the construction of these highways is to be borne by the localities and States in which they lie. Moreover, it is not the province of this Department to seek to control or influence said action except in so far as advice and wise suggestions shall contribute towards it. This Department is to form no part of any plan, scheme, or organization, or to be a party to it in any way, which has for its object the concerted effort to secure and furnish labor to unemployed persons, or to convicts. These are matters to be carried on by States, localities, or charities.

The phrase "expense in the" was added to the second sentence via a caret before Secretary Morton signed the letter.

Finally, to avoid any misunderstanding of the limits being placed on General Stone, the letter concluded:

The Department is to furnish information, not to direct and formulate any system of organization, however efficient or desirable it may be. Any such effort on its part, would soon make it subject to hostile criticism. You will publish this letter in the preface to your first bulletin.(148)

What must have been clear to General Stone was that the "hostile criticism" might very well be coming from the Stormy Petrel himself.

Special Agent and Engineer for Road Inquiry

The ORI began life in two small attic rooms of the Agriculture Building, with a staff consisting of General Stone and stenographer Robert Grubbs, who later became a surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Maurice O. Eldridge became the third employee in May 1894, serving as an expert draftsman at a salary of $60 a month. Stone would live at 1226 17th Street in Washington.

In accordance with Secretary Morton's instructions, one of Stone's first acts was to send letters to the Governors of the States and Territories, their Secretaries of State, the Members of Congress, railroad presidents, and State geologists, along with a notice to the general public asking for information on highway laws, the location of materials suitable for roadbuilding, and rail rates for hauling roadbuilding material. His letter to the Governors noted the importance of collecting information from all the States:

So many States and communities are attempting road improvement, and so many others are considering it, that a definite knowledge of what each has proposed or accomplished might be invaluable to many of the others. Such knowledge can be practically reached and disseminated only through a central agency, but that agency will need the assistance of all the State and local officials concerned in order to bring its work within the means allotted by Congress and within a proper limit of time.(149)

These letters established the agency's longstanding concept of partnership to achieve its goals. In the early years, partnerships were necessary because of the ORI's limited budget, but in later years, the partnerships would be enhanced because of their effectiveness in achieving the agency's goals.

In a speech to the Virginia Good Roads Convention in Richmond on October 18, 1894, Stone summarized how he saw the ORI's role:

This country is so big that a great deal goes on that we don't all know about. What we are doing in Washington is simply to set up a watch, to keep an eye on the whole country, and report what is going on.(150)

To carry out this mission, Stone published dozens of technical and promotional bulletins. The ORI's Bulletin No. 1, completed December 4, 1893, was entitled State Laws Relating to the Management of Roads. Enacted from 1888-93. It compiled information received from Stone's letters to the States, Congress, railroad executives, and the public. By the end of June 1894, the ORI had issued nine bulletins, many based on the information received in response to these letters. The titles of the first year's bulletins reveal the scope of the agency's early interests:

No. 1    State Laws Relating to the Management of Roads. Enacted from 1888-93. Compiled by Stone.
No. 2 Proceedings of the Minnesota Good Roads Convention, held at St. Paul, Minn., January 25-26, 1894.
No. 3 Improvement of the Road System of Georgia. By O. H. Sheffield, C.E., University of Georgia.
No. 4 Report on Road-Making Materials in Arkansas. By John C. Branner, Arkansas State geologist.
No. 5 Information Regarding Road Materials and Transportation Rates in Certain States West of the Mississippi River.
No. 6 Information Regarding Roads, Road Materials, and Freight Rates in Certain States North of the Ohio River.
No. 7 Information Regarding Roads and Road-Making Materials in Certain Eastern and Southern States.
No. 8 Earth Roads: Hints on Their Construction and Repair. Compiled by Stone.
No. 9 State Aid to Road Building in New Jersey. By Edward Burrough, State Commissioner of Public Roads.

Stone's annual report for fiscal year (FY) 1894 (ending June 30, 1894) listed the bulletins and mentioned that, "These bulletins have been in such demand that the first editions have in many cases been exhausted, and the second of No. 1 is nearly so."

During the first 9 months of the ORI's existence, expenditures had totaled only $2,986.78, according to the annual report. Most was for salaries ($2,177.85) and the rest for "Traveling expenses and sundries." Stone added:

The work of the nine months of the fiscal year was necessarily tentative, but I was successful, by availing myself of voluntary aid, in gathering at small expense (as prescribed in your letter of instructions) that information published in Bulletins Nos. 1 to 9, and much more that will be available in future.

He thought it would be "profitable" to increase the work of the office along the same lines and "to compile progress maps of all the improved roads in the United States."(151)

In later years, Stone and the ORI issued bulletins and circulars on such subjects as wide tires, traction tests, the progress of road construction, traffic on country roads, systems of maintaining country roads, the value of good roads to farmers, brick paving for country roads, the cost of hauling farm products to market, forces that destroy roads, and repair of macadam roads (the highest type of surface for rural roads in the pre-automobile days). The ORI also printed many bulletins containing the proceedings of road conventions and several compilations of Governors' messages on good roads.

The ORI's budget remained small throughout its first decade ($10,000 for each of its first 3 years and $8,000 for each of the next 4 years, before returning to $10,000),(152) and the organization would remain necessarily small. By 1895, the ORI would have only five employees:

Name/Title Born Compensation
Roy Stone, Special Agent New York           $2,500
Samuel T. Neely, Assistant Engineer Kentucky      $1,200
Maurice O. Eldridge, Clerk Tennessee         $900
Miss Clara K. Bragdon, Clerk Indiana         $840
Eugene Willard, Assistant Messenger        Michigan         $480

Given the ORI's limited budget, Stone maintained close links with the LAW and the National League for Good Roads. Historian Bruce E. Seely summarized Stone's method of operation:

He relied heavily on the LAW, using his position as secretary of the NLGR to mask his direct political activities. In fact, Stone made little distinction between the work of the ORI and that of the NLGR. While the LAW prepared mailing lists and wrote bulletins for the ORI, paid the salary of an ORI engineer, and met the expenses of office personnel at LAW conventions, Stone extended his franking privilege to the Wheelmen, formed chapters of the NLGR, and frequently consulted LAW leaders . . . . Such cooperative promotion, however, offered more than a chance to build public support for good roads. Stone also found that the LAW could pursue activities off-limits to the ORI, especially the advocacy of state legislation.(154)

The World's Columbian Exposition

The World's Columbian Exposition finally opened on May 1, 1893. Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing, in their recent history of the exposition, concluded that, compared with other expositions and world's fairs, before and after, "when it comes to pure scope, grandeur and far-reaching legacies, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 outshines them all."

President Cleveland attended opening day on May 1, 1893. Nearly 28 million people followed him into the exposition before it closed at the end of October. The biggest attraction, intended to rival the Eiffel Tower that had been the hit of the 1889 Paris Exposition, was conceived by a man named George Ferris. Mr. Ferris' revolving wheel carried 36 cars, each capable of holding 40 passengers, as it circled to a height of 264 feet off the ground.(155)

According to Bolotin and Laing, the Transportation Building was "one of the most interesting buildings of the fair." It included "every vehicle known to man, ranging from a baby carriage to a rail dining car." That included, of course, the bicycle:

Every type and size of this increasingly popular mode of transportation, from a forty-pound roadster to a seventeen-pound racer, embracing tandems, triplets, solid, cushion and pneumatic tires, forgings, bearing cases and balls, and so on, was shown here.(156)

The exposition did not, however, contain a road exhibit. On May 12, 1893, Senator Manderson wrote to General Stone to say it was just as well:

I spent a few days at Chicago this week. I am convinced that any money expended there in an Exhibit of roads-bad or improved-would be money wasted. The Exposition is so immence [sic] and there is so much to be seen more interesting and more attractive, to the casual visitor from all over the country, that a good roads Exhibit would be lost and unseen. The Exposition grounds themselves are an object lesson in good roads. When it rains mud is shoe deep when the road builder has not put in his best work.(157)

Reaching out to Farmers

Stone was a popular speaker at good roads conventions and other forums. His speeches provide a clear view of his ideas. He referred to the absence of good roads as the "last great stain upon our civilization," a "relic of barbarism," and variations of these phrases. He compared-unfavorably-the Nation's roads to those of other countries, particularly Europe as documented by the Department of State in an 1892 compilation of consular reports.

The European model supported his views on a direct Federal role in road building. In an 1892 article, he had said:

The remedy must be as radical as the disease is deep-seated. Our people have discovered that all over the world roads are among the prime concerns of national government, and they ask themselves what fatal disability has fallen on our own Government in the last half century that makes our statesmen shudder at the mention of national roads or national aid to road making.(158)

Although Stone favored construction of a national system of roads, he recognized the steps that must occur before such a system could develop. One of those steps was to generate public support for good roads, especially among farmers.

As these suggestions imply, Stone understood the need to overcome the fear many people, especially farmers, about the cost of good roads. His support for bonds, backed by the Federal Government, to finance road improvements was one way of addressing this concern:

What, then, could the Government do, with such profit to itself, as to enter into a partnership with the states, counties and townships for the building of a complete system of roads? And as an inducement, why should it not help them all to do their share of the work by loaning them its own credit, on proper security, to lighten the burdens they must assume?(159)

Realizing that such a plan, or even the plan for a government road inquiry, still faced strong opposition among farmers, he emphasized the cost that farmers paid for their bad roads:

In the State of Illinois the money loss by bad roads to farmers alone is estimated on good authority at $16,000,000 per annum. This of course is not the whole [bad road] tax, since the people in town bear their full share in loss of trade and increased cost of living, but it will be a safe basis of calculation, and at this rate the total loss for the United States would approximate $300,000,000 per annum.(160)

He would return many times in later years to the theme of the "bad road tax." However, he eventually settled on a higher estimated cost:

The secretary of the National Farmers' Congress has gone at the same problem from another direction. He takes the records of the transportation of the country and analyzes them, and he finds that the total wagon transportation of the country is equivalent to about 500,000 tons annually; this he estimates at $2 a ton, taking into account that the average haul throughout the country at large is about 8 miles . . . . The secretary says the estimate is that 60 per cent of this cost of hauling is due to the bad condition of the roads, and this amounts to $600,000,000 a year.(161)

Stone also tried to counter the fears of farmers that the burden of paying for good roads would fall unequally on them. He explained the problem in a 1897 speech to a St. Louis good roads convention:

The $600,000,000 loss every year, through bad roads, is a tax, not only on the farmer, but on everybody. I find, in my experience, that one of the most difficult things which the promoters of good roads have to do, and especially those who live in the cities, is to prove to the farmers that their interest in good roads in the country is real and a personal one. The farmer has paid the tax of bad roads, and has suffered from it so long that he finds it difficult to believe that he is to receive aid from people whom he has formerly believed had very little real interest in them.(162)

He addressed the problem in many other speeches, such as one before the Maryland State Grange in 1898:

It is a vicious system that requires localities to keep up the roads. It is a work that concerns the people of the whole State, and is not a local question. Roads are of vital interest to the cities. Blockade your country roads today, and tomorrow your city will begin to scatter. The benefits of roads are equally shared by the cities, but they must assist in the work of construction before they can reap the advantages.

About three-fourths of the property interests of the country are to be found in the cities, and held by the corporations. Now, the farmers, representing about one-fourth of the property interests, have been endeavoring to keep up the roads for the whole country. The result is obvious. The burden was too much, and bad roads are to be found everywhere.(163)

Given the tough economic times of the Panic in the mid-1890's, Stone also emphasized the economic benefits of good roads. In his 1894 speech to the Virginia Good Roads Convention, he said:

In these United States there are plenty of farmers getting rich to-day because they have good roads--making money right in the midst of these hard times.(164)

He pursued this theme throughout his tenure. For example, in an address before the State Board of Agriculture in Augusta, Maine, on January 21, 1897, he stated:

Good roads are the highways to wealth. If I could take you with me North, South, East, and West, to where the beginnings of road improvement have been made, I could show you small farming communities growing rich in these hard times, contented and happy, and troubling themselves not at all with the great problems of finance which agitate their brethren. They have no time to waste in talk. If their fields are too wet to work they go on the road.(165)

Speaking before the LAW's Good Roads Banquet in Albany, New York, on February 11, 1897, Stone discussed the need for partnership with the farmers, as well as the benefits the farmers would receive if the bad road tax were lifted from them:

And when the wheelmen's league and all the farmers' associations pull together harmoniously in this direction, working only for justice and the public welfare, there is no limit to the power they may exercise and the good they may accomplish. Prosperity for the whole country will date from the happy hour in which that beneficent combination is established.

That good roads will bring prosperity is no idle dream. Through all the panic and depression of the last three years the farmers in the few good roads districts of the country have gone on making money and improving their farms, and they have not troubled themselves much about politics or finance.(166)

In 1898, this same theme was emphasized in ORI Circular No. 31, Must the Farmer Pay for Good Roads? It was written by Otto Dorner, Chairman of the LAW's National Highway Improvement Committee, and advocated that just as the burden of bad roads was shared by all, every citizen of the State and Nation should share in the cost of repairing them. Stone, in his annual report for FY 1899, endorsed the idea:

As the bad condition of the county roads affects the town to which the county is tributary as well as the country itself, it would seem that Mr. Dorner favors a happy solution of a most perplexing problem, as well as a measure of justice to all parties concerned.

The circular proved to be the ORI's most popular, in part because the ORI used a mailing list provided by the LAW to mail free copies to 300,000 farmers.

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