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Lake County went from mud to hard roads in 100 years

Cedar Lake Road Round Lake 1912. | Special Sun-Times Media

Cedar Lake Road in Round Lake in 1912. | Special to Sun-Times Media

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Early roads

Potawatomi Indians had settlements in Lake County when Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet traveled through in the 1670s, with enclaves in places like Half Day and Little Fort. The county’s Potawatomi roots are seen today in major roadways like Sheridan Road and Green Bay Road , which follow the high-ground paths traversed on foot by the Potawatomi.

In Zion itself, according to the Potawatomi Trails Web site (, Potawatomi were not only the first settlers in the area, but they established workshops that dotted the landscape north and south of the present city limits.

Archeological evidence indicates that these workshops used hearths to craft goods out of rocks, leather and wood. In fact, the name “Potawatomi” is believed to be derived from the Algonquin words “pattawa,” blowing a fire, and “mi,” a nation — traditionally translated as “people of the place of fire.”

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Updated: April 1, 2013 2:06AM

The history of public roads in Lake County and the state started out with “get Illinois out of the mud” to today’s axiom of “keep that traffic moving.”

Getting Illinois out of the mud was literally the problem back in 1913 when the Legislature created the Tice Act that created the position of county superintendent of highways, or in today’s parlance, county engineer.

What this did was basically shift the responsibility for building the road system in the state from townships to counties. At the time, most of the roads were dirt and once it rained, the roads turned into slippery mud, which were nearly impossible to navigate.

Lake County’s Department of Transportation began a century ago under that act as the Lake County Highway Department. It now oversees 300 miles of roadway and 50 miles of bicycle paths.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Paula Trigg, director of transportation and county engineer.

Such as the first toll roads were actually plank roads, made out of planks of wood. There was one from Half Day to Port Clinton (now Highland Park) and another from Waukegan to the McHenry County line along where Route 120 is located. One from Antioch to Waukegan was planned, but never got off the ground, said Al Westerman, former Lake County Board member who is researching and writing early history books of the county’s townships before the Civil War.

“John Gage said the plank roads were actually making money, but the railroads (in the 1850s) is what put them out of business,” he said. You paid a toll and if you were herding cattle or sheep, you paid per animal.

But that was then and this is now.

Back in 1913, people basically needed roads to go from the farm to the market.

“Now we’ve changed drastically. Roadways support economic vitality and are used to go to work, school, shopping, everyone is so much more mobile,” Trigg said. “In recent years, it’s been more about technology. You can’t keep making them wider, you need to make them smarter.”

With Lake County Passage, you can go to the Website (, become a subscriber and input your route to work and the times you travel. You can get an email or text alerting you to problems on your route. You can download apps for your iPhone and Android, as well.

The Lake County Division of Transportation also has 230 cameras throughout the system of county, state and some local roadways. They don’t record, just take snapshots, to monitor traffic. Then there is traffic signal coordination that allows vehicles to get through multiple lights throughout the county.

Highway design also uses technology.

“Roundabouts are so much safer because they take out the T-bone accidents,” Trigg said, referring to one of the more deadly types of accidents. The newest roundabout will be at Roberts and River roads near Tower Lake in Cuba Township. It will join the one in Lincolnshire and two on Hunt Club Road north of Gurnee.

“They are much, much safer,” she emphasized again, but they don’t work everywhere. There are plans for more roundabouts, including a multiple lane roundabout in the future.

The county can get grants for the roundabouts because it cuts down on idling cars, which cuts down on pollution. “We get federal grants for air pollution reduction,” Trigg said.

Roadway maintenance also uses technology to determine when a road is due for resurfacing. If you wait too long, then you have to redo the whole roadway bed, which is much more expensive. In the same vein, you can let a roadway deteriorate knowing that a rebuild has to be done because of some other issues like drainage needs to be addressed, so you save by putting off the maintenance.

“And drainage is very important (factor) that will make (the roadway) last longer,” said Trigg.

She sees the future of road funding also changing. Right now, the motor fuel tax gets 19 cents per gallon of gasoline. It’s been that rate since the ’90s.

But with a GPS, you could switch from taxing gasoline consumption for road improvements to charging according to mileage. “Should the person in the electric car not pay anything for roads?” she asked.

Trigg sees better planning in the future so people don’t have to travel 25 miles to a train station and she also sees more attention being made to make things more pedestrian friendly.

“Everything will be more technology centered,” she said.

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