On May 4, 1911 at the County Clerk’s office in Grand Haven, Michigan, the newly delegated officials known as the Board of County Road Commissioners, County of Ottawa, held their first meeting. Prior to 1911, road planning and building was facilitated by the local Townships. At that meeting, Millard Durham was unanimously elected the first Chairman of the Ottawa County Road Commission (OCRC) by its 4-member board.
The new Road Commissioners where appointed to develop what was labeled as a “good roads system”. These officials were responsible for deciding where and when to equitably undertake road improvements within the County. All 17 townships expected fair treatment, especially since their respective areas would be providing tax dollars equal to ½ mil on each dollar of valuation.
In 1911, Ottawa County’s governing body was a Board of Supervisors. Members of this board were appointed to various committees such as the Committee of Public Health; Finance Committee; and a Committee on Roads, Drains and Ferries. Initially, the Committee on Roads did not agree with the Road Commissioners on the order and location of proposed improvements, but within a couple of months a compromise was reached on a plan which would improve 197 miles of county roads.
The initial focus of the Road Commission was to provide a system of roads connecting population centers within the county that extended to neighboring counties to facilitate commerce with cities such as Grand Rapids and Muskegon. County Surveyor Emmett Peck laid out the route for these early roads. Beginning in 1912, he also acted as the first Road Commission Superintendent.
On May 15, 1912, the Road Commission began advertising for bids to purchase equipment and material including a steam road roller; reversible hauling, spreading and sprinkling wagons; an iron road grader; a drag scraper; a Coltria cement mixer with a 3 horsepower rotary pump and wheels made with wagon tread; 1000 grade stakes; stationery to keep good records; and 30,000 to 60,000 cubic yards of gravel. The first accepted bid for road gravel came from Cornelius Ver Planke (which is now called Ver Plank Trucking Company). Ver Planke specified a rate of 59 cents per yard for gravel available for pick up at the Grand River docks, or 39 cents per yard if hauled directly to the Road Commission by a team of horses. Several companies competed for the opportunity to supply gravel to the Road Commission, including Bunker and Company from their Bass River office located northwest of Allendale. Bunker was known to have boasted “we have dredges, screens, scows, tugs, derricks and a million yards of gravel, and are ready to work for you at once, we will treat you right”. Railroads were also important to the construction of early roads. Road Commission minutes from April 13, 1913, note the sum of $20 to be paid to the Pere Marquette Railroad for delivery of crushed stone.
By 1915, concrete roads were being planned in Ottawa County. A road named Michigan Pike which ran between Grand Rapids, Holland and Grand Haven was one of the first roads to utilize concrete pavement. By the 1930’s, Carl Bowen, the first Road Commission employee with the title of Managing Director, was overseeing the construction of roads with asphalt pavement. One of the first roads to receive “blacktop” was Mercury Drive in Grand Haven Township.
Road Commission records indicate that as early as 1912, bridges were already being planned and contracts between the Road Commission and private construction companies were awarded. Bridges on the Spring Lake-to-Coopersville Road cost $2,524 for a 1-2 span beam bridge with a 52’x18’ concrete deck, and $2,700 for a steel bridge with a 64’x18’ concrete deck. Early bridges and roads were built by the private sector with the Road Commission responsible for approving the sale of bonds (at 4.5% interest in 1912) and other financial obligations, preparing and authorizing contracts, providing equipment for consistent construction quality, and inspection of the work performed.
Liability insurance soon followed road building activity as noted when Road Commissioner Harrington requested on April 22, 1913 “to present the matter of liability insurance for county roads”. Accidents described in Road Commission minutes meant insurance was needed for both road construction and traffic related accidents. In 1914, the Road Commission paid $72.08 for one year of liability insurance. Land rights were also needed to enter private property to construct roads. A rate of $200 per acre for right-of-way became the standard price. Laborers working on Road Commission roads appear in meeting minutes by October 1912. Laborers worked in “teams” earning between $2 and $4 per hour. George C. Norton began as a team supervisor earning $4 per hour, but was promoted to superintendent by the end of 1912, which included a raise in pay to $150 per month plus expenses. On May 7, 1913, one Ford Touring Car was purchased for use by the superintendent and the Road Commissioners.
As time progressed, state laws were enacted to assist with road improvements. Some examples include the Covert Act of 1921, which enabled the Road Commission to collect a portion of the cost of road improvements from adjoining property owners. Also, in 1931, the State of Michigan passed the McNitt Act, which paved the way for transferring township roads into the county road system. At the time, the State provided the Road Commission with $56 per mile of county road per year for road improvements. The McNitt Act both added roads to the county system, as well as offset the financial burden of these additional roads with financial assistance from the State.
Public Act 51 of 1951 amended and clarified the system of jurisdiction over roads in the state. The existing tri-level system was maintained, splitting road jurisdiction between the state, counties and cities, as well as subdivided each level into several classifications. Act 51 required the Road Commission to classify the county roads as county primary or county local. Further legislation redefined the exact distribution, but Act 51 established a system to generate road funds via gas taxes, and then distribute the funds from a single funding source, currently the Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF).
Today, the Road Commission uses the MTF, our primary source of revenue, to maintain over 1679 miles of county roads.
The Road Commission has also been responsible for facilitating drinking water and sanitary sewer infrastructure. The State of Michigan County Improvement Act of 1939 authorized Ottawa County to designate the Road Commission as the county’s Public Works Authority. For decades, the Public Utilities Department has been instrumental in development and implementation of a network of drinking water and sanitary sewer infrastructure that has been critical to an expanding county population base.
The mission of the Road Commission was not always just about roads. Michigan Public Act 90 of 1913 allowed the Road Commission to acquire, develop, and maintain county parks. Upon assuming this role, the Road Commission established Tunnel Park in Park Township in 1929, and North Beach Park in Ferrysburg in 1941. The late 1950’s thru 1970’s saw the Road Commission develop Riverside Park in Robinson Township, Deer Park in Polkton Township, Grose Park in Jamestown Township, Hager Park in Georgetown Township, Pigeon Creek Park in Olive Township, and finally Kirk Park in Grand Haven Township. In all, the Road Commission managed 9 parks until the newly established County Parks and Recreation Commission assumed those responsibilities in 1986.