Some Thoughts on Roads

Roads are an unbelievably exciting part of the history of Washington and Yelm. All aspects of these means of transportation, commerce, and recreation are incredible. The conditions, road tax, petitions, building, and supervisors are all individual spectrums of how these roads were special to the area. Here are how each of those limbs contributed to the overall production of roads.


Although money from the road tax was used to keep roads navigable, the condition of the roads was poor at best, and of varied quality. The labor imposed by the roads could not save them from the environmental characteristics of the region. With the damp climate and persistent rainfall, the structure of the roads was easily diminished to a muddy canal. Holes would ruin wheels, axles, and tongues of wagons. John McKenzie, as quoted by his great-grandson, Alan McKenzie, stated, “ The folks told many times how it took two days for a trip to Olympia. The road was not much better than a cowtrail.” As Yelm continued to develop into the new century, gravel became present in the towns streets. Yet, there were still a lot of bad roads. As Bob Grinde said, “ Yelm had some gravel streets, but a lot more mudholes.” The first paved road did not arrive in Yelm until 1930. The highway between Yelm and Olympia was not paved until the post World-War II era.

Road Tax:

Through road taxes, the upkeep and development of new roads was funded. As written in the Road Laws of the Washington Territory in 1879, every male between the ages of 21-50, unless supported by the government, was required to pay the compulsory tax. The amount of the road tax was $4 per male and had to be paid at a time determined by the road supervisor. If tax had not been paid within three days of that date, a duty of $.25 would be added. By then if you had not paid, the supervisor would add an amount sufficient to the overdue status of your duty. Today, the amount paid for the road tax, $4, would inflate to equal $70.55. If the male householders decided they could not or would not pay the tax, the last possibility was labor. Labor could be used to work off road tax at a rate of $2 a day. The road supervisor sent out notices telling men when and where they were to work. The road tax was a duty not taken lightly by the citizens fulfilling their obligation. People who did not pay the tax were often “booted off” the roads and told to either pick up a shovel or walk. Vandalism also came at a price, $20 per infraction. This hefty amount would equal $350 in today’s money.


The way to be capable of building a road was to submit a petition to the county commissioner. To change, build, or locate a road, the first step was to get twelve householders in the vicinity to sign a petition. Then it was to be posted at three separate locations around the road for 30 days. Next, it would go to the county, where a surveyor and uninterested householders would be appointed. The surveyor was under the direction of the disinterested householders, or viewers. After said road was surveyed, the viewers must submit an opinion in favor or against the proposed road to the county. After hearing all these points, and with the road being in compliance with the law, the commissioner would establish the road as a public highway.

Building of Roads:

The process in which roads were built was, in all actuality, a complex system. The first phase was to survey the land stated in the road petition to the county commissioner. The next step in proceeding to develop the road was to blaze trees. This was the longest step, in that it required a plethora of trees being cut down. At each mile it was required that either a two-foot post or 1728 square inches of stone mark the spot. The road was labeled at the beginning and end, then at every mile also. Roads were, by law, to be sixty feet wide and have reasonable drainage systems. After clearing of all the trees and debris, developing some kind of path was required, and usually took very long because of the massive tree stumps. Yelm had an easier task in that the prairie was flat and bare. The next step in producing a road was to present the finished project to the county commissioner to be ordained as a public highway. The above process shows the grueling procedures of producing roads.

First Supervisor:

The Road Law stated that each township would elect their own road supervisor, and George Edwards, the first of the Edwards’ to settle in Yelm, was duly elected to the post on January 3rd, 1881, and became the first road supervisor of Yelm. Being the supervisor, Edwards oversaw all work done on roads and collected road taxes from the citizens. The county, through funds provided by the state, paid Edwards.

The above describes the process used to produce a road lawfully. Roads were so essential to the development of communities like Yelm because it created a channel to connect the smaller areas to the larger metropolitan areas. Yelm became a center for trade (and bootlegging) with the advancement of technology and process of building structures.

By Kyle Kinney (2002)

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