“A Step in the Right Direction”: The Start of Rhode Island’s First State-Level Highways Agency

The State Board of Public Roads of Rhode Island was established in 1902 to oversee the construction, maintenance, and improvement of the Ocean State’s highways system. Up until the establishment of this board, there had been no state-level entity in place to supervise and monitor work on public roads within Rhode Island; those duties were instead localized and decidedly scattershot.

John H. Edwards was named chairman of the newly authorized State Board of Public Roads. The other original members of the board were Frederick E. Perkins (who also served as its secretary), Robert B. Treat, William C. Peckham, and John F. Richmond. Robert F. Rodman was appointed chief engineer of the board. He closed his engineering and land surveying firm, which had offices in the Rhode Island towns of North Kingstown and East Greenwich, so that he could serve in that new state position.

Towards the end of 1902, the reason why this board was created became the subject of a paper on good roads that had been written by Edwards and was read at a meeting of the Rhode Island State Grange in East Greenwich. “In our own state the need of better public roads has long been recognized by our citizens,” noted Edwards in that paper. “The subject has been discussed and argued at our good roads meetings, our rural and village improvement societies, and at the annual town meetings, for many years.”

Edwards further asserted, “The people have patiently borne the burdens and inconveniences of the deplorable condition of their highways, hoping that some time and in some way relief might be secured, but how it is to be obtained has been the difficult problem”    

The efforts of the board to address these longstanding challenges were discussed in its annual report that was released in January 1904. “The first year of any undertaking so great and important as this must of necessity develop unforeseen difficulties,” noted that report. “Economic road-building is always in the nature of an experiment, yet many of the usual failures and blusters arising from natural conditions have been overcome. The experience and example of the States which are foremost in the work of road-building have been of great value and assistance to this Board.”

This report went on to assert on that same page, “It is a matter of congratulation that, at the end of the first year of work in the construction of the State roads, we are able to report progress and success. The favorable reception accorded to the movement at the outset by the General Assembly [state legislature], the hearty support given to it by the press, the co-operation coming from towns, organizations, and individuals, assures us that it is a step in the right direction.”

As chief engineer, Rodman earned acclaim throughout Rhode Island for his pivotal role in building and improving the state’s roads network. (The above photo from the board’s January 1904 annual report shows a section of Taunton Avenue in the town, now city, of East Providence after that route – under Rodman’s supervision – had been converted from a route that was muddy and rutted to one that was considerably smoother and a lot easier to use.) One tribute to Rodman lavishly proclaimed that “through heroic endeavors . . . [he] improved the old narrow muddy turnpikes through the valleys of the state’s rural districts allowing them to become the places and homes of countless cityites.”

The State Board of Public Roads remained in existence until it was replaced in 1935 by the newly formed Rhode Department of Public Works. In 1970, the responsibilities of that department were taken over by the present-day Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

For more information on the State Board of Public Roads of Rhode Island, please check out https://catalog.sos.ri.gov/agents/corporate_entities/47

Additional information on the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and its predecessors is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhode_Island_Department_of_Transportation#History

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