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The Dutch administration was the first to initiate legislation regarding the maintenance of “The King’s roads,” i.e. public highways. In 1656, domestic farm animals roamed freely and had so destroyed the roads that Vice-Director Jean Paul Jacquet was forced to pass ordinances to control the strays.1 By 1664, recognizing the importance of a good transportation system, the Duke of York had given the Governor full power to issue warrants for road “labourers and artificers” to the justices of the peace of each district who passed them on to the constables. These constables were expected to execute the warrants with the help of at least two overseers, the earliest road commissioners, of their choice. No laborer was required to work away from home over one week and salary was determined by the overseer based on the merit of work completed.2 Governor - General Anthony Clove issued an ordinance dated October 1, 1673, that gave sheriffs and schepens the power to lay out highways in order to ensure “the welfare and peace of the inhabitants of their districts.”3 In 1675, with the support of Governor Andros, legislation was passed requiring each family to contribute one able body to work at road construction. This legislation resulted in Delaware’s first road, King’s Highway, being completed in 1677 as a connector of New Castle and Philadelphia.4

In 1682, William Penn placed authority over public roads from site location to construction and maintenance entirely with the Governor and Provincial Council. By the following year, Penn required the county court to appoint the needed overseers who in turn could summon any inhabitants of their district for road construction duty, with a penalty of five pounds for refusal. Justices of the Peace were empowered by the Proprietor to appoint six “housekeepers” or inhabitants of a locality that had complained of a shortage of roads. After investigating the matter, if four of the six agreed that a road was necessary, they had the authority to have the road constructed. The law requiring road layouts and maps to be recorded in the Council books was passed in 1699.5 The section of the State Constitution of 1792 that officially provides for the office of county road engineers states only that “officers highways...shall be appointed in such manner as is or may be directed by law.” These officers included elected highway commissioners and their appointed overseers.6

The preamble of a 1797 law declares, “nothing more contributes to the ease, safety, and convenience of the traveller, than the erecting of bridges, causeways, and keeping in good repair the highways and roads of each particular government.” The law requires and empowers the justices of the peace of each respective Court of General Sessions to order the layout of roads; to nominate and appoint in each of their hundreds the number of overseers needed to get the job done; to procure any trees in the area for bridge building; and to tax and penalize for non-payment of said taxes. Citizens desiring a new road could file a road petition with the Levy Court. Upon their approval it went before the Court of General Sessions which sent commissioners to evaluate the need for the proposed thoroughfare. If they deemed it necessary the Court undertook the project at the government’s expense. Subsequent care and maintenance of the roads was paid for by taxes received from the county in which they lay. Those bridges and roads “which are not properly King’s Roads” were expected to be repaired and maintained by private citizens in the hundreds in which they lay.7 Prior to 1793 records of these activities were recorded on road papers. After 1793, they were also transcribed into road books.

In April 1907 the General Assembly abolished the office of New Castle Road Commissioner (or the Commission of Roads) and the New Castle Road Overseer, appointing a county road engineer instead. Under the jurisdiction of the Levy Court this county engineer performed the same job but served a term of four years, unless removed, and could also hold the office of State Highway Commissioner if so desired.8 In 1933 the General Assembly passed a law by which a portion of the revenue needed for public road construction, reconstruction and maintenance was provided by a motor fuel tax.9 Finally, in 1935, control of the public roads system, including taxation, was placed under the State Highway Department (RG 1549). Though the office of County Engineer was not abolished, his importance decreased.10

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1 deValinger, Leon Jr., The Development of Local Government in Delaware, 1638-1682. (U of D Master’s Thesis), 1935.

2 Duke of York’s Laws, pp. 29-30.

3 de Valinger, p. 42.

4 Governor’s Advisory Committee, p. 56.

5 Duke of York’s Laws, pp. 95, 136, 285-286.

6 Delaware Constitution 1792, Article 8, Section 6.

7 Delaware Laws 1797, Ch. CXXXI Preamble, sec. 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 11, and 15.

8 Delaware Laws 1907, Ch. 156, sec. 1.

9 Delaware Laws 1933, Ch. 31.

10 Delaware Laws 1935, Ch. 107, sections 1 and 2.

jmm/January 29, 1988; February 3, 1988; June 1, 1989