Smith County roads date back to independence

Published on Sunday, 29 June 2014 22:54 - Written by Adam Russell, arussell@tylerpaper.com

The evolution of county roads has been decades in the making since early settlers began carving up plentiful land after Texas won independence in 1836.

Early roads evolved from trails used by Native Americans or were surveyed and built by landowners under the direction of county officials.

Miles and miles of past routes have been swallowed up by Mother Nature but vestiges remain.

Old Kilgore Highway was established in 1855 as part of a connecting route between Tyler and Marshall. Going east from Tyler, just east of Farm-to-Market Road 757, County Road 237 veers off to the right. Pavement becomes packed red dirt. It’s one of the few county roads that remain unpaved and unimproved since its creation.

The mile-and-a-half road connects

“If you want to drive a 19th Century road, I’d say this is little changed since those days,” Gilbert said.

Building “first-class” roads between county seats was required by early Texas law.

First-class roads were to be 40 feet wide cleared paths.

Specifications for second-class roads, including CR 237, were 30 feet across with tree stumps no taller than six inches.

Stump tops on all roads were to be rounded to lessen wagon wheel damage.

Smith County was little more than wilderness in the early 1840s but land was cheap and plentiful. Its position between Dallas and Shreveport lent well to a rising fledgling agricultural presence that would grow as more settlers moved into the area.

But new routes were needed for reliable travel to connect to major roads.

All roads were maintained on a county-by-county level. County commissioners chose routes and initiated construction. “Overseers” were appointed by county commissioners were in charge of construction and maintenance.

Typically landowners along the route were appointed as overseers and asked to supply manpower to keep roads in good condition.

Some routes that evolved from established trails in the area were straightened because early roads often zigzagged to bypass hills and natural obstacles.

Erwin Street, which turns into Old Kilgore Highway, is one of the oldest routes in the county. It was once known as the Mound Indian Trail because of its Native American roots. It’s junction with the Tejas Trail, another Native American route, elevation and naturally occurring springs were the reasons Tyler’s founders built early government buildings, including a log courthouse and jail, in the location that would become downtown over the coming decades.

Historic Resources Survey Coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission Leslie Wolfenden said trails evolved into wagon roads and eventually highways to meet travel and trade needs.

“Often, if there was an established trail it was turned into a road for trade purposes and getting goods to market,” she said.

Gilbert has catalogued county road routes during his search for lost and abandoned cemeteries. Most roads and highways overlay the original trail but many routes changed over decades.

Roads were straightened for automobiles and higher speeds.

County Road 2123 is paved now, but its path hasn’t changed since 1852. It was once a fragment of the Shreveport to Saline road, and ran with the Highland road to Whitehouse.

In 1853, Smith County commissioners minutes mentioned 31 county roads. Today, there are hundreds of individual roads and more than 1,200 miles inventoried by the county.

Historical data was compiled from Randy Gilbert’s personal collection and the Smith County Historical Society.