17. Internal Improvement Act (1837)

Background: When the 10th General Assembly began meeting on December 6, 1836 the legislature had a lot on its agenda, including proposals to create a state bank and to select a location for a new state capital. However, the leading issue was a proposal for improvements to the state's transportation network of rivers, roads, bridges and railroads. A statewide convention on the subject had recommended a transportation system that cost $10 million, to be financed with state bonds. This was at a time when the state received only $57,000 a year in revenue. Although opposed by Governor Joseph Duncan both for the cost and because he supported at least some private funding, the legislature approved a state-funded plan. Every legislator sought money and projects for his district. Counties that did not receive a railroad or canal split a $200,000 appropriation. However, a financial panic in 1837 caused one of the largest economic downturns in American history and soon the state was $15 million in debt. The Internal Improvement plans were abandoned in 1841 but the state would not pay off the bills from the Act until 1882, 45 years after passage of the law.

The Document: The Internal Improvements Act calls for spending $10 million to fund improvements to the state's transportation network. Among the projects were $3.5 million to build a railroad from Cairo to Galena; $1.85 million to build a railroad from Quincy to Danville; $1.6 million for a railroad from Alton to Albion; and $200,000 to counties that did not receive railroads or canals. The projects were to be funded by bonds backed by the state of Illinois. Although Governor Joseph Duncan opposed the plan and the bill was vetoed, the legislature overrode the veto. Many of the projects were started and 50 miles of road plus one segment of railroad line were built but the financial panic of 1837 ensured that none of the projects as proposed by the bill were ever completed.

Note: Only the first page of this document is scanned for this exhibit. This public act is available at the Illinois State Archives as part of Secretary of State Record Series 103.030, "Enrolled Acts of the General Assembly."