Speeding on a bridge could cost you a buck

April 4, 1995
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Riding or driving over a bridge at a speed faster than a walk could result in a fine of $1. That was the law in Michigan in 1857, as published in ” Laws of the State of Michigan Relative to Highways and Bridges, 1857,” one of the holdings in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

Highway commissioners were instructed to post signs at the end of bridges admonishing travelers to observe the speed—no faster than a walk. But if the bridge was a hundred feet or more in length, or had a draw or turn-table, then the fine for riding or driving on that bridge any faster than a walk was $5.

Highway commissioners were also instructed in the collection of damages if anyone caused injury to a bridge. Being caught in that act could cost as much as three times the cost of the damage.

The laws of 1857 clearly spelled out the penalty for ” willfully destroying, removing, injuring or defacing a milestone or mileboard or inscription on any guide post or board. ” Such damage could mean a misdemeanor conviction, a fine not to exceed $50 or up to three months in the county jail.

Bridges then, as now, were expensive to build, maintain and replace. Highway commissioners were on the lookout for property owners who felled trees across public roads or who caused drainage ditches to become clogged, thereby directing water onto or across the roads and possibly washing out the roadway.

Mill owners topped the list of prospective culprits in causing road damage. The 1857 highway laws speak to owners, occupiers or possessors of mills or other water works where any race or races cross a highway. The miller was responsible for keeping a ” good and sufficient bridge not less than 14 feet in width with substantial railing on each side” so that neither the roadway nor travelers would sustain injury by way of washout or fall. If the miller refused to meet these standards, the highway commissioner was allowed to erect the needed bridge or repair the existing one at the miller’s expense.

Besides being alert to vandalism or negligence, the commissioners also had the responsibility of cutting ” noxious weeds within the limits of highways” twice each year, once before July 1 and again before Sept. 1. And once a month from April to December, they were to remove all the ” loose stones lying on the beaten track of each road. ”

These and other Michigan laws are among the collections at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, open Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.