Since the “modern” settlement of Illinois began, farmers have dug man-made ditches for the sole purpose of draining land to eliminate small areas of standing water and turn unproductive marshes into lush, fertile farm ground. These man-made ditches today continue to serve the same purpose of draining storm runoff as they have for centuries, the only difference being that some ditches drain acres of farmland and others drain acres of houses, businesses, factories and miles of concrete and other hard surfaces.
The Union Drainage Districts date to as early as 1879 when they were authorized by state statutes. Two laws were passed that gave landowners a means of securing proper drainage. These laws also established drainage districts based on a system of assessments that permitted the districts to include only lands benefited by the drainage improvements. As with earlier man-made drainage improvements, their primary purpose was to provide for the drainage of farm fields in small geographic areas throughout Illinois.
Township government was first established in Providence, Rhode Island in 1636, and is the oldest form of government on the North American continent. The Illinois Constitution of 1848 gave voters in each county the opportunity to adopt township government. Following these referendums, township government was introduced to most of Illinois beginning in 1850 as a means to provide a localized governing authority to the mostly rural state. Township governments had three primary functions:
- General assistance for the indigent
- The assessment of real property for the basis of local taxation
- Maintenance of all roads and bridges outside federal, state and other local jurisdictions
Primary education (elementary and high schools; and most community colleges) was reorganized around the geographic township framework coincident with the formation of Township governments.
Following the enabling legislation, the early drainage districts were also organized along township lines, and typically the related township name will be referenced in the title. Most often there were multiple drainage districts (possibly between three and six) formed within a township, and each would be given a number assignment that also becomes part of the district’s title/name. These numbers would most often relate to the sequence in which they were formed, but could also have a general relationship to a geographic area of the township. It is believed that at least 1,700 drainage districts have been organized throughout Illinois.
Because drainage is rarely completed within the confines of their geographic sub-township boundaries, the drainage districts would have to work together with other adjacent township drainage districts to construct and maintain their drainage systems (and accordingly, the “Union” reference for the “united” efforts). Sometimes drainage districts would merge or combine and include service areas within multiple townships (example UDD #3 of Orland and #2 of Bremen).
Drainage districts were governed by three commissioners who served staggering, three-year terms. Commissioners were required to be landowners who owned property within the district’s boundaries and could be either elected or appointed. The procedure for commissioner selection (elected or appointed) was established when the district was formed. Elected commissioners were chosen by a special election in September held within the boundaries of the drainage district. Only landowners within the district’s boundaries could vote in the drainage election. Appointed commissioners could be approved by the County Board or Circuit Judge.
Because the drainage districts are separate from either municipal or township governments, and seldom had a formal governmental office they tend to be hard to track down. Most often the records of the Union Drainage Districts were maintained by the individual commissioners in their homes. It is possible that in some cases, the records could have been housed at the township government offices as the Township Hall could have also served as the district’s meeting place.
Many of the Union Drainage Districts that once existed in our area have dissolved as result of the combined forces of:
- Completion of the drainage structures which minimized their need for continued existence
- Development of the rural farmland into other developments (residential, commercial, industrial)
- The attrition of commissioners without successors being appointed in replacement.
In cases where the Union Drainage Districts have been dissolved or otherwise abandoned, other governmental entities have largely taken over the responsibility for maintenance of the drainage ways and structures.