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
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.
Union Drainage District inquiries
The Village of Tinley Park frequently receives inquiries about the existence of Union Drainage Districts in relation to properties within its corporate boundaries. These inquiries are typically initiated by a pending sale of property and results from a reference included within the title insurance policy exceptions. All of the Union Drainage Districts that would have pre-existed the Village of Tinley Park should include both a township name and a number reference (e.g. UDD #3 of Orland and #2 of Bremen). If the mention of the drainage district does not include Bremen, Orland, Rich or Frankfort Township in the name, AND include a related number, the reference is incomplete.
There are several drainage ways that exist within Tinley Park that continue to be referenced as a Union Drainage Ditch. Additionally, significant portions of local creeks, including what is now referred to as the Midlothian Creek, can trace their origins to dug ditches of these earlier Union Drainage Districts.
The Illinois Comptroller’s Office requires all units of government in Illinois to file an Annual Financial Report (AFR) with that office. The reports filed for fiscal year 2014 and later are available for public review via "The Waterhouse."
In reviewing the comptroller’s site, there does not appear to be any Union Drainage District that references Bremen, Orland, Rich or Frankfort Townships, or otherwise relates to the geographic areas of the Village of Tinley Park that current exists or is submitting filings to the comptroller. However, it remains possible that there are some smaller governmental entities that potentially could have escaped identification by the Comptroller’s Office and as a result would not be in compliance with the reporting requirements.
The Village of Tinley Park is NOT currently aware of the existence of ANY active Union Drainage District within its corporate boundaries.
The ONLY Union Drainage District that the Village of Tinley Park can provide a definitive response is in relation to UDD #3 of Orland and #2 of Bremen, which was dissolved in May 2000, as referenced in this letter.