skip to main content

T.H.E.: 100 years of transportation leadership

6/25/2014 9:50:00 AM

Above: conference programs from 1914 and 2014.
Above: conference programs from 1914 and 2014.

By Meg Griffin

For 100 years, transportation professionals have met every year on the University of Illinois campus to learn about the latest research and engage in professional development and networking. This year, more than 1,200 attendees were present to mark a significant anniversary – the 100th annual Transportation and Highway Engineering (THE) Conference in March. 

Sponsored by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the Illinois Center for Transportation, the Illinois Association of County Engineers, and the Illinois Association of Highway Engineers, this 100th event was held around the Illinois Quad in the Illini Union, Foellinger Auditorium, Gregory Hall and the historic, recently renovated Lincoln Hall. Other conference activities included pre-conference short courses at Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory, tours of the ATREL facility in Rantoul, and a fish fry at Legends Bar and Grill on Green Street.

The history of the conference tracks the history of highway engineering in Illinois and the nation. The very first event, then called the Short Course in Highway Engineering, was held in January 1914 at the Engineering Building (now Engineering Hall) on the University of Illinois campus. The first conference director was civil engineering professor C.C. Wiley. In 1913, the state legislature had passed the Tice Bill, an effort to create a structure for and fund improvements to Illinois roads and “bring Illinois out of the mud.” 

“The purpose of the Short Course in Highway Engineering is to aid the newly appointed County Superintendents of Highways in preparing for their duties. ... It is hoped that the instruction given, the demonstrations made, and the machinery exhibited will prove of interest also to contractors, contractor’s foremen, and to Highway Commissioners and others interested in road improvement.” (Short Course Program, 1914)

The training received at the short course in the early years helped ensure uniform methods of construction and maintenance throughout the state. By the late 1920s miles of new highways had been constructed, and the number of vehicles on those highways had greatly increased. The short course continued, and the conference topics at that time included maintenance, safety and further improvements. 

In 1935 the conference name was changed to the University of Illinois Conference on Highway Engineering. Increasingly, the County Superintendents of Highways were engineers, and the focus of the conference evolved to include discussion of engineering problems and training. In the following years, conference themes reflected the emphasis of Adequate Highways, Safe Highways and Modern Highways. By 1942 the nation was at war, and although highway construction topics were still foremost at the conference, for the next few years, conference activities also included wartime problems and challenges. In those years the theme was “Victory Highways,” and the 1942 program introduction stated that “Highway engineers and officials must conserve critical materials and help maintain our highways at high efficiency. We will do our part.” 


The conference program through the years often highlighted research presentations from Illinois faculty, including presentations from C.C. Wiley, the first director, and Ellis Danner, who became the conference director in 1951. In 1973 the conference name became what it is today, the Transportation and Highway Engineering Conference. Professor Marshall Thompson, now Emeritus, took over the role of conference director in 1974, and continued the tradition of practical instruction combined with broader transportation themes. Professor William Buttlar assumed the role of conference director in 2003. While highway maintenance and construction are still at the forefront, environmental issues have become increasingly important, and new technologies continue to bring many changes as well.

The centennial THE Conference in March started with a video presentation, “100 Years of the THE,” which can be viewed on the conference website ( or at the bottom of this page. The speaker roster included Kirk Brown, Senior Policy Adviser, Hanson Professional Services, Springfield, Ill., who presented the History of Transportation in Illinois. Speakers from IDOT and the Illinois Tollway presented in the main session, and afternoon breakouts included sessions on Bridges and Structures, Operations and Safety, Local Roads and Streets, and Design and Construction. Civil Engineering professors William Buttlar, Imad Al-Qadi, and Dan Work spoke on the conference itself, Illinois Center for Transportation research, and future technologies.

For a century, the Illinois transportation conference has been a place where transportation professionals from the public and private sector have met annually to present key accomplishments, discuss new trends and specifications, and network and renew friendships. What was stated in the 1935 program remains relevant for attendees in 2014 and beyond. 

“Every year the object has been to give the road builders of Illinois an opportunity to discuss the problems of immediate and vital interest and to gain the latest information on technical matters. Our greatest desire is that it shall continue to be of ever increasing service to the people of the State.”