Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Streets Paved with Wooden Blocks?

by Paul Armstrong
April 23, 2019
Updated May 2, 2019

Louis Regal's Newsstand on Washington Street, 1924
Courtesy of the Richland County Public Library
Did you know that parts of two downtown streets in Columbia were once paved with wooden blocks?

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

Although some of Charleston’s streets had been paved for over a hundred years, Columbia had no paved streets until 1908.  Between April of 1908 and March of 1909, Main Street was paved from Union Station south of Wheat Street to Bryan Street north of Elmwood Avenue.  Two blocks of Main, between Blossom Street and the Southern Railway tracks at Union Station, were paved with vitrified brick.  The additional 15 blocks of Main were surfaced with bitulithic pavement (an asphalt-like material). Then, for over two years Main Street was the only paved street in Columbia.

In 1911, City Council contracted for the paving of 25 blocks of city streets to be completed by early 1912 with three different paving materials.  Most of the surfacing was done with bitulithic pavement, but Gervais Street, between Main and Pulaski, was paved with vitrified brick to provide traction on the steep grade.  The property owners on Hampton and Washington Streets between Sumter and Assembly, however, chose to petition City Council to surface their streets with creosote-treated wooden blocks, also known as Nicolson pavement.
Map Indicating Wooden Block Pavement on Hampton and Washington Streets, 1919
1919 Sanborn Insurance Maps of Columbia, SC
South Caroliniana Library Digital Collections

So, in the second half of 1911, Columbia contractors, Weston & Brooker, surfaced the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Hampton and Washington Streets with creosote-treated wooden blocks. The blocks were made of black gum and were manufactured in Portsmouth, NH. The contractors poured a five-inch concrete base followed by a half-inch mortar bed in which the wooden blocks were set.

Wooden Blocks on Washington Street, 1924
Photo Courtesy of Richland County Public Library
 Wooden block pavement was common in many US cities during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Indeed, quite a few streets with wooden block pavement still exist today.  Examples include Roslyn Place in Pittsburg, Hessler Court in Cleveland, several alleys in Chicago, and a block of Camac Street in Philadelphia.  Compared to other road surfacing materials of the time, wooden block pavement was cheaper, muffled the noise of horse’s hoofs and carriage wheels, and caused fewer cases of shin splints in horses.  But it had its disadvantages.  The wooden surfaces tended to wear down and require replacement quicker than other pavement materials. And, as Columbians would find out, they would occasionally buckle after dry spells and float away in southern rain storms.

Roslyn Place, Pittsburg, 2016
From Interesting Pennsylvania and Beyond
 On the evening of August 5, 1914, a T-shaped portion of Washington Street between Main and Sumter buckled.  The upheaval ran about 40 feet down the center of the street with a 20-foot line forming the top of the T.  It only took five laborers three hours to repair the damage, but city leaders and citizens were concerned.  The Columbia area had experienced a long dry spell followed by rain on August 4 and 5.  City officials believed the buckling was due to the parched condition of the wooden blocks caused by the dry spell and the fact that, at that time, cars parked in the center of the street rather than at the curb which shielded that portion from the rain.  In addition, the surface had not been sprinkled with water hoses on a regular basis as recommended.  An independent engineer from St Louis inspected the pavement later in August, found it to be in good shape, and determined that the buckling was not a serious issue.

On June 25, 1923, a heavy afternoon rainfall caused serious flooding in several areas around Columbia and caused considerable damage to dirt roads, drains, and pipelines throughout the city.  During this downpour, wooden blocks on both Hampton and Washington Streets came loose and floated away.  Some of these blocks were found several blocks away.  A similar deluge on March 20, 1924 swept a number of the wooden blocks from Hampton Street between Main and Sumter.  The blocks were carried several hundred feet from their starting point.  In both of these instances the missing blocks were found and reinstalled without serious issues.

In addition to the three incidents mentioned above, I found a good many comments in the newspapers indicating problems with the wooden pavement on Hampton and Washington Streets.  These comments were not specific but indicated that the wooden pavement required frequent repair and was in an unsatisfactory condition by the mid-1920s. So, in June of 1925, City Council authorized the city engineer to advertise for bids to replace the wooden blocks with asphalt pavement.

In August of 1925, the Southern Paving Construction Company of Chattanooga, TN, began the work of removing the wooden blocks and replacing them with sheet asphalt poured on the existing concrete base.  The work was completed by the end of September at a cost of $15,300 (equivalent to over $200,000 in 2019).  This ended Columbia’s experiment with wooden block pavement.

  •  “Street Paving Has Commenced.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 30, 1908, page 10.
  • “Street Paving Begins Today.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 13, 1908, page 8.
  • “Street Paving Recommenced.” The state, Columbia, SC, July 14, 1908, page 10.
  •  “Will Finish the Paving Next Week.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, March 4, 1909, page 1.
  •  “Petitions for Street paving.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, March 16, 1911, page 9.
  • “Street Paving was Selected.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 13, 1911, page 6.
  • “Block Paving About Ready.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, April 17, 1911, page 8.
  • “Engine House Will Be Moved.” The State, Columbia, SC, April 26, 1911, page 12.
  • “Getting Ready for Paving Work.” The State, Columbia, SC, May 13, 1911, page 9.
  • “Getting Ready to Pave Streets.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 4, 1911, page 11.
  • “Hackberries are Doomed.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, June 30, 1911, page 9.
  • “Some Trees to Remain on Washington Street.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 1, 1911, page 8.
  • “Paving Assessment Matter Considered.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, July 12, 1911, page 10.
  • “Lay the Wooden Blocks.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 28, 1911, page 10.
  • “Brick Paving Begins Soon.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, September 1, 1911, page 10.
  • “Council to Pave Hampton Street.” The State, Columbia, SC, September 12, 1911, page 9.
  • “Two Blocks to be Paved.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, September 25, 1911, page 10.
  • “Real Paving Underway.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, October 2, 1911, page 2.
  • “Much Paving of Streets.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, November 13, 1911, page 5.
  • “Require Paving Railway Tracks?” The State, Columbia, SC, November 15, 1911, page 10.
  • “Paving Work Under Way.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, November 17, 1911, page 6.
  • “Carolina’s Capital Active in Business.” The State, Columbia, SC, December 25, 1911, page 8.
  • “Much Activity in Street Dept.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, February 13, 1912, page 10.
  • “Paving Bids were Opened.” The Daily Record, Columbia, SC, February 20, 1912, page 8.
  • “Upheaval of Wooden Pavement.” The State, Columbia, SC, August 6, 1914, page 5.
  • “Buckling is Not at All Serious.” The State, Columbia, SC, August 28, 1914, page 5.
  • Insurance Maps of Columbia South Carolina. New York, NY, Sanborn Map Company, 1919, page 3.
  • “Wooden Blocks Give Trouble.” The Columbia Record, Columbia, SC, October 14, 1919, page 4.
  • “Rushing Waters Damage Streets.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 27, 1923, page 6.
  • “Heavy Rainfall Damage Streets.” The State, Columbia, SC, March 22, 1924, page 10.
  • “Pavement Will Replace Blocks.” The Columbia Record, Columbia, SC, June 23, 1925, page 5.
  • “Notice to Paving Contractors.” The State, Columbia, SC, June 28, 1925, page 13.
  • “Council to Meet.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 13, 1925, page 8.
  • “Awards Contract for Paving Job.” The State, Columbia, SC, July 15, 1925, page 12.
  • “Take up Tracks on Hampton St.” The Columbia Record, Columbia, SC, September 8, 1925, page 8.
  • “Old Wooden Blocks Now Being Removed.” The Columbia Record, Columbia, SC, September 10, 1925, page 10.
  • “Fourth Block to be Paved Started.” The Columbia Record, Columbia, SC, September 29, 1925, page 2.
  • Bibb, Leon. “Walking a Cleveland Street Paved Completely of Wood is Walking a Pathway to the Past.” NewsNet5.com. https://web.archive.org/web/20140519203953/http:/www.newsnet5.com/news/local-news/my-ohio/walking-a-cleveland-street-paved-completely-of-wood-is-walking-a-pathway-to-the-past (Accessed on April 20, 2019.)
  • Dave. “The Surprising Streets of Pittsburgh. Interesting Pennsylvania and Beyond. http://www.interestingpennsylvania.com/2016/09/the-surprising-streets-of-pittsburgh.html (Accessed on April 20, 2019.)
  • Hahn, Ashley. “Camac Street’s Wooden Blocks Repaired.” Eyes on the Street. http://planphilly.com/eyesonthestreet/2012/11/05/camac-streets-wooden-blocks-repaired (Accessed on April 20, 2019.)
  • Jones, Diana Nelson. “Shadyside’s Wooden Street Paves Its Way to Greatness.” Pittsburg Post-Gazette. http://www.post-gazette.com/life/lifestyle/2004/03/21/Shadyside-s-wooden-street-paves-its-way-to-greatness/stories/200403210204 (Accessed on April 20, 2019.)
  • Walker, Brett. “Revisited Myth #54.” History Myths Debunked. https://historymyths.wordpress.com/tag/ballast-paving-streets/ (Accessed on April 20, 2019.)


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