Four types of wood pavement
When you hear the word "pavement", does wood come quickly to mind? Probably not! However, wood has been used in various forms as a paving material in America's history -- particularly in areas where wood was more easily available than stone.
An ancient method of creating a hard-surfaced road is to lay logs side by side across a trail. Corduroy roads, created in this way, have been made around the world for centuries (where adequate forests existed). The idea was thousands of years old when it was brought to the American continent.
In America, corduroy roads were built mainly in areas where a dirt road became impassable in wet weather or in swampy areas that would be impossible to cross without a raised road. The logs were laid in place and the gaps between the logs were filled with dirt. If a single layer of logs did not rise above the muck, another layer of logs and dirt was added on top. Sometimes entire logs were used, and sometimes the logs were split in half and laid flat-side-up.
Corduroy roads were rough to drive across. They could be dangerous for horses, oxen, and travelers, if the logs were not well chinked and firmly lodged in place. Maintenance was needed to keep a corduroy road safe, stable, and usable.
In 1913, a New York Times article (pdf) cautioned that corduroy roads, built across Virginia's swamps during the Civil War, would provide a "good jolting" but might be hard to avoid. A famous example of a corduroy road in more modern times is the Alaskan Highway; some sections were constructed over a corduroy road base.
The first plank road was built in New York in the 1840s. Planking was installed as an improvement to an existing, well-traveled dirt road by an investment company, and travelers were charged a toll to use it. Plank roads were built in many states; the following description of their rise and decline comes from a short article about plank roads in Cook County, Illinois.
Usually there was a row of heavy stringers on each side of a 16-foot roadway and across them were laid (but not spiked) heavy planks of pine and hemlock or, better, oak and walnut. However, the planks soon warped, decayed, and frequently floated away or were "borrowed" by neighboring settlers. After a few years, with little or no maintenance, most plank roads became so uncomfortable and dangerous that they were abandoned. The decline of those "revolutionary improvements" was almost as rapid as their rise. (Source: Early Cook County Roads, Part 2)
It is interesting that a plank road was constructed in 1912 and used through the 1920s as a passage across sand dunes in the Imperial Valley of California. (Here is another account of the Imperial Valley plank road with photographs).
In Michigan, where trees were abundant, another type of wooden road had developed by the mid-1800s:
The method was to pile logs along the road two or three feet high, and burn them in practically the position in which the material was to be used. After the coal was burned, it was raken off and graded down to the required width and depth of the road. This construction gave very good satisfaction, and in 1845 the Commissioner of Patents in his report stated that at the season when the mud in an adjoining road was half-axletree deep, on the coal road there was none at all, and the impress of the feet of horses passing rapidly over it was like that made on hard-washed sand as the surf recedes on the shore of a lake. (Source: Street Pavements and Paving Materials: A Manual of City Pavements by George William Tillson. See P. 293.)
Wooden block pavement
As the cities of America expanded after the Civil War, the demand and need for paved streets grew. European cities -- Paris, Berlin, London, Edinburgh, and others -- had been experimenting with using blocks of wood as pavers for decades. City dwellers liked wood-block pavement because it was quiet (the iron-shod feet of horses didn't clank on wood). Wood pavement was less slippery for horses than harder surfaces. And, furthermore, wood-block pavement was considered an advancement in sanitation.
American cities tried the idea with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, circular slices of logs were laid with the spaces between them chinked with cement or another filler. This method was not very satisfactory because the wood wore away quickly at the edges, making the remaining rounded surfaces very rough to drive across.
Closely-fitted, uniformly-sized blocks of creosoted or otherwise-treated wood made a more durable pavement. Different sorts of blocks were developed and patented by enterprising sawyers -- some were hexagonal, others were square and beveled in a special way, etc. Municipalities established standards for the buyers of the wood for paving blocks. Civil engineers experimented with species of wood, shapes of blocks, fillers between the blocks, and the underlying roadbed, trying to create the most durable surface possible.
Until I began researching this post, I had no idea that wood block pavement was used to such an extent. It was very common. For example, Chicago, in 1904, had 750 miles paved with badly-deteriorated round cedar blocks that were chinked with gravel and coal tar. If you would like to know more about paving with wood blocks, read the chapter "Wood Pavements" in Street Pavements and Paving Materials: A Manual of City Pavements by George William Tillson.
In the early 1900s, automobile ownership increased, the use of horses decreased, and the abundant forests were finally depleted. Road builders and city planners turned to bricks, crushed stone, asphalt and concrete -- materials we are familiar with today.
It's hard to imagine wooden streets and roads, as we look back from the 21st century. But it was a different world, then -- a world that faced its problems with much less knowledge and technology, but plenty of wood.