Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wooden Roads and Streets

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.

Corduroy roads

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.

Plank roads

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).

"Coal" road

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.

Different worlds

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.

5 comments -- please add yours:


G. -- What a fascinating story about wood roads. I was particularly interested in what you said about coal roads as I was raised in Michigan. Thanks -- Barbara.

Genevieve said...

Hi, Barbara. I was amazed at what I learned as I wrote this post, but it made me sad, too. For example in 1888, Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City imported cypress from the Arkansas swamps to be used as paving blocks. The blocks deteriorated badly within two years. Apparently they bought mostly cypress saplings, and the wood did not stand up to the abuse that pavement suffers. So that harvest of cypress was utterly wasted. (Source)

Geoff maritz said...

A very interesting blog. I've never even heard of wooden roads. South Africa Doesn't have vast forest reservse and motor cars only came here after the advent of asfalt roads. most of the roads that have not been asfalted remain as dust. Not so good in the rainy season and corrugated in the dry.
Thanks for the interesting blog.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for visiting, Geoff. I am well familiar with the faults of unpaved roads, believe me. The one good thing that can be said about them is that they won't take centuries to biodegrade.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I realize this is long after you wrote your article.
However, I have 2 wooden bricks that came from the streets of Decatur, Ill. when they took them out. I have no idea when that occurred as these bricks had been salvaged & used as pathway sides in a fish camp near Decatur. Now the fish camp is just another subdivision along Lake Decatur.
Also, I now reside in Ga. I happened to get these 2 bricks during a visit with one of the "fish camp" residents a few years ago when she told me they were going to pull them out & dispose of them & use more modern materials for their pathways.
I was born & raised near Deactur but had never heard about the wooden bricks until I found those.

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"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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