In the year 1870 a man by the name of Mordecai Levi, of Charleston, WV, had an idea for improving upon the hardpacked dirt streets of the city. Every Spring they turned into a quagmire of mud and, to be blunt, a not insignificant amount of horseshit. The auto was still decades away from not only it's invention but its widespread use. Why not use bricks instead? He paved Charleston's Summer Street that year, and with financing from a partner managed to pave an entire downtown block 3 years later. That arcane piece of historical trivia is noteworthy for only two reasons. It was the first time in all of America that brick had been used by a city to pave its streets, and it is probably the only "first" that Charleston, WV can lay claim to.
Within a short span of 25 years, what started out as an experiment in Charleston had become the norm in cities, both great and small, throughout the United States. By 1900 Philadelphia had the most extensive network of brick paved streets in the country...some 135 miles worth. That, my friends, is what they call a lot of bricks. How many? It takes half a million bricks to pave one mile of road that's 25 ft wide. So, Philadelphia alone used some 68 million bricks by 1900 on its streets.
Most of the main streets in my own home town in Southeastern Ohio were paved with brick, and many of them are still there. The ones that haven't been paved over are actually in better shape than most of the asphalt streets. And they look nicer, too. There's just something about a brick street that lends character and charm to many city districts, be they residential or downtown. Here's a photo taken in a Nebraska town that could just as easily have been taken in the town where I grew up:
It makes one wonder (okay...it made ME wonder)...where did all those bricks come from? Who made them? Who laid them? What happened? Are brick streets simply a relic of the past, or a darling of urban preservationists, or mightn't they have a place in the future? Does a technology, once displaced and supplanted, have any future? And does anyone even care?
Bricks have been used as a construction material since ancient times. As in Mesopotamia. When the very first colony was established in America, there was a brick maker amongst them. Hid enterprise perished when the colony itself succumbed to famine and general deprivation.
There's nothing high tech about making bricks. (Well, nowadays there is). You tamp clay and sand into a mold, and either let them sun dry or speed up the process by heating them in a kiln. In early colonial construction, many bricks were made onsite by digging the clay from the foundations of buildings, forming them right there and allowing them to dry and cure, and then constructing the building. Those were what's called "soft bricks."
Most of the early brick makers were English, though some were German. The industry was always there, from the beginnings of our history on this continent, but it didn't really take off until New York City reached a specific threshold of population and urban maturity. To put a time and place upon it, one would have to settle upon the construction of the Croton Aqueduct, between 1837-1842, which channelled water along a 45 mile system into the burgeoning island of Manhattan. Constructed almost entirely of brick, it gave birth to a golden age of brick making along the stretch of the Hudson River Valley.
Wooden framed buildings in densely urban environs were serious fire hazards by this time, and cities were increasingly turning to brick construction to mitigate that threat. New York suffered a Great Fire in 1835 that destroyed, horror of all horrors, the New York Stock Exchange. St Louis, MO, had a disastrous fire in 1849 that started on a riverboat moored along the city's docks, and spread into the city, destroying more than 400 buildings and 15 city blocks. Chicago's Great Fire in 1871 destroyed 3 sq. miles of the city, killed 300 people and left almost a third of its population homeless by the time it was extinguished. Chicago and St Louis, like other cities, rebounded by rebuilding...this time with brick and steel.
At the same time, America's cities were building an infrastructure below ground: Sewers. Waterworks. All made, primarily, with brick. To an alarming degree, this country's water and sewage infrastructure dates from this period. Not a whole lot has been improved upon. It is the great infrastructure gap that exists to this day.
Yet this diary is about streets, and how they came to be paved. And how the brick makers came up with a product that enabled that to happen. It was the paving brick, and it was borne in the Ohio River Valley. Some place it's beginnings in the Hocking Valley region around Nelsonville, others place it farther north in Canton, Ohio. Both were central to the production of paving bricks, and both can lay claim to paving not only streets in Ohio, but streets as far away as Chicago, IL, Syracuse, NY and Toronto, Canada. By 1893, some 44 brick companies in Ohio were churning out more than 290 million paving bricks per year.
All Bricks Are Not Created Equal
The bricks that most of us are familiar with are called "structural bricks", or "facing bricks." These are the bricks that buildings are made of. They are smaller, and lighter, and have a much less "crushing strength" than paving bricks. Facing bricks comprise the majority of urbanscapes that we are familiar with...the commercial buildings, the hospitals, the city halls and residential houses that still define many cities. Paving bricks are larger...typically 9 " by 4 ", and much heavier. One paving brick weighs almost 10 lbs each. They have at least twice the "crush strength" of typical bricks, and are fired at a higher temperature, which results in an exterior coating that makes them more impervious to water. Brick makers in the Hocking Valley shoveled layers of salt onto the fires in the brick making kilns, which volatilized the sodium and caused a chemical reaction with the surface minerals in the green bricks to create a natural glaze, which increased the weatherproofing quality of the finished product.
There are many competing claims as to which region or which brick company was the premier and most prodigious producer of brick pavers. Part of this results from the natural instincts of local boosters to lay claim to any mantle of notoriety which might exist, but mostly it is the result of the fact that, for all of their output, and all of their once prominent place in local economies...most brick companies have long ago gone out of business. Their physical footprint is surprisingly hard to find. The original brick plants around Nelsonville, Ohio are long gone, with only a few ruins of old beehive brick kilns remaining. The same can be said for former brick companies all over the country. Their business records are gone forever. Much of the extant history is left to unsubstantiated, or only tenuously substantiated claims. The proof is in the streets, and much of that has been paved over in the decades since WWII.
It's almost impossible to fully wrap one's mind around the voracious appetite that America had for bricks in the latter half of the 19th century and through the first 30 years of the next century. One brick company in Canton, Ohio, for example, was formed in the 1880's with the intent of producing street pavers. Their first order, however, was from a construction company that had been contracted to build a large hospital in Pennsylvavia, and they required 20 million bricks. When the State Hospital in Athens, Ohio was built, they placed an order with local brick companies for 12 million bricks. A typical brick making company, at the time. could produce about 7.000 bricks per day. And it was very labor intensive. An order for 12 million bricks represented more than 4 years of running full capacity, 12 months out of the year. Not surprisingly, most projects made use of bricks from multiple suppliers.
How were these bricks made? By 1885 the technique wasn't all that different from the times when bricks were first invented, except that coal fired kilns had been introduced.
The process of making the bricks was labor intensive. The shale was scooped out of nearby pits. Mixed, crushed, dampened and molded, the raw brick had a green color. It was set by hand onto large, movable platforms. Old timers recall the physical labor involved as a green brick pitcher tossed the clay bricks, sometimes two and three in each hand, to the catcher above, who stacked them in the kiln. The catcher often used old leather shoe soles, cut individually for each hand, to help curb the blisters. Teen-age boys were hired as "sand monkeys" - workers who threw sand on the bricks so they wouldn't stick together in the kiln. Many long-time employees started out their careers that way.
The bricks were fired in the kiln and shrunk one inch in eight inches when burned to the point of vitrification. The kilns had to be cooled and cleaned between firing.
It took workers two days to manually stack the kilns with layers of bricks. Four days to fire them, and another 2 days for them to cool. The bricks were formed in "gang molds" that produced, at most, six bricks at a time. The raw material for the bricks was usually locally obtained clay and shale, though as the countries appetite for brick increased, it wasn't uncommon for brick makers to supplement their local sources of clay with train cars full of clay and shale that had been removed from Appalachia's coal region in the course of strip mining coal.
The Hocking Valley's rise to imminence in brick making has to due with its location along the Ohio River Valley. The soils were rich in clay, and both sand and salt were also readily available. It also had rich deposits of coal, which was necessary to fuel the kilns. It's proximity to the Ohio River barge traffic, as well as Ohio's confluence of rail lines, made transportation of the finished product both easy and relatively economical.
Once Charleston, WV's experiment with brick paving proved to be successful, there was a collective "V-8 Juice" like reaction amongst urban planners and civil engineers throughout the country. A collective slapping of the head, and a realization that this was the solution to a widespread problem. By 1870 almost all of America's great cities were already well established. And they shared a common problem. Great numbers of people, with horrendous streets. A three day period of rain could turn a city's streets into a quagmire of mud and ruts carved by horse drawn wagons. When the weather dried out and got hot, the grooves carved by those wagons would bake into permanent ruts, and the streets were a constant source of dust. Brick paving solved all of those problems.
The country set about upon a rapid period of brick street paving which didn't let up until around the mid-thirties, with the advent of less expensive asphalt paving. Yet, many of these streets do remain...a testament both to the craftsmanship of the workers who laid them and the durability of the bricks themselves. One community in New York recently underwent a major street renovation project to address utility and other underground infrastructure concerns, and discovered brick streets under a 6 inch layer of asphalt that bore the stamps of Metropolitan Brick Co. of Canton, Ohio.
Brick streets last. They aren't prone to potholes. The bricks themselves, though not initially designed to withstand truck traffic, have proven themselves to be amazingly resilient. Of the original urban streets first paved in brick, many, many towns can still point to blocks within their jurisdiction that are still there...still bearing traffic. Still lending a sort of charm to their neighborhoods or downtown districts. Many others have long ago been either torn up or paved over.
There are properties specific to brick streets that make them worth preserving, beyond the merely aesthetic. Their construction allows for a natural "breathing" of the roadbed. Water, when it rains, can seep down between the pavers into the ground below, reducing runoff, as well as the concomitant pollutants associated with it. In the winter, on the other hand, the bricks' spacing allows the moisture underground to expand without becoming trapped under a layer of asphalt or concrete, which accounts for their resilience against potholes. Brick streets will, with age, acquire a bit of an undulating surface, but not a potholed one. That undulation has more to do with the original preparation of the roadbed, and not the bricks themselves. It also serves as a natural speed reducer with respect to car traffic. I don't know about you, but I'd much prefer driving down a brick street than an asphalt on that has been abruptly interrupted every 2 blocks by modern day speed bumps.
On the downside, brick streets don't lend themselves, once they've gotten long in the tooth, to modern day snow removal equipment. To the extend that they have lost their even, uniform surface level, they become less hospitable to snow plows. As modern utilities have tended to go from overhead wires to underground cables, streets have been excavated and cut into. Repairs to historical brick streets can be costly and difficult to pull off without a little sleuthing for original materials.
Thankfully, bricks are very durable construction materials. As various cities around the country undergo change, and historic brick structures have been torn down, those building blocks, often, are preserved instead of sent to a local landfill. A town like Albion, Illinois, now can renovate its historic downtown area and preserve its brick streets, because a city like St Louis has a cache of bricks which were salvaged when it's historic stockyards were torn down. There are still companies making bricks in this country, but there is also a vibrant market in salvaged brick that makes historical preservation more easy and possible.
In the final analysis, there is no greater testament to the durability and aesthetic quality of brick, as the most basic building block of the modern city, than the fact that many companies currently specialize in salvaging and reselling for present day use a construction material that was manufactured, in many cases, more than 100 years ago.
I like brick streets. I hope we always have some. They connect us to our past, and they just look nice. They certainly aren't the wave of the future for urban transportation, but they are a bridge to the past, and still have their place. Especially, I feel, in 2nd and 3rd tier cities around the country, where they already exist. Brick isn't inexpensive, but it is much more durable than its more modern alternatives, and much more green. Cities such as Lawrence, Kansas, or Champaign and Evansville, IL have recognized this, and taken steps to retain and renovate their original brick streets, instead of tear them up and pave them over with asphalt. I'm sure there are other cities as well.
It may no longer make sense for a city like Chicago (though plenty of Chicago suburbs still retain their brick streets, and realtors there tout them as a selling point)...but surely they do for smaller cities of less than, say, populations of 80,000. The repairs are more costly, but they last for generations.
I can't finish without mentioning a city which isn't American, strictly, but has some of the most gorgeous brick streets in the world. San Juan, Puerto Rico. The bricks paving old San Juan's streets were made from ballast carried over in the hulls of merchant ships from England and old Europe. There is a particular type of clay that is found in England, high in iron, that is very red when dug up wet, but once fired in a kiln turns to a cobalt blue. Some of these bricks can also be found in Philadelphia, but were common in parts of Europe. Here are two photos...the first of a street in old San Juan, PR, and the second taken in one of Philadelphia's historic neighborhoods.