Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Paved with Good Intentions

In the early twentieth century, American and European cities sought economical, durable, hygienic, and noise-buffering materials for paving streets and pedestrian walkways. San Francisco was one of the first to introduce treated wood block pavers, which were laid on California Street in 1898. New York followed soon thereafter, its Metropolitan Street Railway Company experimenting with treated wood paving along Hudson Street in 1902. British and French civil engineers adopted the new material for paving the heavily trafficked Regent Street and the Champs-Élysées (image above).

What was this new wonder paver? Creosoted wood block. The Southern Pine Association (SPA) produced creosoted yellow pine block pavements and sold them internationally:

"The claim for Creosoted Yellow Pine Block Pavement is that it is the most durable, the most economically maintained, the least noisy, the most sanitary, and the least injurious to horses, of any pavement in existence."(1)

In New Orleans, headquarters to the SPA, creosoted wood blocks were used for the Gas Light Company's courtyard paving as early as 1878. R.E. Slade, the company manager, provided a testimonial for SPA's 1915 advertising brochure:

"First, the Yellow Pine Blocks in question were laid in either 1878 or 1879; second, the pavement has never been repaired for wear, but the blocks have been taken up and relaid in numerous spots owing to the changes in the piping which ran underneath them."(2)

Creosote, a coal tar product, had largely been used to treat wood for railroad ties and plank roads. Its adoption for block pavers was predicated on a belief that it was easier to maintain, noiseless, more durable than granite and that it had antiseptic properties due to its high percentage of phenol and naphthalene. An earlier experiment, using wood creosote (rather than coal tar) as a preservative, was invented in Boston by Samuel Nicolson. Read about his experiments here.

One wonders, where it all went? Time Out Chicago has documented some extant wood pavers near Lincoln Park. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area was once considered the largest user in the nation, noted for its creosoted yellow pine-paved expanses on Cathedral Hill. . .

Sylvester Labrot, Sr. was a New Orleans industrialist who owned a large creosote works. When he died in February 1935, he left a vast fortune of some $87 million to his two sons, Sylvester Jr. and William.

Picture above: Southern Pine Association. What the Cities Say about Creosoted Wood Block Pavements: The Opinions of Civil Engineers, Paving Experts, Street Commissioners & Citizens' Leagues with a Comment by the United States Government. New Orleans, [1915].

(1) p. [3] of above cited publication.
(2) p. 9 of the same.


David Powell said...

Found your blog while Googling "creosoted wood block pavement." This photo might interest you:


It perhaps also helps explain why this pavement fell out of use.

Keli Rylance said...

Thank you for sending this! That is quite a rupture.