As it were

Brick paving boomed in the 1880s

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PHOTO COURTESY COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
The World Museum on High Street near Spring Street, circa 1890. Note the brick paving on High Street.
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A number of years ago I lived for a time in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus. Like most local residents I was intrigued by the brick streets which still exist in the area.

German Village is not the only place in Columbus where one might find a brick street. But the Village has more of them than most. And the residents protect them passionately.

From time to time advocates of modern road construction try to convince the people of the Village that a little more asphalt paving might be a good idea. In response over the years, German Village has been remarkably successful in not only keeping their brick streets but also in seeing them repaired, rebuilt and maintained.

Walking the brick streets, one might come to the conclusion that all of the streets of Columbus must have been like this. Before the brick there was nothing but dirt trails. And after them there was nothing but asphalt. The story of the streets of Columbus like many other aspects of our city was -- and is -- a little more complicated than that.

In the beginning of course there were no streets at all. When Columbus was founded in 1812, the new town was placed on the heavily forested "High Banks at the Forks of the Scioto known as Wolf's Ridge." The place got its name because a local wolf pack lived there and regularly serenaded nearby pioneer settlers.

By 1816, the trail running through the woods along the top of the ridge had been widened by chopping down a number of trees to create High Street. But even as the Ohio General Assembly met for the first time in the new brick statehouse at State and High streets, the stumps of the felled trees remained in the street. Gov. Thomas Worthington solved the problem by hiring Columbus Mayor Jarvis Pike to clear them away. Pike did just that and when the governor was a little slow in paying for the work, the mayor took the governor to court. And the mayor won his case.

There is a theme here worth noting. For most of the last couple of hundred years, the people of this area have wanted better streets. But they did not want to pay all that much to get them. This would lead to some interesting streetscapes.

In the first instance, city leaders simply hoped that a clean dirt street might be all that was needed. On May 23, 1816, the Council of the Borough of Columbus passed an ordinance prohibiting "the obstruction of the thoroughfares by lumber, firewood, stable garbage, earth from cellars or any other means." It apparently was not all that successful since similar ordinances were regularly passed even after the streets themselves were improved.

In May 1818, the council appointed a street committee with a charge to lay a bed of gravel 75 feet wide along High Street for several blocks in either direction from Statehouse Square. In time, many of the other streets in the center of town were similarly graveled and a few property owners even put gravel sidewalks in place as well.

It soon became rather obvious, however, that a gravel road simply did not hold up all that well under heavy traffic. The arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road in the 1830s made the Borough of Columbus into the City of Columbus. And it was clear that a better High Street was needed.

So did the city install a fine street of brick or stone or even early asphalt? No it did not. Columbus decided to try something a little cheaper but which looked just as impressive. High Street through most of the downtown was paved using the Nicholson Wood Block Method. This technique consisted in laying down a bed of sand and placing wooden blocks that look something like large bricks down to form a pavement. When the work was done, the street looked very impressive indeed. And it worked -- for a while. But then heavy traffic combined with rain and ice to cause the wooden blocks to simply fall apart.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, most of the heavily used major streets in downtown had been paved some sort of cobblestone. Some of the stone used was of good quality and the streets held up reasonably well. Other streets were paved with inferior stone and soon needed repair. But there was no systematic approach to street construction. This changed in 1886 with the Taylor Law which permitted cities to incur bonded debt to improve streets. In 1886, Columbus was a city of 75,000 with five miles of paved streets. Within six years, the town had more than 88 miles of paved streets. And most of that paving was done with fire-hardened paving bricks. Some of these streets are still around.

Eventually most of the brick streets would be replaced with asphalt paving and new streets were paved with asphalt too. But in some places in Columbus, one can still literally walk the streets of yesteryear.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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