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What's With All These Brick Streets?

Belleville, Kansas

November 2, 2022

A couple of articles:

Bricks have been around for centuries, bringing with them both beauty and functionality. As roads became more sophisticated and horse drawn carts and early automobiles began to populate them, bricks became especially important. How brick streets were laid in the late 1800s, early 1900s is an interesting story.

The Beginning

Before the late 19th and early 20th century, most streets were made out of dirt and gravel. At this time, however, the roads especially in cities became nicer and began to be constructed out of bricks.

In 1870, a man named Mordecai Levi from Charleston, West Virginia decided to try out a new method for creating roads. He used bricks to pave Summers Street, working as the brain and muscle behind the endeavor while a certain Dr. Hale was financing the project.

Because roads were constructed out of gravel or compacted dirt when it would rain parts of the road would wash away, or become a giant mud puddle. This meant that using those roads after a storm would be treacherous and very difficult if not impossible to traverse.

Levi created the idea of using brick road construction to pave the early streets. By 1873, he had paved an entire block. He even sought out a U.S. patent in order to ensure that his idea of paving the roads was protected by law. Soon, bricks became the solution to the increasing problem of how to improve roads under heavier traffic.

Bricks became a great option for creating streets, because they were extremely durable. Generally speaking, the most commonly used types were vitrified bricks, a glazed variety that began to become popular in the early 1900’s. Their glaze meant that they were impervious to moisture and chemical corrosion, which made them ideal for roads.

According the patent created by Levi, the bottom layer of any road would be graded or filled depending on the current structure of the road. Next, a layer of broken stone, slate, gravel or sand is applied over the leveled road bed. A second layer of asphalt or material with a similar consistency was placed next.

A third layer consisted of sand, followed by the bricks and of course curbs were placed along the sides of the roads. In the image he included with his patent, it also appears that roads were created with a slight rise in the middle. This was probably to help with additional drainage of the road.

Brick roads worked excellently because they allowed water to absorb through them more naturally, without the same problems today’s roads have with expansion and contraction. Additionally, bricks have amazing longevity and are very durable. Once word of Levi’s brick road construction method got around, it became very popular around the United States, but especially in cities like Philadelphia.

Bricks were a fantastic answer to contemporary problem with the roads. Not only did they offer a solution to heavier traffic, but they looked good in the process. For many cities, bricks revolutionized transportation and ended limitations caused by weather. Of course, as time went by, other methods started to be used to create roads. But as we all know, the modern roads of today are not without their problems.

As cities continue to dig up old roads and remove bricks, it becomes an easy decision to keep the brick roads of the past. Although they may require flipping or are bumpy from shifting ground, you can enjoy the beauty and history of the old roads.

Second article:

In the last 10 years, some cities are considering the benefits of brick streets, and choosing to preserve them. Among these cities are Atlanta, Chicago, Georgetown in Washington, DC, and Columbia, Missouri. They have found the benefits of brick streets to be economic, aesthetic, flood control, speed control and maintaining character.

In 2011, the city council of Columbia, Missouri, requested their Public Works Department create a report on the economics of using brick streets. They discovered over the lifespan of a street, brick streets are more economical than asphalt.

They concluded because asphalt must be replaced every 15 years (+/-) and bricks will last more than 100 years, the bricks are less expensive over the life-cycle of the street. If the life of asphalt pavement is only 15 years, the streets would need to be repaved more than six times in 100 years.

In 2014, the city approved restoring brick streets in Columbia over the next 20 years, citing their historic value and even the economic value of brick roads.

Atlanta, Georgia, in 2015, tore up 6 miles of streets and replaced with red Georgia brick. The Atlanta Department of Watershed Management came up with the idea to help control flooding. The targeted streets contain a layer of filtration rock with loosely spaced bricks over top, which permits better drainage than asphalt would.

The brick paving method used in Atlanta is nothing new, as it was done back in the Roman Empire. Similar projects have been done in Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland and Los Angeles.

In 2006, suburban Chicago-started pondering removing asphalt that covered many of their original brick streets. One suburb, Wilmette, removed seven blocks of asphalt roadway to their original brick. Others, like Forest Park and Downers Grove have taken steps to restore their existing brick streets because they recognize their importance in keeping traffic down and maintaining character.

In 2009, Georgetown made the case for reverting several asphalt roads back to brick. Residents of the neighborhood association wanted to bury unsightly wires underneath the street and believed it would be easier to do if the asphalt was replaced with brick. They also said replacing certain roads with brick would help control speed and benefit several residential areas.

The quality of old bricks compared to new bricks is far better, according to John Gavin, a historic brick supply company. He stated, years ago they were made in coal-fired kilns, they were vitrified, specially fired and hardened. These special qualities made bricks that did not absorb moisture so it prevented any cracks from developing in the bricks. Today that process can be extremely expensive.

The old bricks are valuable and reused in many cities. In fact old bricks are salvaged and resold because of their superior quality. Valuing their brick, some cities remove asphalt by using giant radiant heaters that soften the asphalt so it can be scraped off without disturbing the bricks.

Maintenance of brick streets is usually due to the underlying foundation of the streets that keeps the bricks in order. There may be some adjustments needed to be made over the years but overall the old bricks are strong and durable upholding traffic.

Some cities just preserve residential brick streets where traffic is lighter and where it helps control traffic which makes for a slower speed. Other cities like Rockford, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, have ordinances to protect and preserve their original brick streets.

Pennsylvania has an impressive history concerning brick. In 1896, according to a statistical report, it produced more fire brick than any other state, but, almost as much as all other states combined.

New Castle’s history also includes brick streets, but its first and only paved street in 1884 was cobble. It seems the city’s first brick streets appeared in the late 1800s. In 1894, the city advertised in the publication “The Brickmaker”, for paving and curbing 14,000 yards of Jefferson Street and 19,000 yards of Mill Street with fire brick.

The first brick paved street in America was laid in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1873. The inventor was Mordecai Levi, who in 1870 started thinking of how to solve the problem of muddy streets which happened after rains hit the dirt roads. His plan of brick-laid streets was eventually patented.

One hundred and forty-eight years later, Mordecai Levi would be happy to know cities still value his idea by preserving brick laid streets. But, today’s cities are looking to bricks to solve the problems of cost and other issues rather than muddy streets.

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