Where the Streets are Paved with…
When you are turning a piece of wilderness into a town, among the first things on your agenda will be to lay out the streets.
Once that’s done you will have a grid of blocks which can be divided into lots and sold. Sell enough of those lots and your town earns a permanent spot on the map.
Congratulations! You’ve made your mark. A happy populace sings your praises.
But people are seldom satisfied for long. Sooner or later, the citizenry will begin to think they deserve better than dirt streets.
Then it’s the job of the city fathers (and you are among them if you stuck around after selling all those lots) to find a suitable paving to place atop the dirt.
Today we find brick streets charming, but that was not the default opinion in the nineteenth century. If you’ve ever heard a shod horse walk across concrete you’ll have some idea why.
Now imagine dozens of horses beating their ambling percussion across the bricks, many pulling wagons with steel banded wheels. Nerves were frayed on busy brick streets. No wonder the saloons stayed full.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, two words could be found on the lips of any Texas citizen concerned with street improvement: Nicolson Pavement.
It was the invention of Samuel Nicolson of the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation. He was looking for a paving solution that was cheap, quiet and durable. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Durability was a problem because the Nicolson pavement was made of wood.
It consisted of pine, oak or cypress blocks. These blocks were four inches wide by five inches thick, and twelve to fifteen inches long. They were laid grain-up atop pine stringer boards set in a base of sand. The blocks were then grouted with a mixture of sand and tar.
It was an effective system, and like I said, the main drawback was durability. Heavily trafficked streets had to be repaved within seven to ten years.
But there was also the flooding problem. If the grouting was not renewed regularly and a Nicolson paved street flooded, the paving blocks would pop to the surface and float around like hundreds of toy boats in a bathtub. Houston and Galveston both found this out.
Walter Scott, a Scotsman who had come to San Antonio via Mexico found a better way.
In 1885 he editorialized:
“But who would talk about Nicolson pavements in San Antonio? Any person who would, I would consider him a fit subject for an insane asylum, when we have good paving material at our door. I mean mesquite, cut green and stripped of its bark. It will become impervious to water and insect, and make a noiseless and durable pavement, and at a small cost.”San Antonio was sold.
By 1889, Mr. Scott had paved Military Plaza, the downtown sections of Commerce, Houston, Dolorosa, Market and St. Marys…and even Alamo Plaza with hexagonal mesquite blocks.
I can’t find any reference to how long the mesquite pavers lasted, but they are still present in photos from the 1910s, looking rather worn.
Here is the story of the Alamo told right.
Click here to read all about it.