Manhattan’s First Experiments with Wooden Streets

Wood block pavement is thought to have been used first in 14th-century Russia, however it enjoyed something of a revival in the 1820s and 1830s as cities in Europe and America sought alternatives to the rough, uneven cobblestone that served as the most common form of pavement.

The immediate advantage of wood over cobblestone was that the resulting street surface was smooth when properly constructed, and much quieter. The disadvantages emerged over time. The wood did not wear as hard as stone, and wheel ruts soon formed. The smooth surface was slick when wet. The wood eventually began to rot, sometimes releasing an objectionable odor. A coating of creosote could slow the decay, but also smelled bad and had the drawback of making the street more flammable, a special concern in the crowded cities of the 19th century.

In 1833, New York City Street Commissioner George B. Smith brought the new method to the attention of the Board of Aldermen, who directed him to find out more. Two years later, Smith reported that he had conferred with “a gentleman recently from St. Petersburg,” who had an “intimate knowledge of the methods pursued in laying down the pavement constructed of wood.” Smith does not name this knowledgable gentleman, but it may have been one M. Gourieff, who introduced hexagonal-block wood pavement in St. Petersburg in 1820 and later demonstrated it in England, where it gained some favor in the streets of Manchester and London. On the strength of his report, the Council directed Smith to conduct a trial of the “Russian method.”

The Street Committee chose a section of Broadway for the experiment, selecting the block between Warren and Chambers Streets. Broadway was chosen because it received traffic as heavy as any other in the city, the Committee reported. This specific stretch of Broadway was most probably picked for its proximity to City Hall, where it could easily be inspected.

The Committee’s design called for hexagonal blocks of hemlock, twelve inches high and nine inches in diameter. The joints were filled with melted pitch and topped with gravel. The plan specified that the 200-foot section of street be divided into four equal lengths, each with a different type of substrate: sand, broken stone, pebble stone and broken flag stone.

The estimated cost for this one-block experiment, including digging and preparing the roadbed and contracting for the provision of blocks at seven cents apiece, came to about $2,000 – several times the cost of cobblestone. It was hoped, the Committee explained, that the extra upfront expense would be offset by the durability of the surface, calling for fewer repairs.

It seems many members of the public were impressed with the experimental surface, and the Council soon began receiving petitions from property owners to pave their streets with wooden blocks. Since 1824, the practice in the city was for property owners to petition to be allowed to pave the streets in front of their property at their own expense. If approved, the city then paid to maintain the streets thereafter. Petitions were submitted to use wooden blocks in parts of Chapel, William, and Fulton Streets.

While the Aldermen appeared to be ready to allow the expansion of wooden pavement, the Street Committee urged caution pending the results of their experiment. The Committee did reluctantly support resolutions to use wooden blocks in Mill Street, Water Street and Front Street, although they objected to paving a second stretch of Broadway between Washington Place and Art Street (now Astor Place.)

It is not clear how many of these additional wooden pavement projects were actually completed, however the two-block section of Broadway between Washington Place and Astor Place apparently was repaved with wood blocks some time prior to 1840, despite the reluctance of the Street Committee.

By 1840, the Committee had observed its experimental pavement for five years and was expressing serious doubt about its durability. When a group of residents of Carroll Place in Bleecker Street petitioned the Aldermen to pave the street with wood, the Committee again opposed the request, stating their opinion that wood pavement “will not last over seven years … while the expense exceeds three times that of the ordinary pavement.”

The wooden pavement “craze” diminished in New York through the first years of the 1840s. In 1844 a petition to repave part of 8th Street with wood using a “new plan” was denied by the Council. Later that year, it was reported that the wood-paved portion of Broadway between Washington Place and Astor Place “has so decayed that the pavement … is a decided nuisance.” In 1845, the Council quietly allocated $175 to repave the original experimental section of Broadway near City Hall with “round stone.”

Many of the problems associated with the “Russian method” may have stemmed from improper construction and poor materials. In 1856, Charles Dickens weighed in on the subject, writing:

M. Gourieff introduced [to St. Petersburg] the hexagonal wooden pavement with which, in London, we are all acquainted. This, with continuous reparation, answers pretty well, taking into consideration that equality of surface seems utterly unattainable, that the knavish contractors supply blocks so rotten as to be worthless a few days after they are put down, and that the horses are continually slipping and frequently falling on the perilous highway. It is unpleasant, also, to be semi-asphyxiated each time you take your walks abroad, by the fumes of the infernal pitch-cauldrons, round which the moujik workmen gather, like witches.  – “A Journey Due North,” 1856

The failure of the Russian method was not the end of wooden pavement, however. Other cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago had tried wooden pavement systems and various improvements in construction led to more durable and easily-maintained surfaces. New York didn’t give up on wood, either.

An advertisement for a wood preservative firm in 1910

At the turn of the 20th Century, wood block streets were not uncommon in New York City, being much preferred in the office districts, where they greatly reduced street noise. By 1910, some two-dozen Lower Manhattan streets were paved with wood block, including Broadway below Vesey Street. A special Mayor’s committee reported in 1911 that while wood block streets, when properly constructed, were nearly as durable as any other surface, they were only suitable for level streets as when they were wet they became too slippery for horses.

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