For most of the country, the spring thaw means the onset of pothole season. As the earth beneath our streets and roads thaws out and expands, today’s most common paving materials, asphalt paving contractor and concrete, can be susceptible to heaving and cracking. When that happens your daily commute can feel more like a giant game of Whack-a-Mole as you pound over potholes and challenge your suspension crossing speed bumps where there were no speed bumps before.
The good news is if your municipality has the funds, potholes and cracks can be repaired quickly and you’ll make it through the thaw without needing a front-end alinement. It hasn’t always been that easy. It’s been worse. In fact, it has been much worse.
In the Beginning There Was Mud
Sometimes it’s helpful to reflect back on where we came from to appreciate what we have now. Our potholes are a real inconvenience but not so much that they stop commerce. Semis can still bring food from the farms, stock big box stores with all kinds of stuff, and beer trucks can still stock your favorite pub. But if you look at, say, Northern Virginia in the 19th century you’ll see how road conditions-controlled commerce and even lengthened the Civil War.
In the early 1800s most roads in Virginia were dirt paths. When it rained, they became a sea of mud churned up and rutted by horses and carts. In the dry season traffic would kick up choking clouds of dust. In short, the roads sucked. But this is America and when there is a need there is always somebody willing to fill the need…for a buck. Toll road companies sprang up and were the first to provide “artificial” roads between points of commerce. An artificial road was considered to be any road that had a covering material.
Rock, Sand, and Lumber
The Manchester Pike near Richmond was the first to gravel its road. The gravel toll road was significantly more efficient than competitors relying only on dirt but it was expensive, labor intensive, and required constant replenishing. On the other hand, traffic could continue to move in the rain and there were far fewer wagons getting stuck or breaking axels.
And then along came Macadam. John Loudon McAdam, a Scottish born engineer was the first to put forward the theory that the soil could generally bear the weight of traffic by itself if it remained dry. Paving materials served to provide smoother, faster, traffic and protect the soil by providing a barrier from rain, ice, and snow. He developed design specifications that would later become the basis for tar and chip roads that we find in rural areas today.
Macadam roads required three layers of different sized stone/gravel resulting in a “pavement that was 7” to 10” thick. The first layer would be of the largest stone “cast on with a shovel to a depth of six inches, after the manner of sowing grain” and then rolled with a cart or wagon until the layer was firmly compacted. The second, thinner layer of smaller gravel would be added and rolled followed by the “road surface” of the finest gravel or sand which was raked and then rolled. The Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike was the first to have sections of Macadamized road followed by the Valley Turnpike between Salem and Seven Mile Fork. Macadamized toll roads were state-of-the-art for the time and were instrumental in expanding trade in Northern Virginia.
And then there were the plank roads, an import from our neighbors in Canada. Plank or “corduroy” roads consisted of a dirt path about eight feet wide covered by small logs placed side by side. Much of Virginia was heavily timbered so building these roads was less expensive because the materials didn’t have to be imported from a quarry.
However, as you can imagine, traveling over a row of logs is not exactly an optimal transportation experience. The plank roads were often covered with dirt to smooth out the ride. Of course when it rained, the dirt would wash away and water would seep between the planks causing the soil beneath to become muddy. Planks often “sank” into the roadbed as a result of the weight of traffic. Corduroy roads were relatively inexpensive to build but required an enormous amount of maintenance.
The End of the Turnpike Business in Virginia
As discussed, all the commercial roads in Northern Virginia were private businesses. The government played no role in funding, building, or maintaining road networks outside of city limits. The turnpikes never really made much money simply because maintaining the roads was a never ending, expensive task. When railroad networks seriously expanded in the 1830s, they foretold the end of toll roads. When war broke out in 1861, the turnpikes and toll bridges, never in great shape, were literally turned into rutted, muddy, almost impassible, dirt tracks.
Roads, bridges, and train tracks were valued targets for both armies. However, when tens of thousands of soldiers march down the road accompanied by their supply wagons and heavy guns, the valued targets often turned into swamps slowing and stopping an entire army’s advance (or retreat).
Lee often complained about the roads. “It has been raining a great deal… making the roads horrid and embarrassing our operations.” But the roads didn’t play favorites. Fredericksburg became a Confederate victory when the Union could not bring up its big guns. The roads literally disintegrated under the weight of their caissons and heavy iron cannons. The war put an end to “for profit” road building in Virginia and much of the South.
With private companies out of the picture, the government took on the responsibility for roads. Unfortunately, the government was big on passing legislation and regulations but short on money to get anything built. It wouldn’t be until the advent of the automobile before any serious tax dollars would be spent on Virginia’s ground transportation system.
So, if you think your roads and are bad now and you want to hire driveway paving company, say yourself if they are roads horrid and embarrassing our operations. We think you’ll agree, it could be worse.
Read Also: 3 Top Things You Need To Know About Well Water Pump Repairs
You must be logged in to post a comment Login