Were Pittsburgh's original finished roads and streets paved with cobblestone, Belgian block or some other type of brick? | Pittsburgh City Paper

Were Pittsburgh's original finished roads and streets paved with cobblestone, Belgian block or some other type of brick?

Question submitted by: Deborah L. Murphy, Shadyside

Paving roads? You mean, you can do that?

It probably won't come as a surprise that Pittsburgh's roads were complained about as much in the early 1800s as they are today. Leland Baldwin's Pittsburgh: The Story of a City reveals that "one newspaper editor said that he would advocate ... construction of a suspension bridge across a certain street, were it not that the mud was too deep to find firm foundations for the piers." Complicating things were the open sewers, livestock wandering loose in the street -- including a pack of what Baldwin calls "savage porkers" that attacked children -- and the fact that many cellar doors were uncovered. The danger of falling down someone's basement steps was magnified by the fact that city streets were unlit until the late 1830s.

In other words, it was almost as bad as the Act 47 financial rescue plan.

Part of the problem was what Garrett Hardin called the "tragedy of the commons": Things that are everybody's business are nobody's business. People wanted paved streets, but they wanted someone else to pay for them. Later, the city passed what was called the Penn Avenue Act, in which street paving would be paid for with a tax charged to the property owners who lived alongside it. As a result, writes Joel Tarr in a piece from City at the Point: Essays on the Social History of Pittsburgh, "Many streets in working-class neighborhoods remained unpaved well into the twentieth century" even as "middle-class districts were receiving new boulevards and smooth paving."

At least a couple paving materials were tried early on: Baldwin writes that in 1837, one Downtown street was paved with wooden blocks, "but the first flood caused the blocks to swell and burst." And so city engineers used cobblestones instead. These, Baldwin writes "did make it possible to scrape the streets more efficiently or to flush them with water, but [they] did nothing to prevent noise."

There's a lot of confusion about "cobblestone" and "Belgian block." Many people assume that they refer to types of rock, like granite or marble. Some people think Belgian block was quarried in Belgium -- you know, just like those long-cut potatoes on our Primanti's sandwiches all came from France. Probably there are some people who think Belgian block is made out of actual Belgians.

In fact, Belgian block refers not to the type of stone but the way it is cut: in rectangles. People often refer to roads paved this way as "cobblestone streets," but that isn't strictly correct. Cobblestones are rounded, typically because they've been worn smooth by rivers. They might be hell to drive on, but they were cheap: You could just dredge them up from the river, the same way the Pirates put together the roster for their farm teams.

So it shouldn't come as much surprise that Pittsburgh's first paving material was the cheaper cobblestone. Pittsburgh wasn't unusual this way: Many other cities did the same thing -- using cobblestone when they could get away with it, switching over to Belgian block when the traffic and taxpayers demanded. And who knows? Depending on what Harrisburg does with city finances this fall, we may be reduced to using it all over again. My advice: Buy a hay wain for the garage, just to be on the safe side.