Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1858
THE NICOLSON PAVEMENT—While our citizens have been discussing the perspective merits of boulder and block stone paving during the last two years, the specimen of the Nicolson pavement near Wells street bridge has been quietly gaining the approval of all parties, and proving possession of all the requisites for a good and desirable roadway. It covers that portion of Wells street between South Water and Lake streets, and was laid in November, 1856, and July 1857, by Messrs. Harper & Greeley, of this city, under a contract with Messrs. Allen Robins, George Smith and Ogden & Fleetwood, the proprietors of the adjective lots.
It consists of rows of wooden blocks, standing endwise upon a broad flooring, The rows are placed one inch apart, and the spaces between them are filled with a preparation of coal tar and gravel. The flooring underneath is well covered with coal tar on both sides. The tar excludes moisture and prevents decay, and the whole structure is impenetrable to frost.
We think the cleanliness and freedom from noise must commend it to the occupants of the stores fronting upon it, and we know from our own experience that it affords a very smooth surface for wheels, and an excellent footing for horses.
Methods of the Nicolson Block
Illustrations from “The Nicolson Pavement, Invented by Samuel Nicolson,” 1859
The blocks in this specimen are of pine, and yet, after eighteen months’ use, including two winters, the surface is not perceptibly worked. We think that if composed of hard wood, this would be the pleasantest and most durable paving yet tried in this city.
Its cost, we learn, is about the same as that if the block-stone pavement, and about forty per cent more than that of boulders.
We shall be glad to see several blocks of the Nicolson pavement included in the programme of improvements for the coming year.
Putting down the Nicolson Pavement at the crossing of Washington and Clarks streets.
Illustration from “The Nicolson Pavement, Invented by Samuel Nicolson”, 1859
Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1866
THE NICOLSON PAVEMENT.
A Letter from the Inventor.
Chicago, October 15, 1866.
- Editors Chicago Tribune:
The letter from Mr. Samuel Nicolson to (a copy of which is enclosed) in reference to the proper mode of construction of that pavement, seems to us to contain so much information that is of importance to the public, that we woukd request the insertion in your paper.
Goodwin & Larned.
Sherman House, Chicago, October 13, 1866
Gentlemen: During the last four days I have visited several streets in this city now being with paved Nicolson Pavement. As the inventor and patentee of the pavement, I feel that I have the right to express my opinion to the construction and the materials used in forming said pavement, both for the credit of my invention and te protection of property owners, who are required to pay for the same; and I address you on the subject as my General Agents for the pavement in all the Western States, withy the hope that contractors to be more particular, and give to the public a pavement that shall be better and more durable than many of those which have lately been constructed in this city.
On the streets where the work is now in progress, I find that the flooring is too open between the boards. The joints should be close so as to add strength and solidity to the pavement, and to prevent moisture from the earth beneath coming to the blocks.
A better method of tarring the boards of the flooring, which has been practised in other places is to dip the floor boards in hot tar, previously prepared in long shallow iron tanks, where it is constantly kept hot for that purpose. This method, while it effects a more perfect covering of the entire board sides and ends with tar, is at the same time, by the prevention of waste, found to be more economical with respect to the amount of tar consumed. It has also been found useful to dip the lower half of the blocks in hot tar just previously to their being laid in position.
The blocks in the lines or rows of blocks I found to be of irregular dimensions, varying from ten and three quarters to three and a half inches in thickness in the same row, the effect of which is to make the channels between the rows of unequal width, being in sime places one and three quarter inches wide, and in other places about one inch wide. This causes unequal and irregular surface wear by travel. The blocks in each row should be of equal thickness, and so a sorted and laid as to cause the channels between the rows of blocks to be of uniform width of not more than one inch. The strips between the rows of blocks should be a little more than an inch thick, so as to fill the channels made as above stated, and the whole should be firmly and compactly forced together.
I found on measuring some of the blocks that they were from sixteen to twenty inches long on the upper surface, in consequence of which they cannot adapt themselves perfectly to the curve of the street, the bearing of the block being upon its centre gives a rocking motion to the block as carriages pass over one or the other end of it. The effect of this would be the loosening of the filling and the admission of water and frost to an injurious extent, Such blocks should be divided into two so as that each block may receive a better and more equal bearing upon the flooring. The blocks should not be more than ten inches in width.
I find that the gravel need for filling between the rows of blocks was composed, in a great degree, of large stones, many of which were one and a half to two inches in diameter. Such stones are not suitable for the filling, and, becoming lodged in the channels, prevent them from being properly filled up.
The proper size of the gravel for filing should not be less than a quarter of an inch nor more 1han three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Screeng may be essily constructed that will exclude all gravel larger or smaller than the sizes I have named.
The gravel, when used, should be perfectly dry, and it is preferable that it should be heated, and the channels between the blocks should be filled to the surface of the pavement, and the tar, having been boiled to a proper consistency, should be poured in its hot state thoroughly into and amongst the hot or dry gravel, very soon after which the gravel should be rammed with the usual instruments. Then the whole surface of the pavement should be well covered with hot tar, and a covering of sand or fine gravel two inches thick should be immediately spread over the whole.
Not less than two and-thirds of a gallon of tar should be used to a square yard of pavement.
When streets are paved with the Nicolson pavement immediately after being filled to grade with a soft, yielding filling material, there is of course some liability that the pavement to settle unequally, which may to some extent prove injurious. But if it is properly laid it will even in such cases do good service fir many years, as is shown by the pavement laid on South Clark street (illustrated above), which has lasted eight years under the incessant travel of that street without material repairs. That placement was laid immediately after the filling of the street to grade, and the irregular shapes and curves into which the rows of block has been thrown in consequence of the settling of the street, without destroying the integrity of the pavement, is a testimony at once to the excellence of the pavement and of the construction. There is no other pavement which will be found to stand as well as the Nicolson. It would be desirable in such cases to increase the thickness of the flooring upon which the pavement is laid.
I think it must be for the advantage of the property owners as well as the pavement if some trust-worthy and competent person, familiar with the proper mode of constructing the pavement, should be appointed Inspector of all the Nicolson pavement laid or repaired in this city, so as to insure the faithful and skillful execution of the work. It would prove a large saving to the tax-payers in the end.
If the materials used in the pavement are good, and the foundation is made firm and solid, and the construction of the pavement is carefully and properly attended to, I feel confident that the public can rely upon its continuance, without material repairs, under the heaviest travel, upon your streets, for from twelve to fifteen years.
Guide to the City of Chicago, 1868, T. Elwood Zell and Co.
As Chicago was the first city to adopt this style of street pavement, it may be proper to give a brief description of it. It is considered far superior and more durable and economical than stone, which is so popular in other cities.1
In laying down this pavement, the ground it’s first levelled or rounded off, so as to conform with the grade, then covered evenly with a coating of sand. Next comes the sub-structure, which is a flooring of pine boards an inch thick, laid close together in courses lengthwise of the street. The flooring is well tarred on both sides with hot tar and pitch. Upon this substructure the upper stratum of blocks is placed. They are of pine, sawed three inches thick, six inches long, and from six to ten inches wide, and, after being dipped in coal-tar, are set up on end across the street from curb to curb, with their broad faces fronting up and down the street. The first line of blocks being thus set, a line of pickets or strips of board, three inches wide, are placed on edge between the rows, every row being nailed through the picket into the blocks and penetrating the board below, thus making the whole- close and tight. Then another row of blocks dipped in hot coal-tar as before is set up against the strip, and so on alternately until completed. There is left between each two consecutive rows of blocks a continuous groove or cell, seven-eighths of an inch wide and three inches deep, extending from curb to curb. The filling of these grooves is the next operation, and this is done with the use of screened gravel and hot coal-tar.
The gravel is heated hot and then filled into the cells level with the surface ; the coal-tar, after being heated, is poured upon the hot gravel until the cells are filled. The composition thus formed is compactly rammed down. The whole surface is then thoroughly covered with hot coal-tar mixed with pitch, and immediately covered with fine gravel and common sand, mixed in about equal proportions, three-quarters of an inch thick.
When this is done, the pavement is complete and ready for use.
Chicago, Illustrated, December, 1866
LAKE AND WELLS STREET.-This view is of an ordinary scene at the crossing of Wells and Lake Streets. In the distance, looking north, may be seen the Wells Street bridge. This portion of Wells street was paved with the Nicholson block pavement in 1855-6, the first of that kind of pavement laid in Chicago, and is yet in a good state of preservation. Mears and Rockwood’s wholesale drug and paint establishment is in the building on the north-west corner. The patent “spring bed” factory is in the same building. This is one of the busiest street crossings in Chicago.
James W. Sheehan, Esq.,
New York Times, March 2, 1868
We have lived to see the fair trial of every form of wooden pavement thus far submitted to public inspection, and can pronounce them, one and all, an entire failure, as far as supplied to streets where there is a heavy traffic on loaded wheels. No intelligent disinterested citizen would willingly select such a pavement at his own proper expense. Where the names owners have been obtained in indorsement of a wooden pavement
Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1880
To the Editor of The Chicago Tribune.
CHICAGO, Oct. 9.—No wonder the great problem of street-paving in Chicago seems so hard to solve, when we see such work going on as has been done lately at the North Side, and as is now being done on Erie street.
If the persons having property fronting on that street and who have signed a private contract and have agreed to pay for it, or who, not having signed any such contract, will be called upon to pay for the same under an assessment co be levied for it, will walk to the block between Cass and Rush streets, they will see the perishable material now being put there for tilling, while sand is called for in the specifications.
The larger and grosser parts of the old and decayed remains of the pine blocks used in the Nicolson pavement now worn out are, it is true, being hauled away. There remains among the old gravel which was used in the original construction of that pavement a large amount of decayed, small, fragmentary, and almost pulverized wood.
That gravel is being screened and put to one side to be used again for the covering of the surface and tilling of the interstices of the new pavement. To this there is no objection, but the residue or finer part which goes through the screen or sieve is simply a mass of vegetable matter reduced to earthy soil. This, instead of sand, is now being used for filling. As the process of decay goes on, the foundation which it is now used to make for the boards beneath the cedar blocks will of necessity sink, the surface will go with the foundation, and the work will be a failure.
These contractors are as glib in defending their wrongdoing as they are by specious pleas in getting signatures to their private contracts.
They go from owner to owner and induce each one singly to sign, while if those owners could work in concert, and by consultation with each other have joint action, they would get far cheaper and far better work.
I know of what I am speaking, and warn the owners along Erie street to see to it before the boards are put down that pure, indestructible, and non-perishable sand is put beneath those boards, sound, merchantable boards put on top of it, and then good cedar blocks without rotten bearts placed above those boards.
You pay for good work, and you and the traveling public are entitled to it. The Commissioner of Public Works must be vigilant, for be knows the wary tricks of skillful and experienced procurers of just such contracts.
He stands special guardian over the interests of those who have to pay for the work not under private contract, but let under assessment to the same men who bave procured the names of the owners who have made themselves the victims of that vicious system of having street-paving done.
It concerns not only the owners of the abutting property,—the comfort and economy of the whole traveling and driving community are involved.
That a pavement should be so laid as to last as long as possible, and remain in a good condition as long as is practicable, is, of course, beyond question. That the property-owners and the public should be protected against the tricks and dishonesty of scheming contractors is equally beyond question.
The only way to do this is for the signers of the private contracts and the city authorities to be vigilant and watch each loud of filling as it goes in, each board as it is laid, and each cedar block as it is placed.—WATCHWORD.
Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1887
A New York business-man with a lawsuit in one of the Chicago courts sat talking with his lawyer in the latter’s office on one of the upper floors of a building in the centre of the city a day or two ago. The day was warm and the windows were open. The roar of traffic rose up from the street below, and only by shouting could the two make themselves heard to each other. Finally the New-Yorker, after a particularly violent vocal ef-fort, sat back in his chair with a groan, and then leaning forward shouted: “How on earth do you stand this noise? I should think it would drive you mad.”
The Chicago man laughed and said, “It is no worse than you are accustomed to in New York, is it?”
“No worse than I have been accustomed to,” answered the visitor, “but, thank the Lord, we don’t have such a racket around our building any longer. We have stood it for years, always kicking, of course, but not knowing how to get rid of it. The street is a narrow one and the walls of the buildings act as conductors for the sound. The noise was simply deafening-worse, I will admit, than this. It happens that one of the other tenants is an officer of a hospital on a busy street up-town, and he was telling one day how they had solved a problem of vital importance in hospital work and eliminated the noise of street traffic, or at least reduced it to the minimum. The plan was very simple and not expensive. The granit-block pavement in front of the building had been torn up and in its place the hospital folks had laid sheet asphalt. A hint was enough for me. I got the tenants in our building together and we talked the matter over. Then we appointed committees and went to work. Inside of a month every foot of granit pavement on the three exposed sides of our building had been removed and asphalt substituted. You cannot imagine the difference. The roar of the street has been subdued to a murmur, and there isn’t an office in the building where conversation cannot be carried on in ordinary tones. I suppose they will increase our rents, but if they do I shall not object. Offices in that building are worth 25 per cent more than those exactly like them in a building fronting on a granite-paved street.”
The problem which the New-Yorkers have solved is one which will have to be confronted in Chicago, and that before long. Only a few weeks ago during the trial of the omnibus boodle case it was found necessary to lay tanbark in front of the County Building, in Clark street, in order to deaden the noise from the street so that question and answer might be heard in the court-room. That, of course, was a temporary expedient and unsuited for permanent use. But the result was so satisfactory that it has already set the occupants of buildings on the busiest streets to thinking, and when Chicago business men get to thinking something is bound to come of it.
If the sounds which rise from the streets of Chicago during the day were to be analyzed it would be found that they are at least five in number, representing as many different kinds of pavement. There are two or three other kinds, but they are so little used that it may be safely said that there are only tive varieties of pavement used in Chicago. These are cedar block, granite block, macadam, and block and sheet asphalt. Something about these pavements may be interesting.
When Chicago was in dresses it stumbled around on dirt roads, and in the course of time laid planks on top of the dirt. It got into knee-breeches when Nicolson came here and laid some of his wooden pavement. The Nicolson pavement was composed of wooden blocks, four by five inches, and twelve or fifteen inches long. These were laid loosely On the four-inch face, and between the blocks were placed strips of wood. The whole was then treated with a preparation of tar. When first laid the Nicolson pavement was as fair to the eye as it was pleasant to travel upon. But it was made of pine, for the very simple reason that hard wood was too expensive, and it wore out. It cost about $2.50 a square yard completed. The finest stretch of it in the city was laid in front of the building occupied by the old Board of Public Works in Fifth avenue. Bits of the Nicolson pavement are now and then turned up in street excavations. It was first known in Chicago along in the ’50s. Coincident with it was the bowlder, or cobblestone, pavement laid in State street from Lake to Madison—the first extensive stone pavement in Chicago.
Cedar-block pavement first appeared in Chicago after the fire. It has been here ever since and seems likely to remain for a good many years to come. At the end of last year there were in the City of Chicago 277.71 miles of paved streets. Of this 213.35 miles were cedar block. There is more of it on the West Side than on the North and South put together, and there was nearly, forty miles of it laid last year. Cedar block is the cheapest pavement laid in Chicago today. Dead cedar brought from the vicinity of Green Bay, Wis., was first used, but it was found that it did not wear well, and live timber is now required. The cedar is a tree which does not taper rapidly, and one of good size should furnish a stick thirty feet long. The logs are brought here by boat in lengths of about six feet, with the bark still on, peeled, and cut into blocks five inches long. The blocks range in diameter from three to nine inches, and cost 50 to 60 cents a yard, measurement being made after they are laid. The process of paving a street with cedar blocks is much the same as was used with the Nicolson pavement. A sand foundation is first provided, and on this are laid boards which serve as stringers. On the stringers planks are placed parallel with the curb and the cedar blocks are stood on end on the planks. The interstices between the blocks are filled with gravel and coal-tar distilled in the manufacture of gas. For the last three years block pavement has cost in this city from $1 to $1.30 a yard, The life of cedar-block pavement is three to seven years, and it is an excellent pavement when first laid. It is believed by many to be detrimental to health from the fact that it absorbs all liquids falling upon it, gives them back in the shape of vapor under the influence of the sun, and is itself constantly decaying. It is a curious fact that this pavement wears out faster on streets where traffic is light than where it is heavy. Cedar blocks are used for paving all through the West, but more freely probably in Chicago than in any other city in the world. They are cheap, and that is a great point in their favor.
Macadam ranks next above cedar blocks in cost as street pavement, and is an improvement on nature’s method of making a high-way. The farmers who strew gravel or broken stone on their roads and leave it there until it is ground into the earth are making a sort of macadam pavement, and one which serves their purpose very well. But the macadam pavement seen in Chicago is the product of a vastly more scientific procedure, and were it not bound to be very dusty when dry and very muddy when wet it would be an almost ideal pavement. In macadamizing a street there is first spread in the road-bed, fifteen inches below the future surface of the street, a layer of large in pieces six to limestone twelve inches
in diameter. This limestone is obtained from city quarries and is bought by the cord, 13,000 pounds making a cord. On top of the first laver of stone is placed another layer of a smaller size, usually from one to three inches in diameter. Then above this is placed a still smaller grade, the stones being about the size of chestnuts. Then there is spread over this a top dressing of granite, and on this is spread a thin layer of Joliet gravel. The road is then rolled with a roller weighing fifteen to twenty tons, and when the sign of “Look out for the steam-roller,” which was put up days before the steam-roller was in sight, has been taken down you are at liberty to drive over the new roadbed and say that Chicago has better pavements than any other city in the country. Macadam pavement is costing this year from $1.50 to $1.80 per square yard. There was nearly one and one-half miles of it laid in Chicago last year, and there will be two and one half miles laid this year. Jan 1 last there was about twenty-eight and a quarter miles of macadam pavement in Chicago, four-fifths of it being on the West Side.
Ranking next above macadam in point of expense comes asphalt pavement in sheet form. There is no prettier pavement laid than sheet asphalt, but it is slippery for horses, and, it is said, when spread for a long distance, as in Dearborn avenue, for instance, it conveys sound rather too freely. It is not easy to mend, but when it is new it is as pleasant to the eye as a well-kept lawn and as easy to ride upon as a floor. It is the joy of the bicyclist and of people who for physical reasons require that the far of carriage-riding shall be reduced to the minimum. The asphalt used in this pavement comes from the famous asphalt lake in the Island of Trinidad. A mixture is made ofit, and isnt of sand, lis post, and this’s taken to the street in a plastic form. In the street there has been prepared a foundation six inches deep of cement concrete.. Upon this is spread a thin laver of the plastic com-pound, and when that has cooled another laver is spread on top of it, making the asphalt surface two and one-half inches thick. This is smoothed and compressed by a steam-roller weighing about six tons. Sheet-asphalt pavement costs about $3 per square yard complete.
The expense of asphalt in block form, or asphalt blocks, as they are usually known, is no greater than the sheet asphalt, and it is claimed by the people interested in its manufacture that horses cannot slip upon the blocks as readily as upon sheet asphalt, the spaces between the blocks furnishing a foot-hold. Then, too, it can be more easily repaired. Like sheet asphalt, block-asphalt pavement when first laid is as handsome as you could desire, and it furnishes an unexcelled surface. It is so smooth that it is bound to be a little slippery, however. The asphalt blocks are made of 15½ per cent of asphalt and 8½ per cent of crushed limestone. This mixture, while at a high temperature, is run into a press, where it is subjected to a pressure of eighty-five tons to the square inch and comes out in the shape of blocks. The blocks are laid on a six-inch foundation of broken limestone, the spaces between the bits of stone being filled with sand. This is rolled to compactness with a fifteen-ton roller, and over the surface is spread a laver of fine sand one and a half inches deep. The blocks are laid in this sand on the four-inch face. They are placed as closely together as possible, and whatever interstices there are are filled with dried sand. Asphalt-block pavement has been in use to a limited extent in Chicago since 1878. It was formerly laid for $2. 75 per square yard, but the price now is $3.
Granite-block pavement is the most expensive laid in Chicago and the most durable. It is noisier than all the other kinds put to-gether, if such a combination can be imagined, but is also more durable than them all. It is the pavement of the future as far as the business part of Chicago is concerned, unless by private enterprise something less noisy is laid, as has been done in New York. A city ordinance provides that nothing but granite blocks shall be put down hereafter in the territory bounded by Twelfth street, the lake, and the river. The granite blocks come here in block form from quarries in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, and the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. They cost the contractors who pave streets in Chicago about $2.50 per square yard delivered on board the cars at the quarries. The foundation for granite-block pavement is six inches of broken limestone flooded with sand and rolled, and on top of this three inches of sand. The blocks are set in the sand and the spaces between them filled with gravel and tar. Before the spaces are filled the blocks are rammed with a heavy rammer, a process to which the asphalt blocks are also subjected. Granite-block pavement costs from $3.50 to $4.25 per square yard laid.
Chicago Bicyclists on a Nicolson Paved Road in 1895.
1 Samuel Nicolson was the superintendent of Boston when he invented the process of the Nicolson Pavement in 1848. By 1856 his product made it to Chicago where it was widely appraised.