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Despite today’s view, brick was tops years ago

July 13, 2012

This is West Mahoning Street as a brick street in the early 1900s near the Foundry Street intersection. Note the tracks for the street. (Photo courtesy of the Punxsutawney Historical & Genealogical Society)

PUNXSUTAWNEY — As discussions as to the future of Punxsy’s two brick streets — Dinsmore Avenue and Grace Way — continue, 120 years ago, a brick street was considered quite an upgrade over the dirt-and-plank roads that existed at that time.

“In the 1890s, laying brick was considered to be a permanent street improvement,” said S. Thomas Curry, former director and current member of the Punxsutawney Area Historical & Genealogical Society.

He said dirt and mud limited travel as the result of rain and snow, which created bottomless mud roads. Afterward, crushed stone and stone road maulers were placed over the dirt streets to firm them up.

Curry said prior to bricks, there were wooden planks placed over dirt roads.

“Plank roads were the first big improvement over dirt roads in 1889,” he said. “However, downpours would lift the planks up and wash them out and cost a lot to replace every year after the Mahoning Creek flooded, washing out the planks.”

A trip to Brookville from Punxsy was something most people wouldn’t attempt during the winter and spring, Curry said.

“Most of the towns were laid out 10 to 15 miles apart, and you could only travel so far during the day, and no one traveled at night unless it was absolutely necessary,” he said.

There were places along Route 36 where people could stay if they were unable to make their way to Brookville by nightfall.

“The roads were winding, and there were a lot of up and down hills that someone had to endure while traveling on their horse and buggy,” Curry said. “In addition to the mud, there were also sanitation problems due to the horses.

“Sometimes when you look at these old photos, you see the brick, but you see there were other things — mainly horse emissions,” he said.

Curry said after a while, local officials had crushed stone brought in to place on the roads. The stone was crushed by what were known as stone maulers, which improved the road somewhat.

Concrete was utilized around the turn of the century, but wasn’t utilized much back then because expansion and freeze-thaw cycles caused the concrete to crack.

Eventually, macadam (asphalt) came into play, and along with it, the steamroller to pack it down, Curry said.

Brick was considered to be the best road foundation for roads in the early 1900s, because it made for a very sturdy foundation for a paved road.

“There are existing roads that have been paved with asphalt that still have brick underneath,” Curry said.

He said brick was readily available because there were two brick plants in the borough, Nordstrom and Punxsy Brick. Also, there were two types of brick: Vitrified was the hard brick, and a softer brick made from clay.

Dinsmore Avenue and Grace Way have vitrified brick, which is why it has lasted so long, Curry said.

“One day during an extremely hot summer, the brick that was placed by the Pantall Hotel heaved up to a height of 60 feet,” because dry cement was used as the filler instead of sand,” he said.

It was very expensive to line a street with brick, and often, a municipality had to have a bond issue to pave for a project, which is why borough officials could only do a couple of streets at a time.

“Brick is a good foundation to pave over, but when you have a pothole form, you can see the brick underneath,” Curry said.

There are many municipalities around the county that still have brick roads, including Brookville, some of which are very hilly and slippery during wet weather.

Curry said eventually, brick was replaced with asphalt, mainly because it was expensive to purchase and install the materials, because of the high cost of labor. It was also time consuming, he said.

Punxsutawney Borough Council has been discussing the possibility of paving over Dinsmore Avenue and Grace Way.

According to estimates released at a recent council meeting, it will cost about $500,00 to pave and upgrade the sanitary and storm sewers on Dinsmore Avenue.

The project has yet to be approved by council due to the cost.

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