Cleburne Times-Review, Cleburne, TX

John Watson

July 31, 2011

John Watson: The red brick road

The story behind the Grandview streets

We have all heard about the yellow brick road in the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” but have you thought about the red brick roads in our area? The main street through Grandview is paved with bricks. The Grandview streets were paved in 1922-23, with bricks made from the Hill Brick Mill located about five miles west of Grandview. Those bricks are still on the Grandview streets today. In May 1999, the brick-paved streets were placed on the Johnson County Register of Historic Places & Objects.

Other brick-paved streets in this area include Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth and Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards District of Fort Worth. These brick came from Thurber.

Thurber started out as a coal mining town in 1888, operated by the Johnson Coal Company. In 1889 the mining operation and town was bought out by The Texas and Pacific Coal Company.

In order to take best advantage of its resources, The Texas and Pacific Coal Company, in 1897, initiated a second industrial enterprise, the manufacturing of brick. Substantial deposits of shale existed on company property near Thurber. The company already had extensive amounts of “nut and pea” coal for which it had little market, and this could be used to fire the brick kilns.

The capitalists then created a new company; the Green and Hunter Brick Company. Workers at Thurber produced a reported 80,000 bricks daily. Several varieties of brick were produced here, but their specialty was street and road-paving brick.

Camp Bowie Boulevard and other streets in Fort Worth were paved with Thurber bricks; as was Congress Avenue in Austin. Part of the Seawall Boulevard in Galveston was paved with Thurber bricks.

The kilns were originally fired by coal; however, by 1916 they had begun using more efficient natural gas. This change considerably lessened the pall of smoke that had hung over the town for years.

Today, traveling west on I-20, as you approach Thurber you can look off to the north and see the bare side of the clay hill where the material was gotten to make the brick.

Asphalt has been around for thousands of years, found in naturally occurring asphalt pits, or tar pits as some were called. These pits, or lakes, are a natural, geological occurrence where subterranean bitumen leaks to the surface, creating a large area of natural asphalt.

The Romans called it ‘asphaltus,’ and used it to seal their baths, reservoirs and aqueducts.

While exploring the New World, the Europeans discovered natural deposits of asphalt. In 1519, Sir Walter Raleigh described a ‘plane,’ or lake, of asphalt on the Island of Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela. This asphalt was used for re-caulking his ships.

More than 94 percent of the paved roads in the United States are covered with asphalt today. The asphalt pavement has played an important role in changing the landscape and history of the United States since the late 19th century.

The first Hot Mix Asphalt, HMA, where the basic asphalt was heated and mixed with aggregate to make the paving material, was developed in the last half of the 19th century. The first production units consisted of shallow iron trays heated over open coal fires. The aggregate was dried in the tray and then the operator poured hot asphalt on top, and stirred the mixture by hand.

Not only was the HMA prepared by hand, most of the work of laying it was done by hand. At this time the equipment used for laying asphalt could be easily transported by hand. This equipment included brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers, used in what was a highly labor-intensive process. After the HMA was dumped, spread, and smoothed by hand, then the relatively sophisticated horse-drawn roller, and later the steam roller, moved in to complete the job.  

If you have ever watched a work crew pouring a concrete driveway and spreading the concrete with the large squeegees, that is basically the way asphalt was laid in the early days.

New York City adopted asphalt paving in place of brick, granite and wood block in 1896. At that time NYC also required 15-year warranties on workmanship and materials.

The first major hot mix production facility in the United States was opened by the Cummer Company in 1870. By 1900, builders in both Europe and the United States were producing mixers and dryers in a variety of forms.

By the early 1920s the road builders began using modified Portland cement concrete mechanical spreaders for the first machine-laid asphalt. They later added tailgate spreaders.

In the beginning, most of the asphalt used in the United States came from the natural sources of Lake Trinidad and Bermudez Lake in Venezuela. In the mid-1870s, refined petroleum asphalt made an appearance and by 1907, production of refined petroleum asphalt had surpassed the use of natural asphalt.

By the 1930s brick pavers had fallen out of favor and most everyone was using asphalt.

The brick-paved streets you drive on today have been there for 80 years or longer; some more than 100 years. When these brick were laid, many people were still going by horse and buggy and wagons. Just imagine how many horses hooves have clicked over these brick without too much wear. Not many asphalt roads have endured for that long.  

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John Watson
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