Highway History

“Everything Changes but Nothing Changes”

In previous Articles, I’ve discussed highway evolution in the United States. A previously used example is the 500 or so year metamorphosis starting with pre-human animal tracks from today’s southern Oregon to the Sacramento River Valley.

After the first animals came the native Americans (who themselves actually came from elsewhere), the horse and wagon Siskiyou Trail, the 1923 Pacific Highway, 1926 U.S. Route 99 and most recently in the 1970s, Interstate 5. All of that happened along a fairly narrow ribbon of land extending more than 1,600 miles between our Canadian and Mexican borders.

According to an Associated Press piece I saw on the Internet today, this evolutionary process has been going on for centuries, indeed millennia.

Greek construction workers recently dug down more than twenty feet in the middle of a Greek city while working on a municipal subway project where encountered a 2,000 or so year old road. It is still being intensely studied, of course, but people who specialize in such things presently believe it was built by the Romans. It ran through the middle of a Greco-Roman town back then and, just like U.S. Route 101 in downtown San Francisco, still does. The former Roman settlement is known today as Thessaloniki.

Okay, so they dug up an old Roman road. But it gets better. While workers were carefully removing the carefully made and remarkably well preserved mostly marble road surface, they discovered remains of an even older road, apparently of pre-Roman origin still lower in the ancient cultural strata. This was pretty amazing and, as one might expect, the subway project was delayed while all this was going on.

Consider this situation where you live. Mentally speaking, look beyond (or below) what you see on the surface today and ask yourself what might be buried beneath, just waiting to be rediscovered. Even if you live in an archaeologically “young” area, wonderful highway history discoveries might lie beneath your feet just waiting to be uncovered and appreciated anew.

Before I retired from the 9 ro 5 world, I lived in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley (named after the Spanish mission built in the 1793). For a time, I lived just off Woodman Avenue and, over a period of two or three weeks, I observed the progress of a new asphalt coating being put on the street. It had been re-paved many times previously, so this time the City decided to remove as much of the old asphalt as possible to lower the street surface for drainage or whatever.So the scraping began.

Beneath the wide asphalt street was a narrow (I didn’t measure it) double slab concrete street!

Walking along it, because I sensed I was looking at local history, I found the medallion of the company that poured the concrete street. It identified the Contractor, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, but the date “1923” was clearly impressed into the then-wet concrete.

Knowing something of the history of the San Fernando Valley, the 1923 concrete most likely was preceded by a dirt road through the fields and orchards of a very different place than it is today.

Many towns in the eastern U.S. used brick for early street surfaces. If you live in such a place, it might be fun to become a weekend Urban Explorer and see if you can find any traces of what came before whatever is there now.

Good places to do this are where road repair or construction work is happening.

Sometimes this work requires the existing surface to be removed (as in the Woodman Avenue example) or “trenched” to install underground utilities or similar.

“Trenching” can give Urban Explorers a sometimes surprising cross-section view that extends down several feet below the current road surface. One might encounter, like a slice of layer cake, one or more layers of asphalt on top, then perhaps concrete then brick or just compressed gravel then untreated dirt, clay, rock sand or gravel.

Like the situation in Greece, so much of our history is just sitting there waiting to be uncovered and appreciated. But you don’t have to travel to Greece or England or Italy to see it.

If you have the time, know where to look, what to look for, and how to recognize it, you just might embark on a richly rewarding hobby starting right there on the street where you live.

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