Monday, July 24, 2023

Paved Streets

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Street grader in Chemung County

Driving during the summer can often be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like every road you come across is in the process of being built, or badly needs to be repaired. To add to the frustration, drivers navigating construction zones, summer weather, and road conditions often have a short supply of patience. It’s as if the smell of asphalt goes along with hot air and hot tempers.

In its purest form, asphalt is the hardened form of petroleum. Currently, the United States leads in petroleum production, and it was in our region that one of the world's first petroleum deposits, located in what is now western Pennsylvania, was used by the Seneca. As far back as the 15th century, the indigenous group was known to use the sticky substance for healing lotions and in ceremonial fires.

Road construction in Chemung County
Using asphalt for paving road surfaces starts to show up in the late 19th century. At first, Elmira’s busier streets were covered with either vitrified (a heating process to harden) bricks over sand or Medina stone, a material discovered during construction of the Erie Canal. For a while, these surfaces stood up to ever increasing traffic. But when the area’s population passed 30,000 people, it became clear that the city’s roads needed more attention. Local officials turned to newer technologies.

Engineers had been using petroleum in liquid form as a road cover for gravel-covered streets. They found it helpful in keeping the road surface intact and reducing the dust kicked up by traffic. Then Edward Joseph de Smedt, a Belgian immigrant, chemist, and professor at Columbia University, came up with another idea for using petroleum. Using the material in hardened form, he developed what he called asphalt concrete.

De Smedt’s process mixed crude petroleum with construction materials, like sand and gravel, then dried the mixture into sheets that were laid down on a gravel road. The sheets were applied in layers, with each layer compacted to create a flexible and stronger surface. Through trial and error, de Smedt was convinced that the new layered pavement was successful. In July 1870, the first asphalt road was paved in Newark, NJ. Much to the chagrin of another man, de Smedt went on to be called the inventor of asphalt paving.

General Averell
That other man was General William W. Averell from Bath, NY. During his Civil War service, Averell had come across naturally dried petroleum or asphalt in the Carolinas. Seeing its potential, he formed the Grahamite Asphalt Pavement Company, and set himself up as its president. In 1870, while observing de Smedt’s approach, Averell saw problems. He went on to experiment on his own and in 1878, Averell filed a patent, “Improvement in Asphaltic Pavement” staking his claim to fame.

Amzi Barber: The King of Asphalt
Other investors and entrepreneurs swarmed to get in on the new financial opportunities. An American businessman, Amzi L. Barber, decided the best way to make money in the asphalt business was to control the source of petroleum. He set about buying mineral rights. Barber, later known as the Asphalt King, already held financial interests in real estate and the Locomobile Company of America, one of the first American automobile manufacturers. Barber believed that both of these benefited from having paved streets. Barber bought some of de Smedt’s patents and went into business with his brother-in-law, Buffalo industrialist John J. Albright, establishing the Barber Asphalt Company.

Barber Asphalt was competitive and bid for work all around the country. In 1895, Elmira leaders decided to pave the first roads in asphalt and awarded the contract to Barber over a local firm, Costello & Neagle. West Church Street, west of Main was paved that summer. The Barber Asphalt Company beat Costello & Neagle at least one more time in 1897, underbidding them by only .01 cent per square yard.

By the turn of the century, the Barber Asphalt Company had laid more than 12 million square yards of asphalt pavement in 70 American cities to the amount of $35 million, well over a billion dollars today. Most of Barber’s business ventures seem to have been successful, but they were not without controversy. Numerous reports of international bribes, faulty patent use, and coercion led to lawsuits against the company, including one filed by General Averell, who challenged Barber’s use of patents. Averell won and was awarded nearly $400,000, about $11 million in today’s money. Despite this vindication, Averell was never able to change the narrative of who invented pavement.

Star-Gazette March 6, 1896

Another unsuccessful Barber venture was his attempt to establish The Asphalt Trust by consolidating companies and creating a monopoly. It was ultimately denied by the federal courts and the trust collapsed. Even so, Barber’s wealth seemed to endure. When he died in 1909 of pneumonia at the age of 66, he left his second wife, Julie Louise Langdon, first cousin to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, and five children an inheritance said to be worth millions. However in the spring of 1913, the New York Times reported that six years before he died, he had sold off many of his interests to his brother-in-law for a guaranteed annual income of $12,000.

Today the majority of American roads are paved with asphalt. It continues to be one of the least costly methods to use even though it means that summer also seems like road repair season. 

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