Building a Road, 1860

I played hooky from work today and allowed my mind to wander.

What was a really good road like in (say) 1860? How about a really good city street? Proper drainage of course, crowned I suppose. Gravel base? Gravel top? Any concrete anywhere?

Moving further afield, how would we go about building a really good road in that era? We would have unlimited manpower, but few machines. Gravel crushers? (At the site or the quarry? Steam-powered?) Rollers? Steam or man-powered? If a rolller is impractical, how would we smooth the surface?

I wonder if clay would make a good traffic surface. But then I wonder about a lot of things when I am sick.

For a city street, you’d pave it using stone pavers. With unlimited manpower (or large amounts of it), you can build a fine street. Many stone-paver paved roads are still in current use by vehicles & pedestrians in many NorthEast cities (Boston is a prime example).

Shovels & rakes would be my guess for excavation, placement, filling & smoothing.

As for longer distance roads, I’d say that most of them were likely similar to today’s modern “Fire Roads” in the woods. Cleared of vegitation (somewhat), trees (enough to pass a wagon or two through, and that’s about it. They’d get muddy during mud season, slippery during snow. Repairs would be spot repairs.

As for a Roller, they had barrels, they could have been filled with lead/sand/stone/water and used to smooth as well… not as good as a modern steamroller, but it’d work.

As the average speed of a wheeled vehicle back then would be rather limited, it wouldn’t need to be perfectly smooth to support a reasonable ride “jiggle”.

These are my WAGs.

This predates the period you’re asking about by a long way, but it’s still worth reading about construction of roads in Roman times:

As you can see, road building was already pretty advanced even back then, and the relevance to your question is that many roads of Roman construction remained in use in 1860 - indeed many are still in use today, although they mostly have modern surfaces overlaying the Roman bits.

1860 looks to be a bit late, really–John McAdam was long dead by that point. The macadamized National Road was built between 1811 and 1840. So you did have tarmac roads in 1860. (Along with, certainly, a majority of crappy dirt roads.)

I’d agree with this 100%. I live in CT, and we have some old roads…I love Google Earth, because it allows me to indulge in one of my hobby’s. Finding old roads in back woods places. Look for linear indentations, wagon tracks, clearings…It’s not hard because CT (and all of New England) was completely devoid of timber in the 18th century…The main cash crop were the stumps left behind. I kid you not. They were used for charcoal. I’ve got an old road running through a wood near my home, I walk it sometimes with my Metal Detector…I’ve found old Bridles, hitchings, wagon wheels…etc…etc…

Some roads, at least, were still being made of split logs laid side by side for miles!
Corduroy Road
another picture
I understand they were quite common in the earlier stages of American and Canadian expansion, and still being maintained in some cases until well into the 20thC
Old Plank Road, California

In the 1860s in the US most roads were pretty crappy, not much more than dirt trails that had the trees cleared away. Most people didn’t have far to go and if it took longer in rainy weather, well you expected that.

As for “good roads,” according to this site, in heavily populated areas, some roads were paved. This could be cobblestone, blocks of wood, or in some areas (I’m thinking of near Milwaukee but I’m sure it was done elsewhere - on preview, California for instance) boards or planks. The cost meant that you didn’t do this all over, just in heavily traveled areas. Most city streets would still have been native dirt. Clay would have been preferred as it is hard when dry, but of course, very sticky when wet. Old photos on Minnesota towns, even into the early 1900s all have dirt streets.

In 1816 and British surveyor for Bristol revived the Roman road building techniques (with modifications) of using multiple layers to improve subsurface drainage and having a hard surface and side ditches to move surface water away. Some patches of Roman roads in Britain (and elsewhere I’m sure) can still be found and were used by foot and horse/oxen traffic for centuries after the Romans left.

Anyway, the Macadam technique was brought to the US in Maryland in 1823. Bituminous was not used as part of the construction technique until later in the 1800s.

Anyway, getting back to actually answering your question – In the 1860s the work would have been by manual labor and draft animals. I’ve seen pictures of horse drawn blades (like a motor grader) used to smooth out the working surface, carts to haul material and lots of guys with shovels. I don’t believe there would have been gravel crushers at the time and naturally graded materials would be used. (Some river or glacial deposits did make pretty good road building material in the natural state without crushing.)

City streets may have had drain inlets and underground piping of water to rivers, but this would have only been in the nicer areas of larger cities. Spots where the people were rich and important enough to get out of the muck and manure. Cobble stones and kerb stones would have been cut to size in quarries. I know some local (to Minnesota) quarries had steam power to haul rock and drill holes in the 1880s, but I don’t know if that was prevalent in the1860s elsewhere.

Of course, Wikipedia has an entry on the history of roads that might be interesting to you.

Steam shovels were not practical for road building until the early 1900s. They were big, bulky, expensive, and were best used for mining, canal building or other large projects. There is a lot that was done with human and horse labor.

You asked about rollers. Again, steam power would not have been applied to that yet. One technique of compacting the layers of road building material would have been to use hand tampers, a heavy flat plate with a vertical handle to lift it and let it drop. If they did use larger rollers they would have been pulled by horse or ox.

Thank you all. It seems that with time & money you could make a pretty good road. Mostly, people just didn’t bother. River travel was Good Enough, I suppose.

Who would have thought that Wikipedia would have such a fine article on Roman Roads?

River and rail travel. In the US, at least, people pretty much stopped improving the road network around 1850, because nobody used it any more for long-distance travel. The 1919 army caravan, chronicled in the book American Road, found a national road network more primitive in some ways than that of 1840.

Tangentally related, there’s a great description of what went into railroad grading in one of the Little House books - By the Shores of Silver Lake, I think.

Not every place in the US had access to cheap gravel like glacial deposits. The stereotype of prisoners cracking rocks with sledge hammers may have something to do with the need for gravel to line roads and rail lines.

Of course if you could make the roadbed for a rail line, you could make a the roadbed for a road. (I wonder if cracked bricks would work as gravel in areas what have no natural gravel.)

Cinders and slag leftover from iron smelting might make good, porous, road bed material. I don’t know about its structural qualities though.