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Fact Check: Detroit wasn’t the first city to pave its roads in concrete

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Court Avenue, Bellefontaine (left) and Woodward Avenue, Detroit (right). Photos courtesy AA Roads (left) and American Concrete Pavement Association (right).

Earlier this year, a handful of Michigan groups got together to restore and re-dedicate a historical marker along Woodward Avenue in Detroit that, no doubt, left many observers under the impression that the Michigan city pioneered the use of concrete in paved roads. However, according to set-in-concrete facts (*groan*), Detroit was more than a decade behind other cities in the practice.

It’s easy to take the streets under our tires for granted until they turn into potholed messes, but paved roads not only made the automobile feasible, they made much of our modern life possible, for better or worse. Try to imagine your commute on dirt, gravel, cobble, or plank roads rather than on concrete, macadam, or asphalt, and you’ll quickly see how paved roads have enabled at the very least a speedier pace of life. Which is why it’s worth diving into their history.

To their credit, MotorCities, the Detroit Entertainment Commission, the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, and Hagerty Insurance – along with the entities that initially put up the historical marker – made sure to commemorate the first mile of concrete highway on Woodward. Indeed, in 1909, Wayne County paved the entire stretch of Woodward – already significant in automotive history – from Six Mile to Seven Mile in concrete at a cost of nearly $14,000, replacing a road surface that up until then consisted of dirt or wood planks. That concrete remained in place until 1922, when Woodward was expanded into the divided highway we recognize today.

That’s not to say, however, that it was the first concrete paved road in the country. Rather, Bellefontaine, Ohio, lays claim to the first four concrete paved roads. Thanks to George Bartholomew, who was experimenting with local materials for use in mixing concrete in the city, Bellefontaine’s Main Street received a narrow eight-foot-wide strip of concrete in 1891 for hitching horses. Based on that success, the city then allowed him to pave Court Avenue and Opera Street in 1893, then the rest of Main Street and Columbus Avenue in 1894, all directly in front of the courthouse square.

In total, Bartholemew’s paving covered 7,700 square yards but stretched just 1,030 linear feet or so – not even a quarter mile. Still, the city has celebrated the roads over the last 125 years and kept the Court Street segment in place with periodic rehabilitation over the years.

Bellefontaine isn’t the only city with a claim on having the first concrete paved streets. According to Norbert Delatte’s “Concrete Pavement Design, Construction, and Performance,” J. Y. McClintock poured a section of portland cement concrete on South Fitzhugh Street in Rochester, New York, in 1893. It soon broke apart, however, and within two and a half years, the city covered the pavement with asphalt. “In spite of this possible earlier history, it is clear the Bellefontaine was the first successful, long-lasting concrete pavement,” Delatte wrote.

Other experiments in concrete paved roads pre-dated the Woodward mile. Chicago, for instance, paved Front Street in concrete in 1905. And Fred J. Warren’s “bituminous concrete,” a mix of refined petroleum, sand, and gravel, was first laid down in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1901.

However, the Woodward mile ended up having an outsized impact on the paving of America’s streets. As Delatte noted, the Public Works Department of Detroit conducted what was likely “the first controlled evaluation of concrete pavement performance” leading up to the paving of the Woodward mile, and the city followed the Woodward mile with 60 more miles of concrete pavement over the next two years. Seedling miles that the Portland Cement Association placed around the country during the Teens to encourage cities and counties to adopt the paving method – such as the Lincoln Highway seedling mile outside Mt. Vernon, Illinois – may have also drawn inspiration from or been patterned after the Woodward mile.