Published on April 3rd, 2013 | by Daniel Rahe


Historic Streets?

The City of Tacoma is considering a proposal to designate the pavement on certain streets in the North Slope area as protected historic features – specifically, the stony slopes of North 9th, 10th and 11th Streets between North K Street and North G street.

For a city so relatively recently enamored with its history, on the face of it this idea has a lot of appeal. After all, the stones of North 9th, 10th, and 11th Streets have fared remarkably well over more than 100 years of existence in an environment that is notoriously abusive to roads. On the other hand, by the time we get around to repairing the potholes on the other streets in Tacoma, they might be 100 years old themselves. It is also worth mentioning that these particular streets are not the only ones in Tacoma with remaining Turn of the Century pavement, though most have been paved over or removed.


Map Depicting Stone-paved Streets Proposed for Historic Status

Map Depicting Stone-paved Streets Proposed for Historic Status

[Editor’s Note: To be forthcoming, the nomination to add the streets to the historic register is one that I support as a commissioner on Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Perhaps it is uncouth to editorialize on city business I’m involved in, but the proceedings are all matters of public record. I’m not a journalist or an official, nor am I claiming to speak for the City or any of its employees in any way. I’m just very famous and very wordy.]

The streets that are being considered for historic status have an interesting history, which was explored thoroughly in the nomination submittal prepared by Marshall McClintock of the North Slope Historic District and Historic Tacoma (and ex-officio to the Landmarks Preservation Commission).

The stone streets, with their brick gutters, were built between 1905 and 1910. Before that time, the city had struggled to find a durable way to pave streets. Most of the heavily-travelled streets were paved with wooden planks, which were prone to rot and became extremely slippery during rainfall. The challenges of the region’s heavy rains and the steep slopes of the main residential and business districts combined to make roadways extremely difficult to maintain, and hazardous for horse-drawn traffic.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the bustling main avenues of commerce frequently turned into impassable, muddy gullies. Different surfacing techniques were tried, but were either unfit for wagon traffic or simply didn’t last. These frustrations finally spurred the city to make the sizeable investment of stone paving.

Contractor T.J. Cannon, as photographed in a contemporary newspaper

Contractor T.J. Cannon, as photographed in a contemporary newspaper

Mr. T.J. Cannon was hired to install the stone and brick street surfaces on dozens of Tacoma’s roadways. The stones were cut from Wilkeson sandstone, and custom-fit by trained stonemasons. Since this work demanded a high degree of skill, it also commanded some of the best wages paid in Tacoma at that time.

There are rumors in Tacoma that the stone streets were paved with ballast material dumped from ships in Commencement Bay. McClintock’s research indicates that those rumors are entirely false. He also found no evidence to support the tales of Chinese immigrants being exploited for the work, and then expelled. The Chinese community had been cruelly forced out of town years before the stones were laid.

Yes, the remaining stone streets of Tacoma stand as testament to the precision and proficiency of Mr. Cannon and his workers, but after more than 100 years of enduring weather and wheels, it would be dishonest to say that they are in pristine condition. Anyone who has navigated an automobile or ridden a bicycle up or down N 9th can tell you that.

Though repairs have been made since 1905, damages endure, as City staff noted in its analysis:

In certain areas, asphalt and stamped concrete have been used for repair and maintenance; in addition, some paving stones have been replaced, some of the concrete curbs are destroyed and several severe depressions have affected the existing conditions of the streets…. The City maintains a condition rating based on a 100 point scale. Many areas of the pavements under consideration have been rated as “failed,” scoring 20 points or less on the scale.”

To employ a favorite phrase of hack writers, therein lies the rub.

Replacing or repairing stone pavement is expensive, at least five to ten times the cost of typical asphalt. The subgrade beneath the street surfaces needs to be restored to a less undulating and potholish condition, and then the custom-cut stones can be re-set in their original positions on that repaired surface. It’s slow and tedious work. As Tacoma residents know, even the relatively less costly and less exacting necessary repairs to asphalt streets are obviously lagging due to scant resources.

The repair and maintenance of these streets is not the only concern or criticism regarding this proposal. Declaring a private residence or building to be historic is one thing; declaring a publicly-owned feature historic is another. The cost of meeting historic preservation requirements is borne by the owners of historic structures, for the most part. But if we as a community are to invest in the preservation of these streets, the City will need to communicate clearly the value and importance of doing so – especially since North 9th, 10th and 11th Streets are not in a well-travelled or easily-showcased part of town.

Workers install the stone street pavement, as photographed in a contemporary newspaper

Workers install the stone street pavement, as photographed in a contemporary newspaper

Tacoma is not the only city with preserved historic street surfaces. Hundreds of European cities retain centuries-old cobble streets, and several American cities have found value in preserving the sense of place and heritage that can be indicated by the original brick or stone. The residents of Tacoma’s North Slope have expressed a keen desire to place value on their neighborhood’s history, and have largely thrown their support behind its historic status. Preserving the stones of North 9th, 10th and 11th Streets fits neatly within their vision.

The City of Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Mr. McClintock’s nomination to move on to public hearing, which will be held on April 10 at 5:30PM in the City Council Chambers at 747 Market Street. The discussion, I’m sure, will be quite interesting. We have a unique opportunity before us to preserve a part of our history that has been gifted to us almost by accident. It would be a shame to let these worn stone streets suffer further disrepair or removal without at least considering their value to us.

Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

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Founder of Post Defiance, Dan is a father, surveyor, writer, and runner.

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