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From Mississippi to Marylebone: many of London's old wooden streets began as red gum trees in the Magnolia State.

In 1968, as a young airman, I was stationed at Chicksands Air Force Base near Bedford, England. In April of that year, I visited London for the first time. I was 23 years old. I rode the train about eight miles from Bedford, the county seat town of Bedfordshire, to the Marylebone train station in London.

When I arrived, the sky was battleship gray with heavy, low clouds and drizzling rain. With the same sense of both Christian and secular historical awe that had filled my mind throughout my upbringing as a Methodist and an admirer of English literature, I stepped, gripping my new British-made umbrella in my right hand, from Marylebone's main doorway onto the wet pavement leading to the street. In what surely was no more than a nanosecond, both of my feet skidded out from under me, and somehow I had the presence of mind to catch myself with my left hand. I vividly remember seeing the pavement only inches from my face. It was wood! The entire area, which I assume was designed for vehicles to pull close to the building's entrance, was paved with thick rectangular blocks of wood. Forever etched into my memory are those slippery wooden blocks, which I felt at the time announced to all of London that a country bumpkin of a colonist had come to town.

For a lack of knowledge perhaps more than anything else, I dismissed this incident until about 10 years ago when, while reading microfilm at the State Department of Archives and History in Jackson, I ran across an old article in the Daily Clarion Ledger. The brief news announcement stated that an English timber buyer was in the state to purchase red gum lumber, which he intended to use in paving the streets of various British cities. Intrigued with the possibility of finding more information about wooden streets, I made several trips to the archives, where I read through two years of Jackson daily papers until I finally found what I was looking for.

In the July 10, 1905, issue of the Jackson Evening News, there is a news item written in the form of an interview with Edward Olcott of London, "the premier hardwood lumber exporter of the world." Apparently Mr. Olcott had been in Mississippi for some time buying large quantities of red gum lumber. He was quoted as saying, "I have done considerable paving work in England, and I was the first person to introduce the wooden pavements in London. We use red gum for paving, laying it upon a 6-inch concrete foundation. It makes the finest pavement in the world and should last from 40 to 50 years."

As a private contractor, Olcott stated that he had laid "about 12 miles of red gum pavement at Brighton, at Cardiff 11 or 12 miles, and another 12 miles in the London suburbs." It appears that this Englishman was sold on the durability of red gum, which he called a "dense, heavy, gummy wood," and its ability to hold up under traffic. In his words, "the wheels of vehicles smooth the top of the blocks together, making the surface as smooth as a hardwood floor."

For his purposes, Olcott said he preferred gum blocks, which measured S or 6 x 3 inches, or in some case 4 1/2 x 3 inches, all of which were 9 inches long. (As a point of reference, a common brick used in home construction today measures 3 3/4 x 2 1/4 x 8 inches.) Some contractors used wooden dowels to lock the blocks together; however, Olcott said his method was to brace the blocks from each side of the roadbed and then seal the joints with "pitch, creosote oil, and some tar."

The cost of Olcott's timber purchase, the first in the state since 1903, was reported to be $1.5 million. In closing his interview, he aimed what may have been considered a challenge to our state's road builders: "I have shipped 75,000 tons of red gum lumber from Mississippi to pave the streets of London, and you are putting down brick pavements with this exhaustless supply of timber at your doors."

For the last 800 years, many of London's streets have been paved with stones or granite blocks. The purpose for this costly endeavor has always been pretty much the same: to reduce mud and dust while providing a firm road surface to aid horses in pulling heavy loads. During the mid-to-late 19th century and even into the early years of the 20th century, there was a great deal of experimentation with street surfaces. Perhaps the most popular and therefore most widely used paving process was macadam, a system of mixing crushed stone with either concrete or a bituminous material such as tar and then compacting it, usually with the aid of a heavy roller. This method of paving dates from 1836 and was introduced by noted British engineer Sir John L. McAdam. However, as good as macadamizing was, the long, wet winter and spring seasons in Britain--just as here--destroyed the cohesion of the roadbed. The softened surface soon became a quagmire filled with potholes.

By the late 1870s, the use of 6-inch concrete foundations had become pretty much universal, and by the 1880s, asphalt was becoming a more and more preferred option. It was, however, about this time that wood was introduced as the premier paving surface. Unlike stone, the wooden blocks swelled when wet and fit more tightly together, sealing out the mud. It was also argued that wood was cleaner, quieter, and safer than any other surface.

British writer Ralph Turvey reported in his booklet Street Mud, Dust, and Noise that in 1875, "the surveyor of St. George Hanover Square reported that the experimental wood paving in Piccadilly had 'worn exceedingly well, and apart from the questions of expense, there can be no doubt that for safety, cleanliness, and noiselessness, this description of pavement is preferable to any other.'" From another source, Turvey found that shopkeepers were quick to voice their opinions about the new wooden-surfaced street with sentiments such as "We can now hear and speak to our customers, and our customers can hear and speak to us without raising their voices. It is now no longer necessary to keep our doors or our windows shut to get rid of the noise." By 1884, 18 percent of all the streets in the city of London--the largest city in the world at the time--were paved with wood. It isn't known what percentage of those streets were paved with Mississippi wood, but it may have been significant.

By 1910, however, it was asphalt, not wood, that had gained worldwide public acceptance. The newly enhanced elasticity and cohesiveness of this product, which allowed it to compete against the extremes of Mother Nature, together with the introduction of the pneumatic-tired automobile, ushered in a new era. Today in London, there are no wooden streets, and with each passing year, more and more asphalt is seen. In fact, even the traditional cut stone or cobblestone streets have survived for the most part only in the historic areas. Time truly does have a way of erasing knowledge. If it weren't for history books or photographs or perhaps museums, many of us would find it hard to believe that wooden ships or wooden airplanes or wooden streets ever existed at all.
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Title Annotation:LOOKING BACK
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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