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Here’s a brief history of what’s left of Norfolk’s cobblestone streets

Cobblestone streets in the Freemason section of Norfolk.

Have you ever rumbled down the those picturesque “cobblestone” streets of historic West Freemason in Norfolk?


It was one of the first things I got to see in Norfolk, and it still remains my favorite neighborhood scene in Hampton Roads.

In part because of the beautiful homes, fun shops and those streets with old world charm, Freemason was voted a “Top 10 Great Neighborhood” by the American Planning Association in 2013.

It’s usually a weekly occurrence that I roll down noisy Botetourt Street to go to my favorite coffeeshop, Cure.

But the other day I had some curious thoughts about those granite blocks:

What’s their story? Why are they there? How many stones are there? Why is it so much louder than a regular road? Are they harder on your car and tires than a regular road? What’s it like to maintain such an old school road?

Peter Garner, Norfolk Public Works’ engineer operations manager, says the roads are hard and durable .

In fact, it’s the city’s oldest surviving cobblestone paving and granite curbs. The streets date back to the early 18th century when Freemason became a suburban retreat for prosperous families.

UNKNOWNThis engraving shows the intersection of Freemason and Cumberland Streets in Norfolk in the 1890s.

West Freemason was the first neighborhood within the city limits to be rebuilt in the late 1700s, after Norfolk was nearly completely destroyed during the Revolutionary War, according to the neighborhood association.

While many commonly call the streets “cobblestone,” cobbles are rounded off rocks. Setts, the granite blocks found in Freemason, are quarried and shaped.

The original Freemason streets were paved with stone ship’s ballast – cheap and readily available from merchant vessels at the time. The stones would help keep an empty ship upright.

Freemason was seen as a clean, affluent neighborhood of palatial homes and gardens.

“This street is undoubtedly the most magnificent in the city,” wrote a correspondent in a 18th century news report.

Cobblestone was among the first solutions to all-weather roads in Europe. They didn’t get muddy or rut-filled like dirt roads and provide better traction for horses . In the 19th century, setts became the norm.

The setts lay on a bed of sand that gives them a little room to shift as weather changes.

Asphalt pavement took over in the 20th century to accommodate faster cars, and many setted roads, including those in Freemason and some in Richmond, were paved over.

In the 1970s, West Freemason was named a historic district in part to protect the nature of the neighborhood, but also to help stop a busy highway from going through it.

The city unearthed the old stones in 1977 on about seven blocks of Bute, Botetourt and Freemason streets and re-laid them. It was a half-million-dollar project to do the streets and craft the herringbone-styled brick sidewalks.

If I had to do a rough calculation, I’d say there are probably 175,000 blocks along the 0.4 miles of streets.

The gaps between the setts makes for a noisy affair in your car, but the phenomenon naturally makes us drive slower .

Some mechanics warn that repeated, fast and reckless travel on the cobblestone streets over time may damage your cars suspension and alignment. Normal use does not cause problems.

For the most part, maintenance is minimal, Garner said.

But it can be a pain when stones crack or crumble. The city doesn’t have a bunch of extra stones on hand so sometimes it takes a bit of work to find the right size to fit when things go bad.

It’s rare, but if an area gets particularly pock-marked or uneven, crews will usually replace an entire section of the roadway.

There’s only one other spot with non-traditional streets, as far as Garner or I could find: Marlboro Ave., a short, three-block stretch just south of Norfolk State’s campus. It has a brick lane down the middle and about six feet of pavement on each side.

So there’s your brief history of non-paved streets in our area.

Jordan Pascale, 757-446-2276, Follow @jwpascale on Twitter.

Original article

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