Idaho History

A street paved with wood? Yes, Boise once had that.

The corner of 8th and Main streets in Boise was once paved with wood.
The corner of 8th and Main streets in Boise was once paved with wood. Idaho State Historical Society

Boise’s Main Street was once paved with blocks of wood.

“There will be a grand ball on the pavement at Eighth and Main Street this evening. The pavement will be swept off for the occasion. A brass band will furnish the music. There will be a prize for the best lady dancer. Those having the affair in charge extend an invitation to everybody to participate.”

The time was August 26, 1897, and the occasion was the paving of a section of Main Street with wooden blocks. “The music attracted a great throng to the intersection of Eighth and Main last evening” reported the Statesman. “They wanted to dance but none would break the ice and the crowd finally dispersed.”

On Sept. 4, the firm of Ridenbaugh & Rossi demanded payment from the city for the wooden blocks it had supplied for the paving before it would supply any more. At a City Council meeting a few days later, it was revealed that the city could not afford to pay the $2,413.15 it owed Ridenbaugh & Rossi, but on Sept. 9, 1897, the paper reported, “Block Matter Settled.” Ridenbaugh & Rossi got $1,500 from the city and $1,500 from the streetcar company. The wood-block paving on Main Street between 7th and 8th was formally accepted by the city.

Paving contractor Thomas K. Muir lost his temper at a council meeting in October. “Mr. Muir states that the paving has been completed and he wants his pay, and that he ‘did not propose to be humbugged any longer.’ Mayor Alexander stated that such language would not be allowed, and if it was repeated he would have the marshal show the gentleman downstairs.” (The council chamber was on the second floor.)

At 2:30 in the afternoon of Oct. 4, 1897, the last wooden blocks were laid on Main Street. John Broadbent had the honor of laying the blocks, since he owned the most downtown real estate. “The band was out and the mayor and council were present to celebrate the event, while a large crowd was gathered to witness the completion of the work,” the Statesman reported.

A total of 395,000 wooden blocks had been laid on Main Street between 5th and 10th Streets, and 6,750 tons of crushed lava rock had been used for a foundation. Only a week after the celebration, however, sand left on top of the wood paving to help in packing it down had turned to mud after rain, “causing great annoyance.” At a special meeting of the council on Oct. 18, 1897, Hank Oakes was awarded a contract to keep the new pavement clean for one year for $960.

In May 1898, something different was tried. H.B. Eastman was awarded a contract to macadamize four and a half blocks of 8th Street for $1 per square yard. (Macadamizing is paving by laying and compacting successive layers of broken stone, often with asphalt.)

On June 10, 1898, the steam roller being used on 8th Street broke into what the Idaho Statesman said was “perhaps a cellar,” rekindling speculation by some people of the existence of a network of Chinese tunnels under the city. “As the roller weighs over 11,000 pounds, great difficulty was experienced in raising it.”

On Nov. 19, 1898, the Statesman editorialized: “The council should have the mud scraped off from the macadamized streets and have them thoroughly washed down to a hard bottom. That mud should never have been put on. It will make the streets more of an eyesore than they were before the improvement, as in wet weather it will constitute a sea of slop.” By April 1899, “The macadam on Tenth Street comes out of the winter in wretched condition. It has worked into chuck holes and will soon have to be repaired.”

By February 1903, Boise’s wood-block paving was deteriorating badly, and critics were appearing at council meetings to complain about its condition. One said the people had been “buncoed” five years before into the use of wooden blocks. Several spoke in favor of repaving with the vitrified brick then being manufactured locally.

The streets of heaven might be paved with gold, but Boise’s Main Street was once paved with wood.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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