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The automobile craze required better roads

Published July 21. 2012 10:55AM

During the early decades of the 20th century, the automobile era created a new landscape across America. The motorcar would usher in a whole new industry of roadside businesses including restaurants, motels and tourist cabins, drive-in restaurants and drive-in theaters.

The new generation of independent travelers also brought a need for improved roads. When bicycle clubs began springing up across the country in the early 1890's, the two-wheel enthusiasts pushed hard for road improvements. Their efforts led to the "National League for Good Roads," a movement which enlisted the help of journalists, farmers, politicians and engineers in order to improve the roadways. The group's publication, Good Roads Magazine, began publishing in 1892, reaching a circulation of one million within three years.

Chapters across the country held road conventions and public demonstrations, published material on the benefits of good roads and targeted influential legislators on local, state and national levels.

People needed little convincing about the need for better roads. When the automobile arrived on the scene, it kicked up clouds of dust during dry weather and that turned to mud after a heavy rain. It's been estimated that some 27,000 tons of water fall annually on one mile of road so many an unpaved surface could quickly become a quagmire.

In April of 1912, housewives in New Philadelphia in Schuylkill County complained to officials about cleaning the streets with a fire hose. They said this did keep the dust down but when the muddy water splashed against the houses, it just created more cleanup work for the women.

The county did order town officials in both New Philadelphia and Orwigsburg to improve their streets or face legal action.

"The court has given the councils and borough officials of New Philadelphia and Orwigsurg notice that unless repairs are begun to these towns before next Monday the district attorney will be directed to draw up indictments charging the councilmen and officials with misdemeanor in office," the Tamaqua Courier reported in its April 3, 1912 edition.

The reporter agreed that the main thoroughfares in both towns were in very bad condition, prompting the county's warning.

"The judges are determined to punish all laxity upon the part of borough officials and during the May sessions every constable will be closely examined as to the condition of the roads in their bailiwick," he stated.

Poor road conditions were a lingering problem for Schuylkill County officials. Six months earlier, four West Penn Township supervisors were called before the court to explain why they were neglecting their roads.

"Teamsters and automobile owners in this section are up in arms over the wretched condition of the roads in West Penn Township," the Courier reported in its Oct. 18, 1911 edition. "Almost from the Tamaqua borough limits clear to Leibyville the roads are in such bad shape that to drive them is almost impossible and for automobiles to get through in wet weather is an impossibility."

He said roads in the Leibyville section were especially bad.

"Several Tamaqua automobile parties have during the past week been stuck in the mud at Leibyville and had to be shoveled out," a reporter stated. "Notwithstanding the fact that the state only two years ago built two miles of good road in the township, the West Penn supervisors have also allowed this to run down until now it is almost as bad as the rest of the roads in the township."

John Kerschner, a veteran road maker for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, advocated taxing the motorist for all the wear and tear their autos were causing to roads.

"He contends that the smallest car as well as the heaviest of them when speeding suck up the covering upon the roads and cast it to the winds and there remain ruts instead," a Courier writer stated in July of 1912. "He declared that the heaviest of the timber teams are not as harmful to a road as are the modern speeding auto cars."

In the same edition, the Courier reported that the state had begun repairing the roads near New Philadelphia.

"Trap rock is being put on and the road placed in decent shape until the state gets ready to put down its state road between Pottsville and Tamaqua, which will hardly be before next summer," the report stated.

While government action many times seemed slow, road building technology showed steady advancement, thanks to the improved building materials.

In the late 1800s, road builders depended solely on stone, gravel and sand for road construction. The first concrete road slab pavement was laid in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1894.

The implementation of asphalt on roads was a game-changer.

Rock asphalt and natural asphalt, products which had a long history in waterproofing, were being used as building products as early as the 19th century. Hot tar was used in England to bind the broken stones together as early as 1820.

In 1906, the first bituminous macadam road was constructed in Rhode Island. In building the bituminous-mixed macadam pavement, a mixture of crushed rock, ground glass and other additives, and bituminous binder was spread over a macadam foundation and rolled into a compact mass.

The bituminous material formed an impervious binder.

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