The paving of downtown Washington
By 1890, the City of Washington had finally recovered from the economic disaster that was the Civil War. Maritime commerce was once again booming, and two rail lines had brought their tracks to town. With easy access to northern markets, two oyster canneries were built in Washington to take advantage of the abundant local oysters. Each plant employed hundreds of shuckers working long hours for meager wages resulting in vast quantities of discarded oyster shells.
What to do with this trash? Pave the streets! In 1891, the city began layering Main Street and Market Street with the oyster shells. The burden of the horses, buggies, and wagons passing over the shells eventually crushed and packed them into a reasonably solid surface.
During the summer of 2020, contractors for the City of Washington completed the Main Street streetscape project. They redid the underground utilities and created a more “pedestrian-friendly” downtown. In the process, they removed the paving along Main Street. Knowing that the streets in town were once paved in oyster shells and later with brick, I thought I would take a look to see if any evidence remained below the surface of the old roadway.
It didn’t take long for me to find indications that the accounts were accurate. Lying alongside a deep hole dug at the intersection of Main and Market Streets were scattered whole and shattered oyster shells and a few paving bricks.
After doing a little “digging” online, I found the following quotes from news clips in several old Washington papers discussing the paving of the town streets:
“The city fathers have made a start towards shelling the streets, a good move and in the right direction. Market street with a shell bed from the river to the Cemetery would be the finest drive in the county.”
“Market street is being covered with oyster shells from the J. S. Farran & Co canning factory.”
In the book “Washington and the Pamlico,” several longtime residents remembered when oyster shell paved streets were typical. One such resident, Pattie Baugham McMullan, is quoted as saying, “The elm trees made a lovely green arch and at that time paving consisted of ground oyster shells whose whiteness formed a lovely contrast to the greenery overhead.”
By 1905, Washington was at its peak as a center of commerce for this part of the state. To accommodate the increased traffic generated by the expanding business, the city decided to improve the streets in the central part of town using brick pavers.
Sure enough, in the construction debris at the Market and Main Street hole were found paving bricks. Upon researching newspaper stories on the brick pavers, I found the following notice dated September 1905.
“Brick Paving, Washington, N. C. Sealed proposals will be received… …for constructing vitrified brick paving… James S. Hall, Engineer, Washington, N. C.”
In October 1905, The Washington Progress also reported: “Work has begun on paving Main Street. The curbing being put down.”
By November 1905, it was announced: “Main Street looks quite different now from what it did a month ago. The paving has been finished, and it now has the appearance of the main thoroughfare of some large city. The pavers are now at work on Market Street.” Sometime in mid-century, the brick pavers were covered with asphalt.
Ray Midgett is a local historian and the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.
The streetscape project has been completed. Not only has the street been resurfaced, but in remembrance of the old street pavers, the sidewalks have been widened and paved with a new layer of attractive, multicolored bricks.