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Round Wood Block Pavement in Fargo, 1896


Modern-day people take street pavement for granted, driving over concrete highways and asphalt streets. But back in the 1890s, the going was tougher. North Dakota’s towns had dirt roads or hard-packed soil that could turn into sticky mud during a good rain, becoming impassible.

One early approach involved wood-block paving, cut from logs, and circular in shape. In 1895 the Fargo city council approved cedar block paving for sections of Front, Northern Pacific, and Broadway streets. And on this date in 1896, newspapers reported that Fargo’s City Council had approved paving an additional section of Broadway all the way to 12th Avenue North.

Workers prepared the roadbeds by scraping them level and packing the dirt with heavy street-rollers. Next, they added a layer of sand for drainage. Wooden planks covered the sand, followed by round cedar blocks. Finally, workers tamped sand and gravel into all the crevices, making a “smooth, regular surface” suitable for horses, bicycles, carriages, and heavy wagons.

These circular blocks were typically four to nine inches wide, and four to eight inches deep. Cedar was chosen for its low initial cost and its resistance to rotting.

And so, Fargo proudly paved its downtown and nearby residential streets – but then disaster happened! In the spring of 1897, the worst flood yet struck the town.

Floodwater gushed over the new paving and undermined the foundation. The water pushed up cedar blocks, sweeping them into the swirling Red River. The blocks floated away to the north, up the Red River Valley, through Grand Forks, all the way to Canada, past Winnipeg, and into Hudson Bay! More than ten city blocks of wooden pavement floated north on the Red, and another six city-blocks were so washed-out that the cedar pieces had to be collected and painstakingly reinstalled.

Fargo spent $50,000 to fix the damage, and, by 1899, boasted that it had ten miles of cedar-block streets. But, by 1910, the cedar paving had deteriorated badly, and Fargo replaced its wooden blocks with brick, asphalt, or concrete.

Even though North Dakota’s cities have put the age of impossibly muddy streets behind them, the difficult climate still puts bumps in the road. Continual freezing and thawing this time of year torments drivers with “Pothole Season.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources. “News In Brief; Paving Of Broadway,” Hope [ND] Pioneer, March 20, 1896, p. 2; “Paving for Fargo,” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 11, 1896, p. 1.

“The Flood Prospect,” Pembina Pioneer Express, April 9, 1897, p. 1.

“Water Recedes,” Fargo Forum, April 7, 1897, p. 1.

“Loss Falls Heavy,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, April 15, 1897, p. 2.

“The Paving Damaged,” Grand Forks Herald, April 7, 1897, p. 4.

“Disaster at Fargo,” Grand Forks Herald, April 6, 1897, p. 1.

“Facts About Fargo,” The Record, vol. 4, no. 10, (April, 1899), p. 375.

Frederick Spalding, A Text-Book on Roads and Pavements (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1912), p. 308-309.

“The City and County,” Grand Forks Herald, June 27, 1899, p. 28.

“Paved Streets,” Grand Forks Herald, December 19, 1899, p. 12.

“South Sides Want Paving,” Fargo Forum, January 25, 1911, p. 10.