Friday, May 29, 2009

Cobblestones Rising

One of the cool things about living in an old city like St. Louis is digging stuff up. There are lots of interesting things below the surface, and you never know what you might find.

This month the city is doing lots of street work in downtown. They are using those big pavement grinders to lower the surface of the street to prepare for new pavement. They have to do this, because othewrise, if they just added new pavement over the old, eventually, the surface of the street would be up over the top of the curbs. So they have to grind down the street. And when they do this, they expose the old street surface of downtown from 150 years ago. Here and there, like poltergeists, the old cobblestones are popping through.

This week, you can see cobblestones near the Old Post Office and the new Busch Stadium. I wonder how much of the city originally had cobblestone streets? The labor involved in building a street one stone, or, as in other parts of town, one brick, at a time, put lots of people to work. It must have been an interesting, busy scene. I've also heard that in some places, oiled blocks of wood were used to build alleys. Apparently, there's one near the intersection of 11th and Locust.

You never know what you'll find when you start digging below the surface. A few months ago, I was on hand for a soils exploration on a vacant lot planned for new construction. Under the ground was the debris from a demolition carried out decades ago. A back hoe was digging trenches. They needed to go deep enough to get beneath the debris of the old demolition.

The tractor dug down to virgin soil. The trenches ended up about 8 feet deep. By the way, for the urban agriculture enthusiasts, the soils were excellent. Eight or so feet of dark, rich, top soil; we never found the bottom of it. There is something wonderful about the smell of good quality soil. It's a beautiful thing. It can make you feel good inside.

The tractor operator was skillfull and carefully pulled out huge stone parts of the old building and mass amounts of brick from the ground. There were also lots of unbroken bottles, even through the swishing around of tons of earth at the end of the tractor boom. The bottles glided smoothly with the earth behind the force of the tractor, like they were floating in water. A small bottle appeared, still with a glass stopper in the top. We climbed down into the trench and pulled out the little bottle. The contents were still inside.

The bottle had been buried with the debris of the old house for some thirty years. We opened it up. It was a spice bottle. When the top came off, the fragrant aroma of cloves was strong. I thought after such a long time, the contents would have dried out or turned to dust. Nope. The cloves were preserved and their scent was fresh. It seemed like you could have taken the bottle home and cooked with those cloves the same night.

Then I thought about what it must have been like the day they buried the house underground, kitchen spices and all, and covering it over with a foot or two of earth. They probably didn't think much about it. Strange.


Mark Groth said...

Nice post. I live across from the Christy Park greenway, and when they dug down a foot or so into the park soil to build the bike/ped path, hundreds of glass and metal artifacts were uncovered. Apparently this site was once a dump or informal landfill (unconfirmed); but we too found flasks, vials, china, spice tins, etc. Who would have thought?

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

As far as I know all of the CBD was originally paved in the granite cobblestones and most of them are probably still down there. One exception might be streets that were intensively reconfigured after the turn of the century such as Tucker. For a heart-rending view of what that must have looked like check out the riverfront before the demolitions for the arch grounds.

Rick Bonasch said...

Thanks Andrew for that link. Nini Harris has a new book out about the Arch grounds, showing lots of images of it pre-demolition.

A block by block photographic reconstruction of the old riverfront would be a treasure. Any ideas where someone might find a collection like that?

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