By Jim Hunt for the News and Journal
I had a meeting in Charleston, West Virginia recently and the lady I was meeting with was from
Seattle, Washington and had never visited West Virginia before. We picked her up at
Charleston’s Yeager Airport and decided to have dinner before checking in to the Marriott
Town Center in Downtown Charleston. As we dined on a wonderful seafood meal at the
Tidewater, she casually mentioned that she hoped to drive by Summers Street. I thought this
was somewhat odd, that someone who had never visited our state would want to see, of all
things, a street in the city of Charleston. She explained that she was doing some checking online
prior to her trip and she learned that Summers Street in Charleston had the first brick paved
street back in 1870. They had done only a small portion as a test and when they saw how
successful it was, they paved the entire block, and the method of paving was patented in 1873.
Prior to using brick, roads were generally made of dirt and gravel, and it was rough and muddy
most of the time.
It is interesting that something that most Americans are on every day, roads are taken for
granted unless they develop a dreaded pothole and then they become the subject of jokes on
the late-night television shows. In my lifetime, I have seen roads in West Virginia develop from
two-lane, curvy roads into the modern transportation network we have today. And yet, we still
hear Hoppy Kercheval’s famous refrain, “Fix the damn roads!” shouted from hill to valley. Will
we ever be satisfied? Billions of dollars are spent each year and people seem to forget the
three-hour trek to Charleston from Clarksburg. We speed to WVU Football games in just over
thirty minutes when it used to take more than an hour when I was a student in Morgantown.
And who could forget the windy road in Southern West Virginia that took close to an hour until
it was replaced by the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville.
Even city streets are in better shape than many years ago. Citizens expect alleys behind their
houses to be paved and scraped in the winter. In my youth, alleys were gravel, and you could
see a car coming from the cloud of dust trailing behind. Until the EPA prohibited it, cities would
pour used oil on the alleys to keep the dust down and the tennis shoes dirty. Some cities in
North Central West Virginia still have remnants of those hundred and fifty-year-old brick streets
that started in Charleston. Stanley Avenue in Clarksburg is one of the few remaining brick
streets and more can be found in many cities in the area. They have become harder and harder
to repair and cities sometimes just pave over them with asphalt.
Some people wonder why streets and roads seem to fail more often than years ago. The
answer is increased traffic and the increased size of the trucks that travel on our streets and
roads. If you look at an old picture, a milk truck was barely the size of a large SUV and now the
UPS, Amazon, and FedEx trucks are many times larger and carry tons more cargo. We often see
large concrete and steel structures traveling up the interstate with police cars in front and back.
These excessive loads wear out the pavement quickly and increase weak spots in the roadway
that leads to cracking and potholes. Years ago, the rail lines carried the large containers and smaller trucks were dispatched to deliver in cities and along country roads. Now, we seem to
have traded our smooth roads for the convenience of overnight delivery and instant everything.
Our roads are the lifeline of today’s modern society, and it doesn’t look like we will change that
soon. From the invention of the brick street in Charleston, West Virginia in 1870 to the ribbons
of asphalt and concrete covering our nation today, roads are something to be appreciated.