Did you ever see an early picture of Elko? Every street in town was a dirt road that turned into a muddy mess after the winter season. The melting springtime snow would run off into the center of the street and flow into houses and shops along the way. It’s hard to imagine the village streets not being paved but online sources say actual road improvement did not begin within the city on a large scale until 1934.

It seems people out west were just content to use dirt roads to get around. And it wasn’t because of a lack of materials. This week we celebrate the asphalt paving of the first road in the U.S occurring on July 29, 1870 just in front of the city hall in Newark, New Jersey.

All roads in Elko County are now paved with asphalt. The money to do this comes from a tax on the gasoline we buy at the pump. Although they were quite plentiful years ago, there are very few concrete roads within Elko County today; the only one coming to mind is the short section of Interstate 80 on the way to Wells that dates from the original road construction of the late 1970s as they followed the old Victory Highway.

The Victory Highway was one of the first interstate roads. The June 1924 issue of Concrete Highway Magazine, from the Portland Cement Association, says that this highway, starting at Staten Island, New York City, ran through Elko and continued on to Berkeley, California, suggesting that Idaho Street at one time was actually concrete and not the asphalt it is today.

It is interesting to examine why concrete was initially used for such a long span, and why it has been superseded today with petroleum-based materials.

To answer this we have to go back to the beginning and look at the work of Edmund J. DeSmedt, a Belgian chemist who received a U.S. patent for an asphalt paving method, granted right after the Civil War. De Smedt developed his road paving material while working at Columbia University and filed the patents for “sheet pavement” (US 103581 and 103582) in 1870. A look at these documents show that DeSmedt was concerned with the proper grading and layering of the road bed to accept a deposit of hot sand upon which a coating of melted asphalt was applied. Lastly, fine sand was sprinkled on and rolled and compacted.

As mentioned earlier, the first sheet of asphalt pavement was laid down on William Street in Newark, but it was not very successful. De Smedt blamed it on the low grade bitumen he had obtained from the Ritchie Mines in West Virginia. Later on, an upgrade was made with improved material purchased from both Pitch Lake in Trinidad and Val-de-Travers in Switzerland. This revised bitumen was later used in some New York City streets and on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC just in time for the celebration of the national centennial.

Asphalt, also called bitumen (although there is some difference in composition), is a sticky, black, and highly viscous liquid form of petroleum. Although it closely resembles tar, asphalt is obtained from the fractional distillation of crude oil while boiling at 980 degrees Fahrenheit. Tar, on the other hand, is a product from the destructive distillation of bituminous coal in an anoxygenic atmosphere.

Although looking much alike, tar contains polyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules and is now considered carcinogenic and because of this has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. The risk associated with coal tar sealants is so great that some cities and even states all around America have outlawed its use. The tar you buy at Home Depot to coat wood is actually petroleum based and not really tar at all but actually that too has a carcinogenicity rating. You can download this from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of the product.

For the record, seventy percent of the asphalt made in the United States is used for road construction. It is a cheap and easy to use binder that creates the road surface when mixed with the correct aggregate particles. Other uses for asphalt are waterproofing products and the production of roofing felt (tar paper) and shingles.

So why have concrete roads fallen out of favor? A well built concrete highway will last over 40 years and this was the prime goal of the original builders. They do not require frequent repair or patching work as asphalt roads do. In addition, a vehicle run on an concrete road will save about 15% in fuel due to the lack of deflection of the road surface under the tires as compared to an asphalt road – just ask any trucker. Besides, asphalt roads can be damaged by fuel spillage and extreme heat.

The answer to the concrete verses asphalt question seems to be a matter of immediate cost. The price to pave a concrete road is much higher due to raw materials needed and the steel rebar used. Even though it will last longer and save money in the long run, a concrete road has little support among those who make the financial decisions in our government.

Have you noticed how they fixed the broken paved asphalt I-80 east of Elko that was only put down within the last 10 years? It was corrected by erecting signs that say “Rough Road Ahead.”

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.


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