BLOOMINGTON — At the southwest corner of the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington, near the intersection of Center and Washington streets, stands a historic marker of brick topped by a bronze plaque. “Center Street Site,” it reads. “First Brick Pavement in the United States/Innovation to Modern Highways/Installed 1877.”
Mighty impressive. Unfortunately, the claim of “first” is simply not true.
This stubborn, well-worn myth has been around for nearly a century, if not longer, though as often is the case with local legends and lore, there is some truth to the story. The plaque correctly states that Napoleon B. Heafer “installed” a stretch of brick pavement in 1877, and it’s mostly correct in that this represented an “innovation to modern highways” (though “streets” would be a more appropriate word choice than “highways”).
By 1900, the “Bloomington System” of street paving was well known by city officials and engineers across much of the Midwest. Descriptions of the local method appeared in technical manuals, and delegations visited Bloomington to check out its state-of-the-art pavement. Although Heafer cannot claim the first brick street, he was an early pioneer in the movement.
It’s difficult for one to exaggerate the transformative nature of brick pavement.
“A continent of mud fathomless and shoreless,” was how one visitor to downtown Bloomington described its streets in 1859. With no ready access to building stone, local officials had to look elsewhere. Bloomington’s first paved (albeit non-brick) street was a stretch of East Grove, where layers of crushed rock were laid between downtown and the Illinois Central Railroad depot (located roughly where Beer Nuts stands today). City officials then paved a handful of streets with creosote-soaked wood block, surviving patches of which can be spotted in the drives of a few Grove Street residences.
The first U.S. patent for brick paving dates to 1868, and some claim Charleston, W. Va., laid the nation’s first brick street in 1873.
Two years later, Bloomington brick maker Napoleon Bonaparte Heafer received permission from city fathers to install a test patch of brick pavement measuring some 120 square feet at the corner of Center and Washington streets. Heafer’s system featured a four-inch base of coal cinders topped with sand, followed by a layer of common building bricks laid flat, more sand atop that, and then a second layer of bricks, this time set on edge.
Although the experiment proved a success, it took another two years for Heafer to convince the city council to pave the entire one-block stretch of North Center Street running along the west side of the square.
Once brick paving took off, city officials divvied up contracts among three local brick makers, who in turn charged identical prices. The quality of Bloomington brick suffered from softness and high porosity, a consequence of low (relatively speaking) kiln temperatures and impurities of the local clay supply. At that time, many wagons featured wheels with iron and steel “tires,” which over time damaged these softer bricks.
In 1896, John Cherry of Jacksonville became the first outsider to receive a pavement contract from the city. He also used out-of-town brick, and soon enough Bloomington manufacturers found they could not compete with machine-made, repressed ground shale brick baked at high industrial temperatures. Heafer’s operation and those of his competitors are long gone, but their clay pits survive as the collection of small lakes scattered at the south end of Bloomington.
By 1926, Bloomington had more than 46 miles of brick streets, about seven of asphalt and six of concrete. Brick remained the dominant surface into the late 1930s. Over the next several decades, though, many of the city’s brick streets were buried under one or more layers of concrete or asphalt. In 2009, the Bloomington Public Works Department released a strategic plan to “establish levels of maintenance and repair” on the municipality’s remaining 3.5 miles of brick streets.
Another factual error on the Center Street plaque is the claim that it’s “set in original paving brick.” The bricks are actually shale pavers produced more than two decades after the 1877 experiment. Several years ago, vandals chipped away at the mortar and removed several bricks, believing perhaps they were in the possession of a valuable piece of U.S. history in which to set on their fireplace mantle or hawk on eBay. One would like to think the local history gods had a good laugh over this sad case of petty thievery.