100 years ago, progress meant infrastructure

road grading

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the steel producing towns of Youngstown and Cleveland became increasingly important due to the huge demand for steel, and better roads for transporting it were badly needed.

The following (edited) story of that work is told in the following letter to the Rural New Yorker paper from an Ohio resident and published 100 years ago in the August 7, 1918 issue.


The writer lives alongside of the great military road that is being built between Cleveland and Youngstown (nearly completed) [this was probably what became present-day U.S. Route 422] and struck by the changes in roadbuilding from even three years ago.

Machinery and gasoline have supplanted the hand shovel and the horse, and a dozen men, with not a horse team on the job, are doing today what 100 men and 50 teams did when the project was started two years ago.

Eight huge motor trucks are rapidly passing and repassing, hauling great loads of slag from the steel mills for the road foundation. Each carries seven to eight tons and makes 12 to 14 round trips each day from the loading hoist at the railway.

A team of horses can, at best, deliver eight tons per day at $6 per day, while each truck hauls 100 tons at $26 per day.

To a farmer, it is interesting to watch the paving process. The slag is evenly spread to a thickness of eight inches and is the repeatedly run over by a 15-ton roller.

About two inches of fine slag cement is then spread on and rolled until forced into the coarse slag, then deluged with water and rolled yet again and allowed to set into a bed of hard cement.

Another layer of slag is put on, rolled and more cement added, rolled in and wetted down, and then boiling Tarvia by the hundreds of barrels is poured over the surface, more cement spread on and all this rolled in below the surface and is again coated with slag and cement.

[Tarvia was the trademarked name of a road surfacing and binding material made from coal tar.]

The dirt on each side of the pavement is then graded and rolled down, and the job is complete, all for the sum of about $23,000 a mile. The roadway is 32 feet in width, bridged with culverts and ditched on both sides.

The road has been completed for twenty-five miles out of Cleveland for only a few weeks and traffic is already heavy. The commuters now drive into the city in the morning in their cars and ignore the “Erie.”

Farmers and all are buying autos by the score and an errand to Cleveland and back in just three hours is commonplace. The produce buyers from the city already swarm the country and are paying farmers Cleveland prices.

Even the junk dealers come in small trucks. The rural mail delivery comes by auto over the pavement and the farmer gets his morning paper before 11 o’clock.

And then the great trucks come out from the city and gather up the milk from the farms by seven A.M. and deliver it to the designated dealer by 10:30 and return the cans the next morning.

This truck service costs four cents a can less than by railway and is just as prompt.

The motor bus runs into the city three times a day and at a 25-cent less rate than the train.

Half a dozen farm motors [tractors] are puffing and snorting away on plowed fields, meadows, and wheat binders, and yesterday a little “creeper” motor [crawler tractor?] went by pulling two large farm wagons, one loaded with coal, the other dairy feed, and did not notice the long river hill beyond snorting a little louder.

A great trucking company has been formed nearby and is putting on a fleet of motor trucks. The trucks are making three round trips a week between Akron, Ohio, and Boston, Mass., in the East, Chicago to the West, and Columbus, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to the South.

The trucks go loaded to the top and make a round trip to Boston and back in eight days, beating the railroads by that many weeks. Many smaller trucking concerns run all over Northern Ohio and do a way freight business, pick up produce, etc., deliver it to the designated firm, collect the sum, and return the money and empty bags.

From 20 to 125 of Uncle Sam’s war trucks pass every day as they run between Cleveland and Baltimore.

Every day the butchers’ trucks go by with their loads of livestock of all kinds, and just now a large truck piled high with coops of fowls went by at a 40-mile clip, a regular air trip for the hens.

Now hear the shrill voices and vehement commotion; it is a motley crowd of gypsies in a long, rakish auto, women in gay, brilliant colors, men more somberly dressed, and the children not much distressed about attire.

No horses, nothing to trade; the past forgotten and the future before them with ten gallons of gasoline in the tank, J.G. Ohio


The letter really emphasizes the benefits of good roads, not only for the farmer but for everyone else as well.

It reminds me of a story I once read about a city dweller who expressed amazement to a farm wife about the fact that her family had a car but no indoor plumbing.

The farm wife replied, “Well, you can’t go to town in a bathtub!”


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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