Remember several years ago when I wrote about exploring the abandoned brick National Road across Illinois? Maybe you don’t; I made that trip in 2007 when this blog was new. The short story: In the 1950s sometime, Illinois built a new US 40 alongside an older road paved in brick and concrete, which it abandoned. It’s still there, plainly visible, paralleling the newer road for about 60 miles west from the state line. Here’s my car on the abandoned bricks.
In some places, the old road is in terrible condition. Here’s my old friend Michael contemplating the entropy.
Amazingly, I just purchased seven photographs that show this road being built! This photo shows a contraption in which some sort of hot tar or asphalt is being mixed.
The next photo is the most critical in the set in terms of dating and placing this work. First, placement: The seller of these photos told me that they were of the Illinois National Road from near Marshall, Illinois. In the photo, the sign behind the tractor says that Brazil is 32 miles away. That would be Brazil, Indiana, which is 32 miles east of Marshall, Illinois along modern US 40.
Now, dating. The tractor is a Caterpillar Sixty. If you blow up the photo to full size you can see partial letters of the word SIXTY down the side of the radiator. Tractors of this design were made by the Best Tractor Company starting in 1919, but became Caterpillars when Best merged with Holt Manufacturing Company in 1925 to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The Sixty was made until 1931.
I went to this cache of historic Illinois road maps to try to narrow the date down. Usually, old road maps tell whether roads were dirt, gravel, or hard surfaced. The 1924 map is the first to show the National Road as hard surfaced. Now, there’s no way this photo is from 1924 given that the Caterpillar Sixty dates to no earlier than 1925. I think it’s likely that the map was printed in advance and the plan was to have the road hard-surfaced by the time it was distributed, but that the paving project was delayed. So I’m saying that these photos are circa 1925.
Above, notice the concrete pad on which the Caterpillar sits. It is shaped like a wide U. The crew is spreading hot tar or asphalt across it. Below, they lay bricks onto the black surface. I assume the hot goo helped set the bricks, which were set without mortar.
More bricklaying, up close. When I first explored this road in 2007, I met a woman who lived on it. She said that her neighbor, who had died a few years before, was on the crew that laid these bricks. I wonder if he’s in any of these photos!
Next we see the crew spreading some sort of shiny stuff, which I presume is some sort of sealant, onto the bricks.
The sealant is complete on this section of road.
Here’s a 2007 photo from a bit west of Marshall, for comparison. While these bricks haven’t been US 40 in probably 60 years, this segment still gets a little traffic as it is used as a farm road.
Here’s what the bricks look like up close. You can’t tell in the old photos that the bricks’ colors vary!
Back to about 1925, here’s some of the crew taking a break.
And with that, we’ll take our leave of these hardworking men.
See 1920s photos from the National Road in Maryland and Pennsylvania here.
I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.
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Last updated on 14 March 2020 by Jim Grey