The History of Asphalt Paving in the US

September 25, 2023

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Asphalt, a refined residue from petroleum distillation, has been used as a paving material for thousands of years. However, the rise of modern asphalt paving as we know it today did not take off until the late 19th century. With the discovery and mass production of asphalt, advancements in paving technology, and the rise of the automobile, asphalt became the predominant paving material used for roads, parking lots, driveways, and more throughout the 20th century in the United States. 

The history of asphalt paving in America is an interesting journey from early experimentation to its ubiquitous status today as the paving material of choice.

For more detailed information, please continue reading our blog.

Early Use of Asphalt

Asphalt, also known as bitumen, is a sticky black and highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum. It has been used since ancient times for various purposes, such as waterproofing, adhesive, and as a building material. The earliest uses of asphalt date back to around 6000 BC in the ancient Middle East, where it was initially used as mortar and for waterproofing baths, reservoirs, and aqueducts. The Sumerians and Babylonians also used asphalt as early as 3000 BC. 

The ancient Egyptians similarly used asphalt from the Dead Sea for embalming mummies.

The word "asphalt" comes from the Ancient Greek word "asphaltos," meaning "secure". The Greeks and Romans used asphalt obtained from natural deposits on the shores of the Dead Sea, which they called Lake Asphaltites. They used asphalt mainly for caulking and waterproofing. The Roman term "Picea Asphaltus Judaicus" referred to the Jewish asphalt from the Dead Sea. Asphalt was also used as early as the 7th century BC in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to waterproof the tiered garden terraces.

the history of asphalt paving

The History of Asphalt Paving Use in the Early US

The early British colonists in America first observed the Native Americans using natural asphalt or bitumen deposits. In the 17th century, some of the early colonial settlements used local asphalt deposits for paving streets and patching roofs. Use of asphalt pavements began increasing in the 1830s with the construction of asphalt sidewalks in Washington, D.C. One of the first recorded uses of asphalt pavement in the US was on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1838.

Natural asphalt deposits were discovered in Trinidad during British rule in the early 19th century. This discovery significantly increased the global supply of asphalt. The British started exporting asphalt from Trinidad in 1815. Most major cities in the US at that time started experimenting with asphalt pavements due to its durability and low cost compared to stone blocks.

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Rise of Modern Asphalt Paving

The real rise of asphalt as a paving material began in the 1870s after additional deposits were discovered around the country. The growth of the petroleum industry also led to increased availability of asphalt. With the rise of automobile traffic in the early 20th century, the paving industry began promoting asphalt pavements heavily.

One of the pioneers of modern hot-mix asphalt paving was Belgian chemist Edmund Jules Joseph DeSmedt. In 1872, he filed for a U.S. Patent for an asphalt paving mixture that was laid down while hot. These hot-mix asphalt mixtures provided a more durable pavement compared to the cold-mix asphalt in use at that time.

In the early 1900s, asphalt mixing plants were being designed and manufactured to produce hot-mix asphalt for paving large road networks. With the rise in automobile ownership, many city streets needed paving. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 pushed the paving of rural roads using asphalt. The interstate highway system built in the 1950s relied heavily on asphalt paving.

Advancements in asphalt paving technologies continued through the mid-1900s, including vacuum distillation of asphalt, increased automation, improved grading, and quality control. Asphalt emulsion was also invented, allowing lower temperature application for surface treatments. The modern hot-mix asphalt is smoother, more cost-effective, and easier to lay compared to early asphalt mixtures.

the history of asphalt paving

Growth of the Asphalt Paving Industry

The asphalt paving industry grew through the 20th century as automobile adoption increased. The National Asphalt Pavement Association was established in 1955 to represent the asphalt pavement industry. Asphalt became the most commonly used paving material.

Today, about 94% of paved roads in the US are surfaced with asphalt. It is also used extensively for parking lots, driveways, airport runways, recreation areas, and more. According to the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the US has over 2.5 million miles of paved roads, and 93% of them are surfaced with asphalt.

The modern asphalt paving industry continues to innovate and improve paving techniques. Some recent advancements include warm mix asphalt, rubberized asphalt with recycled tires, and newer asphalt mixtures designed for longer life and durability. Sustainability efforts are focused on increasing reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) usage and improving recyclability. The future holds great promise for increased use of recycled materials to reduce costs and environmental impact.

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Conclusion

Asphalt paving has come a long way from its ancient origins to become the predominant paving method today. From early experimentation to modern hot-mix asphalt produced in high volumes, asphalt pavements have evolved remarkably. With steady growth through the 20th century and its versatility as a paving material, asphalt will continue being the product of choice for paving roads, parking lots, and airports well into the future.

About Arlington Paving and Sealcoating

For over 45 years, Arlington Paving and Sealcoating has been providing top-quality asphalt paving and sealcoating services to residents and businesses in the Arlington, TX, area. Our team of experienced paving professionals can handle driveway paving, parking lot paving, repairs, sealcoating, and striping. We use only the highest quality materials to ensure your pavement stands the test of time. Satisfaction guaranteed! Give us a call today at (817) 783-4480 to schedule your free quote with one of our paving experts. Your satisfaction is our #1 priority.

FAQs

When did asphalt become popular?

Asphalt started gaining popularity in the 1870s after large deposits were discovered around the United States. With the rise of the petroleum industry, asphalt became more readily available as a byproduct. The invention of hot-mix asphalt concrete in the early 1900s led to widespread adoption for paving roadways. By the 1950s, asphalt was the predominant material used for paving roads, parking lots, driveways, and other surfaces as automobile adoption grew rapidly.

What was before asphalt?

Before asphalt became widely used, stone blocks, wood blocks, gravel, and packed dirt were common materials for paving streets and walkways. Cobblestones and granite blocks were durable options used for paving city streets in Europe and the early United States. Wood paving blocks were also very common, made from durable wood like oak. However, these materials were expensive, high-maintenance, and difficult to repair compared to asphalt. Asphalt quickly became the preferred paving material due to its ease of use, low cost, durability, and smoothness.

Where was the first paved road in America?

The first paved street in the United States was laid in Philadelphia in 1707 on High Street (now Market Street). Cobblestones were used to pave the street between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River. Given Philadelphia's notoriously muddy, rutted, and uneven streets at the time, this first paved street was a major improvement. Additional cobblestone paving projects followed in Philadelphia and other East Coast cities like New York and Boston. One of America's first asphalt-paved streets was Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., which was paved with asphalt in 1838. Asphalt as a paving material quickly spread to other cities and towns throughout the late 1800s. The success of early paved streets like Philadelphia's High Street demonstrated the benefits of smooth, durable paved roadways.

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