Chicago’s Wood Alleys

Chicago’s alleys were not always paved with asphalt, or even brick cobbles. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, efforts to find economical materials led to Chicago’s streets being paved with wood. Paving with wood blocks was developed in the mid 19th century by a Boston builder, and by 1871 more than 50 miles of Chicago streets were paved with the material. It was a reasonable solution to the muddy streets that preceded it. Naturally, when the Great Fire hit in 1871, many of Chicago’s streets where among the things that burned.

Despite the disaster of the Great Fire, wood pavers continued to be used for streets and alleys into the early 20th century. This particular alley, located in the Astor Street Chicago Landmark District in the Gold Coast neighborhood, was paved with wood in 1909. It was one of eight known alleys paved that year with cedar blocks.

The alley was restored in 2011 using black locust wood blocks from Pennsylvania. The effect is surprisingly close to cobblestone streets; the gray tone, slightly mottled following heavy rains, is at first hard to recognize as wood. A closer inspection is rewarded by tight, semi-circle wood grain patterns. The wood blocks somehow create an amazingly smooth surface and the overall effect is certainly a huge improvement over the mud that would have come before. Ultimately, the longevity of wood would have quickly made it unviable next to the brick, then asphalt options.

While no wood block streets exist in Chicago today, several wood block alleys remain and provide a valuable glimpse into the past.

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Sources and further reading:

Forgotten Chicago has a great article with references on Wood Block Alleys.

Chicago’s Wood Block Alleys have also been covered by Atlas Obscura. Just note, it appears that three wood block alleys, rather than two, still exist in Chicago.

Details also retrieved from historical signage located in the alley.

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13 thoughts on “Chicago’s Wood Alleys

  1. I’m a heavy equipment operator, and I dig trenches all over the city. 99% of the trenches I dig are in city streets. Usually we come across the old Belgian block pavers and trolley tracks which the city just paved over. Today, digging on Lincoln between Cornelia and Addison, we unearthed untouched sections of Lincoln’s old wooden block surface. It’s covered in about 8 inches of asphalt, and was totally intact until I had to dig through it. I wish I could post pics here.

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    1. This is very cool, thanks for sharing! Old road surfaces do tend to just get buried but I didn’t know for sure about the wood blocks. That’s amazing.

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  2. Update: Today (9/18/2018) I attempted to visit the Lincoln Park wooden block alley, the east-west alley south of Webster and west of Hudson, but found that it had unfortunately been recently paved over (likely in the past couple weeks). I wonder if there were any efforts made for restoration, like the alley in the Gold Coast neighborhood, or how to preserve the one or two that still remain.

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    1. That is sad news! Thanks for the update. I would hope that they at least just covered it and didn’t tear it out, though that doesn’t help much. Luckily the one in the Gold Coast appears to be well-protected so far (there is an interpretive sign among other things).

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