In Search of Pavement
Just think of this as relating to the brick and mortar Retailing Mantra “Location, Location, Location!” Just what is it I’m parked beside? An early major US highway, and yet seeming to waffle between one lane and two, and between pavement and dirt with some gravel thrown on top. Following terrain, but with some filling in and some cutting away – with some of the lesser cutting into grades unnecessary for motorcar travel. It’s hard to tell just what this section of 89 was originally like. Its present inconsistencies make it a confusing mish-mash of contradictions, like building a series of top-quality, engineered concrete overpasses, only to link them with a dirt path made out of landfill debris. Was this a highway, or a piece of local trail pressed into service as a stopgap?
I had gone for a walk, picked up some indicators, and then picked up more during a drive on errands. Between that and running into a local on his way home in an ATV, “the circle is complete” as Darth Vader was fond of saying. So, let’s mix a few things together and see what we gots.
These measurements are narrow for a paved roadway, but reinspecting it on turning around and heading back seemed to confirm it. The concrete overpasses measure 27′-29′ in width between buttresses, indicating that Route 89 had once been paved to 19′ at the south end where a lot of work was required to get it. Then as it went northward, it probably held that width. The concrete buttresses would allow for 4′ shoulders, but much of the road could not possibly accommodate more than 3′ extra. Driving the Ford where it felt at its comfortable limit toward the right of the 19′ roadway, still but me well over the center of the road.
Highway. Cars and trucks going both ways, and nowhere along the entire span did I find evidence of anything wider, and much of this span was blind or impractical to see ahead far enough to act as a one-lane road. Then I considered the ubiquitous Model T Ford, which was fairly representative of automobiles of it’s time. They were originally designed to be able to follow wagon tracks or ruts without complication. The Model T car was 66″ wide, or exactly 5-1/2′. Even the Model AA, which was just under the wire as a real truck, was just 67″ wide. Heavy duty trucks were wider – and a rarity. The F-250 is 80″ wide not including the mirrors, or a spectacular 105″ with them. Oh my. Plus, you can’t see the right fender edge of it, or on most cars today, which makes it difficult to push the limits when having to crowd right. No such issues with the Model T and all other cars of that era and before, right up to the mid-1930s. The fender edges were in plain view. This section of 89, completely unsuitable today, was perfectly fine in its time. Two-way traffic? No problem!
But as I went back to the north end, two things still nagged at me. First was the sizable loss of those shoulders and some of the usable width along much of the road, much greater erosion than I would have expected in the time available. Second was that the south pavement was still there, albeit in bad shape. But most of the rest of it looked like pavement had never been there. No stains. The concrete overpasses showed no signs of paving having ever been on them. Had they paved up to the edges, on the same level as the concrete top surface? That would be odd, but possible. Had they left most of the highway unpaved? It certainly looked that way by appearance, but there were those small slabs of broken pavement here and there, and they seemed to match each other, ending my dumping theory. They were all two layers thick, the first having a reddish topcoat coloration, and the second a greenish hue.
So as it stands, my vote is that the entire length of Old 89 was paved to a width of 19′ average, with its surface abutting each concrete overpass. Shoulder widths varied from 3′-4′, but that’s to disaster of some sort, not the limit of a nice, usable shoulder. A second layer of paving was laid on top sometime later, and probably went right over the concrete. It was a real highway, and was kept in good repair. Roadbuilding standards having moved on since, when it was abandoned in order to start from a clean sheet, it disintegrated under the hot Arizona sun at a commendable clip.
A brief talk with a local ranch owner passing in his ATV confirmed that the road had once been paved end-to-end. Whatever condition the paving was in now varied wildly from place to place, but it had once all been there and was never torn up. Nature took care of it. Why the huge variations? Well, being from northern Illinois, I tend to apply the most probable cause, rightly or wrongly. If this was Illinois, the cause would be the contractor’s use of substandard materials and techniques where he thought he could get away with it, then paying off the inspector to approve any tests of the finished article. With a bad roadbed and/or first layer, it doesn’t much matter what you do on top of that. It’s too late. How else can you get 1-1/2 lanes of dirt trail in a desert, after starting with two lanes and two layers of pavement throughout? The key is the variation. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!