Next Stop YZF: Shorelines and Wood Blocks

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Editor’s note: This is part two in a five-part series about the environmental histories Jess Dunkin encountered while travelling from Ottawa to Yellowknife this past spring. Read the full #NextStopYZF here.

Day 2 – Michigan City and the Indiana Lakeshore

Mid-afternoon on day 2, I crossed the border from Michigan into Indiana. For several miles preceding the border, there had been signs advertising the many draws of the Indiana Lakeshore. Having survived a heavy rainstorm and strong winds as I travelled through western Michigan, I was due for a break, so I took the exit for Michigan City, population 31,494.

The city’s landmarks tell a story of industrial prominence and decline, of ecological richness and exploitation, of work and play on the Lake Michigan shore. In the town centre are the expansive grounds of the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets. The outlet was previously the home of the Haskell & Barker Car Company.

Founded under a slightly different name in 1852, the manufactory was the cornerstone of local industry for more than a century. At its peak in 1910, the company produced 10,000 freight rail cars a year and employed 3,500 people. [1] In 1922, Haskell and Barker became a subsidiary of the Pullman Car Company. The factory closed in 1970. The Pullman Cafe at the Lighthouse outlets is one of the few remnants of the site’s industrial past.

Michigan City Generating Station
Michigan City Generating Station

Just down the street from Lighthouse Place on the water side of Highway 12 is a coal power plant, although visitors to the community could be forgiven for mistaking it for a nuclear generating station. The plant was built in 1950, just as Haskell and Barker’s fortunes were waning, to convert natural gas to electricity. In 1974, the plant was renovated to permit coal power generation.

In 2007, the Environmental Integrity Project listed the Michigan City generating station amongst the 50 dirtiest power plants in the country for both nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions. Four years ago, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) agreed to improve pollution controls at three of its aging generating stations, including the Michigan City plant. It remains to be seen if the EPA’s targets of reducing annual sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 46,000 and 18,000 tons respectively will be met.

In addition to being an industrial centre in its own right, Michigan City served as an escape for residents from nearby Gary, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, lake steamers and rail cars brought weary city dwellers to the Indiana Lakeshore.

One of the primary attractions for visitors was the Hoosier Slide, at one time among the largest sand dunes on the Great Lakes. By the 1910s, the 200-foot-high Slide was a shadow of its former self; sand mining companies had carted away more than 13 million tons of sand in the preceding decades to make jam jars and window panes. In 1922, the site was levelled completely to make way for the aforementioned generating station.

Today people wanting to see dunes can visit Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Located just south of Michigan City, Indiana Dunes is a national park established by Congress in 1966 after sixty-odd years of activism on the part of scientists, local residents, and an Illinois senator. Last year, more than 1.5 million people visited the park, which stretches along 15 miles of the lakeshore and boasts dunes, oak savannahs, wetlands, prairies, rivers, and forests. With more than 1,100 native plants, it is the fourth most diverse park in the National Park Service (NPS).

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Unlike conventional parks, which are created from existing federally owned land, Indiana Dunes developed piecemeal through the purchase or donation of private land. It is also unique for continuing to house both seasonal and permanent residents. In some instances, the NPS bought properties, but the occupants have a Reservation of Use and Occupancy (RUO), which allows them to remain on the land. That this is a complicated and politically sensitive situation is suggested by the long list of FAQs devoted exclusively to RUOs on the park site.

The Indiana lakeshore ends in Gary, Indiana, a one-time steel manufacturing giant that, like Detroit, has not fared well in the wake of deindustrialization. I would have liked the opportunity to visit Gary, my only knowledge of the city having come from The Music Man, but it was time to get off the road and I had a bed waiting for me in Chicago.

Day 3 – Wooden Alley

Having never visited the Windy City, I took a day in Chicago to explore. I passed the morning downtown amongst the city’s many and varied skyscrapers. (According to a recent series in the Guardian, Chicago can claim being the first city in the world with a skyscraper, William Le Baron Jenney’s ten-storey Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885). In the afternoon, I headed north to Lincoln Park, home to Chicago’s History Museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Wooden Alley on Map

On the way to the museum, I passed Wooden Alley. Originally built in the fall of 1909, the Astor Alley was restored in 2012 at the behest of the Gold Coast Neighbors of Chicago, an homage to the historical ubiquity of wood block paving in the Illinois capital.

The photograph of this street was the single-most shared tweet of my trip, attracting the attention of environmental historians and urbanists alike, and making it the obvious choice for today’s topic. I hope this post attends to the many questions I received about wood block paving.

Wooden Alley, Gold Coast, Chicago, IL.

In the nineteenth century, wood block paving emerged as an inexpensive alternative to other road surfacing materials: dirt was messy; crushed stone macadam was expensive and its benefits short-lived; cobblestones were dangerous for horses and uncomfortable for pedestrians; granite blocks were expensive, noisy, and slippery when wet.

In addition to being inexpensive, wood blocks were easily repaired. One of their chief benefits, though, was that they were quiet, a welcome antidote to the cacophony of the nineteenth-century city. Historian David Whitten writes, “Steel-tired wagons and carriages pulled by iron-shod horses amplified a deafening clatter against granite, cobblestones, and brick.” [2] While city planners may not have desired a city paved exclusively with wood, wood blocks were ideal for streets that bypassed civic buildings that benefitted from quiet, including hospitals, schools, churches, and courthouses.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote approvingly about wood block paving in Baltimore at mid-century for many of the same reasons: “It is generally admitted, we believe, that as long as they last, the wooden pavements have an advantage over all others. They occasion little noise (we place this item first and are serious in so placing it as the most important consideration of all); they are kept clean with little labor; they save a great deal of horsepower; they are pleasant to the hoof, and thus save the health of the horse—as well as some twenty or thirty per cent in the wear and tear of vehicles—and as much more, in time, to all travelers through the increased rapidity of passage to and fro.” [3]

For all of their benefits, wood blocks had short life spans. Treatments with creosote, a coal-tar derivative that prevented water damage, extended their life span. Pressure treated blocks lasted even longer, but still, they did not compare to harder surface materials.

In 1891, more than 60% of Chicago’s streets were paved with wood blocks. Much of this wood appears to have been sourced from the neighbouring state of Wisconsin, although as forests there were depleted, the city’s engineers may have gone further afield to acquire the requisite lumber. Wood paved alleys, thus, link the metropolis and hinterland. They also link the metropole and the colony. Hardwood exports from colonies were used to, amongst other things, pave the roads of the “home countries.” As the type of old growth Wisconsin cedar originally used for paving is no longer available, the 919 square yards of restored alley are paved with blocks of black locust sourced from Pennsylvania.

At the time of Astor Alley’s construction in 1909, wood block paving was being superseded by asphalt, although it remained a viable street paving material in some quarters well into the twentieth century. The Washington Post reported in 1917 that wood paving was gaining popularity in the UK because it showed “longer life under heavy automobile traffic than any other smooth pavement produced at equal expense.” [4] By the 1920s, however, wood accounted for a paltry 1.7% of the country’s street surfaces, compared with asphalt (54.6%) and stone block (14.9%). [5]

In part three of Next Stop YZF, I encounter the waterpark capital of the world and the second largest oil producing state in the US.

Read Part 3 of #NextStopYZF, “Waterparks and Petro Harvesters”


[1] John H. White Jr., “Railroad Car Builders of the United States,” Railroad History 138 (Spring 1978).

[2] David O. Whitten, “A Century of Parquet Pavements: Wood as a Paving Material in the United States and Abroad, Part I,” Essays in Economic and Business History 15 (1997): 209-226.

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, “Street Paving,” Broadway Journal 1, no. 16 (19 April 1845): 241-242.

[4] “Wood Block Paving,” The Washington Post, 20 May 1917.

[5] Asphalt Association, Circular No. 9 (New York, n.d. [1926?]), 1, as cited in I.B. Holley Jr., “Blacktop: How Ashphalt Paving Came to the Urban United States,” Technology and Culture 44, no. 4 (2003): 732.

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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.


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