New century saw a boom in paving in Walla Walla

Even at the start, the path to paving had its bumps



A view of Main Street looking to the west in 1916 shows paved streets and a mix of vehicles, including street cars and early automobiles.


The Drumheller Building, at the intersection of Alder and Second, was once at a crossroads of sorts, with Alder paved and Second a bumpy, dirt street.



Just as the efforts of yesteryear were many and varied, so, too, are the artifacts revealed in today's street work. Check out the final installment of this series next Sunday in the U-B and online at


Travel by foot was the surest form of getting from point A to point B on Poplar Street in June as three pedestrians were framed through the opening of a construction sign on First Avenue as they made their way across the torn-up asphalt. Detours have been the norm and have caused traffic back-ups.


Trolley crew members pose by their rolling workplace with the Odd Fellows Temple in the background.


A paving crew works to build an asphalt roadway on Rose Street around 1909.


Hey, where's Starbucks? This view of First and Main from around 1910 shows a sign for the Beehive Building's namesake.

This is the second installment of a three-part look into the history of street building in Walla Walla.

WALLA WALLA - Some authors describe the 20th century's first couple of decades - following the development of rail lines and deployment of steamboats - as the greatest period of change in transportation.

The horseless carriage became a viable conveyance during this period, prompting a contemporary author of Walla Walla history, W.D. Lyman, to tag the era as one of Good Roads. "A logical sequence of the development of automobiles," he wrote.

But in 1900, there actually was a ways to travel before roads could be termed "good."

A horse-drawn trolley system in the city of Walla Walla recently had been discontinued, so most people, bicycles and carriages trudged through dirt streets that were hard to traverse, particularly in the rainy, muddy season.

Summer dust on the rugged byways was controlled by team-driven sprinkling wagons or covered with straw.

Although 1,200 bikes were registered here, automobiles were extremely rare. The first steam-powered horseless carriage had arrived in town in 1899 and the first gas guzzlers were six 1902 Oldsmobiles.

Gas was sold at a drug store in five-gallon cans for 30 cents a gallon, according to an account by local author Bob Bennett in the second of his "Walla Walla" book trilogy.

The first autos weren't very dependable, but the City Council decided to prepare for the future.

Members voted to pave a portion of the central business district, which already was beginning to take on a "modern" look with construction of masonry and brick buildings to replace mainly wooden structures. Adjacent property owners were assessed through a local improvement district.

Some published accounts, such as in a 1988 edition of Vance Orchard's book, "The Walla Walla Story," hold that the city's initial street paving contract of July 27, 1904, covered Main and Alder streets from Sixth Avenue to Colville Street. But actually, slightly different boundaries were approved.

According to City Council minutes of June 21, 1904, the city fathers created the LID to pave, gutter, curb and sidewalk Main Street from Mill Creek near First Street (now avenue) to Sixth; Alder Street from East Street to Fourth; and First, Second, Third and Fourth from Alder to Main. (East Street was what currently is the portion of Colville that runs from Alder to Birch Street. At the time, Colville ran only north of Main and did not connect with Alder.)

On July 12, 1904, the Council ratified a bid by Barber Asphalt Paving Co. for paving the area encompassing the LID, then the next month approved the company's bond to maintain the asphalt for 10 years, according to Council minutes. Contract amounts were not included in the minutes.

This initial paving project - completed with considerable manpower and horse-drawn equipment - was considered a major turning point for the modern development of Walla Walla. Mayor Gilbert Hunt, a prominent local manufacturer of farm machinery, said in his annual message to Council members Aug. 2 that "a great stride forward will have been taken."

He continued: "The work should not stop where these streets are improved, but should go steadily forward. Do not attempt to do the work all in one year, but improve as much each year as the citizens are willing and able to pay for, and within a few years we will have the best streets of any town in the Northwest without working a hardship on anyone."

He also urged that the work be well-done and in "a permanent way."

In addition to the paving, some adjoining residential streets were being "macadamized," a process consisting of applying stone, gravel and at times a binding material to create a hard surface.

(One such road was even federally funded. A three-mile thoroughfare between Walla Walla and College Place was one of only two such "model roads" in the state and was "macadamized in the highest type of the art of road making," according to a 1905 souvenir booklet of Walla Walla County.)

Improvements generally were paid for through LIDs. Progress was relatively rapid and highly touted in promotional materials, such as the souvenir booklet, distributed to encourage migration of tourists and residents to the Walla Walla Valley.

"During the past year there has been much addition to the paving of (Walla Walla) streets," the booklet proclaimed. "Macadam has been used in the residence parts, and the two chief business streets, Main and Alder, have been paved with asphalt to a considerable extent.

"This work will be continued during the coming year, and with present plans a large part of the city will be paved during the next two or three years."

Meanwhile, shorter streets continued to be extended, monetary damages were paid to affected property owners and more assessment districts were formed.

Walla Walla was proud of the "generous" width of its streets and their layout, the booklet says. "Business streets are 100 feet wide and most residence streets 80. The streets are not laid out entirely ‘on the square,' but wind and turn and intersect each other at picturesque angles, leaving pretty odds and ends of lots here and there, which are available for varied ornamentation."

Beginning with photos shot around 1905, automobiles are more prominently depicted as they traveled or parked among horses, buggies, wagons - and, starting Dec. 24, 1906, the newfangled electric streetcars that ran on tracks built into main thoroughfares. Bennett wrote there were more than 150 autos in the Walla Walla Valley by the end of 1908 and "the major portion of the downtown area and some of the residential streets had been paved."

Improvement, to a degree

Historic photos of the period have been compiled in the Bygone Walla Walla CD collection by retired Whitman College librarian Joe Drazan. Those that include the newly paved surfaces clearly show improvement. One such picture of the Drumheller Building at Second Avenue and Alder, shot around 1905, contrasts a uniform-surfaced Alder with a rocky, lumpy Second.

However, the paving appears rather rudimentary and ragged by today's standards. That could be because modern, higher-grade asphalt known as blacktop wasn't introduced until the 1920s.

But also, published reports of the era complain about the quality of roadwork.

Lyman referred to some of the paving as "very poorly done," with the city having "been compelled to repair the work of incompetent or dishonest contractors at large expense." But, equivocating, he added: "... the paving system in general has been satisfactory and is one of the great improvements of recent years."

Statewide, shoddy workmanship appeared to be a problem, as well. The state highway commissioner reported as early as 1905 that since Washington became a state, nearly $132,000 had been appropriated for state roads. "At least 75 percent of this money has been wasted, there being nothing to show for it in the way of passable roads," the report says.

Heeding Mayor Hunt's call, paving work on city streets continued as the first decade of the 20th century neared its end. "Polk's Walla Walla City Directory of 1908" proclaimed Walla Walla "has miles of well paved streets, bordered by beautiful shade trees and velvet lawns."

A complete sewer system had been installed and for a year, pipes had furnished residents with "a supply of pure mountain water" originating from Mill Creek about 15 miles east of town at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, the directory says. The cost for the new municipal water system was $600,000.

Walla Walla also was flourishing financially and socially. With a population approaching 20,000, "This is one of the richest counties in the United States in proportion to the number of its inhabitants," the Polk directory proclaimed. "The income from the sale of agricultural and kindred products during the year 1907 exceeded $200 for every man, woman and child within the county."

As wealth accumulated, stately homes were built and the city was rapidly gaining a reputation for culture and refinement.

About 1908, Capt. F.H. Pope wrote in a history of Fort Walla Walla that the town was exceedingly prosperous, "having well-paved streets, several flouring mills, a foundry, meat packing plant and other industries."

Portions of streets paved the following year included North Third from Cherry to Rose, North Palouse from Rose to Main, East Main from Palouse to Isaacs, West Main, and Isaacs from Main to Bellevue.

If you build it …

Meanwhile, cars - which languished in mud and relied on smooth surfaces on which to roll - no longer were unreliable novelties. Within a relatively short time they had become indispensable modes of transportation for significant numbers of local families. They also were becoming big business.

The first "dependable" gas-powered auto was the 1905 air-cooled Franklin, according to Bennett's book. Only 13 of the vehicles were sold here in 1906.

While horses still were a mainstay, the number of total cars in the Valley rapidly grew to 150-200 by the end of 1908 and exploded to 300 the following year. The average cost was about $2,000.

The Walla Walla Auto Club was formed in 1909 with 30 charter members. And John D. Lamb, owner of Inland Auto Company here at the time, was quoted in a publication as saying "the automobile has proven its utility and has come to stay.

"In our territory, half of our sales are to farmers. Among real estate men, the majority of physicians and many engaged in various lines of business, the automobile is more popular than it ever was before."

So popular, in fact, that Walla Walla's Up-to-the-Times magazine ran a regular feature during this period titled "Automobile News." The page included short snippets of local, regional and national tidbits for "automobilists."

Mentioned frequently were promotional items for several Walla Walla dealerships, including the Franklin Motor Company, the John Smith Company, the Walla Walla Motor Company and the McBride Auto Company.

The latter's offering of a Baker electric car was highly touted in articles at the end of the decade. Although electrics had been around for years, the Baker was hailed as ideal for ladies and children because it was "thoroughly safe."

"Owing to the progress the city is making in building paved streets, electric motor cars promise to become very popular in Walla Walla," one article said.

A time of rapid growth

Like all communities in their formative years, area residents were hard at work establishing an identity and trying to attract newcomers and visitors. "Up-to-date" amenities, such as street paving, were widely publicized.

The local Up-to-the-Times magazine ran an item in 1909 declaring that Dayton was on its way to gaining 12 blocks of asphalt- or brick-covered streets by the start of the rainy season.

"Good streets are the best advertisement for a city and the people of Dayton are sure of making no mistake in taking this step for municipal improvement."

Not to be outdone, the Walla Walla Commercial Club published a handout in 1910 seeking men to bring their families to this "Garden City." Highly touted were the broad, tree-lined streets, which included 10 1/2 miles of hard-surface pavements and 1 1/2 miles of macadam.

That was in addition to miles of concrete sidewalks replacing wooden walkways that could no longer be constructed after a City Council edict on July 20, 1909.

By 1911, Walla Walla enjoyed more paved streets than any city of its size in the Northwest, according to Up-to-the-Times. Of the 70 miles of opened and dedicated byways, about 12 miles were paved.

In ensuing years, streets tapped to be graded, curbed and paved included East Alder, Clinton, Birch, Valencia, Estrella ...

And the list kept growing.

For good reason.

The country was evolving into a motorized nation with about 2 1/2 million registered vehicles.

The Walla Walla Valley Good Roads Association urged improvement of the county's 1,000 miles of roads as a great money saver. After all, farmers would need far fewer horses to haul their commodities to market when traveling on smooth surfaces.

About five miles in the county were macadamized in 1911, but workers reportedly reached a record in road building the following year. Residents believed a future series of rural highways would be a great asset.

That was partly due to a hunger - even back then - for the hard-fought tourism dollar.

"Tourist travel through the city by automobile means a continuous flow of Eastern money into the Garden City during the Spring, Summer and Autumn months," Up-to-the-Times wrote in 1916.

"One of the great attractions of the automobile and its facilities, is the superiority it has over the steam car, for the tourist, by enabling the motorists to visit the byways as well as the highways, and not traveling at night, none of the finest scenery of a route is missed."

One purpose of the article was to dispel concerns that financial resources of the Valley were being drained by local people buying vehicles elsewhere.

The story pointed out that about 20 local firms were engaged in at least some phase of the automobile industry. "...(the automobile) gives some valuable returns for its purchase price and its superior adaptability to the wants of man make it a necessity."

Hitching posts long had been abolished in the city and the popularity of the car was at a point of no return.

The first auto show was held in March of 1916 in the Denny Building. And by the following year, there were about 2,500 autos in the county - approximately one for every 14 people of its 34,000 population.

The area boasted 32 miles of hard-surfaced roads, with more being built. In the city limits of Walla Walla, with nearly 20,000 residents, there were 20 miles of paved streets and additional contracts promised more.

But quantity didn't equal quality, according to Lyman, who wrote in his 1918 history book: "Of the road question it can only be said that it is in a formative state.

"Much money has been wasted in both city and country by ill-constructed pavements, and it can only be hoped that the next decade will see more definite progress than has characterized the experimental state of the last."

So nearly 100 years ago, when street paving was in its infancy, concerns already were being expressed about the need to improve the quality of our roadways.

And of the expense involved.

Walla Walla water system 1918

‘In the system are 13 miles of wood pipe built of staves. The distributing system is iron pipe, and with the exception of a few small lines, is in first-class condition. There are 571/2 miles of water mains in the distributing system varying in size from 16 to 2 inches and spread over an area of 3.81 square miles, which with conduit gives 701/4 miles of water mains and 4,000 services or connections. With an average of five to each family this means that Walla Walla has a population of 20,000 people, which is not far from correct. There are 300 fire hydrants and 100 standpipes for street sprinkling and flushing purposes — 524 gate valves for controlling the system. About 16 per cent of the city is metered."

As reported by Up-To-The-Times magazine

A message to the city

Mayor Gilbert Hunt’s annual message to City Council members for the fiscal year beginning in August 1904 as reflected in Council meeting minutes for Aug. 2, 1904:


Nothing attracts strangers so much to a city as good streets, good walks, green lawns and beautiful shade trees. Walla Walla is known far and wide as the Garden City of the Northwest — an appropriate name and one that we should be proud of. We must continue to improve and beautify our city. Let us do nothing to detract from our well deserved distinction of having the "loveliest" spot on the Pacific Coast. During the coming year I shall have a great deal to say about street improving.

When the paving of Main, Alder and the intersecting streets is completed a great stride forward will have been taken. The work should not stop where these streets are improved, but should go steadily forward. Do not attempt to do the work all in one year, but improve as much each year as the citizens are willing and able to pay for, and within a few years we will have the best streets of any town in the Northwest without working a hardship on anyone. I am in hopes that Ninth Street can be opened this year, and I think this Council owes it to the citizens in the Fourth Ward to see that this street is opened without delay.

All work along these lines should be done in and through a permanent way; too much money has been spent on the streets of Walla Walla to make them just answer the purpose of a thoroughfare; and it is now high time to have a permanent value received for every dollar paid out for street improvements.

It should be borne in mind that street improvements are paid for by the districts in which they are located, except in special cases where the benefit derived is of such a universal character that it is justifiable to call on the general fund to bear a portion of the burden.

An Early time line of Washington highways

1909 — Decision made to pave roads.

1918 — Highway districts established in Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Walla Walla and Olympia. Large-scale construction program started.

1920 — State residents owned 186,827 autos and trucks.

1921 — First gas tax: one cent on the gallon.

1923 — Gas tax increased to two cents per gallon and part of the property tax levy for state highway construction was eliminated.

1927 — Speed limit raised from 30 mph to 40 mph.

1929 — Gas tax increased to three cents a gallon, with the one-cent increase distributed to counties.

1931 — Gas tax increased to five cents per gallon.

Source: Washington State Department of Transportation

Census for Walla Walla

1900 10,049

1910 19,364

1920 15,503

1930 15,976

1940 18,109

1950 24,102

1960 24,536

1970 23,619

1980 25,619

1990 26,482

2000 29,686

2010 31,770

Nuts and bolts of paving terms

The terms asphalt and concrete often are used interchangeably in common vernacular.

Actually the materials are very different.

Streets in the city of Walla Walla are constructed with asphalt, which is less expensive than concrete but not as durable. A few county roads have concrete surfaces.

Included below are definitions and further information about the substances, in addition to information on maintenance processes that prolong the life of roadways.


Asphalt history goes all the way back to ancient Mesopotamians who used asphalt to waterproof temple baths and water tanks.

The first indications of constructed roads date from about 4000 BC and consist of stone-paved streets at Ur, Iraq, and timber roads preserved in a swamp in Glastonbury, England.

Similarly, ancient Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Romans used the binding and insulating effects of natural asphalt (found naturally in both asphalt lakes and in rock asphalt).

The word "asphalt" comes from ancient Greeks, from the Greek word "asphaltos," meaning "secure".

While the most ancient uses of asphalt were to waterproof and bind material with asphalt, the first uses for road-building occurred in Babylon, 625 B.C.

In 1870, a Belgian chemist named Edmund J. DeSmedt made the first true asphalt pavement in the U.S. in Newark, N.J.

The first asphalt plant was opened by The Cummer Company in the 1800s, while the first modern asphalt production facility was opened by the Warren Brothers in East Cambridge, Mass., in 1901.

The first asphalt production patent, meanwhile, was filed by Nathan B. Abbott of Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1871.

In 1900, Frederick J. Warren filed a patent for "Bitulithic" pavement, a mixture of bitumen and aggregate.

As advances in the use of asphalt increased, the production of refined petroleum asphalt outstripped the use of natural asphalt by early 1900s.

This innovation boom was fueled by the fact that as cars grew in popularity, the demand for more and better roads led to innovations in both producing and laying asphalt.

Today, 96 percent of all paved roads and streets in the U.S. — almost two million miles — are surfaced with asphalt. Almost all paving asphalt used today is obtained by processing crude oils. After everything of value is removed, the leftovers are made into asphalt cement for pavement.

Man-made asphalt consists of compounds of hydrogen and carbon with minor proportions of nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen. Natural forming asphalt, or brea, also contains mineral deposits.

Source: Jesse Willoughby



Concrete surfaces (specifically, Portland cement concrete) are created using a mix of Portland cement, gravel, sand and water.

The material is applied in a freshly mixed slurry, and worked mechanically to compact the interior and force some of the thinner cement slurry to the surface to produce a smoother, denser surface free from honeycombing. The water allows the mix to combine molecularly in a chemical reaction called hydration.

One advantage of cement concrete roadways is that they are typically stronger and more durable than asphalt roadways. They also can easily be grooved to provide a durable skid-resistant surface. Disadvantages are that they typically have a higher initial cost and are perceived to be more difficult to repair.

The first street in the United States to be paved with concrete was Court Avenue in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1891. The first mile of concrete pavement in the United States was on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan in 1909.

Source: Wikipedia

Chip seal

Chip seal is a pavement surface treatment that combines a layer(s) of asphalt with a layer(s) of fine aggregate. In the United States, chip seals are typically used on rural roads carrying lower traffic volumes, and the process is often referred to as "asphaltic surface treatment."

Chip seal is cheaper than resurfacing an asphalt or concrete pavement, but not as long lasting. It can be used in conjunction with new road construction to make the road bed more durable and longer lasting.

Chip seals are constructed by evenly distributing a thin base of hot bitumen or asphalt onto an existing pavement and then embedding finely graded aggregate into it. The aggregate is evenly distributed over the seal spray, then rolled into a smooth pavement surface. A chip seal surfaced pavement can optionally be sealed with a top layer which is referred to as a fog seal or enrichment.

It can keep good pavement in good condition by sealing out water, but provides no structural strength and will only repair minor cracks. While the small stones used as surface yield a relatively even surface without the edges of patches, it also results in a very rough surface that leads to significantly louder rolling noises of automobile wheels.

Although chip seal is an effective low cost way to repair a road, it has some drawbacks. Loose crushed stone is often left on the surface, due to under-application of bitumen or over application of stone. If not removed, this can cause safety and environmental problems such as cracked windshields, loss-of-control crashes (especially for motorcyclists and bicyclists), and deposition of foreign material into drainage courses. Therefore, it is very important to sweep the road after the emulsion sets.

Source: Wikipedia

Crack sealing

Crack sealing is the process where the street cracks are sealed using a polymer modified AC-20 liquid (AC-20 can also contain crumb rubber recycled tires), and other types of crack sealing products.

The sealing prevents water infiltration into the road base, thus preventing potholes.

The current method used for the crack sealing roads is called well filling. This method fills the void of the crack in road surfaces; little or no material is placed on the actual road. A minimum 1-inch depth, and 1/2-inch width is needed to use the well fill method. This is a cost-effective way of extending road life.

Source: TermWiki

dollars and cents

Mayor Gilbert Hunt itemized the following fiscal-year budget in his annual message to City Council members Aug. 2, 1904:

Estimated receipts

(except from water works and special street assessments)

General taxes — $61,000

Licenses — $30,000

Other sources — $10,000

Total — $101,000

Estimated expenditures

Fire department — $25,000

Street lights — $9,000

Library — $2,500

Street sprinkling — $8,000

Street department — $20,000

Salaries — $15,000

Total — $79,500

The remaining $20,000 would be used to pay interest on municipal bonds, make up for a deficit the preceding year and pay other expenses that would arise.

Part three of this series, next Sunday, will focus on perennial funding problems and other setbacks the city has encountered through the decades in keeping roads well-maintained.

in this series

Aug. 21: The earliest days of our city's streets, as well as a look at the infrastructure improvement program and how we pay for all this work.

Today: An age of rapid progress in paving our streets.

Next Sunday: After the flood and the long road to today, a look at the costs of repairs and maintenance as well as what lies beneath the roadway surface.

On the Web

Check out for stories in this series, as well as a slideshow of historic photos and interactive features.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in