By: Jan R. Prusinski, PE
Belknap Place was constructed in 1914, in the Monte Vista district of San Antonio. At the time, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas, and a hub of urban activity. The automobile first appeared in San Antonio (and Texas) in 1899. The City issued its first road bonds in 1907. Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, with a subsequent exponential expansion of motorized vehicles. And portland cement and concrete were still relatively new materials, with San Antonio at the forefront of these exciting technologies.
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SAN ANTONIO: CRADLE OF THE CEMENT INDUSTRY IN THE WEST
The first cement plant West of the Mississippi was San Antonio’s 1880 Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company kiln, now a historic site in Brackenridge Park at the base of the Japanese Tea Garden (the quarry for the kiln forms the “garden”). By 1914, Alamo Cement had already closed that plant and now produced from its much larger second plant, in an area North of town, called Cementville (today, the Alamo Quarry Market, with its prominent stacks integrated into the mixed-use development).
AUTOMOBILES SPUR PAVEMENT TECHNOLOGY CHANGES
The new motorized cars and trucks required solid pavement surfaces that could keep vehicles out of the mud and reduce the urban dust clouds resulting from dirt streets. San Antonio understood that it had to provide a vastly improved road infrastructure if it were to stay a livable, economically viable city. It issued road bonds in 1904, 1907, 1913 and 1914 to finance the construction of paved streets.
This being the dawn of the automotive age, pavement technology was also at its infancy, and San Antonio tried several different surfaces by 1920: Different types of asphalt, vitrified brick, wood block, and, of course, concrete. The table below shows that by 1920, the city constructed over 1.5 million square yards of paved streets, exceeded only by Dallas, which had built over 2 million square yards. However, San Antonio far exceeded any other Texas city in one pavement type: Concrete. A quarter of San Antonio’s paved roads were concrete (376,000 sq yds), exceeding the concrete surface area of the next six largest Texas cities combined.
CONCRETE PAVEMENT INNOVATION
At that time, concrete pavement technology itself was rapidly developing. In Texas, four different types of concrete pavement were prevalent, three of them patented: Granitoid, Vibrolithic, Hassam, and unpatented plain portland cement concrete pavement. Each pavement had different features, and was marketed by for-profit companies that touted their specific advantages.
One of those methods was Granitoid, developed in Chicago by the R.S. Blome Company. Patented in 1906, the technology was used in a number of Midwestern cities, including Chicago. The paving system featured a 2-lift, wet-on-wet placement that required the surface to be brushed, then scored in a four by nine inch pattern to provide a non-slip surface for the calks of horseshoes. The bottom lift consisted of an economical ~5 ¼ inch mixture of 3:2:1 pit-run gravel:sand:cement. The ~1 ¾ to 2 ½ inch top course was richer and had a denser-graded hard aggregate, a trap rock likely shipped from Knippa, 100 miles West of San Antonio. The two-course placement has proved to be an extremely durable pavement, surviving for over 100 years. Both the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT have been considering two-course placements in recent years, as a way to save money and improve performance. They need look no further than Belknap Place for a working example.
WISE INVESTMENT IN A CONCRETE STREET
The Texas Graitoid Company, licensees of the technology from R.S. Blome, contracted with the city to build the 4,200 foot-long pavement. It cost $37,685.66, split between the city and Monte Vista homeowners, and was constructed between October and December 2014. The company placed the pavement by hand in 20 ft sections (about 210 in all), across the 40 ft width of the street, from curb to curb. Measured thicknesses were between 6 and 8 inches. The construction joints between panels were the only joints in the pavement. The unreinforced pavement, placed on a fat clay, has cracked naturally between these joints in a large block pattern, but most of those cracks have not faulted and are not a performance issue.
The pavement has seen traffic from horses, to early trucks, to modern busses and cars. It still performs exceptionally well, and still needs little maintenance. (Current San Antonio street specifications call for 9 inches of reinforced concrete, for an assumed 30-year life.) Some sections of the street were covered with an asphalt overlay a number of years ago; this, though, has mostly weathered and worn off, to re-expose the well-performing hard-aggregate concrete surface.
CENTURY-OLD CONCRETE STREETS ACROSS AMERICA
Surprisingly, Belknap Place was neither the first concrete pavement, nor the first Granitoid pavement in Texas. Both those “honors” go to a pavement in Palestine, TX, in 1908. Other Texas Granitoid pavements were placed in Fort Worth, Mart and Belton. Also, several 100+ year-old Granitoid pavements still exist in the frigid Midwest, such as Grand Forks, ND, and Calumet, MI, attesting to the technology’s durability in a wide range of climates. The oldest concrete pavement in the U.S. is located in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and it, too, remains in service. Belknap Place predates the establishment of the Texas Highway Department—celebrating its own Centennial this year—by three years.
A CELEBRATION OF LONGIVITY
Belknap Place is truly a Civil Engineering landmark in Texas. Seldom do we see pavement (or any) infrastructure last over a century. Not just that, but Belknap Place is expected to continue this low-maintenance service well into the 21st century, maybe beyond.
To commemorate this achievement, the Cement Council of Texas, in cooperation with the Monte Vista Historical Association, secured a Texas State Historic Marker. The Historical Association, in May 2016, hosted an unveiling ceremony that included presentations by Bill Ciggelakis of Professional Services Industries (who provided forensic testing of the pavement several years ago), and Jan Prusinski of the Cement Council of Texas. Additionally, the Model A and Model T clubs of San Antonio brought vintage cars, a barbershop quartet and Charleston dancers performed, and the Fire Department supplied a restored pumper truck, all providing a historical ambience for the commemoration.
Hundreds turned out for the event, including Texas State Speaker of the House, Joe Strauss (a San Antonio State Representative), Police Chief William McMannus, and VP’s from the American Concrete Pavement Association and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, Bill Davenport and Brian Killingsworth, respectively. The Portland Cement Association—which celebrated its own century of service in 2016—was represented by its president, Jim Toscas.
More recently, the American Concrete Pavement Association, at its national annual meeting held in Austin this year, awarded Belknap Place and the City of San Antonio a lifetime achievement award for its longevity and exceptional service.
San Antonio is a treasured “living history museum” for all Texans, and Belknap Place is now an officially recognized part of that history. When visiting and enjoying San Antonio, take some time to visit this Civil Engineering marvel, located between Dewey Place and Argarita Avenue in the Monte Vista neighborhood, one of the largest historical districts in the U.S. The marker is placed on the Northbound side of the street, right next to the Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, which itself celebrated 100 years in 2016.
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