Our City Streets Were Once Paved With These Little Wooden Blocks

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Right beside the historic 106-year-old Patricia Hotel on the Downtown Eastside lies a remnant of Vancouver’s “lumber town” past. Old wooden paving blocks are visible underneath a section of damaged asphalt on Dunlevy St. just north of East Hastings.

Wood blocks were likely chosen as an economical way to originally ‘pave’ city streets since timber was in plentiful supply in and around Vancouver. As a bonus, horse-traffic made less noise on wood-surfaced streets. Prior to wood block pavers, wooden planks were used for streets and sidewalks. The ones that are visible on Dunlevy St. are over 100 years old and likely were installed at some point between 1891 and 1914.

In 1890 the City Engineer put out a call for tenders to supply the city with “1,000,000 rectangular wood blocks” to pave the fledgling city’s streets. The streets in question were Richards, Seymour, Hastings (Carrall to Main), Water, Alexander and Westminster (now Main) in two sections from East Hastings south to the Main Street bridge. Later, other streets in Vancouver were paved with wood blocks as seen in this 1914 photo of wood block repairs on Pender Street.

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In order to last the estimated 12 years after their installation, the wood block pavers had to meet certain specifications as outlined by the City Engineer. The wood could be either fir or cedar and must be “first-class seasoned timber”. The blocks also had to be free of defects that would be “injurious to their wearing qualities” and cut to a width of 4 inches, a height of 7 inches and a length “not less than 9 inches and no more than 12 inches”. (Later versions of wood block pavers were slightly smaller in dimensions — 3″x5″x9″). All of the blocks were treated with creosote to preserve the wood, increasing the longevity of the road surface.

And speaking of revealing history, one clause of the 1890 City Engineer’s call for tenders explicitly stated that “no Chinese” were to be hired to perform any work supplying the wood blocks. We’re finding out more and more about the racist roots of our city, our province and our country. It’s pretty unsettling to see such an overtly discriminatory clause set forth in a civic document!

Sections of wood block paved streets are occasionally exposed around the city as a by-product of re-development, bad weather or street improvements. They’re usually unearthed for only a brief period before they are paved over again, so think of them as rare historical treasures. The ones by the Patricia Hotel have been visible for a while now and I’m not sure when they first reappeared. Google Map’s street view of May 2016 clearly shows them peeking through the broken asphalt.

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It’s a good idea to take advantage of these glimpses into Vancouver’s past as soon as they reveal themselves, as we never know how long they’ll stay in view. So if you’re are heading down to Pat’s Pub anytime soon, check out this piece of Vancouver history before it’s covered up again for another 100 years.

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  • Old wood pavers peeking through damaged asphalt.
  • View of wood pavers in the rain
  • Wood Block Repairs on Pender  St. at Main, 1914
  • Close-up of wood pavers.
  • Corner of Dunlevy at Hastings St.
  • Pender St. Wood Block Repairs [Pender and Main], 1914
  • CVA 1376-545.35
  • The Dunlevy Street wood pavers in the sun
  • Close-up of wood pavers.

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There are 5 comments

  1. I photographed these wooded blocks when they were exposed in sections of Union St. near Main St. back in 2006 and always wondered about their history. Thanks for solving the mystery.

  2. Good news! All this horrible winter weather has really torn up the roads and even more examples of wood block pavers have been revealed. Check out: 200 Block E. Georgia (north side) about mid-block; 400 Block Alexander; and 300 Block Railway.

  3. Paving with wooden blocks would have made sense not only because wood was plentiful, instead of stone, mostly because it would have been easier on the horse’s shoed hooves due to wood’s shock absorbing properties. It’s hard for modern citizens to image a time when there were no motor cars and horse and carriage, and electric street cars were the primary mode of transport around downtown. On the same note, we realize now that the streets of downtown Vancouver were NOT designed for motor traffic but rather to accommodate the aforementioned horse-carriage and street car traffic hence the relatively narrow streets compared to other cities.

  4. You may want to do a story on the granite setts that replaced the wood blocks. They are visable thoughout the old part of town. They were quarried on Nelson Island, on the north tip of the Shelt Penn. The same granite was used in the down town Train Station, (compare the quality on the one on Main St). the Sinclair Centre, and a few other buildings. The huge granite curbs have mostly been taken up, and re-used. There are still a few curved corner pieces in place.
    Then there are the red bricks, on many of the hills in the old part of town. They came here as ballest in the holds of Swedish grain ships, sailing around the Horn. The sold the bricks, and filled up with wheat.
    The granite setts, about the size of a loaf of bread, are spread all over town.

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