Where Did the Cobblestones on Main Street Come From?

May 10, 2023

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A stroll along the main street and the first thing that catches your eye are the uneven round cobblestones making up its pavements. Compared to the surroundings, the pavements look quite old and worn out. That is because they have been around for quite a long time. The cobblestone pavings were constructed in the 1830s, making them almost two centuries old.

Brief History About Main Street’s Cobblestones

During the 1930s, whaling was the island’s main economic activity. It played a massive role in the island’s economic growth and gave rise to many wealthy residents. They could afford lavish lifestyles and built remarkable structures with the best materials. Some of them built large residences from the intersection of Fair Street and Main to the old town center and constructed Main Street’s cobblestone pavings for easy and convenient access to their homes.

According to Will Goudner, a renowned Nantucket historian, the cobblestones were imported. He arrived at this conclusion because Nantucket has no source for many such rocks; thus, they must have been obtained from elsewhere. Further research into the matter led him to Gloucester. According to a local historian in Gloucester, in those days, its waterfront had plenty of cobbles that were exported to surrounding regions, including Boston. Due to Nantucket’s trading activities and connection with different ports, he believes some of them may have been shipped to the island.

However, this information is only a speculation as it cannot be verified. Since Nantucket’s port was well connected with many other parts of the world, the cobbles could have come from almost anywhere. This gave rise to another theory – the cobblestones came to Nantucket as ballast stones from Europe. In the 1830s whaling and trading ships often arrived on the island laden with manufactured goods and building materials. Thus, it is speculated the stones were part of imports shipped to the island from abroad.

But, historians dispute this theory because rocks used to make ballast would not make good paving. Also, the cobblestones used for constructing the pavements must have been brought in large quantities. It was doubtful that a ship would travel thousands of miles carrying only ballast with no other cargo.

Regardless of their origin, both theories agree that the cobblestones were imported, made the main street aesthetically pleasing, and fulfilled their purpose for quite a long time.

Nevertheless, like most other man made structures, the pavements degraded and became worn out with time. In the early 1900s, there was a need to carry out extensive repairs in some areas. Additionally, due to Nantucket’s growth, there was a need to tear down some places to pave the way for gas, water, and sewer lines.

The outcome of the repair process could have been more impressive. Cobblestones had been set in poorly graded frozen grounds. Thus with time, there were hollows in the streets. As the situation became worse, more and more repairs had to be done. At some point, Nantucket authorities contemplated replacing the cobblestones with concrete. This idea was met with considerable resistance from a Civil league and many of the island’s residents.

They argued that the stones were an essential part of Nantucket’s history. Given the continual growth of tourism on the island and its economic value, it was vital to conserve everything historical. Their argument prevailed, and the cobblestones in most parts were left intact. The authorities resorted to adopting measures to help them better manage the stones. Not only that, they also adopted the use of cobblestones in more areas during major road constructions.

Current Affairs

Fast track to today, the cobblestones pavements remain vital to the island. A walk through the main street transports you back in time. The pavements are among the major attractions for visitors and locals on the island seeking a sneak peek into the past.

On the other hand, in terms of utility, the pavements have outlived their usefulness. They are worn out and pose a challenge to modern means of transportation. The State Departments of Public Works recently announced plans to repair and renovate Mainstreet’s cobblestones to solve this.

The current plans involve removing the cobblestones and old walkways, laying asphalt, and placing the cobblestones in stone dust. This method is considered more structurally safe and durable than the traditional one of setting cobblestones in sand. However, there are several reservations about it. As much as setting cobblestones in the sand may result in an uneven surface, rainwater can easily seep through. This helps reduce stormwater run-off. Moreover, when heavy trucks and other vehicles apply excessive pressure on the cobblestones, they shift rather than crack. The sand also allows rooting space for ancient trees on Main Street; the same cannot be said for asphalt.

Following the advantages and disadvantages of using asphalt, talks are still ongoing on its viability. The Department of Public Works is rethinking its use and researching more suitable means on how to upgrade the pavements.

Looking at how carefully the matter is being handled, it is clear how much the cobblestones mean to the island. Nantucket’s authorities and the island’s residents dearly hold on to the fact that the cobblestones portray a sense of authenticity and create a unique sense of place. They are therefore committed to preserving and maintaining them as long as possible.