If you’ve driven, biked, walked, or otherwise traversed Canal + Cary between 12th and 14th Streets, you may have noticed that it’s quite a bumpy journey. The cobblestone roads, an iconic part of the Shockoe Slip neighborhood, have a long history.
Near the end of the Civil War in 1865, Confederate soldiers fleeing Richmond set fire to the city. In the Reconstruction period that followed, streets and infrastructure had to be rebuilt. The roads near the bustling shipping district were lined with granite setts, also known as Belgian blocks.
These cobblestones proved effective for horse traffic on the hilly streets near the James. The uneven surface provided a better grip for horse hooves. In addition, setts were arranged perpendicular to the sidewalk so that water + sewage in the streets would be directed to gutters.
Sometime between the 19th century and the 1970s, the streets were paved over with asphalt. However, in the winter of 1978, the City began removing the asphalt and discovered that 70% of the old cobbles were still intact. Together with the Historic Richmond Foundation, the Shockoe Slip Association, and the Central Richmond Association, 125 volunteers restored the historic setts on May 20, 1979.
The cobblestones complimented the rejuvenation of the neighborhood, which was ongoing. The Tobacco Company had opened in 1977, and several companies were eyeing the blocks for office + retail spaces.
The cobblestones today
In 2004, the Department of Public Works completed the Canal Street Cobblestone restoration project. The streets also have a few contemporary benefits, including their propensity to slow traffic on a busy, pedestrian-friendly street.
In 2015, cobblestones around the city introduced a challenging factor to the UCI Road World Championship. Cycling enthusiasts may remember several flat tires + chains popping loose due to the historic terrain.
The cobblestones probably won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future + are a marker of our city’s history. Wondering more about the story behind how Richmond was built? Tell us what you want us to investigate.