The History of Asphalt in America


asphalt in America

Edmund J. DeSmedt paved the 54,000 sq. yards of road that made up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC with sheet asphalt from Lake Trinidad.

Excited to learn more about the history of asphalt? Last week, we learned about asphalt’s early beginnings in Europe. Today, we’re exploring how asphalt was developed in Victorian America to today. We left off in America in the 1800s.

The Great Asphalt Rush

It was in 1870 that Edmund J. DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in America. Shortly after, American builders realized how useful this new material was. With the first asphalt patent filed in 1871 by Nathan B. Abbott of Brooklyn, New York, builders started scrambling to develop and patent their own special asphalt mixes. The asphalt industry was booming and brimming with new innovation and advances. In fact, companies were so eager to sell their own brands of asphalt that they advertised with the same gusto and enthusiasm that was normally reserved for things like soft drinks and popular medicinal cures! Everyone had their own special brand of asphalt, and everyone would tell you that theirs was better than the competition.

This fierce competition opened the doors for even fiercer regulations and requirements. In 1896, New York adopted asphalt for all of its roads, but it required a 15-year warranty on workmanship and materials. The companies who produced lower quality asphalt were eventually ran out of business, with only the highest-quality asphalt and best practices surviving.

Changing Production of Asphalt in America

Until the 1900s, asphalt in America came from natural asphalt deposits, like Lake Trinidad and Bermudez Lake in Venezuela. Refined petroleum asphalt became the new default for road building. As the production of the automobile went up, so did the demand for new roads. In 1854, it took four hours just to produce a single batch of asphalt. By 1870, many companies had developed portable machines and units mounted on railroad cars, but it was still expensive and difficult to lay asphalt roads. Finally, by 1901, the first asphalt facility that contains all the basic components of today’s asphalt facilities was built by Warren Brothers in East Cambridge, Mass. Production of asphalt was finally able to improve at a faster pace.

In the 1930s, Sheldon G. Hayes introduced the Barber-Greene finisher, which was made of a tractor unit combined with a screed unit with a vertical tamping bar. The Barber-Greene finisher was used prominently until the patent ran out, in 1955. When WWII came about, Congress passed the State Highway Act, which allotted $51 billion to the states for road construction. It was necessary to build stronger surfaces to support fighter jets. The greater demand and funding for road construction prompted more innovations. The trend towards continuous improvement has continued into the current day, with the establishment of the National Center for Asphalt Technology (NCAT) in 1986 and the development of advanced pavement materials that are used on today’s roads. Today, the production of asphalt has been perfected


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This entry was posted on Friday, November 18th, 2016 at 8:42 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.