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Those Old Cobblestone Streets!


Cobblestones were often mortared or packed into a compacted sand layer. This allowed the stones to shift with pressure and time instead of cracking, making them a sensible alternative to paved roads and easier to maintain from a physical and economic point of view.

Cobblestones were in abundance because of their availability. Ships crossing the Atlantic from the Old World to the New World would use cobblestones as ballast if their hulls weren’t full of commodities. Once they reached port, the cobblestones would be replaced with goods. These excess cobblestones then ironically became a commodity themselves. Also in use were Macadam roads, which was the use of aggregated smaller stones cemented together and layered on native soil. While considered more durable and did away with some of the issues of simple dirt roads, dust was still an issue. Something that didn’t come with the territory with cobbled streets. Also, heavy rains would still damage and affect the macadam roads.

Eventually progress and technology improved to the point that paving with asphalt and/or concrete became far cheaper and easier to do. Obviously, the smoother, cleaner ride with less noise pollution were factors that contributed to the transition to asphalt and concrete. While these types of roads have been around since Babylon, they weren’t economically feasible until the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1920s asphalt roads were far more prevalent.

Howland Street after transition to Setts – Spinner Publications

So on to the aforementioned setts. What are they and why are they used in the historic district here in New Bedford? Setts, also called Belgian Blocks, are rectangular in shape and quarried stone, usually granite. These stones were also in abundance since they were also used as ballast. Unlike cobblestones, they were shaped to fit between the frames on vessels. They are called Belgian blocks, not because the stones were necessarily quarried from Belgium, but because Belgium is where the process of quarrying and cutting them into rectangles originated from. Setts eventually replaced cobblestones because of the flatter, more even surface and less chance of cart’s wheels getting wedged or stuck between cobblestones. Setts could be placed closer together, with less friction for the carts in a smoother, quieter (albeit still noisy), safer ride.

The first street to get the setts was Water Street in 1838. New Bedford’s cobblestones and sett paved roads extended far past the historic district. Though roads paved with setts were gradually covered in asphalt and the sett paved roads shrunk. The advent of the automobile sped this process up to the point we are now. Many a road wears to reveal the setts underneath, before the city repairs it and once again hides the history. All hail progress.

So now that we know these streets are actually paved with Setts and not Cobblestones, should we correct people who use the term Cobblestone? To do so would be snobbish. I’ve heard of beer snobs, wine snobs, and art snobs, but history snobs?! I say let colloquialism win the day. When someone says “I just love your cobblestone streets.” Shake your head in agreement, smile and say “Me too.”

A Busy and Cobbled Purchase Street – photo by Spinner Publications

Special thanks to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and Spinner Publications for the use of the photos. Without their generosity these articles would consist of dry text. The info and credit behind the photos in this scroll gallery break down as follows:

#1: Acushnet Avenue and Coffin Streets. Showing how far the use of pavers spread. Spinner Publications.
#2: Commercial Street near Water Street showing Babbitt and Wood. Note the cobblestones, not setts at this time. Whaling Museum.
#3: Front Street from Rodman Street 1894. More Cobblestones. Whaling Museum.
#4: Northeast Corner of Union and N. Water Streets. Whaling Museum.
#5: Pleasant and Market Streets. Spinner Publications.
#6: Purchase and Union Streets. Spinner Publications.
#7: Union and Acushnet Avenue. Whaling Museum.
#8: Union and Water Streets in 1893. Spinner Publications.
#9: Union Street. Whaling Museum.
#10: Akin Denison Bros. Coal Yard on an unpaved South Water Street. Whaling Museum.
#11. Howland Street. Spinner Publications.

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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  1. Great article, but, the date on the First photo (Acushnet Avenue and Coffin Streets) cannot be correct. The Allen’s Theatre at 1514 Acushnet Avenue was closed in 1940.

  2. THANK YOU Dorene! For the compliment and the correction. We’ll let Spinner Publications know. Allen’s Theater named after George W. Allen jr. on 1514 Acushnet Avenue was destroyed in a bombing in 1933 and fire in 1940.

    All the best!

  3. I wonder if cobblestone streets need less repair? I wondered this out loud the other day while driving on one of new bedfords streets in need of serious repair. I like the look of cobblestone, it really adds character to a street, and maybe even slows down speeding cars…..

  4. Really enjoy all your stories. All very interesting.

  5. Our firm just opened an office here in New Bedford and I came out from California to help set up. I have to say the “cobblestone” streets were one of the first things to catch my attention. Having grown up a military brat in Europe, I love the feeling and vibe they give off. I’ve been in California for years and completely forgot how amazing they can make a street look (anything more than 20 years old gets torn down in Cal, hehe ). Thank you for providing some needed back story and educating a newcomer that they are, in fact, Belgian Blocks!

  6. Thank you. I love these articles. I love learning about our city, but I don’t have the time to do the research. I’ve always wanted to know what the brick tower thing w/ all the stairs is that I see when I’m on 195 near the downtown exit. Maybe you know or could find out? I imagine there’s a cool story behind it & it must serve some function if it hasn’t yet been torn down.

    • becky, way back when, before fire alarms that was a sort of fire watch tower, that many fire stations had, someone would position themselves up there and look for smoke. You used to be able to have a great 360 degree view from up there.

  7. Thanks for this informational article.
    My fire place is constructed of the “so called ” cobble stones. It weigh over 9 tons and is a focal point of the home. These were the orginal stones dug up and disgarded many years ago by the city.

  8. I’m looking for a photo of Joan Ann Niles regarding placing the first cobblestone on Union St Photo needed for an essay by her granddaughter in PA.

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