O and P Streets become archeological dig
On P street between 35th and 36th street on a bright Thursday morning, a bit of history unfolds. As the backhoe digs a clean-sided trench to lay the water pipes, layers of strata appear. The first thing that is noticed is a dark line several inches thick about two and a half feet below the road surface that runs parallel to today’s road surface.
“That black line is a buried road surface,” Aaron Levinthal, the archeologist on the job tells me. “It is comprised of coal fragments, coal clinkers (the burned up residue from coal stoves), and coal ash. ” The buried road surface was laid sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century.
“Originally, the road was dirt. It was probably very rutted, and when it rained, was most likely impassable. ” He pointed to the area below the black line. “This area, as you can see, was filled over the years with broken bricks, river cobblestones, broken ceramic pottery - anything that residents could throw in the streets to stabilize the road surface. ” The artifacts from the cobbles and broken fragments post date the Civil War, he said.
Eventually, the residents probably asked for road improvements (some things never change), and as more houses were being built, the coal surface was laid over the fill that had been added to the original dirt road. In the years following the construction of the coal road surface in the late 19th Century, more layers were added in the process of road development and formalization, including gutters. “If you look at some of the houses on the south side of the street”, Aaron said, pointing across the road, “you’ll notice that the front doors are several feet below the surface of the present road, but in line with the buried black road surface. ”
One of the houses has a plaque that dates the building to 1826. “The original road surface was actually level with that house at the time it was built,” he said. “Now you walk down the steps to the front door. ”