Calcutta’s Tryst With Wooden Roads

Anindita Chowdhury

At the turn of 20th Century our civic fathers faced a critical problem. The authorities of the Government Mint located on Strand Road complained that the noise and vibrations caused by the heavy traffic was interfering with the fine measurements of their balancing equipment. So a meeting was called between the municipal authorities and public works department to discuss the proposal of relaying Strand Road with wood!

This was not the lone proposal before civic authorities for using wood for roads. In 1908 the department of foreign affairs under Government of India which had its office at Esplanade Row (East) also complained about the din caused by traffic, particularly trams on cobbled roads. They too submitted a memorandum in favour of wooden roads. Similarly, in 1907 Bengal Chamber of Commerce submitted a proposal to municipal authorities to pave roads with wood or any other material which would be long lasting since existing roads were unable to withstand the strain of fast moving vehicles.

In fact, Calcutta, in this decade, witnessed revolutionary changes in the field of transportation as automobiles were being introduced. At the same time, bullock carts and horse carriages were still in use. The condition of Strand Road and Harrison (Mahatma Gandhi Road) Road were pitiable on account of the heavy bovine traffic. The civic authorities were caught in a dilemma over the material to be used for laying roads on which both cars and bullock carts could ply.

Circular Road, constructed by filling up Marhatta Ditch was the first metalled road in the city. It was built using brick chips but later on engineers switched to stone chips imported from China, Australia and Mauritius for constructing roads. But the escalating cost of stone chips increased maintenance cost of roads and the civic fathers were forced to look for alternatives. In addition, granite cobbles caused great noise when iron horse shoes banged on stone and ironclad wheels rolled over the cobbles. Some streets like Dalhousie Square and College Street were covered with Macadam (using tar and stones), which offered a quieter and smoother ride, but wore out quickly under the weight of cargo carts.

But the first notion of using wood for laying roads was pitched by an engineer of the Corporation, Mr. Ball Hill who during his visit to Burma (Myanmar) was quite impressed by the beautiful roads of Rangoon (Yangon), paved with teak wood and decided to experiment it in Calcutta. Accordingly, the Clive Ghat Street was paved with wood in 1902-1903. And the road lasted long enough.

Yet the civic body was not keen on wood for laying roads. This, despite the fact that Calcutta as the second city of the Raj often followed London.

Using stone cobbles to line London’s busier streets had been a practice since the 18th century — replacing crushed stone pebbles or large flat stones. Despite the noise factor by the 1850’s, practically all the carriageway sin London had been paved with granite setts or cobbles from Scotland. However, the streets were often muddy in wet weather and full of dust in the summer. Scavengers had to be employed to clean the streets and cartaway the mud and manure. A layer of plank was placed upon a thickcoating of concrete, and upon these the blocks were set upright in parallel rows across the street. Initially, pine was used for the blocks, and a mixture of asphalt and pitch was poured into expansion gaps between the rows of wooden blocks.

However, another problem arose; while wooden blocks were quieter than granite, they smelt worse! Some of the wooden blocks had a tendency to absorb what fell upon them, mostly horse urine, and on hot days, the stench was said to be noxious. This led to roads being paved with different sorts of wooden blocks, with harder denser wood being used in posher areas, and the poor getting, well, poorer quality wood that was more inclined to soak up horsey fluids. Another problem was that water would accumulate underneath the blocks and cause them to expand and pedestrians often tripped over them.

Meanwhile, wood for streets became a global trade. Wood from Canada, Scandinavia, and best of all, from Australia could be found on London’s streets. Australian Jarrah proved to be the most durable road surface, being both hard and resistant to absorbing horse urine.

But in Calcutta, the chief engineer of the Corporation strongly objected to wood paving, citing London’sproblems. Every year infections spread among Londoners because of the muck left by horses on the roads. Though disinfectants were regularly sprayed, the wooden roads remained a source of health hazard. Again, wood often expands and contracts due to climatic conditions which may increase accidents. So after quite a debate, Corporation decided to repair Strand Road with cobbles.

However, in 1910, the Corporation agreed to pave two roads –Cornwallis Street (Bidhan Sarani) and Park Street with wood for a sum of Rs 75,000 but a sudden increase inwood prices led to the abandonment of the project. Meanwhile, the increasing number of accidents on the slippery tar-macadam covered roads forced the corporation to think otherwise. Finally, the Corporation used wood to pave the Council House Street till Hastings Street after it received several proposals including one from forest department to supply Sal timber free of cost if it experimented with wood paved roads. But the experiment failed because of the hot and humid climate of Calcutta which was not congenial to wood. And that was the end of wooden roads in Calcutta.

One of the factors determining the choice of road surface was the ability to clean them because animals left muck, and lots of it. After rains, the muck and mud rendered the road surface very slippery. And that is why the roads had to be cleaned with water, a service that began in 1818. Initially water carriers with skin bags washed the streets. Residents had to pay for this service. Usually, residentsof the white town availed this service. Later on, some aqueducts were set up beside roads for this purpose. Water was supplied to these aqueducts from Chandpal Ghat and Nimtolla Ghat through pumps. Water cart came to be used for roads away from sources of water. In 1861, a powerful engine with 25 horsepower was set up at Chandpal Ghat. Hydrants were set up at various points as well. By the 20thcentury, major roads in Calcutta were washed thrice a day, arterial ones twice a day and pavements once a day till the practice was done away with in the sixties. Water is considered to be quite damaging for modern-day asphalt roads.

Before signing off, I can’t resist sharing an interesting aside. Victorians also thought of using rubber for coating the tops of wooden blocks, either individually, or as sheets spread over the road. While it offered many benefits such as horses did not slip on it and rubber was exceptionally quiet, it wore out quickly. Instead, modern men thought of using rubber on the wheels of the motor vehicles. The idea has thus, lived on in the guise of tyres.