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Hitting the bricks


It’s Saturday afternoon, Sept. 25, and the air on Railroad Street is filled with the sounds of pounding and scraping. The grill is warming up and it’s time for a dozen or so workers digging bricks out of the road and chipping away remnants of 90-year-old cement to put down their hammers and chisels and think about lunch.

The bricks—about 475,000 of them, by city Historic Preservation Officer Philip Maechling’s estimate—were put down in 1912 and 1913, possibly straight off the train that hauled them in from Seattle. And they’ve held up pretty well, says Maechling; workers are only digging up those sections of road where the roadbed has subsided, causing dips of an inch or more. Once small sections of brick are removed, the brickies add sand to the hole and smooth it out using sections of two-by-six. New Portland cement is then swept into the gaps between the bricks and sprayed down with water.

Once cemented, the gaps between the bricks will act as ducts, drawing rainwater away from the crown of the road while the brick surface stays relatively dry. Between 60 and 70 percent of Railroad Street is still flat and drains well, says Maechling—pretty good considering the 90-year interval.

The vitreous clay “street bricks” were an expensive investment for the city at the time, Maechling continues: The original contract specifies 7,660 square yards of Railroad Street east of the Northern Pacific depot to be bricked at a cost of about $35,000. The formerly bricked stretch of road from the depot to the north end of the Higgins Avenue bridge cost twice that amount. Today’s job is considerably cheaper; workers are volunteering their time and using the same bricks.

“I’m here because I grew up in this neck of the woods,” says volunteer Carol, who mentions that the site of her parents’ downtown home is now occupied by a parking garage. “I don’t have any history here anymore, only memories. I figured I owed it to myself to come down here today.”

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