The road through Tacoma was paved, not with gold, but with cobblestones.
Big, heavy and rather lumpy, the cobblestones of Tacoma were either repurposed granite ballast from ships returning from England or sandstone blocks cut from the mine in Wilkeson.
Either way, they are beneath many old city streets, remaining on the surface only in a few areas of town, mainly in historic Old Town. Many hundreds have been dug up by work crews building the Sound Transit Sounder link between S. M Street and Freighthouse Square.
Robert Magoon, who owns a business in the area, wondered what would happen to the stones and called several city councilmen. If the stones are granite, it means they were tossed in the holds of ships that were returning from England to Tacoma for more wheat or other commodities.
Magoon hoped they wouldn’t be dumped in the landfill since the city often uses them in other projects. Sound Transit even faked the appearance of cobblestones along the light-rail tracks on Pacific Avenue.
Chris Larson of the city’s public works staff said the city usually requires contractors to collect and turn over old building materials like cobblestones. That’s what happened on the Broadway LID project. The city uses them for patching or for decorative purposes (there’s even a bench at Urban Waters made of granite cobblestones).
But the city didn’t contract with Mid-Mountain Construction on the D to M Street rail project, Sound Transit did. And Sound Transit didn’t make provision in the contract for old materials. That means all the cobblestones uncovered so far belong to Mid-Mountain.
Larson said the city would contact the contractor and make sure all future stones uncovered would belong to the city. But after hearing from Mid-Mountain that the stones are local sandstone, not English granite, the city decided it didn’t want them anymore.
Not that they aren’t old and historic. It’s just that they are less rare and not as durable as granite.
Mark Mills, president of Mid-Mountain agrees with the description of the material and their worth, though he thinks there might be some granite accent pieces in the piles. And while he knows some people value the sandstone cobbles, he doesn’t think they are worth much to him. That many have mortar that would have to be removed means they might be more trouble than they are worth.
Mills said he is open to ideas for preserving the sandstone cobblestones.
“I don’t need to get rich but I would like to cover the costs of handling them,” Mills said. And liability concerns means he can’t just open the gates and let anyone sift through the rubble.
So I called Brian Favorite, a subcontractor who does brick and masonry work on many old buildings. He and his crews worked on the Lincoln High School renovation and he did many jobs at the University of Washington Tacoma. Over the years Favorite has claimed unwanted materials from the projects he has helped out on. He cleans them up and stores them for the day when a historic building needs just the right part.
He has some sandstone cobbles and figures they are worth about a buck or two each (with granite fetching between $3 and $8 depending on quality). Favorite said he’d contact Mills to see if they can’t work out a deal that would preserve them for some later reuse.