Piles of historic brick from Elm Avenue await reuse.
Rod Aydelotte, Tribune Herald
Remnants of old pipes, pavement and streetcar rails have been a time-consuming frustration for crews digging up Elm Avenue over the last two years in a $6.7 million rebuilding project.
But workers from Barsh Construction uncovered a welcome treasure this month as they began work on the blocks west of Mann Street.
They scraped away asphalt to find a layer of brick pavers from the early 20th century, well-preserved as if in a transportation time capsule. Thousands of bricks are being stacked to be reused in landscaping projects yet to be determined, said Jim Reed, the city’s capital program manager.
Reed said when the work began in the 700 block of Elm Avenue, crews found some bricks, but they were not easily reclaimed.
“There are some areas of Elm where decisions were made to entomb the bricks with concrete,” Reed said. “But these are pretty clean and coming up pretty easy. We would never have expected that.”
With several blocks of digging left to go, Reed said city officials are still weighing the best purpose for the pavers, perhaps incorporating them into pocket parks.
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The Elm Avenue street and sidewalk construction project between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Garrison Street started in late 2019 and is now expected to last until spring 2023. Previous phases of construction blocked the ends of the project area, and now the middle segment west of Mann Street has been excavated to its base.
Chris McGowan, interim director of the nonprofit City Center Waco and a facilitator of public planning sessions about the Elm Avenue project, said he could see the bricks being used for crosswalks or other “streetscape” elements around Elm Avenue. He noted that the current project is already making use of reclaimed limestone curbs along Elm.
“I think it’s cool they were thoughtful enough to salvage those bricks,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea to reuse those things when you have an opportunity, because there’s a lot of history in those bricks.”
City officials had no estimate for the age of the bricks, but the bricks themselves provide a clue. They are stamped with “Thurber Brick,” referring to a giant coal-fired brick operation in the Erath County town of Thurber.
Bricks excavated from Elm Avenue are stamped with the name of Thurber Brick, the Erath County company whose bricks were used across Texas for roads and buildings.
JB Smith, Tribune-Herald
Now a ghost town, Thurber boomed with the opening of coal mines in 1886, and the brick factory that ran from 1897 to 1930 used native shale to create pavers for Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Galveston, Beaumont and other cities, according to Tarleton State University’s WK Gordon Museum and Research Center for the Industrial History of Texas.
Historical photos show that Elm Street, as it was then known, was unpaved as of 1897. The Waco Municipal Handbook 1912-14 shows a Fred Gildersleeve photo of a paved Elm Street at Mann Street, with a caption referring to vitrified brick paving. Newspapers from the 1910s and ’20s suggest that segments of Elm Street farther west used “bitulithic” pavement, similar to asphalt, rather than brick.
At least until the 1920s, Elm Avenue was one of the most important streets in Waco, serving as the approach to the Washington Avenue bridge. Before the construction of the Highway 77 bridge at La Salle in 1934, the Washington Avenue bridge and Suspension Bridge were the only way that north-south Texas traffic between Dallas and Austin could cross the Brazos River.
As the northern main drag of Waco, Elm thrived with hotels, factories, dry goods stores, saloons, churches and Paul Quinn College. Surrounding it was a patchwork of black and white East Waco neighborhoods, mostly catering to factory workers.
The Southern Traction Company, later Texas Electric Railway, ran its interurban line down Elm Avenue on its way to Dallas and other cities beginning in 1913 until its closure in 1948. The street declined in importance after Waco Drive was built in 1951, followed by Interstate 35 around 1970. But even with most buildings vacant or razed, the street continued to be a symbolic heart of East Waco, which became predominantly Black over the decades.
In the last few years, business and community interest in the corridor has revived, and the city of Waco has embarked on a series of infrastructure improvement projects totaling more than $12 million, including a $5.6 million “front porch” plaza just off Elm Avenue, near the current construction zone.
A combination of state and local funding is going into the $6.7 million “streetscape” project.
Reed said the project has been more complex than originally imagined, because crews are having to reckon with more than a century’s worth of infrastructure beneath the sidewalks and street pavement. For example, they found drainage structures made of brick that had to be ripped out and replaced.
“What we’re finding is that block to block it’s different structurally,” he said. “But once we’re done, all this infrastructure will be improved and will be on about a 50-year life cycle.”
The end of the project can’t come soon enough for Tony Berotte, who created 310’s Kitchen as an open-air bistro in 2009, serving crab cakes, brisket, and gumbo in the 300 block of Elm Avenue. The construction work has limited his public service to a couple of days a week, though he is able to keep busy with catering.
“It basically kills me,” he said, referring to the estimated end time of spring 2023. “If it’s that long, it kind of sucks the fight out of me.”
Berotte said his section of Elm seems to have lost momentum with the construction work and the closure of Lula Jane’s bakery. Still, he has hopes of opening a more permanent restaurant in the building on his property.
In the meantime, he said he believes the bricks ought to be used along the Elm Avenue corridor to point to its proud history. He suggested putting historical plaques in the sidewalks and framing them with bricks.
“If you came to Waco or left Waco, it was the way out or in,” he said.
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