In a little alley tucked away between Church and Filbert streets in Old City lies an assortment of stones. Burnt oranges, charcoal grays and sea blues are dotted into stiff sand, making each row and column even more distinct.
These cobblestones date back to the early 18th century, and are some of the oldest historical remains of that era. The bumpy patchwork leads from Betsy Ross’ home, (she sewed the first American flag) to the Christ Church.
“They are such a feature of Old City,” explained Neal Ronk, a senior tour guide and historian at the Christ Church on 2nd Street. “They are a physical reminder of a previous Philadelphia.”
As one may find, it’s easy to mistake what in fact are cobblestones. Fire-red bricks line almost perfectly in vertical and horizontal directions. Then, there’s the grayish-blue glazed blocks of similar design to their red counterparts,
but have smoother edges and a rutted surface. Unfortunately, these do not qualify as the real thing.
There’s nothing artificial about cobblestones.
Most of the ones in Philadelphia were taken from the river beds of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Each 2- to 7-inch stone was washed, cleaned and assembled into the sand beds that have cradled them for over 200 years.
Often coined “pebble paving,” the popular
use of these stones lessened as the traffic
in the city increased. The pebbled streets slow horse carriages and vehicles, and were often too noisy to city dwellers.
These stones would eventually be replaced
by asphalt pavement and granite blocks that were less expensive and silent.
“Cobblestones were kept here almost by neglect,” Ronk said, referring to a time when Old City was a slum area because of its proximity to the river.
“I guess you could say neglect sometimes is preservation through other ways.”
Elfreth’s Alley is a historic landmark that once housed many immigrants during the early 1700s. Today, it shelters an array of colorful pebbles. The city removed most of the original stones from the streets in the late 1800s. But a new cobblestone walkway was built in 1974 to preserve an 18th century aesthetic appeal.
“I think for a lot of the city’s visitors, they associate cobblestone walkways with that 18th century appearance,” said Cory Kegerise, executive director of the Elfreth’s Alley Association.
“People know the word ‘cobblestone,’
and it meets their expectations of what a street should be like from that period.”
Today, only seven blocks of cobblestone paving are cited by the Historic Preservation Committee in Philadelphia.
Other scattered patches – unstructured, broken and missing stones – are forgotten in the alleyways and side streets around the city.
Some complain about the bumpy stones, which send pulsating shocks to the soles of their feet.
“They’re awful to walk on with 3-inch heels at night,” said Philadelphia native Kristen Annesley.But this 18th century nostalgia attracts many tourists who want to experience the city that spearheaded American independence.
“It’s unfortunate that the cobblestones were replaced by asphalt,” said Jean Pool as she walked down Elfer’s Way. Pool traveled from Greenville, S.C., to see Independence Hall. “It’s like we’re changing everything to erase the past.”
Neal Ronk agreed. “It’s nice to pave streets with asphalt, but what would Philly be without stone walkways? These cobblestones help to remind me of a Philly before I was born … and when that will remain when I am gone.”
William Penn would be proud.
Stacy Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.