Presented by Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

In 1976, my sister dressed up like Paul Revere, mounted a horse named Eagle Eye and rode into the square in Wellington ringing a bell as she yelled, “The British are Coming!” during the Collingsworth County Fair parade.

And while my teenage sister made a good show of pretending to be an 18th-century silversmith and part-time revolutionary, Eagle Eye really got into the act, devising a new gait that was like a cross between slam dancing and the bunny hop. You see, Wellington, like many towns in the Panhandle, had and still retained a large amount of brick paving, and once Eagle Eye stepped from the comfort of asphalt onto the bricks a block off the courthouse square, he couldn’t find his footing and forgot all about his patriotic duty. He basically freaked. My sister still managed to get everyone properly warned of the redcoat menace, and Wellington was able to keep the Spirit of ’76 alive in spite of this distracting spectacle. 

I recount this story to illustrate that brick streets are like a pair of fancy boots. They look great but they’re not always built for comfort. First, there’s the issue of traction control that Eagle Eye was forced to work through, but that’s mostly a horse thing. Also, the ground shifts over time and the bricks tend to become uneven in places. Try driving to the church potluck with an oven-hot green bean casserole in the front seat and you’ll really notice this. 

So why do we have brick streets? Well, the fact that more than 16 miles of Amarillo’s streets are still paved with brick says something about their durability. They might get bumpy with age but they’re a lot more visually appealing than asphalt, which gets old and bumpy in just a few years. For these and other reasons, Amarillo folks are still fond of their cobbled caminos.

It all started in 1907 when workers began laying rail for a streetcar system on Polk Street. Since everything was going to be a hot mess for a while anyway, city leaders figured they might as well start a paving project, and what better place to begin than on the Champs-Élysées of the Panhandle. A story in the newspaper on Aug. 29, 1907, stated that the Amarillo Street Railway Co. was compelled by its franchise agreement to pave between the tracks and two feet on either side. On streets where the streetcars were to run, the city would cover a third of what was left, leaving property owners on each side of the street to pay for the remaining two thirds.

City Hall considered several different paving options, but brick pavers from Coffeyville, Kansas, won out. Work commenced in 1908 with workers laying bricks over a crushed rock base on the west side of Polk between Fourth and Fifth avenues. Then, midcourse, it was decided that the base of the eastern half of the block would be “six inches of rich concrete” with a layer of sand on top. 

In January 1912 the papers reported that 30 blocks of brick paving had been put down in 1911 alone for a cost of $300,000, the largest capital project in the city that year. Amarillo continued to pave with bricks through the 1920s, notably in the first phases of the Wolflin developments. But by the time federal dollars started flowing through the New Deal paving projects of the 1930s, asphalt had taken hold as the preferred way to tame the dust of Amarillo’s growing network of streets. In the ensuing decades, many of the original brick pavers were entombed in asphalt, largely forgotten until it was time to make a utility cut. 

Just recently, in preparation for a sewer upgrade on a stretch of South Polk where the first bricks were laid 116 years ago, a road grader scraped up a layer of asphalt revealing the original paving laid out in a finely fitted running bond that transitions at the intersection to a 45-degree herringbone pattern. It’s a bit like a new discovery at Pompeii, but instead of volcanic ash obscuring this beauty, it was “progress.” It’s hard to believe it was ever a good idea to pave over something so aesthetically pleasing—and which can stand up to the Panhandle elements like nothing else.

If Eagle Eye were still around, he’d vote to cover those bricks back up when the sewer work is done, and no doubt he’d have support among the fiscally frugal folks who view every downtown beautification project as a waste of money. But Eagle Eye’s opinion wouldn’t matter much because nobody heads downtown on a horse these days unless the Ranch Rodeo is in town. And maybe the pennywise would see the pound-foolishness of maintaining asphalt surfaces that fail a lot faster than Coffeyville brick. 

It’s just a thought. Those bricks aren’t going anywhere, so maybe their time will come again. Meanwhile, we can still ride over the ample brick streets that remain, enjoying that distinctive hum that sounds a lot like a voice from the past, when Amarillo was young and horses weren’t so sensitive.  

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.

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