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Two road crews are working in downtown Missoula, three blocks and a century apart.

Along Higgins Avenue, robotic ground tampers prepare gravel bases for automated asphalt spreading while hydraulic excavators prepare new ground.

Over on Railroad Street, three guys with hammers and trowels are laying bricks.

"These roads don't get potholes," volunteer stone mason Scott Loken said of Railroad Street's old-fashioned surface. "That's how it is after 100 years. The average asphalt street lifetime is 13 years. Think of the money they saved."

Next to him, fellow mason Solomon Martin was shaping bricks to fit with quick blows of a shaping hammer. With each whack, he took off a half-inch chip without either deforming the brick or ripping a hole in his thigh.

Along with fellow volunteer John Hay, the three were rebuilding a strip of roadway along the curb, where a 1980s repair job ground out 315 feet of the bricks and replaced them with asphalt. Now that Railroad Street is a potential contributing site to the Downtown Historic District, the move is on to bring back as much of its 19th century style as possible.

The street was originally brick-paved in 1912, according to Missoula city historic preservation officer Philip Maechling. The bricks rest on a sand base, which in turn covers a concrete layer.

The concrete was too delicate for the heavy wagons and horses' hooves involved in the railroad freight warehouses along the street. The bricks were specially baked for roadwork in a Seattle kiln. They're much harder than concrete, and harder than many of the construction bricks often found in Missoula buildings.

They also have nubs on one side so sand and Portland, Ore., cement can be poured between to hold them in position. Maechling figured downtown used to have about 2.5 million bricks in its main streets between the Clark Fork River and the rail yard.

Unfortunately, many of those bricks were ripped up over the years as streets were rebuilt with asphalt tops. Maechling hopes some were recycled into people's patios or planters, and that they might be willing to return them.

"We need a few thousand more bricks to get this done," he said. Some people have already donated pallet-loads. And similar bricks have been found at a Spokane masonry shop, for $1 a block.

While the project is getting financial help from the city and local masonry shops, most of the effort is volunteer. After 12 days of work on the project, there remains about 80 feet of curb unbricked when the current load runs out on Wednesday.

Anyone with road bricks to donate can call Maechling at 258-4706 or check out the restoration progress at www.historicmissoula.org.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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