A History of Alternatives to Asphalt Road Building Techniques

In Dust Control, Midwest Industrial Supply, Inc., Roads, Soil Stabilization, Surface Management, Technology, Unpaved Roads by Frank Elswick

Unpaved roads have connected communities and facilitated commerce for thousands of years. By learning more about the way these byways are built, we can better understand which current road building methods perform best.

From the Silk Road that connected the East and West to the roads that all led to Rome, unpaved surfaces have a special place in our shared history. These byways have linked cities, made international trade a reality, and played a central role in both monumental historical events and the ins and outs of daily life for billions of people.

Just as it is today, roads throughout history have been built using innovative practices designed to offer the greatest durability for the most effective cost — unpaved roads included. These road building strategies have varied from one region to the next depending on the available building materials, the local climate, and the capital available to finance their construction.

The evolution of these methods over time has allowed us to build stronger unpaved roads today and will help us build even more durable unpaved roads in the future. Furthermore, by learning more about the latest and greatest road building techniques, we can appreciate how important it is to invest in stabilization products and natural paving technology that will allow our unpaved roads to stand the test of time.

Unpaved Roads Past and Present

While the old adage that all roads lead to Rome may not be strictly true, what is true is that Roman engineers’ road building techniques have allowed some of their byways to last through to the present day. Builders would pack rock and gravel into the ground, sloping them slightly to allow for water runoff. While roads closer to cities tended to be paved, unpaved roads were essential to administration and trade throughout the empire.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Britain also witnessed an explosion of effective unpaved road building techniques. Funded by tolls, local officials built gravel highways to connect industrial hubs with smaller communities. To protect these roads against the region’s heavy rain, engineers sloped each pathway and added drainage ditches on either side.

Today, unpaved roads are just as important as they were in Industrial Britain and Ancient Rome. To cut costs, towns across the US are actually pulling up asphalt and unpaving roads. By doing so, they become more affordable and easier to maintain and threaten vehicles with wear-and-tear less than dangerous potholes in traditionally paved streets.

Challenges for Unpaved Roads Going Forward

History’s unpaved roads faced similar environmental and use-based challenges as unpaved roads do today. For example, Britain’s gravel highways could degrade quickly with heavy rainfall, even with drainage ditches installed. Roman roads could produce choking dust during and after heavy use. Even today, communities ripping up asphalt in favor of more affordable unpaved roads have to contend with the dust these roads can kick up and structural issues after extreme storms.

Going forward, engineers will need to respond to a number of challenges in designing new unpaved roads. For example, what maintenance will be necessary to withstand increasingly severe weather conditions? How can builders help communities with unpaved roads control dust while still saving money over paved alternatives?

How Soil Stabilization and Natural Paving Can Help

Unpaved roads have been instrumental in connecting communities, facilitating commerce, and making day-to-day life possible in the past and present — and they will continue to be in the future. However, studying the road building techniques of the past should underscore how important it is to invest in innovative road building techniques today and going forward. To help unpaved roads stand the test of time, key decision-makers should consider how they can benefit from patented soil stabilization and natural paving technology developed by the experts at Midwest Industrial Supply, Inc.

With more than four decades of experience helping communities and businesses maintain their unpaved roads, Midwest has the resources and expertise needed to keep roads in prime condition and mitigate ongoing maintenance costs. For projects large and small, Midwest’s unpaved road building technology has been the best option for the past 40 years — and will continue to be so for the next 40.

Frank is the sales unit manager of Midwest's road construction and natural paving markets.