The story of well-traveled cobblestones, or ballast rock from foreign ports, paving America’s colonial seaport streets is a romantic one. I wonder if it’s true.


What’s ballast? It’s the material carried in a ship’s hull so the ship doesn’t topple. An empty hull is overly buoyant, and stowing weight in the bottom of the hull adds balance and stability.

Optimally a salable cargo assured a ship’s stability. Trade imbalances, however, often dictated that a ship adjust its ballast at port. Thus a ship might take on additional ballast in Lisbon and deposit it in Philadelphia. Anything bulky or heavy qualified. Stones were common ballast.

In most of the streets is a pavement of flags, a fathom or more broad, laid before the houses, and posts put on the outside three or four asunder.” Swedish traveler Peter Kalm of his 1748 Philadelphia visit

Paved streets, however, were not the norm—even in Philadelphia, one of the largest seaports in North America. Contemporary accounts often characterized the streets as impassible after a rain. It was a struggle for a colonial city to finance a municipal project of any scope.

Though it appears it lacked the means to enforce the obligation, by 1727 Philadelphia’s Municipal Corporation ordered residents to pave the footpaths in front of their property.1

Then in 1762, after years of failed attempts,  a public works lottery funded an act for “regulating, pitching, paving, and cleansing the streets, lanes, and alleys, etc., within the settled parts of Philadelphia.”2

“The laborers employed on this work of paving were not very experienced, it seems, for on Purdon, a British soldier, related to John Purdon, store-keeper in Front Street, seeing how clumsily the men worked, offered to show them how to do it. He was a skilled pavior (sic), and his services became so much in demand that the city officials obtained his release from the army by paying a substitute to fill his place.”2

Perhaps the paving stones for that project traveled from French, Spanish, and Dutch ports-of-call.



  1. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. Weigley, Russell, editor. Norton & Company, NY 1982, p. 59
  2. Scharf, John Thomas and Westcott, Thompson. History of Philadelphia 1609-1884, Vol II. L.H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia 1884, p. 874

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