Mesopotamians built the first known cobblestone road around 4000 BCE. The ancient Greeks and Romans also constructed cobblestone roads, with the Romans perfecting a technique of laying stones* in a tightly packed pattern using a mixture of sand and gravel as a base. Many of those roads still exist today.

During the Middle Ages, cobblestone roads became more common in Europe, particularly in cities and towns, to replace muddy and uneven dirt roads. Cobblestone roads were also used to build causeways and bridges, making them an important part of medieval transportation infrastructure.

*A cobble is “A rock fragment larger than a pebble and smaller than a boulder, having a diameter in the range of 64-256 mm (2.5-10 inches) being somewhat rounded or otherwise modified by abrasion in the course of transport (American Geosciences Institute)”

In the 19th century, as cities grew and became more industrialized, cobblestone roads were used extensively for urban transportation. They were used for streets, alleys, and even sidewalks. Builders typically set cobblestones on a bed of sand or concrete and packed tightly together, creating a durable surface that could withstand heavy traffic.

Ancient Roman cobblestone road at Ambrussum in southern France. Dating from 400 BCE to 200 AD.

Cobblestone roads remained popular until the advent of asphalt and concrete pavement in the early 20th century. Today, many cobblestone roads serve as historic landmarks or tourist attractions, and some are still in use in certain parts of the world. However, maintenance and repair of cobblestone roads can be difficult and expensive, making them less practical for modern transportation needs.


Log roads (or “corduroy roads”) were a type of road construction that were used in the early years of European settlement in North America. Both time and cost-effective, they were typically constructed by clearing a path through the forest, then laying the felled logs to create a rough, uneven surface for wheeled vehicles and livestock to travel on. Builders cut logs to a uniform length and placed them side-by-side, with small gaps to allow for drainage.

Log roads were inexpensive and relatively easy to construct, well-suited for the needs of early settlers who often had limited resources and were focused on quickly establishing their communities, perfect for the terrain of the eastern United States, which was heavily forested and often difficult to traverse with wheeled vehicles. However, log roads had several significant drawbacks.

Example of a Civil War corduroy road (photo from US Signal Corps archive)

They were rough and uneven, making travel slow and uncomfortable. They also required frequent maintenance, as the logs would shift and settle over time, and they were prone to damage from weather and erosion. In wet conditions, log roads could become impassable, as the logs would become slippery and difficult to traverse.

As transportation technology improved and settlements grew, more sophisticated road construction methods replaced log roads. Today, log roads are generally only used for recreational purposes, such as off-road vehicles or hiking trails, rather than as a primary means of transportation.


Alaskan plank road, 1938

Plank roads first appeared in North America in the early 19th century and quickly became popular in areas where roads were needed but difficult to build. One of the earliest known examples of a plank road was built in Canada in the 1820s and connected the city of Montreal with Lachine, a nearby town.

In the United States, the first plank road was built in Pennsylvania in 1803, although it was a short-lived experiment. However, the construction of plank roads really took off in the 1840s and 1850s (now known as the ‘Plank Road Boom’) as private companies began building them to connect towns and cities, and to provide better transportation routes for goods and people.

Remnants of California’s Old Plank Road.

By the late 1850s, there were an estimated 10,000 miles of plank roads in the United States. They were especially prevalent in the Midwest and Northeast. Many of these roads were built by private companies that charged tolls to use them, which helped to finance their construction and maintenance.

However, the popularity of plank roads began to decline in the 1860s and 1870s, as other road-building technologies, such as macadam roads, became more common. Plank roads were expensive to build and maintain, and they required frequent repairs and replacement of the wooden planks. Additionally, the use of plank roads restricted load weight; heavy wagons or vehicles could cause the planks to break or dislodge.

Today, few plank roads remain, although some historic sites and museums have preserved examples of this once-popular form of transportation infrastructure.


Macadam roads, also known as macadamized roads, were a type of road construction developed by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. McAdam’s method of road construction was a significant improvement over the earlier dirt and gravel roads that were common at the time, and it had a major impact on transportation and infrastructure development.

Macadam construction.

Prior to McAdam’s innovation, roads were constructed by layering various materials, such as gravel, dirt, and crushed stone, on top of each other. These roads were often uneven, prone to erosion, and difficult to maintain, particularly in wet or icy conditions. McAdam’s method was based on a more scientific approach to road construction, and involved creating a smooth, hard surface that was more resistant to wear and tear.

McAdam’s method involved first clearing the road of vegetation and debris, then laying a foundation of larger stones, called the sub-base. This was followed by a layer of smaller stones, known as the base, which was carefully compacted to create a hard, even surface. The final layer was a thin layer of crushed stone, called the surface course, which was also compacted and smoothed to create a durable, level road surface.

Californian macadam road, c. 1855

McAdam’s method of road construction quickly gained popularity throughout Europe and North America, and became a standard for road construction in the 19th century. Macadam roads were easier to maintain, more durable, and provided a smoother, more reliable surface for transportation. They also played a significant role in the development of the automobile, as the smooth, hard surface of macadam roads made it easier for cars to travel at higher speeds.

Today, the term “macadam” is often used to refer to any type of road surface that is made from compacted layers of crushed stone or gravel. While modern road construction methods have evolved significantly since McAdam’s time, his contributions to the field of road construction have had a lasting impact on transportation and infrastructure development around the world.


Asphalt road construction, 1902

Asphalt (“a viscous form of petroleum mainly used as a binder“) has a long and complex history, dating back thousands of years. The ancient Babylonians and Egyptians used asphalt as a waterproofing material in building construction. The Phoenicians also used asphalt to caulk their ships, making them more seaworthy.

In the 19th century, a French engineer named Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet developed a new method of road construction using asphalt, technically called asphalt concrete. He mixed asphalt with small stones and sand to create a durable surface for roads. This new method of road construction* became known as “tarmac,” named after the company that manufactured it.

*Other common terms for asphalt concrete: pavement, blacktop, or bitumen macadam

In the United States, the first use of asphalt for road construction was in 1870 in Newark, New Jersey. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that asphalt became a popular choice for road construction. During this time, advances in road-building technology made it possible to produce asphalt in large quantities and at a lower cost.

One of the most important developments in the history of asphalt was the invention of the hot-mix asphalt process in the 1930s. This process involves heating asphalt to a high temperature and mixing it with aggregates to create a more durable road surface. The hot-mix asphalt process is still used today in road construction all over the world.

Hot-mix asphalt

Asphalt has become an essential material for road construction and maintenance, as well as for many other applications, such as roofing and waterproofing. It is a durable and versatile material that can be used in a wide variety of settings, from highways to airport runways to residential driveways.