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May 2005
Bellefontaine, Ohio
 

    On Interstate 70 west of Columbus, you’ll pass exit 52. If you turn north and drive past Springfield, you will reach the town of Bellefontaine. (No, it’s not pronounced the way it looks. Try “Bell Fountain.”) Bellefontaine has several claims to fame including the world’s shortest street, at least, so they say. McKinley Street runs for just 30 feet and is named for President William McKinley who once campaigned here from a caboose. We’re not sure if it’s an honor to have the world’s shortest street bearing your name.  

    But Bellefontaine also claims a first that was precursor to an era. Let’s go back to the  early 1890’s. The little town of Bellefontaine had a problem. It wasn’t a unique problem—just about every town and city and the nation faced it—but it was a problem nonetheless. It had to do with the streets and how they were getting torn up by the horses, buggies and wagons. During dry spells the streets were hard and dusty; when it rained the mud became so thick that vehicles could barely get through.

    There was a new guy in town, name of George Bartholomew. George Bartholomew claimed to know of something revolutionary: a hard durable substance for surfacing streets. It had been invented in Scotland, produced in Germany but no community in the US had tried it, not even New York. He called it artificial stone, and promised that an artificial stone surface would end the city’s problems with dusty muddy roads. And oh, by the way, this George Bartholomew just happened to be starting a company to produce the stuff.

    Sounds like a con, doesn’t it? If you were on the city council, would you go for it? Well, we don’t know about you, but we wouldn’t.

    Mr. Bartholomew was persistent, though, and wore down people like us. The city council approved a cautious first step: surfacing an 8 foot strip of road next to the hitching posts by the court house. When the initial installation seemed to go ok, the council approved further resurfacing of the streets surrounding the courthouse, on the condition that Bartholomew donate the materials and post a $5,000 guarantee that the pavement last for 5 years. The council wasn’t real confident this would work. Some of them were probably getting the tar and feathers ready.

    What was this revolutionary new product? You probably drive on it every day. Except that it’s not called artificial stone anymore; we call it concrete. 

    Today there’s a statue of George Bartholomew in Bellefontaine, near the original 8 foot section of road, and a plaque commemorating the first concrete street laid in America. And the $5,000 guarantee that the pavement would last for 5 years? Well, let’s put it this way. That stretch of experimental cconcrete road outlived George Bartholomew and everybody on the city council. In fact, it’s still there. Over 110 years later, and traffic still flows over it every day.

For more about Bellefontaine and its surrounding communities, see CD for I-70 West: Columbus, OH to Richmond, IN  


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