Aída Raquel Caro Costas, Humanist of the Year 1999

The City of San Juan Bautista in the 19th century was extolled for its patriotic pride and singled out for favors, rewards and recognitions granted by the Royal Decree of April 13, 1799, in recognition of its defense during the siege by the English. Its coat of arms was graced with the motto that served as its border: “For its perseverance, love and fidelity, this city is very noble and loyal.” It was awarded economic benefits, its citizens and inhabitants were declared loyal and faithful subjects and certain honors were bestowed privately. The much-honored city also inherited problems, and among the ones that called for the most urgent attention was the state of its streets.

Until nearly the middle of the 19th century, the city was divided into five wards inside the walls, formed by the intersection of Luna Street, which runs east and west, and Cruz Street, which runs north and south. The four wards were Santo Domingo, in the northwest; Santa Bárbara or La Meseta to the northeast, formed between 1764 and 1765 when streets were laid out “to conform with a good and orderly population without damaging fortifications;” San Juan or La Fortaleza, in the southwest; and San Francisco in the southeast. Between 1847 and 1853, Ballajá was incorporated as the fifth ward of the city. The city’s street system consisted of 13 streets, all laid out in straight lines. Six ran east and west and were nearly level: San Sebastián, Sol, Luna, San Francisco, Fortaleza and Tetuán; and seven ran north and south and had steep slopes: Norzagaray, O´Donnell, Tanca, San Justo, La Cruz, San José and Del Cristo. In addition to this network, there were the Las Monjas and San Juan pathways, as well as the Gámbaro, Capilla and Hospital alleys.

At the beginning of the 19th century, San Juan was not the city of cobblestone streets, nor the city that Spanish historian Bibiano Torres Ramírez described in his work La Isla de Puerto Rico as having been able “in the last two decades of the 18th century to go from rock and sand to one of the few cities in the Americas to have streets with better pavement and tidiness.” At the dawn of the century, San Juan was the disappointed city that faced the harsh reality that the project it had counted on to exorcise the “unhappy state” of the streets was in total paralysis. Begun in 1789 under the government of Miguel Antonio de Uztariz (1789-1792), it had barely progressed over seven years and in 1796 had been discontinued. So San Juan approached the new century with streets characterized by holes, ruts and trenches. Stated precisely, the paving project initiative’s strongest supporters were chief engineer Tomás O´Daly in 1772 and his successor in that post, Francisco Mestre, in 1783.

The proposal to pave the streets was endorsed by the Crown in the Royal Order of February 22, 1785, which gave its approval. The paving done on the streets of San Juan from 1789 to 1796, and that which was done over the course of the 19th century, was referred to in various ways, including paving stones, gravel and pebbles, but invariably the material used was stone. These came from the rivers in the eastern part of the island and from neighboring islands and were obtained by the City Council through contracts with residents who delivered them to the pier. For military reasons, priority was given to the streets that ran north and south.

Paving proceeded slowly, marked by periods of interruptions and reduced or halted activity, a situation caused by the lack of funds – failure by the Royal Treasury to provide funds specifically destined for this purpose to the municipal treasury – and because contractors could not be found to supply the stones. During the period from 1797 to 1832, paving was discontinued. The Council pleaded in vain for the Treasury to fulfill its obligation. In 1818, it said the pavement was “in the most decrepit state.” In 1824, it asked that at least prison work gangs be paid for. In 1826, 500 pesos were requested to repair some of the streets, a request that was repeated in 1827.

Beginning in 1833, and continuing until 1840, according to Alejandro Tapia, “the paving of the streets and the sidewalks started and was nearly completed…” This observation could only be extended to some of the main streets, however, by November 26, 1841. Based on the report of the committee appointed to look into the paving of the streets, delivered to the Council in August of 1839, the city was “partly paved and part uneven dirt that is difficult to transit…”

In fact, as 19th century memoir writer Pedro Tomás de Córdova tells us in a work he wrote in 1838: “The lamentable situation that the royal treasury began to experience forced to governors to rely on the mentioned tax [for streets] and other funds or fees that were possible just to maintain public obligations.” Among these governors was Miguel de la Torre, who recognized in 1832 “the poor state of the paving stones in the capital and how essential that makes their repairs.” He had no problem, however, with using the proceeds from fees to build the City Theater, today the Tapia Theater. To be fair, it should be noted, however, that the funds were replaced after the construction was concluded.

In 1842, a Royal Order called for the treasury to provide the Council with 25,000 pesos – over the course of five years – to be used exclusively for paving the streets. In 1848, it was categorically established that the Council would be solely responsible for attending to the care, maintenance and conservation of the streets.

Dissatisfied with the paving system used up to that point – using stone – in 1880 a proposal was approved to use wooden blocks. If successful, this would have gradually replaced the earlier paving stones. However, objections about the negative effects of exposure to these wooden blocks to the elements, as well as considerations related to the variations in the street system, it was finally decided to use cobblestones of blue limestone.

Enthused by this proposal, architect Pedro Cobreros reported that there were quarries near Río Piedras and that there were craftsmen who worked at cutting and smoothing these stones. The precarious financial situation of some of the quarries, which were idle and looking for possible work, raised the possibility that the Council could acquire the cobblestones at “an arranged price,” Cobreros suggested.

That enthusiasm ran into the main obstacle in the process of carrying out “street reform” or changing from gravel to paving stones: the scarcity of funds in the municipal treasury. The initiative did not die, however, and that is how we come to efforts to locate paving materials, even beyond the island (Europe).

A variety of alternatives were considered as a result of this decision: Belgian stones, artificial paving stones made of iron slag, and pavers made of natural stone. The decision would be made by architect Patricio de Bolumburu, the principal proponent of street reform in San Juan, who favored English iron slag paving stones that were rectangular and prismatic.

Bids for acquiring and placing the materials were declared void due to a lack of bidders. It should be noted, however, that meanwhile local paving stones of blue limestone were placed in several streets in the city (documents do not say which ones).

Orders for paving stones made of iron slag were definitively made in August of 1890. They were shipped from England by Larríñaga and Company, a steamship company established in Liverpool in 1882 and whose main shareholders were Spanish. On October 21, 1890, a shipment of 50,000 cobblestones arrived on the Spanish steamship Cádiz. The first iron slag paving stones – white in color – were placed in January of 1891, on Tanca Street. This marked the beginning of the importation of English paving stones to pave the streets of San Juan, imports that would continue throughout the final decade of the century and would continue until the first decade of the 20th century.

In the month of September of 1891, after receiving a sample of an English-made paving stone from Henry Ramm, of Liverpool, that was considered to be superior quality, the first shipment of iron slag paving stones of a dark gray color arrived from England. The experience turned out to be a negative one and resulted in a total halt to the paving process until 1892.

Under the established practice, they were examined upon arrival to determine if they met the previous requirements in terms of size, color and quantity. The inspection, done by a Council Committee consisting of the municipal architect, the city attorney and two council members, did not yield positive results. In September of 1891, architect José Claudio wrote to the mayor, Juan José Potous, indicating that the stones were not acceptable. He alleged that “the stones cannot be placed with the beveled side up but instead must be placed flat, which provides a better surface but less reliability because of the limited thickness. They are quite brittle and less flat than the sample.”

This led to a complaint against Ramm and the storage of the paving stones, which deteriorated as they were not used. These “defective” stones would eventually have a complicated fate: they were placed, then later removed, and then placed again. Meanwhile, efforts to experiment with local paving stones continued, but were frustrated by insistence by business owners who preferred the iron slag stones.

Apart from the wood paving blocks, which did not last long, we see that two kinds of stone pavers coexisted in the city’s streets: locally produced cobblestones of blue limestone, made from stone from quarries in Río Piedras, Trujillo and eastern Puerto Rico; and iron slag paving stones, which were white, gray-white and gray-dark-blue in color.

Why, when the island had good quarries and workers to make paving stones of blue limestone, did it continue every year to import slag stones? The reason was financial. The price of slag stones, the fleet and the insurance paid by the manufacturer was low, while the Council only had to pay the price of the stones and the unloading fee. Not so in the case of cobblestones made locally, which cost more to place because “it required a more fastidious handiwork than the slag.” Another reason for rejecting local paving stones was aesthetic in nature, as many believed that it did “not offer the same good looks as those made of slag.”

While the central streets of San Juan, at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, were paved with iron slag paving stones, eventually over these years the slag stones were replaced in sections of some streets by local paving stones. This situation, of changing from one type to another, and the imprecision of the documentation that talks about “fragments of streets” to be paved, but does not name the streets, prevents us from knowing the exact year of origin of the paving stones we see today in San Juan. But in terms of the timing of the arrival of English iron slag stones in our streets, the answer is clear: the last decade of the 19th century.

Author: Aída Caro Costas
Published: April 28, 2015.

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