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America's First Rubber Street

Exchange Street, Akron, September 1948

    In September 1948, 6,217 feet of Exchange Street in Akron, Ohio, became America's first "Rubber Road" when construction workers resurfaced the brick street with a hot, pungent mixture of asphalt with rubber additive.

    First the north lane of Exchange Street, between South Broadway and Five Points near Maple Street was covered with the black material and compressed with large rollers. After a few hours to cool, traffic resumed on the new surface.

    Within a week both north and south lanes were finished. The stretch of rubber road was marked with city signs at each end advising motorists of the unique surface.

    Akron was home to a major rubber industry. Paul Weeks Litchfield, president of the Goodyear Company, had seen rubberized paving material on roads in Holland, during a visit the previous year. It had been adopted there in the 1930's.

    Litchfield realized there would be huge financial benefits to his rubber company if his product was to be incorporated in America's future road projects. He invited Dr. I. R. Houwink, director general of the Dutch Rubber Foundation to speak to Akron's city fathers about the benefits of rubber additives in road surfaces, and Litchfield offered to donate a sufficient supply of rubber for for a test paving project in Akron.  

    Houwink spoke glowingly of the value of rubberized additives in road paving. He claimed that use of the material produced a smooth, non-skid surface that was more durable, water-resistant and gave good protection to the sub-surface structure of the road, thus reducing maintenance expense.

    The city leaders agreed to the experiment, since local weather varied through the years between hot, wet and freezing resulting in surface conditions that varied from slippery to brittle. The promise of city streets that were less susceptible to damage was appealing. A smoother ride, with reduced wear and tear on the automobiles on a rubberized surface was seen as an extra benefit.

    Accordingly a limited experiment  was authorized, and small test areas were prepared in 1947 on Rose Boulevard and South Main near Long Street in Akron using asphalt mixed with donated synthetic rubber from Goodyear. One year later, the results were satisfactory, and the large-scale test on Exchange Street began. Again, crumbled synthetic rubber was supplied free by Goodyear, which was added to a vat of asphalt at 175ºF prepared by the Thorpe Construction Company. This mixture was laid down to a thickness of 2½ inches, and topped with a skin of "coffee ground" rubber.

    To better evaluate the new surface, control areas used regular asphalt alone, some areas used a mixture with 5% rubber content, and other areas used a mixture with 7
½% rubber powder.

    Within the first year of heavy traffic use, the highway engineer at the time, Iver Schmidt, inspected the road surface discerned no wear. That was not surprising, since it would take more years of use before meaningful results could be determined.

    In the years while the original project remained to be evaluated, more use was made of rubberized asphalt not only in Akron (North Main Street), but also Cuyahoga Falls (Broad Boulevard) and parts of Ohio Routes 5, 18, 82 and 224.

    Goodyear began to market its product for road surfacing use under the trade name Rubarite. Other major companies followed suit, with U.S. Rubber selling Latricrete and Firestone distributing Rub-R-Road. Cities in several states that started their own tests of the product included Baltimore, MD; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Milwaukee, WI; Washington, D.C.; and New York.

    By 1959, the original test on Exchange Street, Akron had over 10 years wear from traffic, and it was time for a definitive evaluation of the rubberized asphalt paving material. However, when highway engineer Iver Schmidt examined the road, he found the rubberized areas were not significantly different than the regular asphalt control areas. There was no substantial benefit to the use of rubber, so the almost triple cost was not justified. In fact, in addition to the greater expense, Akron decided it was more difficult to apply, had an objectionable smell, and so permanently discontinued its use.

    The experiment had run its course, but the final outcome was disappointing for city roads.

    However, the rubber asphalt mixture remains in use on running tracks or walking path surfaces, which application still provides an outlet to recycle rubber from worn-out tyres and divert them from landfills.

Reference: "That Stretch of Road" by Mark J. Price, Beacon Journal, Monday 13 Sep 2004.