Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chariton rises from the mud

The headline at the top of today's Chariton Leader reads, "Sales tax vote could mean better streets" and introduces a story about a March 6 referendum that would authorize reallocation of most local option sales tax revenue from the swimming pool, now on solid financial ground, to general infrastructure repairs.

That's pretty good timing, from my point of view, since I was working yesterday with this badly faded photo from the historical society collection that serves as a reminder of a time when Chariton didn't have paved streets to repair, period --- economical perhaps, but not too practical for an aspiring county seat town.

William E. Curtis, a correspondent for the Chicago Record-Herald who visited Chariton during the summer of 1903, described the situation like this in his report of August 17:

"The streets of Chariton are in a dreadful condition. Residents tell me that frequently in the winter and spring the public square is ornamented with abandoned wagons stuck in the mud and a circus that was here not long ago had an experience similar to that of Fort Dodge. The roads were so bad that the wagons could not be hauled through the town to the fair grounds, and the company was compelled to give only a part of a performance on the baseball grounds, which are near the station."

Curtis went on to report that even as he wrote, the situation was being rectified: "But improvements in this particular have already commenced, and large gangs of men are now grading one of the main streets to lay the first pavement in the town. It will be made of brick placed upon a concrete base, and will cover the principal streets and the public square, while petitions are in circulation for similar improvements in the residence section. Brick must be used, because there is no roadmaking material in this part of the state --- no stone, gravel, sand or any thing. It is a proverb that good soil makes poor roads, which is fully demonstrated in this part of Iowa."

Althoug this photo is undated, it probably was taken during that summer or fall as a crew prepared the surface of North Main for paving. It could not have been taken later because the three-story Mallory Opera Block and Storie Building plus the two-story Lockwood Building, all at the north end of this business block, burned during January of 1904. That left a big gap between the three-story Penick Building, which still stands just north of the alley, and the old Union Block, on the northwest corner of the square, which survived until succumbing to an overenthusiastic redeveloper during the later 20th century.

I wish the photo were in better condition. It's one of the few I know of that shows the north half of the west side of the square at its finest --- at a time when Chariton's aspirations soared to three stories. When the victims of the 1904 fire were replaced, their builders stopped at the more practical two-story level.

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