Construction Work Unearths Pieces of Davenport’s Past

Dig deep enough underneath Davenport’s streets, and a piece of the past is revealed.

📅   Thu September 24, 2015 - Midwest Edition
Brian Wellner - QUAD-CITY TIMES


Since closing Harrison Street to traffic on Aug. 17, construction crews have shaved off several inches of asphalt, unraveling a ribbon of history from the Hilltop to downtown
Since closing Harrison Street to traffic on Aug. 17, construction crews have shaved off several inches of asphalt, unraveling a ribbon of history from the Hilltop to downtown

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) Dig deep enough underneath Davenport’s streets, and a piece of the past is revealed. Since closing Harrison Street to traffic on Aug. 17, construction crews have shaved off several inches of asphalt, unraveling a ribbon of history from the Hilltop to downtown.

There are reminders of Davenport’s German heritage and breweries long ago shut down.

Local historian Karen Anderson said Harrison Street once was called “The Trench.’’

She explains why.

In the late 1800s, several breweries, like Frahm’s at 6th Street, piped their putrid, sour waste from the grain-cooked beer making out into Harrison’s gutters. The process required 10,000 bushels of barley and 800 pounds of hops and churned out 14,000 barrels of beer each year, the Quad-City Times reported.

“Since there were no city sewers, the fly-infested fomenting slurry mash lazily oozed out of the brewery and made its slow descent down along the ditch beside the public roadway toward the river, leading locals to more appropriately refer to it as `The Trench,’’’ Anderson said. “It left behind such an awful stench.’’

The local German community was particularly active in creating local brews, she said.

Drinking it was just as popular. Anderson said City Hall, conveniently located at the bottom of the trench, made tens of thousands of dollars a year off a local sin tax in those days.

Harrison at the time was a “hot bed’’ of alcohol, she said. Today, a few taverns that line the street from the Hilltop Campus to downtown are a tame reminder of those days.

One doesn’t have to get into the gutter to learn the history of this major Davenport thoroughfare. Each layer under the surface tells a story. Robert Musgrove, the city’s project manager, led the newspaper on a tour of the work site on a recent morning. He said that in addition to resurfacing Harrison, crews from Valley Construction of Rock Island are doing patch-repair work wherever they come upon “weak spots’’ of broken sewer pipe and concrete.

To repair one 12-ft. (3.6 m) wide patch near Central High School, crews dug down 6 ft. (1.8 m) to the subbase.

Revealed were remnants of the city’s transportation past.

After cutting through 7 to 8 in. (17.7 to 20 cm) of asphalt and concrete, they found the wooden ties and rails that used to carry the Harrison Street trolley in the 1920s. Digging a little deeper, they found the brick pavers on which horses drew carriages in the 1880s.

Anderson called it a “testimonial’’ to the endurance of brick streets.

“The tar they use doesn’t last more than a few years and you have to repair it again and again,’’ she said. “The old bricks are still there more than a century later. Too bad we don’t get the message that it might have been better to learn how to maintain brick streets.’’

Gravel predates brick construction. Anderson said it was not uncommon for inmates at the old Scott County Jail on 5th Street to spend their hard time breaking rocks and compacting them down into a gravel mix to be poured as a 3-in. (7.6 cm) aggregate on Harrison and other streets in the 1850s.

“Arrest for public drunkenness would get you seven days on the rock pile,’’ Anderson said.

Gravel wasn’t always easy for the horses to pull carriages through, especially in the rain. “They became quagmires of mud most of the time,’’ Anderson said. “When it rained, it got mucky and people just dealt with it.’’

In the 19th century, local residents were used to commuting on dirt roads.

“Davenport was a frontier town,’’ Anderson said. “We had our 40-foot opera houses where we listened to Mendelssohn before we had paved streets.’’

Harrison Street actually was a ditch before it was a trench.

When the original 36 blocks of Davenport were laid out in 1835, Harrison was actually called Ditch Street because of a ravine that it bordered, the Davenport Democrat and Leader reported on April 3, 1945.

In the 1830s, Ditch Street was considered the eastern boundary of the new town.

In 1842, the name was changed to Harrison Street in honor of President William Henry Harrison.

Horse-drawn trollies came in the 1870s, and after a brief period the horsepower gave way to steam. Anderson said it took an enormous amount of juice to push the trollies uphill. Passengers might find themselves covered in soot at the top of the hill, she added.

By the 1890s, electric trolley lines took over and lasted until after World War I.

Underneath the old tracks are sewer pipes made out of brick. Crews were busy Sept. 3 repairing a broken line at 7th Street, where raw sewage gushed out of a 36-in. (91 cm) brick pipe.

City inspector Rick Rizzo said the crew had to dig 15 ft. (4.5 m) down to fix the pipe, which dates back to the 1890s.

To fix it, Musgrove said workers used a concrete collar to fasten a pipe made of PVC to the old one made of brick.

The city of Davenport’s sanitary and storm sewer office had sent remote control cameras out crawling though sewer lines under Harrison to find cracks and other weak spots, like the one at 7th.

The damage deep down is more than the city had anticipated, Musgrove said.

“We’re taking out more brick here than we thought,’’ he said.

He said the additional repairs will not affect the overall cost of the project, which is estimated at $3 million, including the resurfacing and sewer repair.

The project’s end date is Dec. 28. Davenport Public Works Director Mike Clarke said he wonders what else crews will find underneath the surface.

Anderson said she would not be surprised if they found a few beer bottles under there.