MYTH # 54: Many houses and roads in America were built with bricks and stones carried here as ballast in the holds of ships.

(Thanks to Eric P. Olsen of Morristown National Historical Park for suggesting this one.)

The nature of the North American tobacco trade meant that many incoming ships had to carry ballast to America. There was more cargo going east across the Atlantic from tobacco-producing colonies than coming west. Tobacco was a huge export that filled many ships to England; incoming ships were sometimes only partially loaded with imports. Ballast, carried near the keel, was necessary to keep the ship upright. 

Because of very sensible laws against dumping ballast in a river or port, ship captains knew to take ballast that they could unload and sell, even for a small amount of money. Records show that bricks were sometimes used, as was slate, coal, and flagstones, even though such things were available in the colonies.  

However, the quantities imported were relatively small (for instance, 1757 records mention “ten thousand bricks” or “100 feet of flagstone”) making it unlikely any house or building was built entirely from ballast. Here’s what I was able to turn up talking/writing to historians in the following cities and states.

As far as paving roads, no evidence for that exists in colonial Virginia. In Annapolis, Maryland, photographs of the city shows streets there were still unpaved in the 1860s, and bordered with curbs and sidewalks (but no paving) in the 1880s. Clearly, the tale that these streets were paved with ballast is untrue. In Charleston, S.C., streets were similarly unpaved: in 1791 Washington noted “streets of sand.” In Nantucket, this myth is “island lore” without any concrete evidence. In a 1961 study, historians were “able to turn up no evidence that any whaling ship ever sailed into Nantucket harbor without a cargo so that ballast was necessary to keep the vessel low in the water.”  Some evidence exists that Nantucket purchased paving stones in 1837, probably from Gloucester, MA. In Savannah, this claim is made for the streets that go to the river; but paved streets didn’t appear until 1883, a date after which little ballast entered the port. Ballast stones were, however, used as foundations of buildings of riverfront warehouses and some retaining walls (Factors Walk Retaining Wall) built in the mid-1800s. After 1882, the use of ballast declined to the point that the city was obliged to purchase stones. If anyone knows about other colonies, please chime in! 

Kathy Nichols, Executive Director of the Heritage Society of New Braunfels in Texas writes about a related myth. “My docents are saying that English ironstone was made for ship’s ballast.  Yep, they are telling people that’s why ironstone was made.  It is even printed in the book offered by my site…so you can understand that they are loathe to put their trust in a new director about such a catchy myth.  I’ve actually heard this story at a number of other sites but am not able to uncover articles similar to yours about this topic yet.  If you know of anything, please send me in that direction.”

Ironstone, or stoneware dishes, was legitimate cargo, much desired in the American colonies. Josiah Wedgwood and other manufacturers made such pottery by the boatload and shipped it all over the world. It was heavy, yes, but not ballast. Keep telling them, Kathy.

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16 Responses to MYTH # 54: Many houses and roads in America were built with bricks and stones carried here as ballast in the holds of ships.

  1. Crispinius says:

    Boy,…making ironstone crockery for the express purpose of ships’ ballast makes about as much sense as saying that making shot and cannonballs was for the same purpose aboard a man-of-war.

    Yes,…heavy things are certainly loaded lowest in a ship’s hold, just like any good truck driver knows to load the heaviest pallets in the bottom of his trailer, and lighter things above. But to jump from that to saying that it was made for that purpose?,…well, I would put the burthen of proof on the person saying it. “Show me the primary documentation for it (viz. – not your site’s book, which is, of course, secondary documentation).”

    As far as paving with ballast stones or bricks,…I know that Stone Street, (or Duke Street as it was officially known for decades) is a street in Manhattan, NY that apparently got its colloquial name in 1656 from being paved. [BTW - The Belgian blocks on Stone Street now are new construction.] That is the earliest I have heard of street paving in the American colonies. Philadelphia began paving some streets (ostensibly at Mr. Franklin’s suggestion) in the 1760’s.

    Beyond that, though, I don’t know of many paved streets. Williamsburg, formerly the capital of the most populous of His Majesty’s 32 North American colonies, apparently had no street paving until the 1920’s. During the 18th-Century, when these ships were bringing ballast over, it was described as “a filthy town” and visitors from England weren’t too impressed with its streets.

    There was a town on the south side of the James River, near Grays Creek, called “Cobham,” which was apparently a vibrant little community. Today it is primarily farmland. I found it interesting in doing research on the place that Grays Creek became unnavigable because of ballast dumped at its mouth. Some of that ballast was carried off (for building projects, perhaps?), but apparently a bunch of it is still there. I guess not everybody was so prudent about where the ballast went.

    I would love to read others’ take on these things, as my research on this topic, although extensive, is not exhaustive. For now, though, I think I’ll go have a pint of ale in my ironstone mug…

    Brett Walker, Shoemaker-Historian

  2. Mara says:

    Ha! I don’t think there were many roads and, especially, houses made from ballast (the bricks of which were called bastard bricks because none of them matched and would be difficult to lay them in a masonry fashion because they were uneven), however, there are some that still do exist. One such place is Fell’s Point in Baltimore, Maryland. There are still sections of the streets that are paved with blond Belgium block used as ballast from the European ships. And there is a house in Fell’s Point, 1611 Lancaster Street, where one can still see the bastard bricks that the side and back of the house are made of. Also, in Lisbon, Portugal, the streets and some sidewalks are paved with the ballast from ships as well. I almost broke an ankle walking them in heels when I was there! Interestingly enough, there is also something called a ballast hopper which is a railroad car that carries the “ballast” that lays between the rails of the railroad. Now, I do not know if these cars actually carried true ballast from ships to use in the railroad or if this is just a holdover of the terminology…a surprising amount of acquatic terminology is used in the railway.

  3. marymiley says:

    Mara, one thing . . . could you clarify that address in Fell’s Point? I looked on Google Maps to see the house at 1611 Lancaster, but there is no visible side of the the house. It is a row house and you can’t see the sides at all.

  4. marymiley says:

    I just heard from the world’s expert in ballast (that’s my own title for Dr. Nic Butler, Manager of the Charleston Archive at the Charleston Public Library) who told me he’s spent the past five years reading every existing record of the South Carolina colonial legislature. He writes:
    “Charleston’s streets were unpaved, sandy thoroughfares for the entire colonial period. Sidewalks were paved with crushed oyster shells and bricks as early as 1698, but there is no record of any street paving until after the incorporation of the city in 1783. In fact, in 1734 South Carolina’s provincial legislature passed a law requiring ship captains to discharge their unwanted ballast to the commissioners of the fortifications, who caused the stones to be piled in an around the town’s waterfront fortifications. For nearly five decades, the commissioners of the fortifications employed a “yeoman” (and his slaves) with a “lighter” or flat barge to transport the stones from ship to shore. This law was rendered void by the legislature’s decision in March 1784 to dismantle the fortifications. Only after that time, therefore, were ballast stones available to the newly-incorporated City Council of Charleston for use in paving public streets. Contrary to what tour guides say, Charleston’s cobblestone (ballast stone) streets date from either the late 18th or early 19th centuries.”

    This is the first hard evidence I’ve seen for paving streets with ballast. Thanks so much, Nic! Now we know it definitely occurred, at least in Charleston and Maryland (see comment above), I think it is safe to say that this is only a myth in that it exaggerates the practice. Not every paving-stone street was made from imported ballast.

  5. JJ Cummings says:

    Old town Alexandria, Virginia was said to be built with bricks and stones from Balast. There are many stone roads in this location still in existance and many of these roads were paved over.

    • marymiley says:

      Yes, that’s what their tour guides say. I heard it myself last month on a tour. But is there any documentation for the statement? I didn’t ask, but in the past, when I have asked (and gone to a particular state’s reference librarians, historical society historians, and university history departments), there is no proof, just repeated hearsay. In some few cases, there actually is documentation, such as with Charleston, which I mentioned earlier. I suspect that in many towns, the paving stones were purchased locally and did not come from ballast.

  6. marymiley says:

    I recently came across a reference in Antiques Roadshow Primer (1999) that talks about Canton export porcelain. Author Carol Prisant writes, “But Canton was affordable–so inexpensive in fact, that the merchant ships carrying it from the Orient to America and England used it as ballast.” She is not any more specific than that, and I have seen no hard evidence.
    Anyone??????

  7. Eric Gardner says:

    I recently lived in Savannah GA for some time, and the same story was used there in reference to River Street. Paved with ballast. It seems plausible though, but I need to do more research.

  8. Robert says:

    Interesting… I’m a geologist and just received a granite belgian block recovered from Fells Point. I was asked if I could determine it’s source. I’m just starting to look into the issue, but cursory search of available info points to the host of granite quarries in Baltimore County as the source (rather than a european origin). I’m going to see if I can dig up published geochemical data to compare…

  9. Joe Greeley says:

    It’s complete myth. Bricks and cobblestones have something in common with each other that they do not have in common with ballast. They cost money to produce-ballast is free. When a ship needed ballast they sent the sailors and the ships boat over to the shore and started digging. I can’t say with absolute certainty that cobble rock (round smooth rocks found on beaches) was NEVER loaded as ballast and then dumped on a street, but it doesn’t make good paving material. If you want a good road surface, the stone must be cut and fitted closely-again requiring that somebody be paid to do so which eliminates it from the ballast category.
    Bricks and cobblestones might get a cheaper shipping rate if the main cargo wasn’t heavy enough, but they were still cargo, NOT ballast.

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