(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.