Lewiston’s Historic Sidewalks: Eyes are blind to what our feet conceal

Lewiston’s Historic Sidewalks: Eyes are blind to what our feet conceal

“Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.”
― Arthur Conan DoyleThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

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Lewiston’s Historic Sidewalks: Eyes are blind to what our feet conceal.

By Garry L. Bush

Sidewalks were built in ancient times. It was claimed that the Greek city of Corinth was paved by the 4th-century, and the Romans were particularly prolific sidewalk builders – they called them semitas.

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Raised sidewalks beside a 2000-year-old paved road, Pompeii, Italy

By the Middle Ages, city and village were without any formal separation between building and road and the thoroughfares became common ground for pedestrians, animals and wagons.

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Medieval Street scene

In the 19th century and early 20th century as urban populations grew, city dwellers wished to be above the filth and mud. Raised wooden sidewalks became common in North America. Today they are called boardwalks and generally are found at historic beach locations and in conservation areas to protect the land.

Lewiston, Idaho, as most towns and cities, originally had above ground wooden sidewalks in the downtown and residential areas.

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Wooden sidewalks – Downtown Lewiston, Idaho circa 1890’s

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Lewiston State Normal School boardwalks circa 1899

As the American urban landscape grew in the late Nineteenth Century, city governments assumed more initiative for paving sidewalks.   The paving was primarily for safety and sanitation reasons:  to reduce standing water, improve drainage, and insure a safe, uniform surface for citizens. Over time, cities assumed control of sidewalk design and regulations.

In 1881, Lewiston‘s Street Commissioner was instructed to draft a uniform sidewalk ordinance and by 1910, all new sidewalks had to be cement.   Most of the Downtown sidewalks were already ribbons of concrete and by 1911 Normal Hill saw cement sidewalks progressively installed southward from the downtown bluff.

As the American cityscape became dominated by closely packed building, many of the structures lost back or side which blocked off by the new adjacent buildings.  Access through street level fronts was originally designed for customers and tenants.

With commerce concentrated in the rapidly congested city centers, what could be done to accommodate the large deliveries of supplies and products necessary for businesses located in the tightly confined buildings?

Throughout the world’s cities and in the America’s urban landscape, building owners began constructing Sidewalk Vaults.

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Sidewalk vaults were a response to the access needs of the new urban scene and are a partial extension of a building’s basement under the adjacent sidewalk.  They extended up to and sometimes beyond the curb under the roadway.   These vaults were typically on city property and building owners maintained them.

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Sidewalk Vault access doors in wooden sidewalk   Lewiston Main Street circa 1890’s

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Metal access doors in Lewiston concrete sidewalks -1900’s

Wooden and metal doors gave sidewalk entry to the underground vaults, allowed business deliveries into basement storage areas and gave admittance without entering the building.  These vaults and building basements were accessible by inside building stairs which allowed businesses to store their merchandise.  Many of these sidewalk openings had steep ramps into the basement to allow the sliding of boxes and some had mechanical elevators for heavy loads.  Some buildings had lockable windowed doors separating the vault from the basement area for security as vault doors were not often locked.  The sidewalk vaults are often still in use and are the equivalent of today’s loading docks.

Common vaulted sidewalk construction consisted of a top cement slab supported by concrete beams or masonry arches strengthened by iron beams.

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Under sidewalk view illustrating arch construction with iron beam- Lewiston

Many Historic Downtown Lewiston streets are decorated with the original, beautiful sidewalks and include coal chute covers that look like street manhole plates.  Delivery wagons loaded with coal would stop along our city streets and noisily dump the dusty loads into sidewalk vaults feeding old steam boilers that heated every building along Main Street.

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When originally constructed, getting light into these dark sidewalk vaults was difficult and potentially dangerous.   Oil and gas lamps increased the likelihood of fire, a disaster with mainly wooden structures.

Vault lights were patented in 1845 by inventor Thaddeus Hyatt, who improved on impractical earlier designs featuring a single fragile pane by substituting “a considerable number of small glasses, or lenses, which are set into the iron cover, as effectually to defend them from injury by the falling or pressure of weighty bodies upon them.”  The idea originated as deck lights used on sailing ships, allowing above deck sunlight to illuminate the vessel’s dark interior.

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Vault lights Main Street Downtown Lewiston

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The purple color that we see in most vault lights along Main Street was not always there.  The color is actually the result of the glass’s high manganese content which with 100 years of ultraviolet light turned the glass from clear to its current amethyst hue.

Many people mislabel the sidewalk vaults as “tunnels” and confuse the issue of why and how the vaults came to be.  Nationwide companies advertise “underground tours” or “underground tunnel tours“, which in reality are excursions of the historic building vaults under the sidewalks.

Lewiston’s “tunnel” stories are anecdotal tales but may have some basis of truth from years gone by.  We believe that tunnels existed in Lewiston’s history but changes in street alignment, repairs on the downtown streets /sidewalks and time may have obliterated most of what we seek. The author of this piece has been researching and searching for evidence of Lewiston’s tunnels for the last twelve years and have yet to find an actual tunnel.  That does not mean tunnels under the streets of Lewiston do not exist currently, we have yet to find one.

Today, Lewiston’s street infrastructure contains many sidewalks and sidewalk vaults in disrepair. Unfortunately, a century of foot traffic plus neglect has led to problems of surface damage, water leakage and metal corrosion. In addition, stringent building codes and structural demands of modern sidewalks have caused cities to revisit these historic sidewalks.  Rather than being repaired over time, many of the older vaulted sidewalks have been filled in with cement, slowly erasing these tangible markers of bygone times.

In 2016 the City of Lewiston embarked on a project that will inventory all the downtown sidewalk vaults, assess sidewalk vault structural integrity and may lead to establishing the historical significance of a few of Lewiston’s sidewalk vaults.  We trust this will lead to preservation of some of these extraordinary symbols of our past.

The existing streetscape in Beautiful Downtown Lewiston still provides much of the character that exemplifies the unique history of our City.  So take the time to walk around downtown, look down to see what your feet conceal.  You might stumble upon a few of the last surviving memorials to Lewiston’s remarkable past.

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Photos courtesy of: Nez Perce County Historical Society and the author

Garry Bush is a certified First Person Living History presenter with degrees in Geography, History and Photography. He offers trolley and walking tours of Lewiston’s historic places through his company, Idaho History Tours. A former educator, Garry is a current member of the Lewiston Historic Preservation Commission and a former Lewiston City Council Member. BDL is indebted to Garry for sharing his knowledge of our community’s sidewalks and vaults.