When workers started tearing up asphalt from Fishers Road, one of the main roads into campus at St. Mary's College of Maryland, they found something unexpected: wood.
Right under the street is another road that dates to 1740. Last week, archaeologists found row after row of logs, lined up to keep the road passable even on wet, muddy days. It's the only "corduroy" road known in the state preserved in such condition, said Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City.
Archaeologists usually do not study roads. Roads usually don't have artifacts around them, the way houses or business structures often do, that would help researchers date the site and learn more about it. But the roads from the past show what life was like in Southern Maryland. They can even put the worst modern traffic in perspective: Back then, in wet weather, traveling 10 miles in a day was considered a good thing.
The corduroy road stretches behind the St. John's site, where one of the largest homes in the colony stood in the 1630s and 1640s. The colonial legislature met there, and several historic events took place there, such as the first black person voting in the legislature and the first woman asking for the right to vote in Maryland.
Then, after the house was abandoned and time and termites ate away at it, a road was built through what had been the back yard. It was the main road from the waterfront of the St. Mary's River at the colonial capital and the big plantation there, so it would have been busy with carts and wagons and barrels of tobacco headed to sea.
In the 1800s, people cut down trees, mostly pine, and laid the logs down on the road to keep it dry and passable. "The armies during the Civil War moved on corduroy roads," Miller said. "There are references to troops spending days cutting timber for corduroy roads; they were widely used during that era."
Archaeologists could still see the bark on some of the logs; they were preserved by clay and then the asphalt that paved the road in the 1930s. Underneath the logs, they could see the ruts from carts and the hoof prints of horses.
It shows them how roads were built then. "But to me the really amazing thing about it is it shows the problems and the difficulties of travel in the past," Miller said. "This is the roughest thing you can imagine trying to drive over. It's just one bump after another after another. . . . This made me recognize something I take for granted, which is how amazing our road system is today."
Soon they will tear out the old road, part of the work needed to put in underground utility lines for the college. But first, the archaeologists will dig around underneath and see what else they can find.