Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900. Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.
A 1902 article in the New York Times by Charles H. Stevenson, the U.S. Fish Commission’s foremost authority on oysters and their economic uses, estimated that there were by then 3,000 miles of oyster shell roads along the Eastern Seaboard.
The mass of oyster shells available to those road builders is mindboggling. As a rule of thumb, road engineers figured that they required 30,000 bushels of oyster shells to construct a single mile of road.
That figure assumed that they were building a standard road 16 feet wide, 15 inches deep in the middle and 8 inches deep along the sides.
At 3 cents per bushel, the cost of an oyster shell road added up to $900 a mile at that time. That was a considerable sum in those days, but still far less than the cost of brick or crushed stone, the leading road construction materials of the day.
That cost advantage was especially true if you already had great islands of oyster shells piled up around canneries and shucking houses with no other profitable place to put them.
By 1900 mountains of oyster shells had risen up and down the North Carolina coast.
The state’s first steam oyster cannery had opened at Ocracoke Island in 1877. Within 15 years, oyster canneries and/or fresh shucking houses had also opened in New Bern, Beaufort, Morehead City, Davis Shore, Vandemere, Oriental, Washington, Belhaven, Southport and Elizabeth City.
(To learn more about the state’s oyster boom in the 1880s and ‘90s, see my essay “The Oyster Shucker’s Song.”)
By itself, one of those oyster canneries, Moore & Brady in New Bern, employed 500 workers and shucked as many as 2,000 bushels of oysters a day.
The town of Elizabeth City alone boasted at least 11 oyster canneries and shucking houses and employed 1,700 oyster workers in 1890.
With the new availability of steam canning, ice making machinery and railroads, North Carolina’s oyster houses sent oysters far and wide—and the oyster shells piled up.
In every town and village that boasted one of the new oyster canning or shucking facilities, road builders paved the downtown streets and other coastal roads with oyster shells.
In many coastal towns, road and utilities crews still find the oyster shell streets when they excavate beneath our modern blacktops.
Quite a few coastal communities also had Indian shell mounds that included large quantities of oyster shells. Local builders—and eventually state roadbuilding crews— utilized them as well for a source of material for building roads and bridge embankments.
Construction crews also built turnpikes with oyster shells, including the toll road between Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington, pictured at the top of this story, which was built over salt marsh and swampland between 1875 and 1887. It ran 10 miles along the course of what is now Wrightsville Avenue.
Oyster shell roads did require steady maintenance, however. To keep a shell road in good repair, road maintenance crews found it necessary to add an average supplement of another 2,500 bushels a year per mile to shell roads.
“Although they constitute the cheapest and most convenient material in the sections where they are commonly used,” Charles H. Stevenson noted, “shells are not wholly satisfactory for road material owing to their rapid wear and the spreading of objectionable lime dust.”
For generations, however, a chalky residue on one’s boots and a limey haze rising a few inches off downtown roadways were just facts of life in the state’s coastal towns and villages.