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Road rooted in the past
National Park Service had to go 'back to the future' to find a suitable surface for historic Sunken Road in Fredericksburg

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Date published: 4/22/2005


DURING THE Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, Confederates used Sunken Road--a thin ribbon of compacted dirt snaking below Marye's Heights--to get to defensive positions that would give the South one of their greatest victories of the Civil War.

Soldiers rested, ran, fell and died along the wagon-rutted road and the stone wall along its edge, which would become etched in a nation's collective memory.

As part of an effort to re-create the look and feel of the spot, the National Park Service is winding up a project that may be unique in the annals of historic preservation, according to John Hennessy, chief historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Hennessy thought it would be relatively simple to re-create a dirt road.

He was wrong.

"I think we have looked at every conceivable mixture of gravel, sand, cinder and clay known to humanity," Hennessy said earlier this week as workmen were finishing up the job.

The original plan was to use a soil-concrete mixture.

"We had used that on trails and like it for that, but not on the road. It was lighter and more compacted than we wanted. It looked like an airport runway," Hennessy said.

Park historians and technicians then got busy on a solution.

"We did about 25 test panels in our quest for a perfect road surface," Hennessy said. Some modern road surfaces were considered, even shredded tires.

The answer lay in the past.

"We concluded that to find the best surface, we had to look backward."

A mixture of clay, dirt and gravel was deemed suitable, but not just any combination.

"We experimented again with a dozen different mixtures.We wanted one that would look good and function well with a minimum of erosion and would be durable to walk on," he said.

"All of our high-tech aspirations," he noted, didn't work. Hennessy, a career researcher, did his homework and came up empty. He couldn't find any other parks that had attempted a similar project.

"In this case there's no centralized think tank. We canvassed a lot of parks and talked to lots of different people" about potential materials.

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