Cobblestone pavement -- involving irregular rounded stones -- is among the most picturesque and historic forms of street pavement. It can be found on waterfront streets in older port cities along the east coast of the United States. The geological diversity of such stones makes one wish you could ask a stone "Where are you from?" In Savannah, one cobblestone is able to answer back and say "I'm from China!"
Among the City of Savannah’s proud treasures currently displayed in the rotunda of City Hall is a cobblestone etched with Chinese characters. The unlikely artifact speaks to the rich and complex connections between trade and the built environment. While its journey from being a tombstone in 18th-century China to a lowly piece of pavement in mid-19th-century Savannah, and ultimately becoming an object of reverence on a podium in the 21st century may be unique, it aptly stands for the kind of global trade that has directly shaped cities throughout history and around the world.
Carved into the stone are two sets of Chinese characters. The smaller characters to the right tell us that it was carved in the third year of the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing dynasty (1796-1820) — hence 1798. The three larger characters to the left identify a name -- Zhang Lin’an. The combination of a name and a date indicates that this stone was used as a tombstone. At some point during the first half of the 19th century, the tombstone lost its value and became a piece of rubble placed in a ship’s hold as ballast, weight in the bottom of a ship to improve its stability. Using rock for ship ballast had been a common practice for centuries. At the time, ships arrived in Savannah comparatively empty prior to being loaded with heavy bales of cotton for export. To make more room for outgoing cargo, the ballast stones would be deposited on the waterfront, a practice common in American port cities.
Used in older American cities by the time of the American Revolution, these naturally rounded and irregular cobblestones proved to be the first successful permanent pavement widely utilized in Savannah. Beginning by 1843, the city enthusiastically embraced the material, even though it was viewed poorly by at least one mid-19th-century pavement expert. William Gillespie, a professor of civil engineering at Union College in Schenectady, New York, criticized this type of pavement in his 1847 manual as a “common but very inferior pavement, which disgraces the streets of nearly all our cities.” The city of Savannah enjoyed a steady supply of the stones from discarded ballast emptied onto the city’s wharfs by incoming ships. Until 1880, the city received between 1,700 and 3,250 tons of this material each year, which cost only a “wharfage” fee since the wharfs were privately owned.
Between 1855 and 1858, the ramps leading down the bluff from Bay Street to River Street were paved with cobblestones, while the adjacent retaining walls were exquisitely constructed by Irish stone mason Michael Cash with recycled pieces of masonry, documented by small relief plaques. During the Civil War, according to the 1866 Municipal Report issued by the mayor’s office, the ramps “were entirely destroyed and the material carried away and sunk in the obstructions” in the river. Rebuilding with new cobblestones and masonry, also by Cash, concluded a year later. All or parts of 13 streets in Savannah were paved with cobblestones before the ready supply diminished in the early 1880s following a new requirement for ballast to be unloaded outside the city.
The Chinese cobblestone may have been used as pavement in Savannah as early as 1843 or as late as 1880, gracing the bottom of Whitaker Street ramp, immediately east of what is now the Bohemian Hotel. Around 2012, a public works crew repaired the ramp, which entailed removing the historic cobblestones and patching the roadway with concrete stamped with a cobblestone pattern. The Chinese cobblestone went missing, to the consternation of area historians, but was ultimately tracked down by City of Savannah archivist Luciana Spracher. She had the stone cleaned, documented and translated prior to placing it on display in a glass showcase in the City Hall council chamber and later in the rotunda of City Hall, where it remains today.