Gary Cooper and the Stones of San Francisco

With the upcoming AGU annual fall meeting, I want to look at some of the building stone used in San Francisco.  Despite the area’s abundant stone, the earliest fireproof granite building used stone quarried, cut, and fitted together in China.  Known as the Parrott Block, it was built in 1852.  The blocks had been labeled with Chinese characters and shipped to San Francisco, to be assembled by Chinese workers.  The three-story building survived the 1906 earthquake and fire but was razed in 1926 for the Financial Center Building, now remodeled as the Omni Hotel. 

Various rock trickled into San Francisco in the following decades. By the end of the century two of the most prominent were a sandstone quarried near Sites and a granite from Raymond.  Sites is about 100 miles north of the bay area, in the Sacramento Valley, whereas Raymond is 150 southeast in the foothills of the Sierras.  Both rocks reached the city by train. 

Colusa sandstone quarry – From:

Two quarries in Sites provided stone.  A. D. Knowles opened his quarry in 1886, followed in 1890 by the John McGilvray Stone Company.  Known in the trade as Colusa Sandstone (the town of Colusa is about 25 miles away), the rock comes from the Upper Cretaceous Venado Formation, a several-hundred meter thick layer of submarine fan deposits.  They are part of the Great Valley Group, tens of thousands of feet of muds, silts, and sands that accumulated in a forearc basin found between the Sierra Nevada magmatic arc and the Franciscan subduction complex. 

The Ferry Building was the first great structure made of Colusa rock.  Other well-known buildings are the St. Francis Hotel, Music Temple in Golden Gate, and the Flood Building.  The stone was also shipped to Hawaii.  It is generally bluish gray or buff, though a recently opened quarry about one mile north of the original quarries markets the sandstone as a brownstone.  Like other sandstones during fires, the Sites rock spalled heavily during the post-1906 earthquake infernos. 

Raymond Granite Quarry – 1905 — From:

The Raymond granite quarry opened in 1888 on property locally known at the time as Dusy’s Rock Pile.  Light gray in color, the Raymond rock is classic, Sierra Nevada subduction zone granite, and is now sold as Sierra White by the quarry’s present owner Cold Spring Granite.  Raymond granite was used in the San Francisco Civic Center, City Hall, Palace Hotel, and numerous buildings on the UC Berkeley campus.  The new main San Francisco library, built in 1996, also has a granite façade from the Raymond quarry. 

The stone, or at least the quarries, achieved a bit of notoreity in 1949 in the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  At a low point in his career, architect Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, retreats to a job in a quarry.  The quarry in the book is in Connecticut, but since the film was shot in California the Raymond quarries had to stand in for Connecticut.  Although limited, the scenes in the quarry with Cooper and Patricia Neal are some of the movie’s most famous and controversial because of their sexual imagery.  And for those inclined to stone, the shots do a fine job of depicting quarry technology.

The HMS Challenger Sets Sail

As Michael Ryan notes on his Paleoblog, today is the anniversary of the day the HMS Challenger set sail in 1872. The expedition spent four years sailing over 69,000 nautical miles charting the depths of the seas.  The crew’s discoveries, including the deepest spot on the planet, an immense chain of subaqueous volcanoes, and unexpected diversity, added more evidence to the validity of the theory of evolution and laid the groundwork for one of the other great theories of science, plate tectonics. If you want to know more about the HMS Challenger, I recommend geologist and science writer Richard Corfield’s first rate book, The Silent Landscape.  

Corfield mixes journal information from expedition members with details from the scientist’s 20-volume report to tell the tale of the HMS Challenger, what Corfield calls the world’s first sea voyage devoted exclusively to science. As he notes, the journey of the HMS Challenger marked several turning points.  It was the last great voyage of the Victorian era.  It helped lay to rest “the belief that secular questions can be answered by religion.”  It showed that science and the search for knowledge were worthy of government funding and it opened up nearly two-thirds of the planet to exploration that continues to this day.  The expedition deserves to be included on the short list of great British voyages, and Corfield does a fine job of showing why.