Sad Day for Brownstone

Brownstone is perhaps the most famous building stone of the east coast, quarried for more than three centuries and used primarily in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. During its peak in the late 1800s, brownstone was the stone to use from coast to coast. So popular was it that “Silver King” James Flood shipped hoards of it around Cape Horn from Connecticut to San Francisco for his mansion, the only building on Nob Hill to survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

But an article in yesterday’s New York Times reported that the final brownstone quarry is now closing.  That quarry was in Portland, Connecticut, where the first quarries open in the late 1600s. The area was the prime source for brownstone in New York City. The stone is a 200-million year old sandstone deposited in a valley formed by the breakup of Pangaea.

I was lucky enough to interview quarry owner Mike Meehan and tour his quarry in 2007, when I was working on my book, Stories in Stone. As I wrote in my book, in 1993, Mike, an ex-coal miner, opened a small quarry on a ledge north of the lake-filled Middlesex/Brainerd quarry. He knew nothing about quarrying brownstone.  “Being a coal miner, I was more adept at blowing things up,” said Meehan. “But at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to be small scale and to be making a product.”

Meehan’s first contract was for $25,000 worth of stone for a restoration project at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  He quarried the stone and sent it to Barre, Vermont, to be cut.  The only local stone the university had been able to get was from old railroad trestles. He eventually acquired what I described as a giant-wire cheese slicer, except that the wire is impregnated with industrial diamonds. This wire travels between two, spinning, vertical wheels mounted about 20 feet apart from each other on a steel frame.  By lowering the wheels in tandem up and down on the frame, Meehan lowers the horizontal wire, which cuts into the block of sandstone.

But now Meehan has put the quarry up for sale. He is 63 years old and wants to retire. It is sad day for brownstone and those who love beautiful stone. Thanks Mike for all you did for the stone and keeping the story of brownstone alive.

Adaptive Reuse of Quarries: Swimming, Climbing, and Filming

Like cats, many quarries have multiple lives, or at least continue to be used long after people have pulled out stone for buildings. My most recent reminder of this was an article in one of Seattle’s local newspapers. The story described how the Index quarry, which Swedish immigrant John Soderberg opened in 1904, had been purchased and protected by the local rock climbing community.

The Index granite, technically a granodiorite, was an important building material in Seattle in the early part of the twentieth century. Soderberg took advantage of the proximity of the Great Northern Railway tracks to ship the stone. It went primarily into curbs and foundations, including my favorite building in Seattle, Smith Tower, but like many a local stone, its luster soon faded, other stones came into the market, and quarry closed down by the mid 1930s. And then the quarry was forgotten until rock climbers discovered it as a great climbing area close to Puget Sound.

Hundreds of climbing routes were put up over the years, much on private land, as well as some in Forks of the Sky State Park. Luckily for the climbers, the private owner, as well as the state parks department, were supportive of the climbers but that support may not have lasted so the Washington Climbers Coalition decided to buy the climbing wall site. On August 25, they completed the purchase of the property and named it the Stimson Bullitt Climbing Reserve.

This is not the only adaptive reuse of abandoned quarries. While working on my book, Stories in Stone, I came across several similar sites. The great granite quarry of Quincy, supplier of stone for the Bunker Hill Monument and numerous structures on the east coast, is also a favorite urban climbing area.

Perhaps the most famous ex-quarry is the one that starred in the movie Breaking Away. After the quarry flooded, it became a popular swimming site. When Breaking Away came out, so many people sought out the quarry that the owners regretted that they ever let the filmmakers shoot there. Access to the quarry is now discouraged, prohibited, and forbidden.

Portland, Connecticut’s fabulous brownstone quarry also flooded, initially when the nearby Connecticut River overflowed into 200-foot-deep hole. Later, a hurricane pushed water back into the quarry and closed it permanently. The property had been slated for development–the plan called for cutting a channel to the river and opening a marina–but then the real estate market crashed. The city of Portland bought the property in 1999 and it was designated a National Historic Landmark the following year. At present, the quarry and site have been opened for a variety of adventure activities, including snorkeling, mountain biking, and zip lines. I am not sure such use truly honors the people who worked the quarry and supplied stone for buildings from Boston to San Francisco but it is a creative use of the land.

P.S. Just got a short note from Dave Tucker at NW Geology Field Trips that reminded me of one other swimming pool quarry. Here is what Dave wrote: “The public pool in Tenino, WA, occupies the old quarry south of downtown. It is closed for the season now. Some water runs through a pipe above the quarry to form a waterfall into the pool. I talked with a local high school kid who was sneaking a smoke by the pool, he said it is ‘hundreds and hundreds of feet deep’. I thought he was just smoking tobacco, but after that comment, not so sure. Just east of the pool area is a stack of big sandstone blocks with splitting holes visible on the edges. All stacked up to form a maze and play area.”