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.

Geology of War

“The whole battle is about trying to take an igneous intrusion away from another army,” says Robert Whisonant, a geologist at Radford University in Virginia.  Whisonant is quoted in Erin Wayman’s fascinating article about geology and the Civil War, which appears in the November issue of Earth magazine (formerly Geotimes.)

Wayman focuses on two of the most important battles in the war: Antietam and Gettysburg. Whisonant and his fellow researcher, Judy Ehlen, observe that one of the deadliest battlefields at Antietam was the Cornfield, where three times more solders died than at the adjacent Burnside Bridge.  They attribute the totals in part to the Cornfield’s underlying limestone, which has weathered flat, whereas the more resistant dolomite and shale of Burnside had eroded into a safer terrain of hills and ridges, allowing soldiers to hide and maneuver unseen.
Whisonant’s quote refers to Gettysburg where a diabase (dark igneous rock) had intruded into softer sediments and formed a boulder-rich, hilly terrain.  The Union army held the 25-meter-high Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates were on the lower Seminary Ridge. Between the two was a plain, formed by the erosion of the soft sediments.  More than 12,000 Confederate soldiers died when they tried to cross the unprotected plain during the infamous Pickett’s Charge. With that loss the South retreated.
For me, the other interesting story of Gettysburg is the stone itself.  The battle-influencing diabase formed around 200 million years ago, as North America and Africa separated during the breakup of Pangaea. The split produced a series of rift valleys that stretch up the Atlantic Coast, including one now found in Connecticut and Massachusetts where dinosaurs left behind thousands of tracks. Collected in the middle 1800s by Edward Hitchcock, the tracks can be seen at the Amherst College Museum of Natural History.  The area is also famous for producing a brown sandstone used in the building trade throughout the east.  The rock is better known as the material covering hundreds of brownstone rowhouses. 
If you are interested in more information, the Pennsylvania Geological Survey has two publications on line. The first is a reprint of a 1962 report on Gettysburg and the second is 2008 field guide to the battlefield. The National Humanities Council also has a great reference spot with more articles by Whisonant. 
General Robert E. Lee may have been a brilliant tactician but he appears to not have been a good geologist. But in his defense, geology was still a young science and most of what we know now could not have even been imagined in the 1860s.