Brownstone Tombstones

Continuing my theme of tombstones, I would like to turn to a singular grave marker in Middletown, Connecticut, just across the border from the old brownstone quarries in Portland. I believe this may be the only tombstone with dinosaur tracks on it. It honors Joseph Barrett, an M.D., though judging from the stone, he was equally as proud to be a botanist and geologist. Who wouldn’t?

Barrett was well known in the area for his passion for tracks. His obituary in the New York Times read “So deeply was he engaged in this work that he neglected his profession and became a monomaniac on the subject of bird tracks. He saw all manner of fossils in city walks which no other eyes were able to see, and in his peregrinations about the town would stop suddenly, look at a stone, bring out a sheet of wrapping paper and, laying it out on the walk, draw upon it whatever his fancy painted, write the place where the stone lay and date its discovery.” Oh, to be able to see those drawings!

Barrett also regularly supplied tracks to Edward Hitchcock, who taught at Amherst College and is considered the father of ichnology. Hitchcock never could admit that dinosaurs made the tracks; birds were the track makers.
When Barrett died, according to brownstone historian Alison Guinness, the local quarries donated two slabs of stone. You can find the facts on the smooth face. You can also see how brownstone weathers, peeling off layer by layer like sunburned skin. The back side, though, is the face to explore. Several three-toed tracks can be seen crossing at angles to each other. The most obvious one is just to the left of center, next to a round white lichen. Another one is a few inches down and to left. They have been designated as Grallator formosus and Brontozoum sillimanicum.

The back side of Barrett’s tombstone. Note the various tracks of three-toed dinosaurs.
The second slab, which the first sits on, has two tree casts. In addition, you can see where it says “The Testimony of the Rocks.” This book, written by Scottish geologist Hugh Miller and published the year after his death in 1857, is a curious combination of anti-evolution but supportive of a great age for the Earth.

Together these two slabs are certainly a wonderful tombstone testimony to the passion of a man for the stone and the fossils he loved.

The Comstock King and Brownstone

“San Francisco’s crown in the matter of private architecture has rested on the brow of the city’s famous Nob Hill for the past 10 years but the brightest jewel in the setting is receiving its finishing polish,” appeared on page 4 of the May 9, 1886 New York Times.  The short article was referring to the mansion of James C. Flood, best known as one of the Nevada Comstock Kings.  His home was reportedly the most expensive private residence in America.  The reason was understandable—Flood’s 42-room estate was made of sandstone shipped around Cape Horn from Connecticut.  Total cost was $1.5 million and included a $30,000 bronze fence, which was rumored to be polished by a man whose sole job was to do so. 

Flood chose the red sandstone, better known as brownstone, because it was the stone of the wealthy.  William Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and George Pullman all lived in brownstone homes, and brownstone was called an “almost proverbial synonym for all that is elegant and desirable.”  Tons and tons of brownstone was shipped as ballast around Cape Horn.  The 107 foot by 127 foot edifice featured 14 solid stone columns, 13 feet tall by 22 inches square, and 23-foot-long sandstone steps.  The biggest blocks each weighed 18 tons.

I have long wanted to see Mr. Flood’s brownstone.  Skipping out on a few sessions at AGU allowed me to reach this goal. The mansion is rather handsome and very out of place on its block surrounded by gargantuan and mostly granite buildings.  And it is clear that no one has polished the bronze fence in decades. 

The main brownstone quarries were in Portland, Connecticut.  First used for building in the 1650s, brownstone started to spread widely in the late 1700s and reached a peak by the last decade of the 19th century.  Following devastating floods, the quarries shut down around 1936, but not before the removal of 10 million cubic yards of rock. 

From a geologic point of view, brownstone has long attracted attention.  The red sands were part of an extensive series of sediments deposited in rift basins formed 200 million years ago by the separation of North America and Africa and the incipient opening of the Atlantic Ocean.  These sediments record more than 35 million years of time and stretch from South Carolina to Newfoundland.  The sediments also preserved the tracks of thousands of dinosaurs that roamed the wet sands near streams and lakes in the basins.  More than 20,000 of these tracks, including the legendary Noah’s Raven, are now displayed at the Amherst Museum of Natural History. 

James Flood’s residence was the lone mansion on Nob Hill to survive the 1906 earthquake.  It was, however, only a shell as fire had burned out the interior.  Flood had died in 1889 and his daughter sold the gutted building to the Pacific Union Club.  They hired the architectural firm run by Daniel Burnham to redesign the mansion.  Ironically, Burnham was the architect of the World’s Columbian Exposition and its White City, which contributed to white stone replacing brownstone as a favored building material.  The Flood residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Only members and their guests are allowed in the building now.