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.”

Quincy – The Granite City in the Globe

The Boston Globe ran two stories today about the town of Quincy (pronounced Quin-zee) and its granite-influenced past. For nearly two centuries, Quincy supplied granite to great and small buildings of Boston and beyond. These include the dry docks in Charlestown, Massachusetts, customhouses in New Orleans, Boston, and Mobile, Alabama, and the Bunker Hill Monument, a use which led to the first commercial railroad in the United States.

One story focuses on the efforts of locals to draw more attention to the importance of granite to a town once known as The Granite City. They hope to build a Quincy Quarry and Granite Workers Museum but despite a nearly two-decade old agreement to build it, they have had no luck. The story quotes Vic Campbell who said “It seems that when it comes to the Adamses, nothing that anyone can think of is too much. When it comes to the quarries, nothing is too neglectful.’’ As someone who has written about the beautiful and historical Quincy stone and its human and geologic history, I am sad to see that so many seem to not care about their past.

The second story, Of Granite, Plugs, and Feathers, tells the history of the quarries, tracing its earliest use to around 1754 and the King’s Chapel, still standing in Boston. Stone was quarried not from the solid walls of rock but from boulders, which masons split by heating with fire and cracking with heavy iron balls. Not until around 1803 did a truly effective manner of quarrying come along. The plug and feather technique originated with a man known as Mr. Tarbox, who introduced the method of drilling holes in the rock and then putting a metal wedge, or plug, surrounded by two L-shaped shims, the feathers, into the hole. Hammering a row of plugs and feathers forced the stone to split apart. Tarbox’s method dropped the price of split stone by 40 percent and helped launch Quincy’s long history as a granite supplier.

Let’s hope that these stories can help with the development of the Quincy museum. Perhaps it will also help with my push for a Slow Stone, my movement to encourage the use of locally quarried stone.