America’s First Commercial Railroad – Quincy Granite

Architect/engineer named Solomon Willard arrived in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1825. Legend holds that he had walked 300 miles across New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts in search of the perfect granite for what would become his most famous building, the Bunker Hill Monument. Willard found that granite at a ledge in a wooded area.

It was a dark gray granite, which formed around 450 million years. Now known as the Quincy (pronounced Quin-ZEE) Granite, it is an unusual granite. Most granites contain two types of the mineral feldspar, broadly called plagioclase feldspar and alkali feldspar. In contrast, Quincy contains only alkali feldspar, a result of solidifying at a high temperature. Alkali feldspar gives the rock its characteristic green-tinted, dusky gray color. (One Quincy quarry owner called himself the “Extra Dark Man” because of the particularly dark stone excavated from his property.) Further darkening results from the Quincy’s nearly black quartz, as opposed to the more common clear or white varieties.

But back to Willard. The location of the granite presented a challenge. How would he move blocks that weighed up to 6 tons across the 12 miles of swamp, forest, and farms that separated Quincy from Charlestown, where the monument would be erected? Willard favored either a completely overland route or moving the stone in winter, when sledges could carry the blocks to the Neponset River, four miles north. A barge would transport the stone through Boston Harbor to Charlestown, which formed a peninsula on the north side of the Charles River, due north of downtown Boston.

Another engineer and associate of Willard’s, Gridley Bryant, however, suggested that a railroad would be more efficient. With the support of Boston merchant and philanthropist, Thomas Perkins, Bryant ended up designing what would become the first, commercial railroad in the United states. Pulled by horses, the railcar ran through a swamp and gently downhill to the river, where it ended at a 1,200-foot-long wharf, which took six months to build and cost two-thirds of the total $50,000 price of the railroad.

Bryant’s most innovative design was his rail car, fourteen feet long, eleven feet tall, and supported by six-and-one-half-foot high wheels. The empty car would back up to where the cut blocks were. Workers would turn gears on the car, which would lower a pallet supported by six chains. They would unhook the pallet, move the car forward, load a block or blocks, and back the car up again. One man could raise a six-ton block, which could be up to three feet wide and 32 inches high.

Scanned from the Quincy Historical Society newsletter, No. 26, Fall 1991

Bryant made the first test run of the railroad on October 7, 1826, on what became known as the Granite Railway. Workers loaded three cars with 16 tons of rock and a single horse pulled the entire load. Despite the railway’s success, work didn’t began on the monument till April 1827. It was finished in 1842. A formal dedication took place the following year, with 110 Revolutionary War veterans present, including 97-year-old Phineas Johnson, who had fought at Bunker Hill 68 years earlier. The cost to build the monument was $101,680, basically on budget.

Even before completion of the monument, its construction, as well as the development of the Granite Railway, led to granite finally becoming the preeminent building stone in Boston. Willard showed that large blocks could be used and transported, and by refining quarry techniques, he helped drive the price down by 75 percent. The popularity of the Quincy granite eventually led to 53 additional quarries opening around Quincy and gave the town its moniker, “The Granite City.”

A few remnants of the Granite Railway can still be at Willard’s original quarry, as well as the Granite Rail Quarry. And the area is listed as a National Historic Place. Unfortunately, the great quarry was filled in several years ago with dirt from Boston’s Big Dig.