From the quarry to the grave

When our forefathers crossed the ocean and settled in this country [the USA], it was not long before the tombstone cutter made his appearance, and with his wagon load of slate and marble slabs, he journeyed through the towns, and when he sold one, he put up his horses and proceeded to letter the stone on the spot; and when he had finished and set the job, he started on in quest of another victim.
Arthur W Brayley, 1913, History of Granite, p. 118.

{{image2-a:r-w:200}}Way back when I was in graduate school one of my geology professors took our class on a field trip to a cemetery to study gravestones, which, at first, seemed like a pretty creepy thing to do. But we were there to observe how rock weathered, and what better place than an outdoor laboratory with slabs of various types of rocks, all nicely showing the date they were originally put out to weather?

The red and brown sandstone monuments, when standing upright, had almost always crumbled or scaled off, sometimes showing only a ghost of the original inscription. Most of the crisp inscriptions originally carved into the marble gravestones had been severely softened by acid rain. We also noticed sugaring, which is a gradual disintegration of the surface of the marble, creating a rough, granular, crystalline appearance. What was striking was how well the granite monuments had survived the elements.

My graduate school class was not the first group of people to notice the differences in deterioration of gravestones. By the end of the 19th century, granite, by virtue of its superior weathering characteristics, had become the favoured rock for use in the construction of large and costly monuments and mausoleums, particularly in northern climates of the United States.

{{image3-a:r-w:200}}This shift in preference for granite monuments gave a huge boost to the Barre granite industry. About $USD60,000 of granite was produced in Vermont in 1880. By 1886, Vermont’s granite production had doubled, and in 1895 it exceeded $USD1 million. Most of the production was for monuments and mausoleums.

One might wonder how the granite industry was able to grow at such a fast rate. Increased production was enabled by the mechanisation of the granite industry. The boom derricks that utilised oxen or horses for hoisting and manpower for pulling the loads around were being supplanted by those powered by steam. That led to structures capable of lifting blocks weighing scores of tonnes from deep-hole quarries. Likewise, stone shed machinery was changing from hand operation and horse sweeps to powered drives. And stone sheds were redesigned for more efficient handling of stone.

Also notable was the evolution of the workforce. The pioneers of the industry had been young, practical, skilled workmen who lacked business training. By the late 1800s, business owners had acquired significant business acumen.

Finally, in 1889, the completion of the “Sky Route” railroad from the stone sheds in Barre to the quarries filled a desperate need of the granite industry.  Previously the rough granite had a slow, tedious trip to the finishing sheds on wagons or sleds drawn by ox teams and horses. Before the Sky Route was constructed, Barre was home to six stonecutting firms employing about 50 stonecutters. Four years after the railroad went into service there were more than 100 firms operating stone sheds that employed about 1500 stonecutters.

Barre had entered the stone age.

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