Labor Day Tribute: Working The Brownstone Quarries

The interplay of immense blocks of stone, a work crew of about 300, magnificent oxen, horses, transport ships, and a railroad made the Portland brownstone quarries a very busy place to work.

If you were to have crossed the bridge from Middletown to Portland in the 18th century, your eyes would have been drawn immediately to the left toward a towering array of brownstones. No large oil tanks then—just tall brownstone cliffs could be seen on the banks of the Connecticut River. The quarry that exists there today—the new location of a —is but a remnant of what once existed. Millions of tons of brownstone have been cut from the Portland quarries and distributed around the world to build monuments, grave markers, houses, and commercial buildings.

What was it like to work in the quarry? Let’s take a look back and see.

Temperature matters to the quarrying of brownstone. Recently quarried brownstone is wet with water or "sap" as the workers there used to say. If it were to freeze in this condition, it would disintegrate and become worthless. Therefore, quarrying brownstone in the old days occurred from near the end of March until November.The Beers History of Middlesex County (1885) describes the work of excavating brownstone:

The work of excavation is materially assisted by the rocks being broken up into natural beds by parallel or nearly parallel fissures extending downward to an indefinite depth, verging slightly from the perpendicular, and in some instancessloping to an angle of 25 degrees. These fissures are called by the quarrymen "joints." At right angles to these joints are "keys" or cracks extending to one or more strata, so that the blocks of stone lie in the beds from two to twenty feet thick, from 20 to 100 feet wide, and from 50 to 300 feet long, with generally a southeasterly dip. These joints and keys facilitate the work of quarrying. The earth…is first removed until the rock is exposed. It is then split by wedges and hammers when cut parallel to the strata. If contrary to the strata, greater force must be used, and blasting is resorted to if the strata are very deep and close.

Large chunks of brownstone were blasted from the cliffs by means of dynamite. Two to four holes were drilled into the rock and charged with powder. A wire connected to a battery would detonate the charge. The blasted pieces were then hoisted back up by means of a steam derrick and hauled by oxen to the "scrapping ground" to be cut up for shipment.

The derricks also served another purpose. Horses, oxen, and wagons were let down into the pit by being strapped to a harness on the derrick. At the end of the day, they were raised back up—sometimes more than 100 feet—by using the same means. Here is one description of the process:

The animals are led into a huge box, a bar put in place, and they are swung off the brink, to be lowered 150 feet into the quarry, and they appear so well accustomed to this mode of reaching their work to show the least fear.

After being roughly cut and measured, the stone was hauled from the scrapping ground to the wharves near the river where it is then hoisted onto ships for transport. Large stones required 12-14 oxen for hauling. The quarry owned between 12-16 schooners to carry the brownstone to all parts of the world.

A small army of workmen were required for this entire process. All nationalities were represented; however, the majority of the workers were Swedes, described by one observer "to be strong and reliable and not given to strikes." The workmen were classified as "cutters," "rockmen," or teamsters." There were also bosses, measurers, and timekeepers. The overseers were called "rock bosses." There were usually 7-8 rock bosses on the job, each overseeing a crew of men. Some of the men reportedly worked in the quarry for over half a century! Excavations extended down to a depth of over 200 feet. At the height of its production during the "Brownstone Era" of the late 19th century, over 300,000 cubic feet of stone was extracted annually.

The movement toward a holiday honoring the laborers of the United States began at the height of the "Brownstone Era." The very first Labor Day holiday was observed on September 5, 1882, in New York City. Later in that decade, Oregon made it a state holiday. By 1894 it had become a federal holiday. It was a most appropriate and timely holiday for the brownstone laborers, as few workers worked harder than the men who quarried the brownstone in Portland.

Notes, Sources, and Links

  1. At its peak, the quarry employed over 300 men and had 45 yoke of oxen and 36 horses.
  2. You can still see the staging area for the derricks on top of the quarry on the south end where the tandem ziplines are located. There are overlapping large chunks of rectangular brownstone laid flat there to stabilize the derricks--see photo gallery.
  3. Joints and drilling holes are still apparent in the quarry walls—see the photo gallery.
  4. Beers History of Middlesex County (1885).
Elizabeth Warner September 07, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Phil, you are the greatest! Such interesting science and history!!


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