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The tooth-fangling granite quarries of Barre Vermont

New Hampshire is well known for its “White Mountains” exposing huge outcroppings of granite, but it is in central Vermont that one finds the heart of the world’s greatest granite industry. The twin-cities of Barre and Montpelier, the state capital, sit on or near one of the major granite platforms in the world. The mining and manufacture of granite products is dominated by the Rock of Ages Corporation in Graniteville Vermont near Barre. Its quarries and granite-finishing plants make for a fascinating tour at minimal time and expense.

The granite platform under the cities is relatively shallow and is covered by only a few feet of topsoil. The early settlers at the dawn of the nineteenth century came as farmers and were dismayed when they found nothing but granite below their land. The local deposit of granite in this region is about four miles long, two miles wide and ten miles thick. A spokesman for Rock of Ages told me that at current recovery rates, it will take at least 4,500 years to mine all the granite here.

Granite quarry vermont

Because there has always been a huge demand nationwide and worldwide for quality granite and Barre granite enjoys not only great beauty but also durability rarely found elsewhere, the region became the epicenter of the world’s granite industry. During the 1800s many prominent buildings including the state capitols of Vermont and Pennsylvania were made of granite—as were the cobblestones that lined the major boulevards of American cities like Acorn Street in Boston and Eighth Avenue when I was a boy growing up in New York City. In more recent years granite is carved for grave stones, for countertops in kitchens, for foundations in many buildings, and so much more. One of the main uses of granite throughout the country is in tombstones and memorials. It is estimated that one-third of all memorials in the United States come from Barre.

The granite industry started quite early in Vermont. The early settlers found granite useful for the creation of grinding stones for grist mills and as paving stones they called cobbles. The nearby state capitol was built from local granite in the late 1830s and today stands as a proud representative of the sturdiness and durability of granite. But the stone was so hard and heavy that commerce in the product remained quite localized until the railroad came through in the second half of the nineteenth century. The construction of a rail link right up to the quarries and the spread of railways across Vermont and the United States and Canada in the mid-1800s made the Barre area much more accessible for the exportation of granite out of Vermont. The rapid growth of the industry required the talents of excellent workmen to mine and to cut, polish and refine the stone. Workmen migrated to Barre from all over Europe—skilled laborers from northern Italy and Scots from Aberdeen. They had lots of experience cutting marble and granite and soon gave Barre an international flavor it has never lost. There were also immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Spain as well as hundreds of French Canadians.

080815FullSizeRender (9)At one point in the early 1900s there were as many as 3500 men working the quarries in Barre with an equal number working in related nearby factories. There were also a goodly number of quarrying companies, but over the course of the twentieth century the industry consolidated into one major company, the Rock of Ages Corporation. Modern technology and machinery has cut back on the number of people working the quarries and factories, but they remain as busy as ever. Granite in the early 1800s was originally quarried using primitive techniques which used hand saws and explosive charges to blast away the “benches” of the quarry. Modern techniques have evolved to include diamond-tipped wire saws and water jets.

One of the most spectacular sights is the world’s largest “deep hole” granite quarry. . Called a “deep hole dimension quarry, it is a huge cavernous hole that is more than 600 feet deep. At 50 to 60 acres in surface area, it’s the largest quarry of its kind operating anywhere in the world. On the tour offered by Rock of Ages, one can go high up on a hill looking down at this deep quarry—one of the most dramatic views I have ever seen in a lifetime devoted to world travel.

080815FullSizeRender (7)When my mother died in Vermont more than a decade ago, I had her gravestone carved from Barre granite. It is quite an ordinary small marker, but near the Barre quarry center there is the beautiful and very unique Hope Cemetery that exhibits exquisite carvings for many of the grave stones. Many of the grave stones were carved by sculptors working at the quarries. Hundreds of them died from silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in granite dust at the quarries. Knowing that their deaths were imminent, many took to designing their own tombstones to showcase their skill. Visiting Hope Cemetery affords the traveler an opportunity to see the granite carving of some of the world’s great sculptors.

A visit to the granite industry and quarries near Barre afford one a glimpse into one of the oldest sustainable industries in the world—and to spectacular views deep down into the bowels of the earth.

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