Thursday, January 7, 2016

Revolution on Wheels, Part 7 - Quarry Origins

Big stones, impressively and usefully massive, have a long  history with human ingenuity. For millennia people used round logs and pebbles to minimize the effort of getting stones to desirable places.  As the railroad era dawned engineering minds were quick to adapt new technology to the task.  The coupling of rails, wheels, and engines gave birth to the quarrying industry as we know it. We can see its earliest fruition here in Massachusetts.

Ox-powered quarry transport on Cape Ann
during the local granite industry's Middle Ages1
The path to monumental achievements since ancient times has often lain through the mobilizing power of a transcendent story. The effort to create America's first great monument, at Bunker Hill in Charlestown outside Boston, engendered its first railroad.  

Boston thought of itself as The Cradle of Liberty. The Battle of Bunker Hill had been one of the decisive moments in the War for Independence. As the Revolutionary veterans' numbers dwindled and the young nation flourished, patriotic visionaries sought a suitable commemoration. They invited the Marquis de Lafayette, who was touring the United States on the 50th anniversary of the War, to lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument on June 17, 1825. Daniel Webster delivered the oration.

The obelisk under construction, 18402
The proposed monument entwined the wills and imaginations of a robust cast of men in politics, finance, architecture and engineering. They chose granite as the ultimate building material, if innumerable challenges could be overcome. Designer Simon Willard walked hundreds of miles over the countryside to locate a practical source of stone. Consideration was given to a rudimentary Cape Ann quarry, but Quincy was preferred in the end for its proximity to Charlestown. The novelty of moving great stones by rail out of the hills to the waterfront proved convincing. 

The railway was conceived by a young engineer named Gridley Bryant. He was able to construct the three-mile bed so accurately over varied terrain that a single horse could pull the loads, to the wonder of a newspaper reporting on the first delivery of granite to Bunker Hill in 1826:
This railroad, the first we believe in this country, was opened on Saturday in the presence of a number of gentlemen who take an interest in the experiment. A quantity of stone weighing sixteen tons, taken from the ledge belonging to the Bunker Hill Association, and loaded on three wagons, which together weigh five tons, making a load of twenty-one tons, was moved with ease by a single horse from the quarry to the landing above Neponset Bridge, a distance of more than three miles. The road declines gradually the whole way from the quarry to the landing, but so slightly that the horse conveyed back the empty wagons....

Sketch of the Granite Railway3
After the starting of the load, which required some exertion, the horse moved at ease in a fast walk. It may, therefore, be easily conceived how greatly transportation of heavy loads is facilitated by means of this road. A large quantity of beautiful stone already prepared for the Bunker Hill Monument will now be rapidly and cheaply transported to the wharf at the termination of the railroad, whence it will be conveyed by lighters to Charlestown....4

Gridley Bryant's railway cart5
Bryant bolted wood rails topped by iron bars to eight-foot granite cross-ties. The carriages were kept in place by a projection on the inner edge of the wheels, which at six feet were tall enough to carry the blocks suspended underneath.

Once the stones were maneuvered onto a pallet the car would be backed over it. Chains ran to a geared lifting mechanism atop the car. One man could raise a six-ton block above the track for transport.6

An inclined plane brought the blocks down from the quarry to the railroad. An endless chain and pulley system controlled the descent and returned the empty cars.
The inclined railway bed with pulleys and chain channel7
Gridley Bryant's inventiveness won the backing of shipping magnate Thomas Handasyd Perkins, one of the Bunker Hill  Monument Associates, who became Granite Railway's principal shareholder. Perkins, an archetypical Boston Brahmin, had made his fortune in the slave trade to Haiti and, upon the opening of Canton to Western commerce in 1795, in the importing of furs and opium to China. As a philanthropist he contributed substantially to the Boston's Athenaeum, Museum of Fine Arts, and Massachusetts General Hospital. The Perkins School for the Blind was renamed for his patronage.8

Quincy Granite Railway, mid-nineteenth century9
And so the great wheels of social force powered progress in the American Experiment, while its first monument to itself crowned the Boston skyline.

"From the Cambria Steamer, starting from Boston...August 1st, 1846" 10

Currier & Ives print celebrating the completion of
the Bunker Hill Monument, 184310
The Granite Railway proved the advantages of wheels on tracks, opening the continent and its quarries to commercial development. In the next essay we will note the impact on Cape Ann. 

1. Photo from Pictures from the Past: Lanesville & Vicinity, vol. 1.
2. Detail of  Freemen's Quick Step, Cornell University Collection of Political Americana
3. Drawing from the website of the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts, Inc.
4. Boston Traveler, October 13, 1826
5. Thomas Crane Public Library, Quincy
6. A History of the Origin and Development of the Granite Railway at Quincy, Massachusetts, The Granite Railway Company, 1926, In Commemoration of the One Hundredth Anniversary
7. Historic American Buildings Survey, Granite Railway, Pine Hill Quarry to Neponset River, Quincy, Arthur C. Haskell, photographer, Library of Congress, 1934.
8. Wikipedia, Thomas Handasyd Perkins
9. Photo from the website
10. From the Drawing Collection of the Library of Congress

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