Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Granite Industry, Part 6 B of 6 - Labor Skills

Ox-drawn garrymander cart and paving block cutters
Bay State Quarry, Lanesville c. 1870s
Sandy Bay Historical Society
The granite industry evolved during the nineteenth century from local artisan enterprise to sophisticated corporations meeting widespread, large-scale, high-value contracts. Machinery increasingly supplemented but did not replace hand labor. The businessmen and the workers gained greater capability in quarrying, refining, and transporting stone. All through its history into the 1930s the paving block sector tended to steady the business cycles for those cutters skilled enough to make a living at exacting strenuous work. They were usually paid piecemeal rather than wages, sometimes within company quarries, sometimes in small operations off hours, off season, or as independents.

Babson Farm Quarry, Halibut Point 1909
Cleaves Collection, Sandy Bay Historical Society
Deep pit quarrying, large blocks, and big shipments required specialized labor and organization. From the front office to various machine operators and crew members both employers and employees had to function alertly in a highly competitive environment. The well-dressed man in this photograph is probably inspecting dimension stone for compliance with contract standards-perhaps the Sandy Bay Breakwater.

Cutting and polishing shed of the Rockport Granite Company, Bay View
Herman W. Spooner photo, courtesy of Robert Ambrogi, Vintage Rockport
Architectural specifications had to be met precisely by draftsmen, quarrymen, and finishers using centralized facilities with compressed air tools and a railroad derrick. The blocks might be fitted, then individually labeled and boxed for assembly at a distant construction site.

Carving fluted columns, Bay View
Postcard scene courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum
Preparing and delivering fluted columns must have ranked among the most demanding challenges for managing bulk with delicacy. Despite its tremendous compressive strength granite can easily be damaged in tension, or chipped in mishandling. Only the most experienced craftsmen would have worked on these projects.

Loading a roughed-out column at Bay View wharf
aboard Rockport Granite Company Lighter # 1
Erkkila Collection, Cape Ann Museum
Supplying stone to a job site only at a rough-finish stage was a safer approach for the granite company, but it missed the potential rewards and status of refined work.

The pair of monolithic fountains hewn from Sea Green granite for the Union Railroad Station Plaza in Washington DC must be considered the crowning opportunity for Cape Ann craftsmen.

Stonecutters standing in a bowl for the Union Station Plaza
Rockport Granite Company works, Bay View 1909.
Note the fabrication turntable, the scale model on the floor to its right, the power plant chimney at right edge of picture, and the Methodist Church steeple in the distance.
Photograph courtesy of Robert Ambrogi, Vintage Rockport
They began with two gargantuan 65-ton blocks brought down by rail from Blood Ledge Quarry to the Bay View yard. The finishing crews roughed in each bowl with imponderable hours of chiseling, then used the 4-point surfacing machine followed by hand work with six-cut bushing hammers to delicately approach the final shape. Barbara Erkkila in Hammers on Stone (1980) savored the achievement with pride. "The men brought the granite surface to a dull hone finish by using iron shot, then putty powder and felt buffers, pouring on the water carefully from old condensed milk cans. But the trick they used with the fountain was that they had the big stone revolve below the buffer for polishing instead of having the buffer dance its way over the stationary stone as was the usual process for polishing. For the first time, electrical power was used to do this."

One of two fountain bowls in place at Union Station Plaza, Washington D. C.
This view appears on a commemorative postcard by the Rockport Granite Company
Courtesy of Robert Ambrogi, Vintage Rockport
The master works arrived at Union Station aboard flatcars chaperoned by Babson Farm Quarry engineer Bucky Moore who rode all the way within one of the bowls. They ornament the Plaza near the United States Capitol to the present day.

One wonders about the temperament of men capable of sustained grueling labor with exacting skill.

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