A vintage postcard depiction of one of the marble quarries in Lee.

Car Trip: Tracing the fascinating history of the Berkshires marble industry, once a main driver of the local economy

Drive (and walk) around the stunning remnants of the Berkshire marble industry, and understand an important chapter of the region’s economic history.

What does a narrow belt encircling the Washington Monument have in common with a humble marker dedicated to Shay’s Rebellion, alongside the Sheffield Egremont Road? What do the soaring spires of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral share with the Berkshire County Courthouse in Pittsfield? How are the endless rows of soft white stones marking the final resting places of Civil War veterans in Arlington National Cemetery related to a dam in North Adams? If you guessed that all of the aforementioned were constructed from marble quarried in the Berkshires, you’d be correct.

While the word “marble” might not immediately pop into your head when you think about the Berkshires, the crystalline stone, prized from antiquity, is an integral part of the geological makeup here. Its industry was one of the region’s major economic engines for over a century and it was exported throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic States, for use in the construction of hundreds of major buildings, monuments, and cemeteries. While the industry today is the slightest whisper of its former self, you can find vivid reminders of its vigor throughout the county along streets and roads and in buildings, historic sites, and parks. This article will look at a few of them.

 

An early 19th century depiction of New York’s City Hall, its exterior clad in marble quarried from Alford.

Marble was quarried here within the first decades of European settlement. Sawed by hand or with water-powered tools, it was initially used on a local level. As demand for the stone in bigger markets grew, larger-scale commercial operations were established by the end of the eighteenth century. Mining was incredibly labor intensive: each multi-ton block had to be hauled by twenty pair of oxen over the hills westward to Hudson, New York, to be shipped downriver. Nevertheless, by 1803, a quarry in Alford was supplying the marble for Manhattan’s new City Hall, while other local quarries were providing building material for projects in Philadelphia and Boston.

Walk through Berkshire marble history in Sheffield

Although some marble was quarried in Sheffield as early as 1720, the larger scale Kellogg Marble Works was established outside of the village in 1810, joined by several other nearby operations over the following decades. These quarries provided stone for an array of buildings including Girard College in Philadelphia, the Berkshire County Courthouse, the State Capital Building in Hartford, major projects in Boston, New York, Baltimore, and as far west as Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.

A walk along Sheffield’s picturesque main street and village green will provide some good examples of how marble was incorporated in local construction at various periods in history.

 

Sheffield’s Old Stone Store. Photo Kelly Cade

The marble foundation facings, windowsills, and lintels on the Dan Raymond House, built in 1774, attest to the prosperity of its original owner. Likewise, the marble steps of the nearby eighteenth-century Congregational Church (moved to its present location in the early 1800s) show how the stone was used at the time to distinguish important buildings. Or take a look at the town’s iconic “Stone Store” from 1824; the way its blinding white quoins contrast with the riotous multi-hued stone on the rest of the exterior demonstrates how marble was used more decoratively. Farther south, at the Bushnell-Sage Library (originally the Sheffield Center School building), built in the latter 1800s, a first floor composed entirely of rusticated marble blocks contrasts in both texture and color with the maroon-shingled upper floor. Close by, built circa 1887 under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Dewey Memorial Building uses the stone in a more natural state, woven in with other materials to enliven the building’s exterior.

 

Sheffield’s Dan Raymond House, built in 1774 features marble foundation facings, window sill and lintels. Photo Conrad Hanson

The Sheffield Historical Society, which owns both the Raymond House and the Stone Store, has a large archive of information relating to the history of local quarries, including the Briggs Quarry, which I found particularly interesting. It seems the Briggs Quarry was good at securing large government contracts, including a commission to supply marble for the completion of the Washington Monument in 1879 (the Civil War had brought a halt to its construction years before), another to supply 100,000 stones for the graves of Union soldiers, and, perhaps most infamously, material for the Tweed Courthouse in New York City. Fulfillment of those orders was another story, however. The Briggs operation was only able to deliver a fraction of the promised marble for the Washington Monument before their contract was cancelled; it is unclear whether the order for gravestones was ever completed, and the markup on the cost of marble for the Tweed Courthouse contributed to its becoming a textbook case of civic graft.

Lee, an embarrassment of marble riches

While the business might have gotten a later start here than in other places, nowhere else in the Berkshires is the connection to the marble industry more obvious or more celebrated than in Lee. After Charles Heeber opened the town’s first quarry in 1852, others soon followed. Before long, marble from Lee (or from quarries owned by the Lee Marble Company in other nearby towns) found its way into the fabric of major edifices throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, including the House and Senate wings of the United States Capital, the Boston Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grant’s Tomb, and Philadelphia’s City Hall, to name a few.

 

The former Hyde School in Lee. Photo Kelly Cade

Today, at the corner of Housatonic and Fuller Streets, you can find a small monument dedicated to the importance of Lee’s historic paper and marble industries. Continuing north, miniature marble obelisks begin to regularly rise from sidewalks, marking pedestrian crossings. At the town’s oval park, nineteenth-century marble fence posts provide sturdy support for heavy iron railings in surviving sections of the fence that once ran around its entire perimeter. Along its north side, marble steps proudly lead into the Congregational Church built in 1858 and considered a scandalously fancy departure from the simple meetinghouse design traditionally associated with the denomination. Next door, the red brick walls of the town’s Second Empire-style Memorial Hall built in 1874 rest atop a rusticated marble base.

 

The former St. George’s Episcopal Church building in Lee, now home of the Spectrum Playhouse. Photo Kelly Cade

Marble was used in several commercial structures downtown to different effect. The marble pilasters of the freestanding Park Building add to its distinctive elegance, while the creamy marble brick upper floors of the Phelan and Oman blocks on Main Street distinguish them from their red brick brethren. More ecclesiastical examples can be found on the base and front steps of the St. Mary Mother of the Church Catholic Church, and all the way up the Gothic Revival walls of the former St. George’s Episcopal Church (now the Spectrum Playhouse). Also worth noting on Main Street is a colonial revival house built in 1896 where the first floor constructed of marble brick provides interesting textural contrast to the shingled upper story (the technique was similarly used in some of the region’s great Gilded Age cottages).

 

The Firehouse in Downtown Lee. Photo Conrad Hanson

While the use of marble in these aforementioned buildings would be an embarrassment of riches for any other town its size, Lee boasts three more impressive marble buildings. On opposite sides of Main Street, the large, reassuringly solid Central Fire House provides a relatively chaste counterpoint to the more decorative Beaux Arts neoclassicism of the town’s Carnegie Library, originally built in 1907. Lee marble was again employed for the construction of the library’s modern addition seventy years later, helping to tie the two disparate styles together. Perhaps Lee’s most spectacular marble building, however, is the former Hyde School on nearby High Street. Constructed in 1894 in the Romanesque Revival style, its central tower rises over the town like a protective castle.

Looking at all the buildings, it is easy to overlook the marble in curbstones and retaining walls along Lee’s streets. You don’t have that issue driving down Marble Street; the marble in low stone walls, marble pieces scattered in yards here or incorporated into a wishing well there, and at least one house built entirely of marble all serve as reminders of how the street got its name.

 

Kilbon Memorial Fountain in Lee featuring a depiction of Stockbridge Indian Chief Konkapot. Photo Kelly Cade

In the town park sits the recently restored Kilbon Memorial Fountain. Designed by famed sculptor Daniel Chester French, a Stockbridge resident best know for his statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, with a depiction of Chief Konkapot on one side and a dolphin on the other, it was carved from local marble by Dante Baccolini and dedicated in 1899. Aside from its beauty, it was originally incredibly functional, featuring a fountain on one side for people, a trough on the other for horses, and two bowls (long gone) for dogs below.

Other examples throughout the Berkshires

Another piece of art made from locally quarried marble can be found at the Frelinghuysen-Morris House & Studio in nearby Lenox, where a cubist bas-relief sculpture, created by artist George L. K. Morris circa 1942, hangs in the living room. While admiring the modernist art collection there, visitors can also take note of the handsome grey marble in the foyer, which came from a vein in West Stockbridge.

 

Marble art sculpture by George L. K. Morris. Photo courtesy of Frelinghuysen-Morris House & Studio

Perhaps the most impressive piece of art created from local marble found in the Berkshires was created not by man but by nature itself at Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams. Over 11,000 years ago, glaciers carved a stunning natural bridge out of white marble spanning the curvilinear walls of a gorge. The park itself is located on the site of a former marble quarry, and also contains the only white marble dam in North America.

The Natural Bridge in North Adams serves to remind us that the story of Berkshires marble begins hundreds of million years ago, a byproduct of the formation and dissolution of supercontinents. The underthrusting and wrenching apart of tectonic plates by continental collisions caused a giant mountain range to rise up from tropical sea beds. Far below, sedimentary limestone, formed by layers of seas shells, was heated up and pressurized by volcanic intrusions and other forces, metamorphosed and recrystallized into marble. Millennia upon millennia of erosion and freeze/thaw cycles eventually wore down the mighty mountains to a fraction of their former size, yielding the present-day Berkshire Hills, with deep veins of marble ever closer to the surface.

 

Natural Bridge in North Adams.

A look to the past and, perhaps, the future of the marble industry in the Berkshires

The marble was extracted from the earth in giant blocks, forming giant steps or benches as they went deeper down and leaving open pits a hundred feet deep in some places. On site at former quarries, you’ll also see a number of structures built for specialized functions, including finishing mills where large blocks were cut into smaller, uniform sizes, and cutting rooms where architectural pieces were carved and finished, to blacksmith shops where iron tools were forged and repaired.

The first railroad line in the region, connecting West Stockbridge to New York, was built in 1838, in part to expedite the shipping of marble. Easier access to markets, coupled with technical innovations such as the invention of the steam channeler in 1863, helped the industry see exponential growth in the mid-1800s, with over 100 sites actively quarrying throughout the Berkshires at one time or another.

Despite advances in technology, the business was heavily dependent on manual labor. Physically exhausting, low paying and often dangerous, it was chiefly supplied by immigrants, initially from Ireland, and later from Italy (many of whom came from marble-producing regions in Italy, bringing their expert stonecutting and carving skills with them.)

The quarries played a significant role in the region’s economy until 1929, when the Great Depression brought the construction industry to a grinding halt. Orders for marble ceased overnight, with workers laid off and quarries closed in short order. By the time construction roared back to life after World War II, Portland cement had replaced stone as the building material of choice. While some operations resumed business, the industry never approached its former scale. In addition, the open pit quarrying process, never one of the more visually attractive industries, created dust and noise that were incompatible with the evolution of the region as a cultural and scenic tourist destination. Except for a few active mines that were grandfathered in, one by one towns up and down the Berkshires began banning new mining activity.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, to learn that the gleaming, semi-circular amphitheater at Turnpark Artspace in West Stockbridge, one of the newest structures in the Berkshires built from native marble, did not use freshly quarried stone. Instead, like the builders of Renaissance Rome who repurposed marble from the city’s ancient monuments and ruins, local master mason Verne Tower used marble recycled from other buildings, including pieces salvaged during the demolition of Pittsfield’s iconic English Brothers Department Store years earlier. This amphitheater adds another subliminal layer of history to the 14-acre outdoor sculpture and exhibition space which occupies the site of a former quarry.

 

Turnpark Artspace amphitheater. Photo The Berkshire Edge

While in West Stockbridge, check out two handsome buildings on its picturesque Main Street. At its northern end, a handsome Greek Revival temple-front home proudly sits atop a marble base, while a Federal-style house, built entirely of marble circa 1820 anchors, its southern end.

I went recently to visit Verne Tower (the builder of Turnpark’s amphitheater) at his place of business, housed in low-slung buildings tucked behind the fire department in Richmond, Mass. Outside were myriad pieces of equipment and tools related to his work: a large forklift, antique mining machinery, gargantuan iron chains, and a large outdoor saw. Also scattered around were stacks, piles and pieces of marble of every imaginable size and finish, from huge Neolithic-looking blocks to smooth finished spheres.

 

Verne Tower holding a length of chain typically used in the marble quarries. Photo Conrad Hanson

Inside, Verne’s office/workshop also functions as a museum and school, where he took me on a fascinating journey through the history of marble and the marble industry in the Berkshires. With encyclopedic knowledge, finely honed skill and a philosophic outlook, he is perhaps the one individual who bridges the history of Berkshires marble to the present

While there, I watched him cut a piece of marble to be installed as a paving stone around Lee’s Kilbon Fountain, which he restored (Tower is in heavy demand for restoration projects involving marble), guiding the stone through the circular saw’s diamond-tipped blades with the precision and seeming nonchalance that comes from decades of experience.

 

Click on this picture to see marble being cut with a circular saw.

After initially studying to be an artist, Tower spent decades working as an engineer in the hydroelectric industry before beginning in his current line of work over twenty-five years ago. When asked what prompted the decision, he told me, “I decided to get up every morning and create something beautiful.” In addition to restoring historic pieces, building new pieces, and acting as a steward of the local marble industry’s history, Tower is playing a role in the potential future and adaptive re-use for some of the region’s former quarries.

Over the decades, vacant buildings on former mining sites eventually succumbed to the elements or arson. Trees grew up around foundations and unused blocks of marble sitting where they were cut in 1929. The pits, for the most part located on private property, often filled with water, providing daring diving spots and clandestine swimming holes for generations of young people. Owners who had previously encouraged or turned a blind eye to people using them for recreational purposes eventually had to restrict access, guard against trespassers, or in some cases fill in the mammoth holes to protect themselves from liability, as society became ever more litigious.

Tower recently collaborated with Jeff Hodges on a short film about the history of the marble industry in the Berkshires, shot primarily at the former Freedley Quarry in West Stockbridge. Central to the location was the former pit, now filled with water one hundred feet deep, which reflects the sky, surrounding trees and small plants beginning to take root in each step of the top two or three benches above the waterline. As Vern unearthed rusted pieces of tools and other artifacts from the ground now blanketed in pine needles, and identified the mysterious foundations of former buildings cradled in luxuriant flora, the grounds became a sylvan archaeological site.

I spoke with Jeff Hodges, the film’s director and producer. He has generously allowed us to share the film here with you.  His goal in making it was not only to call attention to the quarry’s historic significance as one of the last intact former mining sites in the Berkshires, but also to draw awareness to the Astore Quarry Restoration Project.

Founded by the late Chick Astore and his wife Sissy Gunn in 2006, the project intends to preserve the site for its historic significance and utilize its natural resources as a platform for contemporary use and study, making the site available (according to its Facebook page) “ for schools, teachers, nature groups and foragers to consider a visit, for the study of: conservation awareness and practices, identification of medicinal and edible plant, foraging, riparian and river research, all aspects of earth sciences and outdoor survival can be found here”

It’s an ambitious but achievable goal that will not only shine a light on an underrepresented piece of Berkshire history, but also make a compelling case study for adaptive reuse of many former industrial sites that deserve to be preserved.

And now, courtesy of Jeff Hodges, we invite you to take a video tour with Verne Tower of the former Freedley Quarry in West Stockbridge.