Danger in the Quarry

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Like the Chilean miners, Vermont quarrymen of old faced their share of mining disasters, safety issues, and accident rescues.

Men waving red flags and shouting a warning to townspeople to watch out for flying stone was a common sight in the early days of quarrying.

“Through The Ages” in January, 1924 depicted a typical quarrying scene as it occurred nearly one hundred years prior. Early quarrying methods were crude–after a gang of laborers had spent many hours on rough temporary staging, striking into the marble with a heavy hand drill, sinking holes and tamping them full of black powder–the fuse was finally lit and the explosion resounded throughout the area.

“The time was mid-afternoon, A.D. 1838. The place was a rocky, side-hill pasture in the little Vermont town of West Rutland. A hoarse voice was bawling out a warning for all to get under cover. Every last barefooted urchin was being chased out of the danger zone. After that, a moment of quiet. Then a booming like some old Fourth-of-July cannon and a clatter of falling stones. That was marble quarrying in the early days of the Green Mountain State: the first real quarrying.”

Not only was this method dangerous for workers and townspeople, it was soon found that quarrying by blasting was too wasteful. Mounds of scrap marble were produced with each explosion and the waste piles became formidable. However, times were too early to seriously consider using machinery for quarrying. The best that could be done was to make the handwork more efficient.

Quarry owners, driven by ways of economy, set men to work by the hundreds. The men were arranged in rows, each with a long sharp drill and wedges to manually extract the unyielding marble from its bed by forming the first crude channels cuts. Finally, in 1863, a steam channeler was invented by George J. Wardell of Rutland. This machine used drills set in a frame and moved up and down by steam power, saving both labor and time. The original steam channeler was put to work in the Sutherland Falls Quarry, where it had a long and useful life, and similar models were soon adopted by other quarry owners.

With the advent of electricity came the replacement of the steam-driven engines with electric motors. Electricity was cleaner, convenient, and more economical for the more fortunately situated quarries–those near the river fueling the power plants. The quarries were operated by electricity, drawing light as well as power from the wire-entrenched Otter Creek. As a result the marble industry began to experience less waste and more prosperity.

Now that the mechanics of quarrying were addressed, quarry owners turned to solving the time-consuming and expensive problem of safety in their operations. The “Through the Ages” article also described the great lengths the owners went to prevent the collapse of quarries, keeping their workers safe and their businesses running.

“The West Rutland opening in the beginning was not unlike other marble quarries. The vein to a depth of about 200 feet was almost vertical; then for no apparent reason it turned nearly at right angles and retrenched itself under the hill. Thereupon, the excavation ceased to be a quarry and became a mine, a system of underground tunnels which were still being extended and multiplied. On the roof of these tunnels rests the weight of an entire hill, and so, every now and then, the quarrymen leave behind them a marble pillar to hold up the load. Unlike most pillars, the work of building resolved itself into the labor of cutting out and removing the marble around them. By means of these supports and the careful pointing of the intervening roof spaces, the West Rutland quarries are being kept well out of the accident class.

“In the part of the Vermont deposit which comes within the town of Pittsford, other difficulties were encountered. At the Florentine opening, a cement wall, 120 feet long and between 3 and 4 feet high, has been built for the sole purpose of safeguarding the lives of employees. At the Pittsford Valley Quarry, where there has been less of tunneling and more of driving directly downward, it has become necessary, in order to support the outer walls, to construct a series of concrete piers. These jut out between the east and west machine-made marble cliffs like the girders of a huge bridge. There are no less than six of these mammoth eight-sided piers, and since the cavity increases in length and breadth as it grows deeper, each successive pier is correspondingly longer than the one above it.

“The last of these concrete safeguards was 60 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It is 150 feet below the surface and not quite half way to the bottom, the entire depth being more than 300 feet. Underneath is an unused section of the quarry partly filled with water. The feat, therefore, of molding those octagonal beams and pouring the concrete in mid air is not one to be lightly dismissed.

“One of the Brandon quarries also has been fitted with concrete piers, but there they are vertical, designed to hold up a section of overhanging roof. In the Danby quarries, as in the tunnels at West Rutland, the vaulted underground dome rests on standards of solid marble. In still other places, there have been subtle peculiarities of nature’s plan which have called for individual treatment, but these few examples are all that need to be named.

“All this leads to the conclusion that, in cutting marble out of the ground, it is not enough to get it out quickly and in blocks which meet the demands of the mills and shops. Of no less importance is the elimination of scaling and undermining. Even though human life were not endangered, any collapse of the quarry structure is almost sure to cause extended delay, and delays are always enemies of business.”