Nineteenth Century Industries: Granite

Granite Eagles, Vinalhaven

Penobscot Bay had a major granite industry. Bay granite built public buildings up and down the East Coast and up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Des Moines. Maine granite was used for lighthouses, cemetery stones, paving blocks, curbstones, bridges, breakwatersBreakwater

A wall or other structure designed to protect a harbor or anchorage from the waves of the open sea.
, and monuments. From 1899-1902, one of the Bodwell Granite Company’s Vinalhaven quarries provided eight columns for New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with finished pieces weighing 90 tons. In 1890 Maine was first among the states in granite production with a business totaling over $2,500,000.

Time book at Dix Island Granite Quarry

Most quarries were located along a line from St. George to Deer Isle, with a smaller number around Frankfort, particularly at Mt. Waldo. Granite quarrying started in Vinalhaven in 1829 with a contract for granite block for the construction of a Massachusetts prison. It continued at a slow pace until the post-Civil War boom in constructing public buildings, bridges, and monuments. Maine had so many workers in the granite industry that in 1877 workers formed a Granite Cutters Union “to establish uniform labor rates and improve the condition of the trade.” In the 1890s when pneumaticPneumatic

Operated by air pressure.
tools made work more productive, safety became a bigger concern; the accompanying granite dust caused the serious lung disease silicosisSilicosis

A lung disease caused by prolonged inhalation of silica dust.

Loading granite aboard schooner Annie & Reuben

Because of granite, towns grew rapidly in places like Vinalhaven, Dix Island, and Hurricane Island. On Hurricane Island, the work force rose to over 600 in 1878, five years after the quarry opened. Vinalhaven had 1200-1500 men working at its peak. Demand for granite quarrymen encouraged immigrants from Sweden, Finland, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, and Italy to come to work as stonecutters. Thousands worked Maine’s quarries drilling rock, driving wedges or using explosives to break granite along grain lines, cutting stone to shape, and polishing the stone.

Being close to water gave Penobscot Bay’s granite industry an advantage. Shipping granite was cheaper and more efficient by schoonerSchooner

A sailing vessel of two or more masts, all fore-and-aft rigged. The Thomas W. Lawson, built in 1902, had seven masts. In comparison to a square-rigged vessel of comparable tonnage, a schooner is better for coastwise sailing.
and sloopSloop

A sailing vessel with a single fore-and-aft rigged mast.
until the end of the nineteenth century, when improving rail service allowed other states to participate in the granite trade .

Maine’s granite industry declined rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century because of technological improvements in structural steel and concreteConcrete

Cement mixed with an aggregate, such as sand or gravel, and used as a building material.
, and the opening of new resources in other parts of the country. Thriving quarry towns became instant ghost towns. Today only one quarry on Crotch Island still operates intermittently.

Click here to view images of the granite industry from PMM's photo collection.