Robert Merry gives his take on the stone industry in Natural Stone Specialist magazine each month.
Robert Merry is an independent stone consultant. He ran his own company for 17 years and was a project manager, although now he has decided to take a break from that. He also acts as an expert witness.
Letter from America: Dear Reader,
On holiday on the West Coast of the USA for the first time. San Francisco to be precise. The geological result of the pacific and north American tectonic plates colliding with each other. It lies close to the San Andreas fault, which is the result of that collision, and has a history of earthquakes and tremors.
Trying not to think of these and stopping my mind from running through the scenario of what I would do if there was an earthquake – such as where best to stand to avoid falling buildings – I start to enjoy the views across the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the numerous hills.
Then I read about the history of quarrying in the city, as you do (sad I know) and discover a murderous history of stone quarrying.
In the early 1860s quarries were to be found all over the city, extracting sandstone for buildings, wharfs, roads and ballast for ships as the city emerged on the San Francisco peninsula. Indeed there are streets in China and Chile today paved with stone extracted from San Francisco.
Two brothers, the Grays, owned the largest and most notorious quarry. It was at Telegraph Hill on Sansome Street. Blue sandstone was extracted from it. Blasting was carried out randomly with little regard for anyone living in the area or for houses situated on the top of the hill.
At one point a kitchen ended up at the bottom of the quarry and the public where forced to take cover to avoid being hit by chunks of flying rock.
In 1894 a shoemaker’s shop was blown off its foundations and a duplex (a residential building divided into two apartments, that is, not a double-stranded polynucleotide molecule) was destroyed. A court injunction followed. Then numerous law suits as the Gray brothers carried on using explosives and ignored the courts.
On one occasion they used the sound of commemorative cannon fire marking the 4th of July independence day celebrations to mask their illegal blasting.
In one argument with local house owners the Gray brothers proposed to the City Fathers that they should completely remove Telegraph Hill and provide uninterrupted views for the residents of the adjacent Russian Hill. The proposal was rejected.
After years of illegal quarrying, battling law suits and using their considerable financial muscle to avoid any city sanctions, it all came to a nasty and bloody end.
On 10 November 1914 a worker called Joseph Lococo from Italy approached George Gray to ask for back pay. He was owed $17. Lococo was ill. He hadn’t eaten. His wife and two babies were starving and they were about to be evicted from their lodgings. When George Gray laughed in his face and told him to get out, Lococo pulled out a gun and shot Gray dead.
Lococo was acquitted on the grounds on temporary insanity. The Grays business was declared bankrupt and the quarry closed. A sort of bitter sweet end to a sad and tawdry business.
Walking alongside Telegraph Hill today you can see the sheer sides of the quarry walls. Houses are still perched on top.
Despite being away and on a break, this old stone business never quite leaves the blood.
I have refrained from discussing the paving, the kerb stones and the exteriors of various buildings.
I have to admit I was even a little disappointed the Golden Gate Bridge was not made of stone, though pleased its suspension cables were bedded in granite rocks on the foreshore.
You can’t have everything, I suppose.