Digging Vermont
What Lies Beneath the Green Mountain State

713 The grey rock that lies beneath the Green Mountains. CLUI photo

VERMONT MAY BE THE MOST uniformly scenic and pastorally idyllic state in the union. Perhaps many imagine Vermont as rolling hills with rushing brooks and snowy glens, peppered with whitewashed villages populated by DIY Yankees, back-to-the-land localists, and red barns full of fat happy cows making Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. As if it was designed by Olmstead, and inhabited by bread and puppeteers. While this is at least partially true, it is only part of the story. This most green state has a grey core.

With a small population (625,000 people, only Wyoming has less), and no urban space to speak of (Burlington, population less than 40,000, is the smallest largest city of any state in the union), Vermont has the lowest Gross State Product in the country. The largest component of the economy is government, not surprising for a state with prominent “democratic socialists” like Bernie Sanders, and better than average services for the poor.

The second largest component of the state’s economy is real estate, much of it from rents and leases for seasonal occupants. 15% of the homes in the state are occupied seasonally or recreationally. In some towns, like Ludlow, Stowe, and Manchester, as much as ¾ of the houses are second homes owned by people from out of state. Only Maine has a higher seasonal dwelling percentage (and, curiously, Maine is the only state with a higher white person count than Vermont, 98%).

Yes, Vermont makes more maple syrup than anyone (a million gallons per year, and rising), but many of the state’s other industries are similarly monolithic, and singular. One high-tech plant near Burlington, for example, IBM’s Essex Junction facility, provides 25% of all manufacturing jobs in the state. And though Vermont is one of only two states in the union without a coal-fired power plant, that is because nearly 75% of the electricity produced in the state comes from one place: Vermont Yankee, a nuclear power plant in Vernon.

Such contrasts continue beneath the surface of the Green Mountain State as well. For amidst the verdant hills and dales are some of the most dramatic and superlative excavations in the country. Vermont is a place that people dig, in all kinds of ways.

137 Vermont’s Rock of Ages is the largest supplier of granite tombstones in the country. CLUI photo Vermont Is/Is Not the Granite State
The largest granite quarries in the world, they say, and possibly in fact (as it all depends on how you measure them), are in Vermont, around the town of Graniteville, south of Barre. Granite has been quarried here since the 1820s (the nearby state capitol was built with rock from here), but it took the railway, coming later in the century, to provide a way for this high grade material to get to markets elsewhere in any quantity (granite is hard and heavy
a one-foot cube weighs 170 pounds).

The Rock of Ages company now owns most of the operating quarries in the district. It was already an agglomeration of several companies when it took its name, Rock of Ages, from the religious hymn in 1925. The company continued to expand, acquiring other local companies and quarries, as well as quarries located in New Hampshire, Quebec, and Georgia. Rock of Ages now has over 40 quarries, and is the largest supplier of granite memorials (tombstones) in the country. It also provides cut stone blocks for use in building construction all over the world, including stone for Mormon Temples in Salt Lake City, the steps of the U.S. Capitol, hotels in Abu Dubai, and business towers in Hong Kong.

The grey granite of the Graniteville quarries is still widely popular, especially for cemetery memorials, and that is the main business of Barre. Several companies are at work shaving and engraving tombstones in the region, rock usually bought from Rock of Ages. Rock of Ages itself has a 200,000 square-foot rock processing mill in Barre, one of the largest in the world, where they cut blocks into slabs and shape granite into nearly any form imaginable. One famous custom gravestone, ordered for a teenager’s grave in Linden, New Jersey, was in the shape of a full size 1982 Mercedes Benz limousine. It weighed 32 tons.

The quarries themselves are unusually dramatic and picturesque. The “largest and deepest dimension granite quarry in the world,” the Upper E. L. Smith Quarry, can be visited on tours leaving from the Rock of Ages visitor center in Graniteville. Like a building negative, the squared, vertical sides are on a scale of landscape, and stagger the viewer. These quarries have been well documented by photographers, perhaps most dramatically by Edward Burtynsky, who came here in 1991, taking photos which launched his career.

In 1984, Rock of Ages was acquired by Swenson Granite, a family-run company that has operated quarries in New Hampshire for over 100 years, including its flagship quarry, a mountaintop pit still operating north of that state’s capitol, Concord. Though New Hampshire is officially called the “Granite State,” the material has not been quarried to the extent that it is today in Vermont. New Hampshire’s granite remains in place, for the most part.

A Carrara Inside Dorset Mountain
The big excavation story for Vermont, though, is not granite, it is marble. Marble is the only other stone cut dimensionally (as opposed to in gravel or granular form) out of holes in the state (sandstone has been quarried in the state in small amounts, though no quarries for that material are active at the moment). In the early 1900s, when marble was still a major building material, the Vermont Marble Company dominated the trade, and was one of the largest companies in the nation. Its legacy can be found in scenic abandoned and flooded quarries, mostly around the central southern part of the state. Only a few marble quarries are still active, and one in particular stands out, even though you can’t easily see it: Danby.

138 The principal opening is the same one that has been in use for over 100 years, and leads to the main shop area, where blocks are cut and sliced into slabs, polished, then trucked out. CLUI photo

Located inside Dorset Mountain, the Danby Quarry is the largest underground marble quarry in the world. Its ceilings are 60-feet high and the primary excavation is a mile in length, plunging gently downward as it follows the buried bed of marble deeper under the mountain. Over the past century, a 25-acre chamber has been excavated, with a colonnade of thick pillars holding up the roof.

139 Interior of the Brook level of the quarry. CLUI photoThe large quarry cavity is known as the Imperial Quarry, and is the source of the company’s most popular marble. A second level, the, Brook Quarry, is also active. A third level, the New Imperial Quarry, started in 2006, is located immediately above the old excavation, and apparently there is enough quality marble in this bed to follow the old bed for a mile into the mountain too. Danby has supplied stone to federal buildings in Washington DC, and to many prestigious contemporary architectural projects, including the UN Building in New York, the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, and the new additions for the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the Art Institute of Detroit, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

140 Danby is a major supplier of marble for the federal government, such as for the Jefferson memorial, and the tombstones of Arlington Cemetery. These freshly cut slabs are destined for ten new bathrooms in the Supreme Court (the tenth must tip the scales of justice!) CLUI photoThe work is done by a staff of less than 30 people, local Vermonters, including a couple of veteran Italian quarrymen. The company that operates the site, the Vermont Quarries Corporation, is owned by the largest stone company in the world, Italy’s R.E.D. Graniti, with roots in Carrara, the legendary source of Italian marble for hundreds of years. The major equipment in the quarry is Italian, much of it unique and superlative for its type, and at times repairmen have to be flown in from Italy to work on it.

Most marble, and other dimension stone for that matter, is excavated in pits, not underground, which makes Danby unusual. The other two or three active dimensional marble quarries in the state are minute in comparison to Danby, and are open pits. In the old days, there were other underground operations in Vermont, as the excavations followed the marble beds which trended diagonally downward, following the contorted geologic fluctuations of the rock strata. Sometimes the strata was nearly vertical, other times close to horizontal, as at Danby. These quarries, long abandoned, are now flooded by groundwater.

The legacy of the marble industry in Vermont can be seen at a number of interesting places. The Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland is an active art production site, located at a large, long-shuttered Vermont Marble production plant. Most of the buildings are leased to other companies, but the Carving Studio occupies a few of the more picturesque old ones, and installs artworks amidst the ruins of the old bridge crane and in and around the outbuildings and flooded quarries that dot the area.

The Vermont Marble Company’s headquarters was in Proctor, a town renamed in 1884 after the founder of the company, Col. Redfield Proctor. He expanded the existing marble operation there, recognizing its potential, due to its proximity to the quarries, railroads, and to the Sutherland Falls along Otter Creek, one of the largest water drops in the state, which were harnessed for power to drive the saws and mill. The company eventually employed thousands of people, and acquired rights to all the marble deposits in Vermont, Colorado, Tennessee, and Alaska, and dominated the nation’s marble production.

141 The “world’s largest marble exhibit,” at the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor. CLUI photoThe town of Proctor today produces no marble, and though inhabited, is a bit of a marble ghost town. Several unusual-looking marble-faced structures include the school, the firehouse, company administration buildings, and the bridge over Otter Creek. Part of the long marble production plant has been turned into the Vermont Marble Museum, said to be the largest marble museum in the world. The museum rambles in the rustic shed building, through the former showrooms for the marble company, where kitchens, bathrooms, and other displays made as far back as the 1930s provide a refreshingly authentic view of the industry. Outside, barely visible, the Sutherland Falls quarries plunge diagonally a couple of hundred feet downward, underneath the building, flooded for eternity.

Many of the fanciest buildings in Proctor, the quarries, and other scattered assets of the former Vermont Marble Company, including the Danby Quarry (which is leased to the Vermont Quarry Company), are now owned by a company called OMYA. OMYA dominates marble in Vermont, but in a different way than its predecessorin a manner that is more industrialized, and global.

Rather than extract dimension marble, OMYA grinds up the rock deposits to extract the calcium carbonate that marble is composed of. This material is trucked from the quarries to a plant for processing, then it is shipped by the company’s fleet of rail cars (OMYA is the largest user of freight rail in the state) to other plants and customers around the nation.

Calcium carbonate is a widespread material, making up 4% of the earth’s crust. Found in limestone, chalks, and other common rocks and minerals, it is often used to make aggregate and cement. Because of the high purity, whiteness, and homogeneity of OMYA’s deposits, the material can be used in commercial and industrial goods as fillers, coatings, and pigments, common in such products as paper, toothpaste, paint, adhesives, tires, chewing gum, and plastics.

142 Entrance to OMYA’s plant at Florence, one of the largest industrial operations in the state. CLUI photoThe Vermont operations of the company are major, but it also has plants in Washington State, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona, Alabama, and California. OMYA is a privately held Swiss company, originally founded in 1884 as Pluss-Staufer, with locations all over the world as well. It changed its name to OMYA in 2000, and is now the largest producer of industrial grade calcium carbonate in the world. Until 2007, its North American operations were headquartered in Proctor, occupying the best of the Vermont Marble Company’s old buildings. It has since moved its headquarters to Ohio, reflecting the company’s expansion across North America, and the number of jobs in Proctor have diminished considerably.

Though it sold off many of the Vermont Marble assets over the years after buying the shrunken company in 1976, OMYA still has extensive holdings around Vermont, in 25 separate towns. Currently two quarries are being excavated for calcium carbonate: the Middlebury Quarry, southeast of Middlebury; and the Pittsford (or Hogback) Quarry near Florence.

The Pittsford Quarry is located less than half a mile north of the processing plant, known as Verpol, and is connected to it by a haul road, making its impact on the region much less prominent. The Middlebury Quarry, however, which supplies more material, is 25 miles away, and ships the crushed rock over public roads to Verpol, at the rate of up to 115 truckloads a day, most if it on the state’s main (and scenic) artery, Route 7. The company is working with officials on a plan to build a rail spur to the quarry.

Despite the volume of material they handle, though, the company’s two large pits have been able to maintain a remarkably low profile, and are nearly invisible from surrounding public space. Only the Verpol plant is plainly visible from far away, poking out of the sea of green treetops.

143 The Middlebury Quarry, the main source for OMYA’s Vermont operations, is nearly a mile long, and once it closes, who knows when, it will become a lake 100 feet deeper than Lake Champlain. CLUI photoTalc Is/Is Not Cheap
OMYA’s operation marks a formal transition for terrestrial material extraction in Vermont, from cut dimension marble, to ground-up calcium carbonate; from quarrying, to mining. A surprising variety of other materials have been mined in the state from underground mines and open pits. For many years, Vermont was one of the leading states in the production of talc, and it is still one of only six states that does so, and is ranked third in the nation. All of the talc production currently comes from a single mine, the Argonaut Mine, in Ludlow.

144 Operations at the talc mine in Ludlow. CLUI photo Talc is the softest rock in the world – the starting point on Mohs Scale of Hardness. It is used primarily as an industrial chemical filling material, not unlike calcium carbonate, adding tensile strength to plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals and building materials such as roofing shingles.

Luzenac is the world’s largest producer of talc since acquiring the Cyprus Minerals company’s talc mines in 1992. Luzenac America is based in Denver, with operations in Texas and Montana, and in other countries. It is owned by the British/Australian company Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining companies in the world.

Surprisingly, Vermont once had the nation’s largest copper mines. Though this was before the big pits of the West opened up, the mines were worked on a western scale. In 1880, the Ely Copper Mine, near Vershire, produced 3/5ths of the nation’s copper, employing 2,000 people to do so, in a mine that covered more than 300 acres.

The Elizabeth Mine, in South Stafford, was also once the largest copper mine in the nation, and was still the largest in New England during WWII. Its production peaked in 1955, when it covered 850 acres (more than a square mile) and employed more than 200 people. When it closed in 1958, it was the last ore mine operating in the state.

Both of these mines are still being worked, though not for copper, but for their toxic legacy, as they are both now superfund sites, suffering the same fate as many mines in the nationacid mine drainage, and the leaching of chemicals into creeks and rivers. Superfund work at the Elizabeth Mine started in 2006, and plans are still being formed for the clean-up of the Ely mine, which also closed more than 50 years ago.

145 Clean-up work at the Elizabeth Mine involves an extensive recontouring of the mine site and removal of tailing piles. So far almost $30 million has been spent on clean-up. CLUI photo Asbestos was mined in great quantity in Vermont—the state was one of only two states in the Union that produced the material (the other was Californiamost North American asbestos came from Canada). The principal Vermont asbestos mining area is on Mt. Belvedere, in the northern part of the state. Mining started here in 1889, and by 1930, nearly all asbestos in the nation came from here. The main mine is known as the Eden Mill Mine. GAF, the chemical and film company, operated the mine for a number of years, as did Johns-Manville, a Canadian company. It closed in 1993, but remains as a mile-long pit and overburden pile in the hills above town. Its future, and its impact on the region, is being debated.

146 One of dozens of slate mines in Vermont. CLUI photo Clean Slate
Of all these mineral extractions out of the Green Mountain State of Vermont, none is as vast or dramatic as what can be found along the state’s western edge. Running like a twenty mile zipper up the state’s border with New York is the Slate Belt, the largest slate producing area in the nation, and one of longest mining scars in the country.

From West Pawlet in the south to Fair Haven in the north, there are around 100 quarries, sometimes within such close proximity that they create a continuous trench a few miles in length. The industry started in 1839 in Fair Haven, and peaked in the period between 1850 and 1900, when slate was used for tombstones, blackboards, billiard tables, and especially roof shingles. Though still used for shingles (for repairs on old buildings, or as new roofing on designer buildings), and for laboratory benches, architectural projects, flagstones, and a few other things, slate is not so much in demand today. But it’s still enough to employ over 300 people in Vermont, at 25 or so active quarries.

Similar “slatescapes” can be found at smaller scales elsewhere. The Slate Belt of Pennsylvania is also impressive, with 53 original quarries around Bangor, Pen Argyl, and Wind Gap, but it is not as extensive, and most of those quarries closed a hundred years ago. There are other slate production areas in Virginia, New York, and Maine, but they are smaller, spotty and localized.

Slate’s long term effects on the ground are dramatic-looking, due to the steep, jagged excavations, and the less steep but more wide piles of waste rock. More than 90% of the slate extracted from the pits is not usable, due to texture, imperfections, or size, so it is simply piled up near the pit. The result is literal mountains of slate pieces, loosely piled, and maintained at the angle of repose by gravity. Trees have a hard time taking root in the slippery flat rock mounds, which shed water and debris to their perimeter, as a roof would.

Dangerous and difficult to climb, the mountains are unstable and composed of sliding rock pieces that weigh hundreds of pounds. But there are no toxic materials or acid mine drainage issues related to the industry, so the effect is primarily on the physical form of the land, and is largely aesthetic. And given how few people seem to know about this superlative slate belt, remarkably few seem to mind how it looks.

As recently as a decade ago Vermont ranked 4th in the USA in tonnage of dimension stone overall, 3rd in granite, 2nd in marble, and 1st in slate, even as one of the smallest states in the country. But Vermont’s leadership role in dimension stone is slipping due to expansion in other states, competition from foreign markets, and the increasing difficulty of reconciling the visual effects, if not the fact, of large scale mineral extraction in such a highly prized pastoral landscape.

Maybe we will decide, though, that terrestrial excavation’s honest depiction of our collective consumption can be alluring, or even beautiful, like the picturesque old quarries that litter the state already. Maybe one day the extraction of the mineral resources of the Green Mountain State will be more highly appreciated, as unlike ski condos, it operates, for the most part, below grade, in the gray area under the green.