Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stories in Stone: The Journey to Publishing

A journey that began several years ago has recently reached its end. That journey has led to the publication of my new book – Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology. A copy of it arrived in the mail the other day and it should be in book stores soon. The publisher is Walker & Company.

My interest in building stone began in 1986, when I first wrote about the sandstone used at my college. I realized I could make a connection between two passions of mine, geology and architecture. Furthermore, building stone was a way to tie together people and rock into compelling stories, what I later decided was John McPhee in reverse. Instead of going to the wilds to find geology, as McPhee did, I would go downtown to find the rocks and develop my stories from there.

Over the next ten years or so, I continued to seek out building stone stories, particularly in Seattle, where a series of rock-rich tunnels were built for public transportation. The stone was not only diverse it was beautiful. During the decade, I didn’t limit my geologic gazing to urban spaces. Living in Moab, Utah, I happened to notice that some rather stunning stone outcropped in the region. The red rock landscape made me even more fascinated with and passionate about geology so when my wife and I moved to Boston, I went into rock withdrawal.

I quickly turned back to my long interest in building stone and began to study the rocks that clad buildings in the Hub. I found sandstones, granites, slates, marbles, and travertine, and all of them had great geologic, as well as human, stories to tell. In 1997, I sold my first article on building stone, to the Harvard alumni magazine. Over the next few years, I wrote additional articles for in-flight magazines, newspapers, and kids magazines. Finally in 2005, I decided I either had to write a book or give up my interest in building stone.

I began by sending an eight-paragraph pitch to an agent a friend had recommend. She responded a day later and by the end of the week she had agreed to represent me. And then the work began. Ten, very long and often challenging months later my agent began to shop around the 57-page proposal she had helped me to write. About a week later we got our first response. Walker & Company liked the proposal. Within a few days several more publishers had expressed an interest. On September 28, 2006, we accepted Walker's offer and I began work on the book.

Writing Stories in Stone has been a wonderful journey for me. Along the way, I have met architects, historians, librarians, geologists, quarry workers, and stone masons. I have been fortunate to work with a supportive, helpful, and encouraging editor. People have gone out of their way to help me track down papers, to take me out in the field, and to show me the inner workings of the quarry business. Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of posts about the book. I hope to include photos and maps, background on the chapters, and links to more information.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

National Park stone: Mt. Rainier

I recently spent a very sunny weekend up at Mt. Rainier. We stayed at the Paradise Inn. Built during 1916 and 1917, the historic lodge is on the national register of historic places. It is an A-shaped building, a shape necessary to withstand the average of over 600 inches of snow per year. From a geologic point of view, the most impressive features are the three massive fireplaces, two in the main lobby and one in the kitchen.

Fireplace in Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier

Each fireplace is made of various sized rough blocks of what appears to be granodiorite from the Tatoosh pluton. The pluton ranges in age between 26 and 14 million years old. I could not, however, find any information about which rock was used. The stones reportedly came from a local quarry.

One feature that stands out on several blocks is the row of drill holes. They show how the quarrymen made blocks by drilling a line of several-inch deep holes and dropping in two metal shims, each of which was bent at the top so the shims wouldn’t disappear into the cavity. He would then drop a wedge of steel between the shims and pound the row of plugs until the rock split on the perforation.

Close up of Mr. Tarbox's plug and feather quarrying method

Quarrymen call this the plug and feather method. It has used by stone masons for thousands of years though it has an interesting story in the US. According to quarry historians, a man named Mr. Tarbox introduced the method in this country in 1803. His work was noticed by a member of the commission to build a new jail in the Boston area, who tracked down Tarbox, hired him on spot, and got him to teach the method to other builders in the region. That knowledge spread quickly and soon the price of cut stone dropped appreciably.

The plug and feather method is still in use though it has been modified significantly with hydraulic air drills and hydraulic expanders. In places such as the Indiana limestone building district, quarrymen no longer need to swing a hammer.

Down lower on Mt. Rainier, at Longmire, another building makes use of the local stone, too. The visitor center is built of large boulders that must have been collected from the nearby river. The boulders are andesite, granodiorite, welded tuff, and rhyolite. Builders even used the boulders to make the chimney.

Longmire visitor center at Mt. Rainier
These buildings are two of many wonderful national park structures that use local rock, most often with rough cut faces or as boulders. Does anyone have any other favorite national park buildings with local materials?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek: The Big Cliff

Last weekend’s opening of the new Star Trek film generated much hoopla for geology fans. Or at least I like to think it did. Why? Because the opening sequence includes a spectacular shot of a Corvette plunging over a cliff and into a deep hole in the middle of Iowa. The cliff was obviously the wall of a quarry, as you can see the ledges where the stone was cut. But where?

The Cliff in Iowa

When the trailer for the film, which featured the Corvette shot, first appeared last year, many fans in the Trek universe were sent into a tizzy about the cliff. They knew that the driver of the car, a young James Kirk, will grow up in Iowa, but did not know of any such cliffs in Kirk’s home state. One wrote that because there aren’t any big cliffs like that in Iowa, the shot completely ruined the movie. I agree. If you are going to spend all of that money on a fictional, fantasy movie where people can use a transporter for travel, at least get the geology right. Others, however, contended that Kirk might have been on a road trip or that perhaps in the future someone would dig such a hole in Iowa.

The road trip idea fits in best with the filming. Consider that the scene is supposed to take place in Iowa was mostly shot outside of Bakersfield, California, and that the quarry is in Vermont.

The quarry hole that Mr. Kirk’s nice red Corvette shoots into is the E. L. Smith Quarry, started near Barre, Vermont, by Emery L. Smith, a Civil War veteran. After the war he returned to Barre, married, and started to acquire properties, eventually owing over 70 acres. Out of their quarries came the stone for the State House in Montpelier. The Rock of Ages corporation purchased the quarry in 1941 and still own it. The pit is now roughly 600 feet deep. The quarry produces a light gray granite, which formed during the Acadian Orogeny, sometime around 370 million years ago.

Rock of Ages Quarry, photo used courtesy of Peggy Perazzo,

According to press reports recently blasted out of Vermont, the crew came and shot the quarry without any actors in May 2008. They rented a helicopter and spent a day shooting aerial and still shots but wouldn’t say why or for what film. Using computer graphics apparently they then added the quarry face to the scenes shot in California. I guess with computers you don’t need a transporter.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Boston Rocks: The follow up

Several people have asked about my story in the Boston Globe last Sunday, May 3, 2009. The newspaper was kind enough to let me post the story on my web site. The paper's graphics's designer, Javier Zarracina, did a wonderful job of creating an easy-to-read, visual timeline of the buildings and the stones in Boston. I was particularly excited that he included a photo of my favorite Boston building stone fossil, a ten-inch wide ammonite found in the German limestone used on Hauser Hall at Harvard. To find the fossil, go to the north side of the building and look up; the fossil is about 10 feet off the ground. There are also many other ammonites and belmenites in the stone, which is also used at SeaTac Airport in Seattle.

A couple of additional points about the article

1. The brown sandstone used at Trinity Church and quarried in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, is the same brown sandstone quarried in Portland, Connecticut, and better known as the brownstone used throughout the east coast.

2. The Keystone Building, which has travertine panels, has had some maintenance issues in the past. Many of the panels have had to be replaced or reattached because water has gotten into the stone and frozen and cracked it. This occurs commonly with travertine, if used in colder climates.

3. As noted in the story, the Aquia Creek sandstone used at the St. Paul's has suffered a bit. If you go up to the columns you can see how many times they have had to be repaired.

4. In regard to the slate at Memorial Hall and the colors, the article needs a bit of a clarification. Oxygen does color the stone green or purplish but there was less oxygen in that environment relative to the amount of oxygen that fostered the red slate.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Boston: Where it All Started

I moved to Boston about a dozen years ago. My wife and I had been living in Moab so it was quite a shock to arrive in the Hub. Gone were the wonderful red rock canyons, wide open spaces, and 12,000 foot high mountain peaks. Instead, I found concrete canyons, urban density of almost 20,000 people per square mile (compared with less than 2 around Moab), and minimal topography. I was not happy until I discovered the mosaic of geology used to construct the city's buildings: sandstone, granite, travertine, marble, puddingstone, and gneiss.

As I have now discovered, Boston, like most big cities, is built with a range of rocks equal to any assembled by plate tectonics. With a short walk you can find rocks ranging in age from 3.5 billion years old to less than 200,000 years old. There are rocks from every continent except Antarctica. Plus, builders often go to the effort of polishing the rocks, so it is even easier to see the wonderful structures, fossils, and minerals. There were many times I wish I had my rock hammer and a bottle of acid.

I bring this up because today in the Boston Globe there is an article of mine about the great rocks of Boston. Based on a timeline, the story highlights 13 buildings and their geologic and cultural stories. The editor and designer did a great job. I have only one regret, at this point it's not on-line, or if it is I cannot find it, so if anyone out there sees it could you let me know how it looks.