Carl Balestracci, the former first selectman of Guilford, and Unk DaRos, the current first selectman of Branford, have spent years talking politics, government and shared town concerns. But on Saturday the topic was granite as they returned to the place of their youth, to the Stony Creek quarry, a place that bisects their borders, their town’s histories and their own lives.
Under grey and cool skies, they shared stories of the impact of the quarry on their lives. Their grandparents came to this country from Italy to work in the quarries. The immigration of thousands of workers over decades transformed the once tiny towns of Guilford and Branford and changed their economic, religious and cultural make-up. These immigrants created the great monuments in the world, including the base of the Statute of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The tour of the Stony Creek Quarry and the history of the quarry and how the stone shaped the history and dynamic of the two towns, was a key feature of the event, which attracted about 400 people from both sides of the Branford-Guilford border. The audience was fascinated.
The grandparents of the two selectmen worked in quarries in both towns and DaRos’s grandmother ran a large boarding house where quarrymen lived. She prepared three meals a day for them for years. The quarry tour event was sponsored by the Guilford Keeping Society.
Balestracci, 71, showed maps and photos of the workers in the late 1880’s, early 1900’s. For example, Balestracci showed the group a photograph of the pink granite Eagle that weighs eight tons and sits atop the magnificent South Station in Boston. The station’s facade is also Stony Creek granite.
DaRos, 69, a stone maker by trade, described a variety of special tools, some heavy, some light, including those used in crafting something as delicate as that eagle from Stony Creek granite. The eagle shows “the finer work that could be done with granite,” said DaRos who is also a sculptor.
The selectmen showed maps and photographs and shared tales of Quarry life as they lived it. DaRos brought along old quarry tools. Each has become a historian of sorts on how the quarry’s worked, how they stopped working and how their town’s economic lives were transformed.
Balestracci carried with him a large beautiful book entitled “Flesh and Stone: Stony Creek and the Age of Granite,” published in 2000 by Stony Creek Granite Quarry Workers Celebration. It is the story of one small region and the way it changed and grew in the heyday of granite quarrying. The book can be purchased at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Stony Creek and it will also be for sale at the Stony Creek Museum after it opens May 27. The book was edited, designed, produced, and authored by a group of local residents—all of whom volunteered their time and talent. It was a gift to the community.
Balestracci began his talk by giving insights into the personality of John Beattie, who lived and worked and owned the quarry bearing his name in Guilford. His most famous project was the pink granite pedestal for the Statute of liberty, completed in 1884. He hired hundreds of men skilled in working with the stone, to live in Connecticut and become quarrymen. They came from many countries, including Finland, Ireland, Sweden and Italy.
BEATTIE THE POLITICIAN
“Guilford and Branford have always claimed the granite that holds Statute of Liberty, and one of the things that we have found is that we are both right,” he told the residents. Then he explained what he meant.
“Beattie was an exceptional man; a great businessman and he must have been one heck of a politician,” a craft Balestracci and DaRos both know well. Faced with the dilemma of a quarry spanning two towns, Balestracci said he devised a way to keep the quarry land in Guilford. “He didn’t want to have to pay taxes in two towns. And actually the originally boundary went right through his living room in his house on Leetes Island,” Balestracci said.
“So he got both towns to agree. Branford maintained all the fishing rights to the water and Guilford had to educate the kids …and then he also got the state legislature to agree to the change. You couldn’t do that today if you had five casinos. He did get the boundary changed and it happened in 1884 when he finished the base of the Statue of Liberty. So technically speaking both towns can claim the pink granite. It is all the same,” he said. (He did not mention a little known fact that the town of Branford owns the trademark for the pink granite at the Stony Creek quarry.)
Balestracci said work in the quarry was dangerous and described a group of young men who died in various accidents or because of consumption, the #1 killer. “They finally shut it down in 1918 and the Beattie quarry never opened again,” he said.
Balestracci said when his grandfather worked at the Stony Creek quarry after he had worked at Beattie’s “he met my other grandfather, who was a master steam fitter. This grandfather was crushed to death fixing a large machine up in the Milford, Mass quarry. My mother was 16. There were seven kids in the family. No insurance. Fortunately they owned their own house. But a lot of men were injured and a lot were killed.”
The granite quarries from this area produced some of the world’s most impressive buildings and monuments. In addition to the Statue of Liberty, there is Grand Central Terminal, the Brooklyn Bridge and Grant’s Tomb. One of its great monuments, but one discussed rarely, is the West Point Monument.
WEST POINT MONUMENT
This extraordinary piece of sculpture (see top photo) and architecture began in the Stony Creek quarry and is now at West Point. It was dedicated in 1897. The monument contains the names of 188 officers and 2,042 men of the Regular Army who died in the Civil War. Stanford White, the famous architect, designed the Battle monument.
“This is considered one of the most complete monuments in the world,” DaRos said. He described the fifty long foot stone without seams derived from the granite walls. It took two years to complete and according to DaRos, the stone was insured for $1 million. Getting from Stony Creek to West Point in New York was not without hitches, he said. The monument weighed 75,000 pounds. It was transported on two slow moving flat rail cars most of the way.
But before it even got out of the gate at the intersection of Leetes Island and Quarry Roads, where the Quarry is located, the stone monument fell. “The men looked it over and made sure there was no injury to the stone and somehow got it back on the truck. It was quite an operation,” DaRos told the audience.
Despite the historical significance of these majestic monuments, there was no assurance that the quarries in Guilford and Branford would survive to make more of them.
TEN CENTS AN HOUR MORE
DaRos recalled that sometime around 1930 –the quarry men went on strike in order to get ten cents an hour more. They were earning about 25 cents an hour. Instead of yielding to their demands the quarry owners shut the quarry down. “My grandfather wouldn’t let anyone into the place. They left everything behind, their tools, and their shirts. They just walked out and never came back.”
Balestracci asked DaRos to tell the group about his grandmother. “My grandmother had a wood burning stove,” he said, a large one. “I would help her. I was a little kid. And I would watch her as she was cooking. She would flip those lids with her bare fingers. .And I said, ‘doesn’t that hurt?’ “No,” she told me, “you gotta be quick.” He said she would make scores of breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day. “She worked herself to death,” he said.
DaRos said that from about 1930 to 1950, the Quarry was closed and quarrymen throughout Branford and Guilford looked elsewhere for work. They built seawalls, DaRos said, and found other occupations. Or they traveled to other quarries in other states to find work.
“Where you are standing now,” he told the audience, “was granite stone and locomotives and railroad cars and at one point 11 derricks. What I remember when I was ten years old was all this equipment was still here.” There were also cables, scores of them. “In all different directions. You would think you were standing underneath a spider web.” The cables went down 1500 feet in all directions, he said. He described the roads back then as so-so. “These were very flexible roads, let’s put it that way,” he said.
After work there was play and typically that took the form of finding a way to get a drink. It wasn’t so easy both selectmen recalled.
Two years after the Beattie quarry closed down in 1918, Prohibition began, Balestracci told the audience. “So we had prohibition and we had it for a while until we realized we couldn’t stand it any longer.” During Prohibition, the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol were banned.
He said Stony Creek was always wet before Prohibition. “They were smart. Guilford was dry.” A place was needed at the border to deal with this reality.
Balestracci described the solution: “When you go back to Guilford before you go under the railroad tracks under that very dangerous S curve you will see a big red house on the left. That was always a place where you could get a drink. So the Beattie men when they moved the boundary to where it is presently, the Beattie men when they needed a drink would walk under the bridge, go to the red house, get what they wanted and walk back into Guilford.”
After the two selectmen ended their talk, the Quarry’s current occupant, Doug Anderson, who leases the quarry from the town, discussed current operations. From high above the quarry floor, he described his own operation, one that centers on crushed stone for sale, pre-cut stones, granite panels and building retaining and sea walls along with architectural monuments. Click here to read about it.