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Brownstone: The Imperishable Product of the Jurassic Age

Seemingly endless supply of Portland brownstone fueled economic growth and beautified America in the 19th century

"Anyone who has seen the Portland quarries will not forget the sight. The immense blocks of stone, the magnificent oxen, the cheerful activity everywhere manifested. The sheer walls of rock from 100 to 150 feet in height with the black, sullen pools of water at their base hint at tragic possibilities, though the fact is that accidents are few…"

--Beer’s History of Middlesex County, 1885

Officially designated a national historic landmark on May 16, 2000, the Portland Brownstone Quarries were the main source of brownstone for many of the buildings in the major cities of the United States, especially during the so-called "Brownstone Era" from the end of the Civil War to about the turn of the 20th century. The quarries changed hands a number of times from their beginning in the late 18th century. By the height of the "Brownstone Era" in 1884, it was known as the "Brainerd Quarry Company." Here is what the Beer’s History of Middlesex County -- published in 1885 -- had to say about the Brainerd Quarry Company at that time:

This company employs upward of 300 workmen, 45 yoke of oxen, and 36 horses.They also employ from 12-16 schooners in transporting stone to various markets along the coast. Large quantities are also shipped by rail to the interior and to the western states. Four steam engines are used in hoisting stone and in pumping water from the quarry. One 60-horsepower engine carries a large double-acting cylinder pump capable of discharging from 15-20 hogsheads of water per minute.Excavations have been made to a depth of 200 feet. The amount of stone produced annually is about 300,000 cubic feet. This stone is shipped to all parts of the country and is used for elegant private residences, churches, and other public buildings, monuments, bridges, docks, piers, etc.

One of the places that received a large quantity of brownstone was just across the river -- Wesleyan University. As part of Middletown’s inducement to lure Wesleyan to central Connecticut, it was voted in November 1833

That the interest of the town in the town quarry at Chatham* should be appropriated to the use and benefit of the Wesleyan University for the period of forty years, on condition that when the net amount of the avails thereof shall equal the sum of ten thousand dollars within said period said grant shall cease.

Wesleyan enjoyed the benefit of this grant until 1860. From 1833 until 1860, many brownstone buildings that still constitute the heart of this beautiful campus were constructed there, the material being free of charge (see photos).

Another significant building containing brownstone is the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Each state contributed a commemorative stone for the construction of the Washington Monument, which was dedicated in 1885. Most appropriately, Connecticut sent a brownstone from the Portland quarries.

The old Hancock House in Boston was built from Portland brownstone in 1737. George Pullman’s home in Chicago was also made from brownstone, as was William Vanderbilt’s palatial home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. In fact, of the more than 9,100 brownstone buildings in the Big Apple in 1880, about 80 percent of them were 100 percent Portland brownstone, while the rest had brownstone fronts. My own great-grandfather, Michael Devlin, was an expert stonemason in Philadelphia. He was responsible for building many of that city’s brownstones in the last three decades of the 19th century.

So popular were brownstones in the 19th century that in 1858 poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was moved to include a reference to a brownstone house in the first stanza of a 12-stanza poem entitled "Contentment":

LITTLE I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own;
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun…

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