The largest open surface granite quarry in the world

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 9, 2016

“The principal outcrops of granite in Surry County are found in the northern part of the county near the Virginia line in the vicinity of Mount Airy, the county seat. The granite is exposed in flat surfaced masses in rather an advanced stage of decay immediately to the north and south of Mount Airy where quarrying on an extensive scale has been conducted for some years.

“The North Carolina Granite Corporation’s Mount Airy quarries, located less than 1 mile northeast of Mount Airy, were opened in 1889, and the first shipment of stone from them was made in July 1890. The total shipment of granite from these quarries from 1890, when 135 carloads were shipped, to 1904 when 1,282 carloads were shipped, was 13,232 carloads.

North Carolina Granite Corporation, Mt Airy NC

“Quarrying is confined to a 40 acre tract of continuously exposed granite over the slope and top of a long hill which rises about 125 feet above the valley bottom. The company holds more than 1,200 acres additional of ground over which granite is exposed.

“Quarrying has extended over practically the entire 40 acre tract, the greatest depth of working being about 30 feet. The rock is a biotite granite of very light gray, nearly white color and medium grain. The biotite is not, except in one opening, equally distributed through the granite, but is entirely absent from some parts of it, is uniformly distributed through others, and shows a marked tendency to segregation in still other parts.

“Quartz feldspar areas of extreme whiteness, ranging from several inches to as many feet in diameter, in which biotite is entirely lacking or represented by only a few shreds, are common through the granite.

“This unequal distribution of the characterizing accessory (biotite) renders the granite in places less uniform in color than might be desirable for some purposes. The granite that has a uniform color is most pleasing in appearance and forms excellent and desirable stone for all uses except for monumental stock, for which the contrast of color between the cut and polished faces is not great enough.

“The company is adequately equipped with all the necessary machinery and appliances for quarrying and handling the stone. In 1905 a large stone cutting plant was erected. The stone is carried from the quarries to the railway cars by a system of inclined ways run by gravity. The limit in size of dimension stone is the capacity of the railroad cars. Blocks weighing 20 tons are reported to have been frequently shipped from the quarries.

North Carolina Granite Corporation, Mt Airy NC“The product is marketed over a large territory, chiefly in States south of New York. It is used for general building and paving purposes. The quarry waste is utilized for roofs on cotton mills, macadam on streets and roads, ballast along the railroads, and granolithic work.

“All the stone used in the dry dock at Newport News, VA and the concreting material used in the Fort Caswell fortifications, Cape Fear River, NC, came from the Mount Airy quarries.

“The method of quarrying the granite consists in drilling a hole about 3 inches in diameter perpendicular to the surface to a depth equal to the thickness of the stone desired, usually 5 to 7 feet, then firing a succession of light blasts.

“The operation is begun by discharging about one fourth of a pound of dynamite in the bottom of the hole; this small charge pulverizes the stone slightly and forms a small chamber. The tamping is then cleaned out and hole is recharged in the same manner; this time however, with about a handful of powder.

“Small charges of powder are exploded in the hole until a small seam has been started at the bottom extending parallel with the surface. To determine if this has been done a small steel rod bent at the lower end and sharpened to a point is passed up and down the hole until the crack is located. After the crack has once been started the charges are gradually increased until it extends a distance of 75 feet or more from the hole.

North Carolina Granite Corporation, Mt Airy NC

Aerial view of the North Carolina Granite Quarry, Mt Airy, NC.

“The use of explosives is then discontinued, and a watertight connection to the hole is made by fastening a piece of iron pipe in the hole with melted sulphur. To this connection is attached an ordinary force pump and water is pumped into the crevice formed by the explosives. The crevice is extended by continuous pumping for a few hours until finally it covers an area of perhaps 2 acres and the pressure finds vent by tearing the rock out to thin edges on the side of the hill.

“This method is used in the warmest weather when the surface of the rock is naturally somewhat expanded and more raised. It is very doubtful whether it could be employed during cold weather; experience shows that the hotter the weather the easier the work.

“Sheets of stone covering areas of 1 to 2 acres from 6 to 8 feet thick close to the hole are easily raised by this method. It is often found necessary to clean off a ledge of stone made in this manner before attempting to form or raise another sheet on the surface below. For this reason the quarry covers considerably more area than one having natural seams —horizontal sheeting.”

source: ‘Granites of Southeastern Atlantic States,’ in Bulletin – United States Geological Survey, Issue 426, 1910, pp. 148-151

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A steam saw mill was then as much of a sight as a Barnum’s Big Show now

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 8, 2016

In Grantsville district quite a number of water power mills were erected between the years 1835 ~ 1855, but there are now only two or three within the same limits. Steam power mills have taken their places.

In 1837, a man by the name of Williams, from Pennsylvania, built the first steam saw mill on the Red Run, two miles above the National Road.  He bought a splendid lot of 250 acres of pine from Daniel Durst, which was used in about three years with no profit to the proprietor.

A steam saw mill was then as much of a sight as a Barnum’s big show now.  The next mill of the kind was that of Kreeks, between the two Savages, about 1840.  In a few years the timber on the premises was cut and the mill entirely abandoned.  He was a merchant in Frostburg, and went into banking ~ issuing circulating notes of small denominations, commonly called shinplasters.  Considerable show and pretension, but no real success.

Garrett County MD sawmill

“Sawmills and logging companies threaten the remaining supply of timber in Garrett County, Maryland,” reads caption to this 1936 photo.

On the north side of the pike, in the same line or valley, Joshua Johnson built a fine mill in 1840.  Henry Brown was builder; it burnt, but was promptly rebuilt.  Johnson then lived in Frederick, and was proprietor of about 15,000 acres of Timberland in that vicinity.  The late Meshac Frost about the same time erected the Grove Mill, and his son William and Nelson Beall ran it till the adjacent timber was consumed.

Then Frost moved the mill down to the pike and conducted it on his own account upon a large basis for a number of years.  This place was in the Shades of death, so much noted for gloom and daring acts of villainy in the long ago past years.  Mr. F. went out of business in the war times, and still survives, living in a beautiful cottage in this once hideous valley.

J. H. Hoblitzell once ran a mill for a few years a mile west of the Johnson place.  The late Nelson Beall and his brother Richard were in former years actively engaged in the manufacture of lumber.  That excellent and useful man, the late C. M. Graham, was largely and profitably engaged in lumbering at different points in the lower part of the district.

As a general thing the business was not profitable, only there and there success rewarded hard labor and drudgery.  Operations in pine are considerably smaller than in recent years, but there is still sufficient timber in this part of the county for profitable business or investments for years to come.

Mr. P. Dorsey and the Messrs. Johnson are now actively engaged in the business.  The demand for lumber is on the growth, while the supply is shrinking.  There are in the southwest part of the county vast bodies of timber, especially of the Yough and North Branch, hardly touched.

Among the large owners in the former valley (for sale) are the McFerrans, of this city, (Cumberland) and Messrs. Witts of Pennsylvania and Ohio; and in the latter Mr. G. L. Wellington has recently purchased large and valuable timber tract as an investment, or sale, as circumstances may warrant.

Timberland capitalists are now purchasing lands in that favored part of the county with a view of entering largely in the manufacture of lumber.  They are experienced men from the lumber regions of Pennsylvania, and will bring with them the most modern labor saving facilities now in use.

These are the guarantees of profits in the lumber trade as now conducted.  Formerly the gains were lost in the antiquated and expensive manner of drawing logs to the mills.  Now at a well equipped saw mill the raw material is brought to the spot almost by science at greatly reduced cost, with no waste whatever; every part of the tree being utilized and made to pay tribute to the business.

Cut-over in Garrett County, MD; 1935.

Cut-over in Garrett County, MD; 1935.


Shingle making has always been treated as a branch of the timber business.   In early times they were made of oak wood, but 60 ~ 70 years ago it was discovered that white pine was more than a substitute, and much easier to work.  Since then all shingles have been made of pine.  In the beginning, entirely with drawing knife, but in latter years principally with the circular saw; but the knife is still used to some extent, and its product is by far the best and most durable.

Quite a number of people still make their living by shaving shingles, mostly from remnants of pine trees cut up for saw logs.  Hard material for roofing, such as tin and slate, are becoming unsatisfactory, after experiments of ten or twenty years, and shingles shaved in the old way are regaining their lost popularity.  There are now roofs in Garrett County forty to fifty years old in pretty good condition.  What other material can stand such tests?

“Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings,” by Jacob Brown, ‘prepared and written from 1880 to 1895’, Cumberland, Md.: Printed by J.J. Miller, 1896

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The town built inside a crater

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 7, 2016

Middlesboro, KY is the only city in the US now known to be built within a meteor crater. William M. Andrews Jr., a geologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey, said erosion and vegetation have hidden most signs of the meteor’s impact. However, enough evidence remains, he said, to support the conclusion.

“You have the round shape, shattered rock in the middle and deformed rocks around the sides that have been bent, folded or shoved,” Andrews said. “That’s pretty strong evidence that it was a meteor impact crater.”

“Middlesboro is in this strangely round valley in the middle of Appalachia,” he said. “You don’t get round valleys here. It’s not normal.”

View Larger Map

The town (also spelled “Middlesborough”) was established in 1886 to exploit iron and coal deposits. The town’s founder, Alexander A. Arthur, apparently did not know of the crater’s extraterrestrial origin. Omni magazine listed the site in a 1979 article as one of the 15 outstanding craters in North America (there are more than 170 known meteor craters on the continent) and also as the most circular.

The Middlesboro Crater is located in the Appalachian Mountains, exposed to the surface, between the Cumberland Mountains and Pine Mountain. The theory is that a meteor more than 1,500 feet in diameter struck the earth here less than 300 million years ago and carved a hole approximately 3 miles in diameter, with slopes that rise as high as 1,900 feet.

As much as 80 percent of the meteor either was blown back into the earth’s atmosphere or disintegrated on impact, and life may have been destroyed within 50-100 miles of the impact. Geological maps indicate that the center of impact occurred where the YMCA pool is now on North 30th St, and that the crater perimeter ran through what is now 12th St and Cumberland Avenue intersection. Geologists believe that before the meteor hit, the area around Middlesboro may have been a wide plain, much higher than the 2,400 ft Pinnacle overlook at Cumberland Gap. Geologists say that rock formations in the area do not substantiate the theory that the Gap itself may have been created by the impact and explosion of the meteor.

sources: Kentucky Stories, by Byron Crawford(Turner Publishing, 2001)
Associated Press article in St Petersburg Times (Sept 20, 2003)

related post: “Bald is Beautiful”

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How Virginia’s Huckleberry Train got its name

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 4, 2016

The big break needed for Blacksburg, VA’s railroad hopes came with the Great Coal Strike of 1902 in Pennsylvania. William J. Payne and his associates in Richmond had become persuaded of the good prospects in coal at Price and Brush mountains.

They, in turn, persuaded men they knew within disgruntled coal and coal railroad management in the Wilkes Barre-Scranton anthracite fields. Soon both capital and expertise came to non-union Virginia through the efforts of L.S.Randolph, president of Brush Mountain Coal Company, and Payne, who became the driving force of two new sibling companies.

The first of these was the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company (VAC & Ry. Co. or VAC&R), chartered by Virginia’s General Assembly on April 2, 1902. The very next day, the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company bought the already graded railroad right-of-way and other preliminary work at Price Mountain on Brush Mountain Coal Company land for $169,500.

Nine months later, on January 8, 1903, in Richmond, the Virginia Anthracite Coal Company (VAC Co. or VAC) also received its charter. This company took over the building and operating of the Merrimac Mines from the BMCC, which returned to landlord status, charging royalties on VAC Co. coal profits. Randolph’s VAC Co. owned 87 percent of the stock of his VAC & Ry. Co.

Blacksburg VA Huckleberry Train,

Blacksburg, VA celebrated the opening of its railroad, nicknamed the ‘Huckleberry Train,’ on September 15, 1904.


Meantime, on July 3, 1901, in Blacksburg, word was received that a horseless buggy, the first to be seen in the town, was approaching from Christiansburg. About forty cars were registered in the state at that time, and one of them was coming to Blacksburg! In the bigger cities of Virginia, most people had seen automobiles, although few had actually ridden in one.

But in Blacksburg, where less than two years earlier the town council had voted to allow cows to roam at large in town provided they were dehorned, Main Street was lined with excited observers eager to see a spectacle pass by.

In April 1902, the same month as the birth of the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company, the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors voted to postpone for three months any discussion of the proposed “Blacksburg Rock Road.” In other words, Blacksburgers’ wails for better transportation were beginning to be acknowledged by the county, albeit with dragging feet. Early talks about macadamizing the Blacksburg Road had begun.

Railroad building was hardly going any faster. It took seven months merely to buy and go to court over the necessary right-of-way. Building finally commenced in mid-November 1902. Five months later, when the tracks were laid all the way to the Merrimac Mines, construction ceased. Building a large mining operation and a railroad at the same time was straining the resources of the sibling companies. Meantime, the April 8, 1903, issue of the Roanoke Times reported, “The long talked of macadamized road from Christiansburg [to Blacksburg] is an assured thing now as the $20,000 bonds are about ready to be floated, and as soon as that is done the work will be let to contract at once.”

But by this time, Blacksburg’s citizens needed convincing. Town council had long petitioned the county to no avail, and various companies had, for fifty years, promised-then failed-to produce a railroad. The town’s people would believe in transportation when they saw it. In the spring of 1904, The Virginia Tech, a campus newspaper, mockingly commented that “a line of flying machines” had a better chance of fulfilling Blacksburg’s transportation needs than a macadamized road or any of the several promised railroads.

Meanwhile, at a time before radio, when entertainment beyond the homegrown was meager in the area, the biggest show around was just a buggy ride away: the building of the mining community at Merrimac Mines. The soil there is preferred by plants of the heath family, such as the wild-growing lowbush blueberry Vaccinium, which had become gloriously profuse in the new sunshine along the stalled railroad’s right-of-way and up the stripped mountainsides at Merrimac Mines. These “huckleberries” rapidly gained a wide reputation for the most delicious of pies, cobblers, and jams. It became popular in the summer to buggy out to the site, see how the building was coming along, and pick the berries.

Newspapers called the stalled railroad “the Christiansburg-Blacksburg Railroad” or “the Virginia Anthracite Line.” But after several summers of berry picking, the railroad became connected in people’s minds to the famous “huckleberries.” This was certainly true of the junior faculty members at the local college who wrote and edited The Virginia Tech in those years before the students did. For in May 1904, when the good news was announced that the railroad building would resume after all, one such writer could assume that his readership would know just what he meant when, in that time of such great railroad empires as the “Gould system” and the “Harriman system,” his news item read, “It appears that the ‘Huckleberry System’ will certainly extend their line into Blacksburg.”

Sure enough, it happened. The tracks were laid in Blacksburg by September 7. Blacksburg celebrated the opening of its railroad on September 15, 1904. “Only those who are compelled to travel the nine miles of almost impassable mountain road during the cold, bleak, dreary winter months can fully appreciate what the opening of this new road means,” said several newspapers.

Six days later, students arriving for the 1904-05 school year joined in the appreciative cheers for the new service. “Everywhere ’tis the same story, praises of the ‘Huckleberry.’ . . . Why, we are two hours closer to Christiansburg,” reported the first issue of The Virginia Tech that school year. It was an exciting, promising time for Blacksburg and the region.

Source: A Special Place for 200 Years, Chapter 7,  “Blacksburg Transported: From Wagons to Jet Planes, ” by Patricia S. Neumann, 1998 by the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia.

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  • Joyce says:

    Do you know where the old Huckleberry Train is now? Was it saved in a museum? My husband remembers that train and I would love to get a photo of it for him.

  • Tim says:

    Joyce, the train is now in Pennsylvania at a park where it operates as a tourist ride.

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The largest grading project on a commercial airport ever attempted

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 3, 2016

During World War II while the Army, Navy and Civil Aeronautics Agency were constructing airports for the war effort, attempts were made to have the agencies approve a field in Kanawha County, WV. All requests were turned down because of the large amount of grading that would have to be done.

The county then went ahead and undertook the largest grading project on a commercial airport ever attempted.

In October 1944, in Charleston, W. Va., the contract for the nation’s heaviest airport grading job was awarded to Harrison Construction Company of Pittsburgh, PA by the Kanawha County Court. The citizens of Kanawha County voted a $3,000,000 bond issue for the construction of the terminal and road access from the business section of the town. Later Congress appropriated $2,750,000 to supplement the County fund to assure the completion of the airport.

The project required removal of approximately 9 million yards of material, 40% was rock. The airport is located on a series of ridges, whose area and direction made it ideal for the construction of three runways. For all other sites investigated, the topography was such that the construction of runways of adequate length was impractical or land damages excessive.

In the early stages shovels worked on ledges that were 300 feet or more above the lowest ravine filling levels. Due to layers of pan materials between stone strata there was little opportunity for scrapers to load downhill. Early stage haul roads for both stone and dirt were among the steepest ever encountered by the contractors. Temporary roads employed up to 40% descending grades for scrapers and 25% for dump trucks.

The rock excavation was hauled by nine 1-3/4 yard to 2-1/2 yard shovels loading a fleet of twenty- three 10-yard rear dump trucks and eight 11-yard and 12-yard bottom dump trailers. The earth excavation was handled by ten 25-yard tractor-drawn scrapers and sixteen 12-yard scrapers. Seven pushers with the help of four rooters served the scrapers. With this equipment the contractor averaged from 20,000 to 27,000 cubic yards of earth and rock a day.

Alternate rock and shale layers created a situation favorable to horizontal drilling and blasting. This method was used for all but small special pockets, where six wagon drills were employed, powered by five 365 cu. ft. compressors.

To level the mountain, over 1,000,000 pounds of dynamite were used; a typical blast consisted of 2,500 pounds of dynamite placed in nine parallel 45 foot holes.

Kanawha Airport was formally dedicated on November 3, 1947. President Truman sent his plane, the “Independence;” the presidents of all the participating airlines were on hand, as were many governmental officials. Though a cold, rainy day, the event was attended by an estimated 10,000 people. The first night landing at the port was made shortly after 10 the evening before by the president of American Airlines.

dedication of Kanawha Airport, Charleston WVDedication of Kanawha Airport, Charleston WV.

Col. John Alison, assistant secretary of commerce for air, lauded the people of the city and county on their perseverance and refusal to allow the many obstacles created by rugged terrain to keep them from realizing a project deemed essential to the welfare and growth of the community. He thought it quite significant that the county should have undertaken what the Army would not tackle.

“The record shows that the county of Kanawha has spent more money per capita on airports than any other county in any state in the country,” Col. Alison said. “In addition, $125,000 was voted by the county for an access road to the airport. Other funds were made available for the purchase of land.

“These accomplishments are a fine commentary on the judgment of the 195,619 people of the county and their elected officials.”

At the conclusion of the special ceremonies, the crowd was admitted to the taxi strips to visit planes of Capital, Eastern and American airlines. Chief interest seemed to center about Capital’s “Flying White House,” the DC-4 in which the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to the historic Casablanca conference.

Sources: “Dedication of Kanawha Airport,” Charleston Gazette
November 4, 1947 online at
“The Nation’s Heaviest Airport Grading Project,” The Kanawha Valley Airport online at

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