Granite was first mined in Vermont in the late 1700s. Starting around the early 1800s, demand for granite began to increase. Robert Parker, a veteran of Bunker Hill and the War of 1812, is given credit for beginning commercial production of high-grade granite. As this demand grew, and granite began to be used for monuments and memorials, immigrants from Europe’s stone centers, particularly Italy, Scotland, England, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Spain, and Germany, were drawn to Vermont. During this time, Barre, Vermont, home to a number of granite quarries and mills, became known as the “granite capital of the world.” In 1900, at least sixty granite companies were operational throughout the state.
Today, there is only one, fully operational granite quarry in Vermont, owned by Rock of Ages Corp. According to the Vermont Geological Survey’s Mine Reference File, in 2003 Rock of Ages Corp. employed 88 people and mined a total of three quarries, two of which were intermittently quarried. In addition to the fully active quarry, the state as a whole has six intermittent quarries (including the two owned by Rock of Ages Corp.) and it has six permanently closed quarries. Furthermore, a total of 97 people, including the 88 employed by Rock of Ages Corp., are said to be working in granite quarries. As evident from this data, Rock of Ages Corp. dominates the granite industry in Vermont. As of 1996, this company was a leading producer of granite in the United States with operations in Canada, Georgia, New Hampshire and Vermont (Lemons, 1996).
Demand for grey granite has decreased as imports from other parts of the world have flooded U.S. markets. Granite of other colors, particularly white granite found in Bethel, Vermont, still seem to be in demand. According to a publication written by the U.S. Geological Survey and Vermont Geological Survey, Rock of Ages Corp. has continued to invest in technology in order to reduce costs (USGS and VGS, 2002). Traditionally, granite was quarried by hand saw and primitive blasting techniques but now is produced using diamond wire saws, hydraulic drilling equipment, and water jets. The Barre Granite Association states that the Barre granite industry was the first to utilize permanent derricks, the steam drill, and the electric battery for blasting, though it remained hobbled by inefficient transportation until the late 1800s when the railroad lines were expanded. According to the website for the Vermont Granite Museum of Barre, the granite industry currently contributes about $75 million in annual sales to the Vermont economy. The website also makes a point of saying that the supply of Barre Gray granite is far from depleted (they state that the supply will last for at least 4,500 years), though this may be irrelevant in light of global supplies.
The stone has been used primarily for monuments, buildings, and memorials, though it’s uses have also included kitchen counters, floors, indoor furniture, and outdoor birdbaths and benches. According to an article in the Burlington Free Press, the total number of employees in Vermont’s granite industry (this includes quarrying and manufacturing) is below 1,000, down from 3,000 in the 1950s and 1960s (Simon, 2005). Yet there are still at least thirty companies that sell and/or manufacture granite products in and around Barre, Vermont (see the Barre Granite Association). One of these is called Granite Industries of Vermont. The business began over a hundred years ago by Constantino and Guido Valz, and the company’s work has focused on monuments, memorials, and buildings. Their stone has been used for the AT&T building in New York City, the Bristol Meyers headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The company’s 52 employees are currently creating monuments for soldiers killed in the Iraq War. It is unclear from their website how much of the stone they use is quarried in Vermont.
Granite is generally made of biotite, plagioclase, quartz and amphibole, and will sometimes contain potassium feldspar. In the late 1930s, it became apparent that a vast majority of workers had died from silicosis and tuberculosis as a result of granite dust or quartz exposure. Dust controls were issued shortly thereafter by the Vermont Division of Industrial Hygiene and studies have shown that these measures have dramatically reduced, even eliminated, death from silicosis and tuberculosis (Costello and Graham, 1988). More recent findings that lung cancer mortality has increased among certain workers in the Vermont granite industry have not been linked with granite dust (Graham, Costello and Vacek, 2004). In the 1950s, evidence of environmental damage could be found in the Winooski River. Cutting granite with the use of water created waste which drained into nearby rivers affecting stream quality and fish populations. It seems plausible, if not likely, that this is happening to a certain extent today, particularly since water continues to be used in the production process.
Yet the visual and environmental impact of granite quarries has not been the subject of heated debate, unlike other mining practices in Vermont, for a number of possible reasons: granite has had a relatively long and prodigious history in the state; the mining practices have created waste which can be recycled (this is not to say that all granite waste is recycled); the blasting process is less intense than that of other active quarries; and, the granite industry is compromised of many small business owners and artisans and only a few quarries owned primarily by Rock of Ages Corp.