ROCKY HISTORIES: Granite Mountain chipping away

 

More than 1.1 billion years ago, two different magma chambers were emplaced at nearly the same time and depth in Central Texas. Through a number of geologic processes loosely termed the Llano Uplift, they were exposed at the surface and are now known as Granite Mountain in Marble Falls and Enchanted Rock between Llano and Fredericksburg. 

Though the largest of the pair is called a rock and the smallest a mountain, technically, they are neither. According to geology experts, they are individual plutons created separately from the same batholith, a huge formation of igneous rock deep in the earth. The Enchanted Rock batholith stretches at least 62 miles underground. 

Sisters in formation and mineralogy, their lives have taken very different turns in the past 150 years — a minuscule blip on their granitic timelines. They stand as direct opposites of the other in terms of how each has been defined and used as a valuable resource by their communities. Here are their stories.

SENIOR WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN

Granite Mountain

The Austin Northwestern Railroad extended 6 miles of train track to Granite Mountain from Fairland as part of a deal for free granite to build the state Capitol. The 180-acre mountain has been a quarry for 137 years. Photo courtesy of The Falls on the Colorado Museum

Once the largest employer in Marble Falls, Granite Mountain has shrunk in workforce and size over the years as its rock was blasted, cut, and shipped around the globe for monuments, state buildings, skyscrapers, and jetties. For the past 137 years, men have quarried it for profit, a decision that has helped shape the city.

“The biggest thing is that it put Marble Falls on the map just because of the (Texas) Capitol and the history,” said John Packer, who worked at the mountain for 16 years, 10 as the general manager. Now owner of Alexis Granite, Packer is the mayor of Marble Falls. “(The mountain) has a huge connection to the Capitol and state history, and that will be here forever.”

What hasn’t lasted is Granite Mountain’s stature in the local economy. According to reports from several people with connections to the mountain, only about 60 people work there now. At its peak, it employed around 500, including when about 300 convicts carved out the stone that built the Capitol building in Austin in the 1880s.

“There are very few people raised here in the 1960s and ’70s who didn’t either work there or have someone close to them work there,” said Mike Clark, who spent 30 years at Texas Granite.

His father, James Clark, who worked for Texas Granite for 18 years, was killed in an industrial accident at the Texas Pearl quarry in Granite Shoals in 1973. Mike was 14. Despite the tragedy, he went to work at Granite Mountain four years later — against his mother’s wishes.

“I was fresh out of high school, and Mom really didn’t want me to, but he would have wanted me to,” said Clark, referring to his father. “I wanted to go to work. That mountain fed me when I was a kid and it fed my family. It helped me raise my family.”

Another longtime employee, Joe Walker worked the quarry for 25 years. Like Clark, he started full time after graduation. During his middle and high school years, he worked summer jobs there. His father and grandfather both worked the mountain, too. And, like Packer, he now has his own granite business: Walker’s Artistic Granite.

“Granite Mountain was good to my family,” Walker said. “It fed a lot of people in this town, and it was something to be proud of. We were sending granite all over the world. It was a great learning experience.”

First controlled by the Comanches, Granite Mountain came under Anglo ownership when the Republic of Texas granted William Slaughter a league and a labor of land totaling 4,500.5 acres. The grant included 180 acres of solid rock, which Slaughter never saw. He was given the land for agreeing to settle in Texas, but the Mississippi native ended up in Sabine County.

William sold his grant within two years to one of his sons, George Webb Slaughter, for $1,500. George Webb never saw the property either. A Texas hero, George fought in the war against Mexico. He delivered a message to Col. William B. Travis from commander in chief of the Texas Army, Sam Houston, to retreat from the Alamo — a message Travis ignored.

The only family member to make his home on the grant was William Ransom Slaughter, one of George Webb’s 11 children. He bought up all the pieces of the original tract owned by other relatives and built a cabin there for him and his wife to start a family, but she died soon after.

Although he came back to Burnet County with another wife, nothing much happened with the land until 1882, when he sold the eastern half of the original grant to George W. Lacy for $3,453. In brokering a deal for the grassland around the rock, Lacy told Slaughter he wouldn’t give more than a “packsaddle and the mule I’m leading” for the 180-acre mountain. Slaughter didn’t want to be left with a giant rock he would have to pay taxes on, so he made the exchange.

Granite Mountain

Townsfolk from Marble Falls and the surrounding area explore a tunnel dug by convicts in the 1880s at Granite Mountain. About 300 convicts were brought in to quarry rock for the Texas Capitol building in Austin. The tunnel is where the convicts were kept at night. Photo courtesy of The Falls on the Colorado Museum

Lacy was the first owner of the giant granite outcropping who saw it as a way to make a living. After he purchased the property, he sold one-third interest to N.L. Norton and another third to W.H. Westfall to form a partnership and start a quarry.

They kicked off their business by brokering a deal with Texas Gov. John Ireland to provide the Sunset Red stone for the new Capitol building in exchange for a railroad spur from Fairland to Marble Falls to the mountain — a total of 6 miles. The state also agreed to provide 300 convicts to work the quarry for 65 cents per 10-hour day. The money was paid to the superintendent of prisons. As part of the agreement, Lacy’s company provided room and board for the convicts, who worked alongside 148 paid stonecutters. Those 448 men cut 50,000 tons of rock from the mountain, which were shipped in 15,700 cars to Austin. Blocks of granite that fell off the train cars can still be found along the tracks.

In 1890, after the Capitol was complete, the three men formed the Texas Capitol Granite Co., which was valued at $200,000. They sold it in 1903 to Robert Caterson and Thomas Darragh of New York, who, in turn, formed the Texas and New York Granite Co. One version of the story set the price at $100,000; another version said it sold for $1 million. In 1926, Caterson sold his half to Robert Clark, and the name changed to Texas Pink Granite Co. Darragh and Clark abandoned the quarry in 1929, the year the Great Depression began.

In 1951, the mountain changed hands again, this time selling to its current owners, the Coldspring granite company of Cold Spring, Minnesota. A family-owned company, Coldspring has seven different quarries in the Highland Lakes and a total of 30 across the country. Each of the quarries produces a different color granite.

During its peak years through the early 1990s, Granite Mountain produced the stone for some of the most iconic buildings in the world, including what is now the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Coca-Cola building in Atlanta, and the Grand Central Station office building, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the east wing of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sunset Red has been used in skyscrapers in Australia, Thailand, and other countries as well. Most state buildings in Austin are built of Sunset Red as are many of the county courthouses, including the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio.

Changes in technology and building materials have led to a decrease in the need for granite. Many of the iconic buildings of the past used 3-inch-thick slabs. Now, only about an inch is needed for the same durability and strength. Also, Coldspring no longer processes the granite in Marble Falls. The giant blocks are shipped to Minnesota to be cut and polished, then shipped again to the customer. The cost of transportation has priced the stone out of the market for locals wanting a piece of polished Sunset Red in their homes.

The old mountain might still have some life left in it, though, Packer said.

“The market is cyclical,” he said. “With architects, you go through phases of nothing but granite, then, all of a sudden, everything is glass. It all depends on the market and design. Granite’s still popular; it’s just in a down cycle.”

All three former employees talk of the pride they feel having worked some of the bigger projects and seeing some of the mountain’s history firsthand.

“As little kids, we used to climb all over that mountain,” Walker said. “Where the cave is, out there by itself, there’s a lot of artifacts up there around the rocks from when they had prisoners in there.”

The Falls on the Colorado Museum, 2001 Broadway in Marble Falls, is a good place to see artifacts and historic photos from the mountain as the quarry is closed to the public.

But the best spot to see what the mountain looked like before companies began moving it around the world piece by piece is Enchanted Rock, which experienced a much different fate over the past 150 years.

suzanne@thepicayune.com

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