Quarry's rock in White House

by Jim Hall

The picks and mauls are silent now at Government Island.

Gone are the muscled laborers who quarried the rock. Gone, too, are the masted ships that carried it north.

Government Island is quiet now, overgrown with oaks and maples and sticker bushes. Only the silent stones say that this was once the nations most famous quarry.

In a sense, America was founded on Government Island sandstone. For 90 years, about 1750 to 1840, it was a favorite building block in Virginia and Wasington.

The Stone can be found in the White House and the Capitol, and at Mount Vernon and Mount Airy. It was used in Aquia Church, Christ Church and Gunston Hall.

The Island is a green sliver of land in Aquia Creek in North Stafford. It sits at the mouth of Aquia Harbour, where boaters pass daily, ignorant of its storied past.

Two hundred years ago, visitors would find skilled cutters preparing stones for the new presidential palace. The men came form Scotland, Holland, Germany and France. For 10 hours each day, the clang of their picks and mauls would be heard.

The men cut trenches or "channeled" their way into the stone cliffs, said George L. Gordon Jr., Stafford's commissioner for revenue. When the trenches were connected, a large block could be rolled away.

To carve a smaller section, the workers pulled a chalk line across the stone to cut into it.

"Once the stones were chipped to a depth of 8 to 16 inches, and it appeared that the blocks would break cleanly, wedges were pounded with mauls," Stafford resident Jane Henderson wrote in her history of the island.

Slaves, working from sunrise to sunset, moved the stones to a dock. Barges probably were used to carry the rock to deep water at Coal Landing, Gordon said. The Journey up the Potomac River to Washington was about 40 miles.

It was easy to get slave labor, because their owners got 75 cents perday wage. Craftsmen, though, had to be coaxed from Europe with travel expenses and promises of social standing. The workers lived in quarters on the island; the stone foundations still are visible.

Aquia sandstone was prized because it was plentiful and easily quarried.

"Virginia's early residents referred to it as 'freestone,' Henderson said.

It had the peculiar quality of being "soft" in the ground, but hard enough to make a pick ring when cured in the sun, Gordon said. The colors ranged from cream to reddish brown.

The earliest Strafford settlers used it for foundations, basements and tombstones. In 1751, builders of nearby Aquia Church fashioned it for keystones and quoins. Twenty years later George Washington bought some for the steps at Mt. Vernon.

The federal government purchased the island for $6,000 in 1791 to mine stone for the new federal city. Samples can be found at the Treasury building, the Civil Service Commission building and the Patent Office.

Eventually, though, the island was depleted, and the quality of the stone declined. In 1849, someone suggested that stone from the island be used in the construction of the Smithsonian Institution.The Chairman of the building committee said he didn't want it even if it was free. By the Civil War, the quarry was closed and abandoned.

Today, the uniformly cut cliffs rise more than 20 feet above ground level. Pick marks made by the early cutters are visible in the surface.

A narrow marsh connects the island to the mainland at Aquia Harbour. Vandals have made the crossing to set campfires and deface the stone cliffs. "Joey Loves Jacey" is scrawled on one wall in black spray paint.

The island is privately owned, and its future is uncertain. A consultant who last month competed a survey of Stafford's historic sites recommended that it be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Still intact and underdeveloped today, this quarry might serve as an educational resource for learning about the art and industry of quarrying and about the provenance of the materials making up some of this country's most important buildings," wrote Kimberly P. Williams, in her report.

George Gordon describes it as a "Unique place with a unique history."

"I think a park would be the best future use of it," he said.

The Free Lance Star, Fredricksburg, Virginia; Vol. 108, No. 158, Monday July 6, 1992, Pages C-1 & C-2.