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Marble Quarry Stands as Bridge to Past

Natural wonder and industrial legacy are preserved in Massachusetts park.

September 19, 2004|Adam Gorlick | Associated Press Writer

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Just outside the center of this once-booming mill town, a towering slab of white stands as a quiet memorial to a part of the area's industrial history.

But the 80-foot crescent-shaped wall of a now-defunct marble quarry also shares space with one of North America's unique geological structures. Just a few yards from where workers blasted a pit that yielded as much as 200 tons of stone per day, a short span of marble arches over a roaring brook to form the only natural marble bridge on the continent.

These two worlds -- natural wonder and industrial legacy -- are preserved at Natural Bridge State Park.

"The interplay between nature and man and technology at that site was stunning," said Tim Zelazo, a state forest and park supervisor who oversees the park.

Of course, nature got to work first.

About 450 million years ago, shifts in the earth buried the region's limestone and morphed it into a valley of marble. As the newly formed rock slowly surfaced, it was cut, sliced and shaped by erosion, eventually creating the bridge that spans about 60 feet above the Hudson Brook Chasm.

Visitors can cross the bridge, and steep staircases veering off a wooden boardwalk descend toward the brook and offer spectacular views of how the soft marble was carved by millions of years of rushing water.

"It's like pouring a bottle of Coke on a piece of chalk," said Chris Condit, an associate professor of geology at the University of Massachusetts. "The rock is calcium carbonate, which is very reactive to the acids contained in streams and waterways."

As textile mills began springing up in North Adams in the late 1700s, it didn't take long before the area's marble deposits were eyed as potential gold mines. By 1810, several companies were laying claim to tons of marble in the quarry, and the rock was being fashioned into gravestones, storefronts and houses around the country.

A mill was built, and the brook was dammed to provide water power that generated saws to cut the marble slabs.

The marble dam that still restrains the waterway is the only one in North America, Zelazo said.

"They crushed up the marble and sent it all over the country," Zelazo said. "They sent it to Canada and Mexico. The calcium carbonate was put in everything from toothpaste to paint. If something needed to be white, this is the marble they used to whiten it. It's so bright that it was blinding to the workers when they were blasting it."

Although the supply of marble seemed never-ending, some were concerned about the environmental impact that all the blasting might have.

In 1838, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author who spent many months visiting North Adams, wrote: "There is a marble quarry close in the rear, above the cave, and in process of time the whole of the crags will be quarried into tombstones, doorsteps, fronts of edifices, fireplaces, etc. That will be a pity."

But it wasn't a shortage of stone that shut down the quarry. In 1947, a dynamite explosion torched the mill, and the company that was running it went bankrupt. Edward and Agnes Elder bought the area and ran it as a private tourist attraction for about three decades.

A year after Edward Elder died in 1984, his widow sold the land to the state Department of Environmental Management, which still runs the property and offers informational sessions about the park in the summer.

"It's really a beautiful spot," said Fred Lillpopp, a retired physics teacher from Dalton, his back to the quarry wall as he stood on the marble bridge. "When you drive through North Adams, you don't expect to see something so naturally beautiful in a former mill town."

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