Monday, January 25, 2010

The Very Slow Death Of A Hill Country "Mountain"

Granite Mountain, located on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country town of Marble Falls, is a large monolith of red and pink granite which has been gracing the skyline for many millions of years. With each passing day and week, however, it disappears a little bit more, as the demand for granite worldwide ensures it’s extremely slow, but inevitable destruction.

Since the late 1800’s, the mountain has been quarried for its high quality granite. And, this has both supplied jobs and helped create impressive Texas structures like the State Capitol Building and the seawall in Galveston. But, someday, well into the future, long after my lifetime and yours, the quarrying of the mountain, if it continues at its present pace, will eventually cause its demise.

After a fire destroyed the previous capitol building in Austin, plans for a new building were drawn up, and construction began in the 1880’s. Originally, the capitol building was supposed to be built using limestone local to the area. That plan was scrapped when it was determined that the limestone would discolor over time. As a result, a series of events took place which would hasten the end of Granite Mountain, at least as it had remained for those many millions of years.

A bargain of sorts was struck between the owners of the quarry at Granite Mountain and the state. In exchange for the state constructing a short rail line from the quarry to an existing rail line leading to Austin, the owners of the quarry provided the granite which was used in building the capitol building. In a controversial decision, the state agreed to provide prisoners to help with the project, at far less than what it would have cost to pay skilled union labor.

While state prisoners were used to build the short rail line and to provide the painstaking work necessary to quarry the granite from the mountain, they did not have the talents to perform the more delicate cutting and finishing work necessary to complete the project. The use of prison labor horrified most regular workers and labor organizations in and around Austin, so they essentially boycotted the project, and refused to take part in any work connected with the construction of the capitol building. As a result, skilled stone craftsmen were brought from Scotland to help complete the project.

The new Texas State Capitol was completed in 1888, and opened that very same year. The result of using granite from Granite Mountain was fortuitous, in that it produced a magnificent building in which all Texans still take pride. But, there is another legacy of the project. While it is true that the quarrying of Granite Mountain was taking place prior to the capitol construction project, the lack of rail transportation to the quarry limited the amount of granite which could, as a practical matter, be utilized. This, of course, changed with the construction of the rail line, which had been facilitated by the project. Additionally, the notoriety of the project, along with its spectacular end result, brought even more interest in the granite found in Marble Falls. This led to greater demand for the granite, and consequently, more quarrying.

The quarrying still continues today. And with every kitchen countertop produced, a little bit more of Granite Mountain disappears, as the granite is chipped away. There is still a lot of the mountain left, of course, and barring some extraordinary event, it will still be something striking to view for a very long time to come. But, it is also remarkable how much 130 years of quarrying can change the face of something that has been around for millions of years before recorded time.

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