The Historian by Robert Wood: The Stone Cutters

This week we speak of granite. Most of the soils attracting the German farmers to New Hanover were weathered from soft Brunswick Shales and mudstone. However on the far eastern section below Faglesville the underlying rock is granite or diabase, a hard, gray igneous rock. In fact drillers for a pipe line recently laid along the Swamp Pike near Fagleysville Hill called it some of the hardest rock they encountered anywhere.

Going south from New Hanover, this narrow band of igneous diabase is seldom more than a few miles wide and forms Prospect Hill, Ringing Hill, the famous ringing rocks, underlies a strip of Chester County, and terminates in the Devils Den of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Going north it passes through the region of the Montgomery County Parks, Green Lane and Sumneytown and terminates near Easton.

The Geology of our area is complex. Plate tectonics forced the Appalachians originally higher than the Rockies. Later, during the break-up of the supercontinent, Pangea, about 200 million years ago, magma intruded into the New Hanover shales which at that time were deep underground. The magma was not near the surface and so cooled slowly over thousands of years. This slow cooling allowed the crystalline structure of diabase to form. Had the magma reached the surface in an eruption it would have been lava or pumice or just blown away as dust.

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The heat also melted the surrounding mudstone and allowed it to slowly cool and form igneous hornfels. Harder than shale, but not as hard as granite, deposits of this rock are sought by the quarry industry.

The skin of the earth was buckled and convoluted over the eons. Now on the surface and resistant to weathering, these granite stones and boulders were the bane of farmers who carried the smaller ones to the field edges to form stone walls characteristic of the northern part of the township. However, the largest ones, often heaped one atop the other, were at one time a valuable resource just a stones throw from the New Hanover border in the neighboring village of Green Lane

A hundred years ago or more, a stone monger would buy a tract, often after it was timbered, and make the area available to stone cutters who cut Belgian blocks and building stone from the dense rock on a piece-work basis. These blocks, cut by the tens of thousands, paved much of Germantown and Philadelphia around the turn of the century. Theyre still there, today covered with asphalt.

Across Rt. 29 from the now closed iron bridge that previously led to Green Lane Park are the remains of a rail road siding where the blocks were loaded onto flat cars for the trip to the city.

Anyone who has ever tried to break or split granite with a sledge hammer may well marvel and wonder how these craftsmen were able to it. With a hammer in one hand and a star drill in the other, the stone cutter would laboriously hammer-drill a straight row of holes about eight inches apart and six inches deep across the boulder. Then he would pound iron wedges into the holes until an even slab split off that was about eight inches thick. Next the slab would be marked into rectangles of the size wanted and lines chiseled in. Finally using what was called a stone sledge or pavers bursting hammer, the stone cutter would repeatedly strike with the narrow, sharp end of the sledge the marked line where he wanted the stone to break. This striking caused fractures and weakness along these grid lines. The next step was to take the blunt end of the sledge and knock or break off the paving blocks. Like most things, it is easier said than done.

Scott Hetrick of Hetrick Gardens has also pointed out boulders near Fagleysville with a characteristic row of drilled holes, so some quarrying was done in New Hanover, too.

Local Lives by Milland Brand has block cutter Harvey Long telling his story. You had to break them--the boulders-- to tell if they were good. There was a grain to them and the cutters worked along the grain. They used a wedge and half rounds, or, if they had to, they blasted with black powder made nearby, on Unami Creek. From a single boulder theyd cut twenty-five thousand blocks, sometimes thirty thousand, sometimes more. Since almost all the cost was labor, money came to Sumneytown with the cutters. They had to get many from outside. Among others, Negroes. They came up from the South. In the south they could only drill; here they were allowed to cut blocks, and that they wanted to do. The driller got a cent a block the cutter got two cents. [Toward the end they got a nickel a block]. A real good cutter could cut thirty blocks an hour. He worked ten hours and cut three hundred a day. Sometimes he worked only three or four days, then he had made enough for a week. Yes, a cutters job was good, but there was the bad weather too and the winter when he couldnt work.

If we opened a stone that was hard we had a drilling party for it. Then after it was opened it went easier. We had a peener, so we called the chisel we used to make a line across the stone.

Henry Fisher was known as a stone monger. He used his tract of land for cutting stone which was abundant in large masses above the surface of the ground. Many of the blocks were used in building bridges, many as far away as Allentown. Smaller blocks were sent to Philadelphia for use as Belgian blocks for street paving. From one enormous boulder then known by its shape as the Camel Back enough stone blocks were obtained to build an entire bridge near Allentown. The remains of the Camel Back are still there. Mr. Fisher erected a small blacksmith shop on his property for making and sharpening the hand tools used by the workmen in cutting the stone blocks. The shop with its forge and brick fireplace were still standing in 1920 ( H. Hammond Armstrong, Unpublished Manuscript, 1961).

The high point of block cutting was the first decade of the twentieth century.

Around 1850 in Portland, England, modern cement was developed and with it modern concrete. Slowly concrete supplanted cut stone as the material of choice for paving and heavy construction. Of course, with that the block cutting tapered off. Some of the last blocks that were cut in the 1930s went into the paving surrounding the pavilion of Green Lane Park where they can still be seen.