Two contrasting perceptions of rock collide in a marble quarry.Marble is the stuff of polished floors, stoic mausoleums and priceless ancient sculptures. It’s an enduring, regal sort of rock that connotes artwork, memorials and strength of character.But as luminous as marble seems, it’s not exactly lifted out of the mountains by angels, and gently placed in the hands of architects and artists.Like any other rock, marble is quarried by people wearing sturdy work overalls, hard hats and muddied boots that come up to their knees. Marble is drilled, sawed and pried out of the mountainside, sliced into manageable chunks and rumbled down the road on the back of a flatbed truck.In Marble, Colo., this process happens every day, but it hasn’t always been that way. The Yule Marble Quarry has a rough and rocky history that began in the late 19th century. Its legendary contributions to U.S. history include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Lincoln Memorial. But the famed quarry has also experienced 50 years of dormancy when the cost to extract the mountain’s stone made the effort uneconomical.Times and technology have changed. Nearly 20 people are now employed up at the Yule Marble Quarry, and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays they’re inside the mountain, 9,300 feet above sea level and four miles from the nearest tiny town, removing thousands of pounds of rock each day. Earlier this year a Canadian company, Polycor Inc., bought the operation, and its deep pockets have allowed the mine to operate with the expensive, heavy-duty equipment it needs.
There’s certainly no shortage of marble in the mountain above Yule Creek. At current quarrying rates, experts say, the marble vein could last as long as 300 to 600 more years.A rock and a quarry with history A quick geology lesson: Millions of years ago, a shallow sea covered much of present-day Colorado. Shells and skeletons of tiny creatures settled on the bottom of that sea, and over millions of years they were slowly compacted into thick layers.With the perfect combination of water, pressure and volcanic heat, these layers turn into marble – a rock that’s harder, more compact and sparkles more than similarly formed rocks such as limestone.The Yule marble was lifted high above sea level by the same geologic forces that shoved up the Rocky Mountains about 60 million years ago.But this is ancient history. The fine white marble lay quietly underground until the late 1800s, when prospectors began searching the area for gold and silver. George Yule, prospector and eventually sheriff of Gunnison County, discovered the marble in 1874.
At the time, interest in silver and other ores outpaced interest in marble, not to mention the prohibitive costs and hard work involved to mine the heavy rock. Not much happened until 1886, when John Cleveland Osgood (the famed coal baron who struck it rich with coal mines near Redstone, just down the road) stepped in to help fund marble quarrying operations.Quarrying began, but not without difficulty.The logistics of the operation, tucked in a remote, avalanche-prone mountain valley, were problematic from the start. No matter how many machines or hardworking miners were deployed, it was always tough hauling the dense, pristine marble from the high-mountain quarry to civilization.Yule Marble landed a contract to quarry rock for the floor of the Colorado State Capitol in 1895, but the stone had to be pulled by sled to Carbondale. It wasn’t until 1906 that the Crystal River and San Juan Railroad rolled into Marble.By 1910, the quarry was cranking out marble to fill contracts for the Montana State Capitol and the Denver post office. The town of Marble now featured an enormous marble-processing mill and an electric tramway to haul the rock four miles down the steep canyon to town. But avalanches and a couple of deaths in tram accidents kept operations in check. Finally, in early 1914, the U.S. Congress officially decided that Yule Marble would receive the contract for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. – a project that took more than two years and employed up to 1,000 people at the quarry.The massive block for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was the quarry’s next boon – a 124-ton behemoth quarried during 1930 and 1931. The prestigious contract truly put Yule Marble on the map.
But slow times were on the horizon. World War II slowed the “nonessential” marble industry. In late 1941 the Yule Marble quarry closed and the tracks of the Crystal River and San Juan Railroad were removed.The road to the quarry fell quiet for the next 49 years.Modern-day marble excavations The town of Marble is still a quiet place, and the residents like it that way. Driving up the paved road that follows the Crystal River from Highway 133, there are blocks of white rock everywhere.A glimpse into the Marble Cemetery from the road reveals perfect white headstones, and both rough-hewn and delicately sculpted pieces sit in front yards and along driveways. A casually strewn pile of marble greets visitors at the entrance to town, where the road abruptly turns to dirt.The quarry’s base camp, on the banks of the Crystal River in town, is marked with a pile of cold, white blocks ready for shipping and a heated trailer that serves as an office. Besides a portable toilet, nothing else is there save a bridge over the river and a road to the quarry.On a recent Friday, snow is falling on the steep road to the quarry. Kimberly Perrin, who judges the quality of the marble, drives the road in a large Dodge, rounding corners that edge the hillside.
The four-mile road goes through 15 different avalanche paths, all of which are named. This way, Perrin says, truck drivers coming up to retrieve blocks of marble in winter announce where they are so their last location is known in case of a slide. At certain points, if a truck was hit by an avalanche, it could be swept off the road and down to the valley floor, she adds.Having worked at the quarry for four years, Perrin casually hands visitors hard hats and self-rescue apparatus for a tour, both of which are required by the Mining Safety and Health Administration. The self-rescuer will recirculate your breath for an hour in the event of a cave-in, although Perrin says they’ve “never used them, and never will.” These days, entrance to the quarry is through a dynamite-blasted tunnel, created when the quarry reopened in 1990 so trucks can drive right in from the road. The marble near the entrance is pocked from the blast – completely unlike the interior walls that have been carved with the smooth precision of a saw. It’s windy in the entrance tunnel, and the midday temperature in late October is 35 degrees.Of course, Perrin notes, the warmest day in the quarry this summer was 49 degrees in August. In the dead of winter, temperature can drop to 25 below zero in the shady, mountainous quarry. “You try not to get cold in here, or you’ll be cold for the rest of the day,” she says.Inside the quarry is a heated trailer as well as a wooden-walled “hot room,” which workers use for machine repair and coffee breaks.The tunnel is dark and rutted with muddy vehicle tracks, but it opens into a vast room where the walls reach higher than 250 feet. Curiously, snow is falling in the main room. In the early days, crews used dynamite to blast their way in from the top; the stone was quarried in large blocks, all the way down to where the miners now work. The block for the Tomb of the Unknowns came from this room in 1930, about halfway between the overhead portal and the current “floor,” according to “Marble and Redstone – a quick history” by Jim Nelson.During spring runoff, Perrin says snowmelt flows in from above, making the main cavern oddly rainy and turning hard hats into umbrellas. The quarry pumps out 40,000 gallons of water a day for about three straight months.
Even so, there is water in the quarry year-round. It’s kept in two large ponds that total 150,000 gallons and have turned a bizarre shade of emerald-lime green because of the saturation of minerals. The water is used to cool the chains and saws that cut the marble, as they build up immense amounts of heat.The floors are covered in mud – a liquefied marble dust that clings to shoes and later dries to a white residue.Diesel exhaust has turned the walls varying shades of gray. Nevertheless, you can round a corner and stand among sparkling, 20-foot-high walls of freshly cut marble.How to get a block of marble out of a mountain Although relics of the past, such as a wooden catwalk and an old pulley system, hang around the entrance to the Yule Marble Quarry, times have truly changed for the operation. There are now rarely more than 10 people in the quarry at a time, as machinery has streamlined the operation.Modern-day marble mining is like cutting cake with dental floss. A wire fitted with industrial diamond bits is pulled through the rock, gradually slicing it away from the wall.
The crews also use gigantic chain saws that cut beneath the rock to a depth of 7 1/2 feet. And then there’s an inflatable metal “bag” used to break pieces of marble deep within crevasses that can’t be reached with a saw.This 3-foot square of sheet metal is slipped into a groove, and a high-pressure sprayer inflates the device with water like a pillow. Under all that pressure, the marble snaps off.”You hear a crack, and feel the weight of the rock drop,” said Gary Bascom, the quarry’s superintendent. “It’s not like an earthquake – you can just feel its power. And if you’re standing on a block that drops when it’s cut free, it might only move that much [he holds his fingers 2 centimeters apart] but you feel it – whoa.”Bascom lives in Marble and has worked at the quarry since it reopened in 1990. As superintendent, he supervises the crew and ensures the operation has all the equipment it needs. It’s always cold and muddy, but Bascom enjoys his unusual work.”I love my job – there’s nothing like it,” he said. “It’s a very cool place, and people don’t get to see stuff like this every day.”And you might think that all the sawing would be incredibly loud, but it’s not. White marble, when it doesn’t have veins of tough, dark flint running through it, is a fairly soft rock. When a saw starts up, a bell rings to warn everyone nearby. There is a whoosh and a whirring as the machine comes to life, and then the sound of the saw resembles that of a lawn mower.The most deafening din in the quarry is that of a front-end loader gearing up, picking up a chunk of rock and rolling it out to where it will be graded for quality. Grading the rock is Perrin’s job, and she can spot a fracture in a block of marble at 50 paces.
Fractures, dark mineral veins and patches of crystal make a piece of marble less valuable. The pristine white blocks used for sculpture are the priciest, at $80 per cubic foot. Next come the memorial-quality blocks, used for grave markers and large tombs, which are large and have some light veining.The next category is slab, which may have more veining but must be at least 8-feet long. Slabs are used in construction – areas of Denver International Airport include slabs of Yule Marble. The final category is tile, a slightly lower quality marble, often used for flooring.”When the rock comes out, it’s always a surprise finding out what the back of a block looks like,” Bascom said. “We’ve seen dolomite, crystals, and even pyrite.”Once graded, the blocks are loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven down the long hill to the base camp, where they await a trip out to be processed. That journey is often to Polycor headquarters in Quebec, where raw blocks are turned into tile and slab.Over the last 14 years, the quarry has extended horizontally into the mountain, trying to follow the best vein of pure white marble. Bascom isn’t happy to find a ribbon of black rock bisecting the marble, but he has to work through it in pursuit of white rock with more subtle flecks of gold and black veining.”Under old mining laws, we can follow the vein as long as it runs,” he said. “We’ll go down and back a bit, but we’re not necessarily going up, because we’re trying to keep within a very good vein.”
Rooms are quarried in 100-foot squares with 50-foot-square pillars in the middle to ensure stability. Besides that, though, Bascom makes it sound like he’s winging it. Some days the marble is just right, and some days he wishes he had picked a better path for the best stone.”We kind of make it up as we go,” he said. “You get to try to be a mini-inventor at times, using your own ideas to accomplish what we’re trying to do. It’s big equipment, big rocks and lots of mud.”And it is, at least in part, searching for the perfect block of marble to win another contract with the U.S. government, to replace the cracked Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The government will soon put out the contract for bid, and Yule Marble will hopefully once again gets its name in lights as producers of national monument-worthy stone – 75 years after the original tomb was quarried.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the descent that poses a challenge.