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Columbia Marble

by Ralph Squire
Marble Quarry RV Park, Columbia, California

(Used with the permission of Ralph Squire, April 2001)

(The photographs in this section were not a part of the original article. I took them when my husband and I visited the Bell Marble Works Quarry in 1998.)



Most people think of gold as the only mineral mined in the Mother Lode Country of California, but did you know that Marble from several quarries near Columbia, the "Gem of the Southern Mines," was used in numerous buildings in San Francisco and elsewhere, including the Washington Monument?

Quarry North of Columbia Still Alive

The original Columbia Marble Quarry, established in the 1850's, is located at the end of Marble Quarry Road North of Columbia overlooking the Stanislaus River Canyon. Merke Chemical Company presently operates the quarry, but not for building materials. Blasted into aggregates and reprocessed, the dolomitic marble eventually ends up in industrial uses including "Tums for the tummy."

Old Columbia Marble Quarry
The Old Columbia Quarry (photo taken in 1998)

Historically Intact Quarry Still Accessible Above Marble Quarry RV Park

Public accessibility is possible to a smaller, but historically intact quarry immediately adjacent to Columbia Historic State Park. Located on a small hill just East of town, and just above Marble Quarry RV Park, it is within a 15 minute walk, by trail, from Columbia's parking lots.

Operations at this quarry, by theEntry to Bell Marble Works Bell Marble Works, were started near the end of World War I and terminated in the early 1930's, due to the loss of markets during the great depression. The tower and buildings were not removed until the beginning of World War II.

The large cement pyramid upon which the tower and "dead arm" stood is still standing just North of the quarry. An early 110 foot steel tower fell over and twisted like a pretzel, when the eyebolt broke holding one of the support cables. Two men were killed in the accident. The remnants of the twisted tower are still lying in the rocks and brush Northeast of the quarry.

How Marble was Formed

No explosives were used in the quarry operations, as the impact would have shattered the crystalline rock. Marble is metamorphosed limestone. The heat and pressures of the uplift of the Sierra Nevada Mountains caused the sedimentary limestone to change into a form that is composed of a myriad of tiny crystals. A freshly broken piece of marble will glisten in the sunlight. When polished, marble has a rich elegant appearance. It contains absolutely no gold, however, since the source of gold was the adjacent veins of quarts.

Chipped Marble Rock
Marble rock from which a piece has been chipped. Note white area.

Quality of Columbia Marble

The quality of Columbia Marble is good, rivaling that from Vermont or Georgia. Varying degrees of grey streaks in the marble are created by bands of graphite that were trapped in the original limestone deposits. Much of the marble in the area has too much graphite and is almost totally grey. Quarrying was done at the places where the outcroppings of marble were the whitest, such as just East of Columbia.

How the Marble was Processed

Patience and hard work was necessary to quarry the marble, using "wedges" and "feathers." A series of drill holes were made on a single plane, and a long tapered spike (wedge) was driven by sledgehammer into each hole after two pieces of thin iron (feathers) were placed inside the top and bottom of the holes. With metal sliding against metal, upon each back-breaking sledgehammer blow, pressure was exerted on only the op and bottom of the holes. Since the holes were all drilled in the same plane, the pressure of the "wedges" and "feathers" acted similar to a giant chisel.

The "wedges" were "sledged" by a worker approximately every hour, until finally the expansion and contraction of temperature change would add to the pressures exerted, and the rock would be split. Several "wedges" and "feathers" were left in the holes when the quarry East of Columbia was abandoned, and may be seen today on the East side of the quarry.

A narrow, smooth channel wouldRocks showing channels be cut down into the marble a few feet further back, in preparation of another set of holes being drilled a few feet below. Several methods were employed. The quarry East of Columbia used a pneumatic "channeler," having a "trip hammer" effect, to create a thin channeler slot. The man operating it rode in a cage on the front. At the rear, it was supported on small wheels, as it went back and forth. The spaces needed to support the wheels caused the face of the quarry to have a light stair step appearance between the two exposed channels.

The huge blocks were lifted out by two men cranking a very low gear winch at the tower, which raised a boom known as a "dead arm." Heavy cables were used which extended down into the quarry and was "wrapped" around the marble. The tower rotated, so that the boom swung to lower the block into a truck used to haul marble to the Sierra Railroads in Sonora. A steam traction engine was used to haul the marble from Columbia Marble Quarry, North of town, to Sonora. Belching smoke, the traction engine scared many a team horses as they met on the road.

Slabbing of the marble was mostly done in San Francisco, where it had been shipped by rail. Many fine buildings in San Francisco, including the Palace Hotel, the Wells Fargo Building and the San Francisco Post Office, are walled and/or floored with Columbia Marble. In Sonora, the lobby floor of the Sonora Inn displays marble from the quarry East of Columbia. Several other buildings in Sonora and the sidewalks in the courthouse park contain Columbia Marble. A short stretch of sidewalk near the Columbia Post Office has pieces of marble that were from the Bell Quarry.

So, gold was not the only thing mined in Columbia. A lot of interesting history is still available to appreciate. See it, feel it, and pretend that you were there then.

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