by Peggy B. Perazzo
(The photographs that go with this trip have not been scanned in yet.)
From various sources I had learned that there were at least six marble quarries near Columbia in Tuolumne County in the past. These included the Columbia Marble Quarry located on the Marble Quarry Road, which produced marble for monumental and building purposes from 1860 until the mid-1930s; the Baxter Quarry; and the Bell Quarry, located in Marble Quarry RV Park on the outskirts of Columbia; and another quarry run by the California Marble and Construction Company to list a few. Both dolomite and calcite marble can be found in the Columbia area.
For this tour I had contacted Ralph Squire, a man who has great knowledge of the area in general and it's history and caves in particular. He kindly took me and my husband, Pat, around to see various sizes and shapes of quarries. Ralph owns the Bell Marble Works quarry that is on his Marble Quarry R.V. Park at 11551 Yankee Hill Road, Columbia. The public is allowed access to the Bell Marble Works Quarry on Ralph's property. You can purchase a trail guide at the park's store for a small fee.
The town of Columbia, a State Park, is a busy, historic town with many activities throughout the year and one which is the destination of many tourists. Outside the town at Ralph's R.V. Park, the area is quiet and relaxing. In the R.V. park, we saw deer quietly eating during the morning hours. The area now is thickly covered with trees and bushes; but Ralph said that during the Gold Rush era, all of the trees were cut down for use in the mining and in buildings. It's hard now to imagine the area as barren as he described as it is so lush with vegetation today, but there are photographs of that era showing this was so.
We began our tour by walking up a short road to his own Bell Marble Works Quarry, which was established in 1918 and ended operations in the early 1930s. It's a beautiful, small, historic marble quarry that is still intact. You can see the face of the quarry where the blocks of marble were cut out. Still there is the loading ramp where marble was loaded onto trucks and then transported to Sonora to the Sierra Railroad. A tower was used to lift and move the blocks of marble, and Ralph said some of it remains hidden in the bushes that includes a lot of poison oak along the trails but not near the road, which Ralph keeps cleared.
Many blocks of marble remain showing the vertical drill lines created when the quarrymen drilled holes, wedges and feathers, which created the vertical, straight lines. Eventually, this method caused the marble to eventually break away from the quarry wall. Also, the horizontal channel lines can still be seen where the cage holding a workman moved along giving the marble face a stair-step appearance. Ralph indicated that the white marble obtained from the Bell Marble Works has more gray streaking created by bands of graphite than the marble obtained at the Columbia Marble Quarry. Ralph said that the slabbing of the marble was done in San Francisco and that there were many famous buildings created from marble from the quarries near Columbia
After our tour we visited other small quarry sites in Columbia and then headed for one of the old Columbia Marble quarries. The Columbia Marble Quarry has been the largest operation in the area, which began operation about 1861. We drove up to the present-day operations of the Blue Mountain Minerals Company, which is not quarrying the marble for construction or monumental work but for aggregate use. Presently, they are working on a different part of the mountain from where the old quarry is located. At their processing site, trucks are constantly going past the town of Columbia hauling the marble. There is white dust all around, and the trees near the operations appear gray as if they were covered in a light dusting of snow.
Blocks and pieces of marble can be seen near the operations of various colors. Colors of granite that have been quarried in the past at the Columbia quarries are white, black, blue and buff with red streaks. With our guide, Ralph Squire, we followed a gravel road until we reached a gate from which point we had to walk to the old quarry site. When we finally reached the quarry. We found the quarry to be quite large with different hues of brown/beige-colored walls. You could not easily tell by looking at the quarry walls that very white marble had been quarried there. The walls that surrounded us curved from our left, in front of us, and around to the right of the quarry's entrance. It was disappointing to see how little is left of the flat quarry wall faces indicating where the blocks of marble had been quarried in the past. From old photographs I've seen, the Columbia quarry was similar to the Bell Marble Works but on a much larger scale. As with many old quarries today, the Columbia quarry is filled with water. Today few flat surfaces can be seen due to the blasting on the other part of the mountain by the aggregate operations, which has fractured the marble in the mountain. The marble in that mountain can no longer be used for monumental purposes due to the fractures. Many of the rocks are fractured into pieces while remaining in place on the walls of the quarry. Ralph said that probably by next year (1999) the marble in that old quarry will be quarried for aggregate use.
(April, 2001: As I read over this trip account, I appreciate it even more that we had the opportunity to see the remnants of the Columbia quarry. As Ralph indicated, it has probably been blasted for use in aggregate products. Only the products created from the quarries remain with us intact. Peggy B. Perazzo)
Bell Marble Quarry, Columbia, California:
Marble Quarry RV Park, Columbia, California. Ralph Squire, "Columbia Marble."
Squire, Ralph. Letter dated August 17, 1997.
Columbia Marble Quarry Near Columbia, California:
"Clampers To Mark Quarry." Daily Union Democrat, Sonora. May 19,1978.
De Ferrari, Carlo M., Tuolumne County Historian. Letter dated August 17, 1997.
Rossi, L. M. Headstones of the Gold Rush Era: Sculpting Masterpieces in Marble, Golden Notes, Vol. 43, Number 3, Sacramento County Historical Society. Fall 1997.