Here are some old photos of mines and quarries, like antique views of the planet being disaggregated into rocks and waste heaps. Here, human civilization is nothing more than a thin lace of extraction camps and train tracks, blast patterns and crowbars, men sweating over landscapes they’ve learned to dismantle. Photos courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The first two are the Dolese & Shepard quarry in Hawthorne, Cook County, Illinois; no date given.

[Images: Dolese & Shepard quarry, Hawthorne, Illinois; no date given. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

The next two are the Colorado Yule Marble Company quarry in Gunnison County, Colorado; also no date given. Look closely and you’ll see small buildings attached to the cliff face like monasteries, piered upward and buttressed by wood scaffolding. These are amazing vernacular structures, mundane but otherworldly, and the massive high-res version available at the U.S.G.S. website is worth a look. (Although, if you’re into old industrial buildings, don’t miss this sloped and mountainous tower in the woods, like something by Daniel Dociu).

Rails and stairways begin to appear embedded in the cliffs—

[Images: Colorado Yule Marble Company quarry, Gunnison County, Colorado; no date given. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

—which is nothing, really, compared to the descent seen in the next image, a series of ladders that backtrack down into the newly revealed depths of the Vermont Marble Company quarry in Tokeen, Alaska.

[Image: Vermont Marble Company quarry, Tokeen, Alaska; circa 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

On the upper edge of that same quarry, we see leveled platforms emerge with dark blots of equipment perched on them—

[Image: Vermont Marble Company quarry, Tokeen, Alaska; circa 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

—as men try to figure out how to take apart the landscape they stand on, reducing it to a raw geometry of cubes and blocks, measured shapes juxtaposed with the wilderness behind them.

[Images: Various quarrying scenes, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

It’s all a strange scene of humans and machinery, working in collaboration to take apart the world.

[Images: The “lowest floor” of a Vermont Marble Company quarry, Alaska; 1912. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

I’ll end with two images I love—but not before pointing out that all of the above photographs were taken by a man named E.F. Burchard for the U.S. Geological Survey. From my (admittedly very brief) search, it appears that Burchard has all but escaped being documented or written about—at least in terms of popular history—yet his life and work seem ripe for, on one hand, a thesis project somewhere, in a history or photography department perhaps, exploring mines, railyards, quarries, and other sites of Herculean extraction infrastructure throughout the American west, from Chicago to Arizona, Colorado to Alaska, and the relationship between photography and national expansion; or, on the other, a popular biography of this photographer who always seemed present at the right time, anywhere humans began poking new holes in the planet or peeling up the surface of the world to find what lies beneath.

Until then, here are two non-E.F. Burchard photos, awesome dioramas of men at work against geology, like paintings by Fernand Léger. These are photos taken by W.H. Jackson, and they depict an interesting behind-the-scenes moment for American architecture.

[Image: Quarrying rock for the Mormon Tabernacle, Utah; 1872. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey].

From the U.S.G.S. caption: “Quarrying granite in Cottonwood Canyon, 17 miles south of Salt Lake City, for the Mormon Tabernacle. The ground is completely strewn with immense boulders and detached masses of granite, which have fallen down from the walls of the canyon on either side, some of which are from 30 to 40 feet square. All the quarrying is confined to splitting up these blocks. Salt Lake County, Utah. 1872.”

You can find many more related photos at the U.S.G.S.’s “Mines, Mills, Quarries, Etc.” collection, but it’s the work of E.F. Burchard in particular that I find so interesting. It’s like those great descriptions of geology and geological warfare from Book VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Milton writes that things “Deep under ground” have been infernally unearthed, “materials dark and crude”: “up they turned / Wide the celestial soil, and saw beneath / The originals of Nature in their crude / Conception … / … hidden veins digged up … / … of mineral and stone.”

(Vaguely related: Venue‘s interview with photographer Edward Burtynsky, including some thoughts on his “Quarries” series of images).

3 thoughts on “Dismantling”

  1. 25 years ago, when I was working doing dry stack masonry walls, I terraced off an embankment 100' from an old colonial era farm house. The embankment was the quarry site for the stone part of the house, which is to bring up the point that before railroads and away from navigable bodies of water, quarries had to be located where their products could be transported. Also in the area of Virginia where I grew up some of the old limestone quarries would fill up with water making great swimming holes. To this day I am attracted to old quarries- great places to explore.

    1. Hi Ches !
      My respect for WH Jackson led me to this article. Would you be so willing to share an accessible mine location or two in the VA/NC area of Appalachia?
      Thanks , Seth P

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