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Quincy Quarries Reservation - A Multi-Colored, Open-Air Museum of Sorts!


While working on a feature for Norwich Magazine recently, I spent some time wandering around Quincy, Massachusetts, Boston's immediate southern suburb on the opposite side of the Neponset River. Now known as the "City of Presidents" being that John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and John Hancock - a President of the Continental Congress and the first signer of the Declaration of Independence - were all born there, once upon a time Quincy had a different nickname.  Home to a thriving granite industry and also the site of the Granite Railway, the United States' first commercial railroad, for many years Quincy was known as "The Granite City" from more than a century.

The use of granite in Quincy began when English colonists utilized granite from the gray stone ledges in town for the building of foundations, wharves, doorsteps, stone walls, and even King's Chapel in Boston which was constructed in 1754 from granite boulders that had been dug up in Quincy then split, hammered, and transported to Boston. However, it wasn't until around 1825, a quarter of a century after a new way to cut stone that was quicker and more cost-effective was introduced, that granite quarrying in Quincy really took off transforming the quiet agricultural and fishing village into a small metropolis.

Quincy's defining moment in granite history came on November 25, 1826 when a Boston newspaper carried a notice seeking 9,000 tons of "the best Quincy granite" for the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument whose cornerstone had been laid on June 17, 1825 in Charlestown, 12 miles away. When the monument's architect Solomon Willard arrived in Quincy shortly afterward and discovered a granite ledge in a wooded area in West Quincy, he knew he had found the perfect raw material for what would become his most famous building as well as the first monumental obelisk erected in the United States. After the monument committee purchased the soon-to-be-quarry, the project began in earnest but transporting the massive stones from the quarry to the Quincy waterfront and from there to Charlestown was going to be a major challenge.

Standing between Quincy and Charlestown was a dozen miles of swamp, forest, and farms with four of those miles separating the quarry and the Neponset River where a barge would transport the stone through Boston Harbor to Charlestown. Willard's original plan was to move the stones to the Neponset River on sledges during winter, but Gridley Bryant, an engineer and railway pioneer, had a more efficient idea which he then designed and built: a track to move the granite from the quarry to the river which has been credited as being the first commercial railway in the nation. The railway, which ran three miles and used horses to pull its wagons, began operations on October 7, 1826 and even attracted tourists like Daniel Webster who came out from Boston to see the revolutionary technology in action.

The Incline portion of the Granite Railway, Pine Hill Quarry to Neponset River, Quincy. April 1934. Photo credit: Arthur C. Haskell/Library of Congress
With tons of gray granite being carved out of the Quincy hills and Bunker Hill Monument taking shape, granite rapidly gained in popularity as a building material, Quincy's granite, valued for its extreme hardness, dark color and ability to take a high polish, became famous throughout the nation and was used in the construction of some of the most impressive granite buildings, monuments, sculptures and fortifications across the nation including customs houses in Boston, Savannah, New Orleans and San Francisco.  During the next 140 years, 54 quarries operated in Quincy and stone cutting became the city's principal form of employment attracting stone workers from Italy, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the Middle East cutting Quincy granite that was exported around the country and the world.

After reinforced cement was introduced as a cheap substitute for quarried stone following the end of World War II, the Quincy quarries began to close with the last active quarry closing down operations in 1963.  Before too long the abandoned quarries began to fill with ground and rainwater, as abandoned quarries all over the world tend to do, and their deep pools and ledges became a popular place for cliff jumping. This then led to a rather high number of people being hurt and/or killed diving into the abandoned quarries - something that became a definite problem for the town of Quincy.

In addition to becoming a death trap for people, the quarries also ended up becoming the favorite dumping grounds of those trying to lose a car that they had stolen and needed to get rid of or for those who were looking to commit a bit of insurance fraud. In 1997 it was estimated that there were over a dozen cars that had been tossed into the Granite Rail Quarry alone - never mind the other quarries. Then there were the bodies ... those that met an untimely demise while diving into the quarries and those that were dumped in the quarries perhaps wearing a new pair of cement shoes courtesy of Boston mobsters or anyone else wishing to hide a body where it wasn't going to be found anytime soon - if ever.  Oftentimes when police dive teams were called to the quarries to look for the body of someone who had been diving or fell in after a little too much partying a little too close to the edge, they'd find another body that they weren't even looking for.

Searching for a murder victim in Quincy Quarry, 1935. Copyright © Leslie Jones
Meanwhile, at the same time the quarries were being used as dangerous diving and dumping holes, they were also being discovered by rock climbers attracted by such books as A Guide to Quincy Quarries by Willie Crowther and Tony Thompson - a 21-page guide published by the MIT Outing Club in 1968 which contained information about climbing in and around the quarries (a second edition was published in 1970); and Boston Rocks, Climbing in Metropolitan and Outlying Areas - a guidebook by Larry LaForge published by the MIT Outing Club in 1987 with a greatly expanded second edition by Richard Doucette and Susan Ruff  published in 2003.

Not knowing what else to do to try to discourage cliff-diving into the deep, dangerous quarries but knowing they had to do something before the death toll rose any higher, in the 1980s the town started placing old telephone poles and trees in the water. Unfortunately, this idea only made things worse as once the wood was waterlogged. the telephone poles and trees would sink beneath the water a few feet where they weren't visible to the cliff jumpers from above who - you guessed it - started getting injured in a greater number. The quarries had such a bad reputation that they even made it into the New York Times - twice.


Standing at a favorite jumping spot for swimmers, 10 stories high, Massachusetts State Police Trooper Hernan Melendez, looks down into the waters of the Quincy Quarry after a death in 1997. Credit: (AP Photo/Peter Lennihan)
I should probably also mention that over the years the quarries have been used as giant canvasses by graffiti artists - lots and lots of graffiti artists whose color palettes have grown brighter and brighter over the years. If you think there's a lot of the graffiti in the photo from 1997 above, you ain't see nothing yet!

In 1985 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation  (then the Metropolitan District Commission) purchased 22 acres of abandoned quarry, including the original Granite Railway Quarry which was actively quarried until the early 1940s and was nearly 210 feet deep. Designating the area the Quincy Quarries Reservationthe plan was to eventually turn it into a public use area but first they needed to address a few safety issues.  In 2000 a solution to part of the safety problem was finally found when 800,000 tons of dirt from Boston's gigantic Big Dig project was trucked in to fill the three main quarries - Swiggles, Badgers, and Granite Railway which alone required 400,000 tons of dirt.

In 2003 the the newly landscaped quarries were reopened to the public offering new sections of rocks to climbers, hiking trails that connect to additional trails in the Blue Hills Reservation, and scenic views of the Boston Skyline 8 miles in the distance. If you're ever in the Quincy area and have some free time, it's definitely worth a stop by the Reservation to check it out and maybe hike around a little bit like my friend and I did. If you're lucky, there may even be some rock climbers around to add to the scenery.

If you click on the map to the left, you can get a bigger view to check out the areas that you can explore. A word of caution though: there are still a few water-filled quarries in the area including Little Granite Railway Quarry and Berrys Quarry and it would be way too easy to slip in and find yourself in trouble so stay back from the edges and be safe. Additionally, all of the paint on the rocks from the graffiti can make for some slick spots so be careful when getting too close to the edge as it's still a pretty good distance down to the ground below and there's definitely no water there to break your fall anymore even if the ground does seem a bit spongy out towards the center.

Below are photos I took while Paula and I were wandering around on a recent Thursday morning but for those who'd like to take a look at the quarries prior to and while they were in the process of being filled in, visit this album on Flickr of The Granite Rail Quarry which has some pretty impressive photos. It was definitely rather interesting to look at them and think "whoa ... I was standing right there!"and seeing how much further down the former hole went.

The spray-painting began even before we made into the quarry, I think pretty much anything
that wasn't nailed down was fair game for those with a can of spray paint! 
Paths were pretty well marked and as there was lots of old jagged rock, broken bottles, and poison ivy off to the sides, staying on them seemed to be the smart thing to do. 
If I oriented myself correctly, this is the ledge that the State Police Officer in the photo above was standing on; he would have been on the opposite side of the rock at the highest point in this photo.
Looking across from here once upon a time it would have all water and not grass. 
The steel poles sunk into the granite come in handy for rock climbers no doubt. 
Ah-ha! Something with no paint on it! 
Not sure what this piece of equipment was used for when there was quarrying go on but it was pretty big - and painted also! 
I guess you could call this the 'official entrance' to the former Granite Railway Quarry. 
Except for the tag in the lower middle, I thought this was an excellent piece of art and very well done. There were a few other "planets" in places but this one was my favorite. 
I should have had Paula stand in front of this cliff so that you could have a better idea of how big it is. The photo doesn't really do it justice at all. 
To know that at one time I would have been standing in a hole 210 feet deep or treading water in the spot I was standing in when I took this photo was an interesting thought. 
For the Rick and Morty fans out there ... 
Or the Jake and Finn from Adventure Time fans ... 
Or maybe you like fish? 
The view from the top looking towards Boston. 
That big building in the distance is a Home Depot I believe. Or at least the roof! 
Needed a bigger zoom lens - and not so much haze - to get a better photo of Boston. 
In between where I was standing when I took this photo and the roof of Home Depot is Interstate 93 which tends to be wall-to-wall traffic between Quincy and Boston. Surprisingly, I couldn't even hear the traffic. 
From this angle, if you put the State Police Officer to the right of the high point, that's where he would have been standing in the photo further above in this post. 
I suspect this old cable gets some use when there are rock climbers in the area.
Did I mention that it was a long ways down? 
One of the old chains used during quarrying half-buried in the ground.
There were quite a few cables here and there - including this partially buried coil. Easy to trip over this stuff if you aren't paying attention to where you're putting your feet! 
Speaking of putting my feet ... embracing my inner mountain goat and keeping to the path. 
So that's how they ask people to the prom these days? Glad to see that the "yes" box was checked!  
I jokingly told Paula that we should have brought some paint of our own then found this old can lying by the cliff. Too bad it was empty though I've never tried my hand at graffiti - ever. Maybe next time, should I ever wander back to this interesting part of Quincy's history! 

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