Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions (continued)
Signal Hill sandstone also became part of the St. John's Roman Catholic Basilica. In 1839, the Colonel of Engineers offered Bishop Fleming the loose red sandstone left on Signal Hill from a road-clearing operation, thinking that he could use it in building the Basilica, then in the planning stages. Fleming relayed the news to his congregation and asked them to help in transporting the stone. Three days later, 6000 people awaited instructions at the foot of Signal Hill; by nightfall they had moved 1200 tons of rock on sleds over snow to the Basilica site.(24)
The buff sandstone in the Basilica walls came from Kellys Island in Conception Bay.(25) Bishop Fleming and others camped in huts on the island and hewed out the rock throughout the 1839 summer. Both Catholic and Protestant schooners shipped the stone to St. John's; both Catholic and Protestant carts hauled it uphill to the construction site.(26)
The Basilica has undergone many revisions since its completion in 1850 and stands today as testament to the beauty and longevity of Newfoundland building stone. In its very existence it also represents something more durable even than stone, as this simple verse by an unknown individual describes:
"The fishermen who built me here
As Bishop Fleming held his first service in the Basilica, the Anglicans of St. John's were busily erecting their own stone cathedral. Work halted temporarily in 1850, but resumed in 1880. In little over a week in March 1880 some 7500 tons of sandstone were brought from Southside Hills to form the remainder of the cathedral. People from all ranks and religions mingled with sealers whose ships were frozen in port, and towed the stone across the icy harbour to the site.(28) When the last block had been placed beside the nave, Bishop Jones mounted the pile to thank the crowds. The Anglican Cathedral fared badly in the Fire of 1892, as its mortar weakened in the intense heat. Masonry work is still being done to restore the cathedral to its original condition.
Southside Hills sandstone also went into the walls of other St. John's churches, but was most commonly employed by the St. John's City Council for the secular purpose of building bridges, houses and retaining walls.(29)
Elsewhere in Newfoundland, sandstone served as an abrasive material. Grindstone Point in Trinity Bay and Whetstone Point on Grand Lake are only two of the many sites so named and used by the local inhabitants.
Just as Robert G. Reid's coal mines represented the peak of coal production in Newfoundland, so did the output of his granite quarries surpass that of all other Newfoundland granite works. In the 1870s, granite deposits near Rose Blanche on the south coast and at Greenspond in Bonavista Bay were quarried to provide material for nearby lighthouses; and in 1850 loose granite boulders from Holyrood were shipped to St. John's to be used in constructing the Presentation Convent. None of these granite works, however, approached the scale of Reid's operations.
The three Reid granite quarries - at Shoal Harbour in Trinity Bay, at Benton and at the Gaff Topsails near Buchans - lay along the railroad line and were worked initially to provide materials for railway bridges. In 1898, however, Reid was contracted to build a "suitable and sightly" railway station at the west end of Water Street and to pave the street with granite blocks. He chose Gaff Topsails granite to fulfill his contract obligations.
Between 1898 and 1901, Reid kept about three dozen labourers at the Topsails. They and their foreman, John Campbell, quarried out thousands of tons of granite and loaded it onto flat cars bound for St. John's, where it went into paving Water Street and building the railway station. The quarrymen's working conditions were not to be envied. They entailed living in canvas tents that provided sparse relief from the Topsails' howling winds; and they entailed, said one visitor, drinking seven-month-old tea:
"At the Stone Quarries we partook of a repast with the workmen. The experience was one to be remembered as long as the stomach lasts!.... I will not describe what we ate, although I shall carry a recollection of each item with me to my grave. It was the tea, and the tea alone, which transfixed me, first with horror, and then with an irresistible fascination. Tea in Newfoundland is boiled. When it has boiled it is taken out and reboiled. At the seventh steeping the tea has taken on those qualities for which tea is (in Newfoundland) esteemed.
"The Quarries' tea is often kept boiling seven months! That is to say, what has been put into the cauldron in April is still sizzling merrily in October...."(30)
Some Walter Street granite cobblestones came, not from the Topsails, but from a quarry at Petites on the south coast of Newfoundland. The quarry belonged to William J. Ellis, a St. John's mason and contractor, who had first noticed the granite in 1894 while conducting a building stone survey for the government. Ellis' quarry provided cobblestones for Water Street in 1898 and granite facings for the St. John's Court House in 1899.
The last-worked granite deposit in Newfoundland lay east of Harbour Breton in Old Bay and was found in 1909 by the three Butler brothers of Bell Island fame while they were inspecting the Rencontre East molybdenum showings. They told the Bell Island mine manager, Robert Chambers, of the granite. He obtained claims for the area and in 1910 started up a quarry under his own Colonial Granite Company Limited of Nova Scotia.
Of the 1200 tons of Old Bay granite that left for Nova Scotia before operations ceased in 1914, one small slab returned to Newfoundland. This was carved into an obelisk, brought to Cupids in Conception Bay and incorporated there into a memorial statue to Sir John Guy.
For as long as men have erected stone buildings in Newfoundland they have quarried limestone and burned it into lime to mortar the stone together. Limestone from Chapels Cove in Conception Bay was used in the eighteenth century by the English to construct fortifications in St. John's and by both the French and the English to reconstruct those fortifications after sundry battles. Some prejudice existed at first against Newfoundland limestone: in May 1827 the man commissioned to build the Government House apologetically requested permission to quarry Chapels Cove limestone in case the "usual importation" of English limestone failed to arrive.(31) The prejudice diminished after the 1830s, and locally derived lime mortar went into strengthening the Roman Catholic Basilica, the Anglican Cathedral and other stone buildings of the day.