Sandstone quarrying began on Newcastle Island in 1869 when Joseph Emery from the United States Mint in San Francisco went looking for good quality sandstone for their new building. Finding the stone on Newcastle to be exactly what he had been looking for, he signed a five-year lease with the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company to cut stone for the building. Many Americans were angry that their mint would not be built of American stone and this resulted in the Newcastle Island stone being subjected to a battery of tests, all of which it passed with flying colours. It was an appealing white-grey colour; it was easy to remove large blocks because its joints and fractures were few and far between; and it was strong and held up well against weathering because of its unusually high number of quartz grains. The first shipment to San Francisco occurred in the mid-1870s and continued throughout the five years to make the grand total 8000 tons of sandstone removed from Newcastle Island. This stone made up the six blank columns that were 27 feet 6 inches (8.38 m) long and 3 feet 10 inches (1.17 m) in diameter. The San Francisco Mint has survived two major earthquakes. During one earthquake, surrounding fires got hot enough to melt the windows, but the building’s interior stayed intact. The San Francisco Mint is no longer in use and is now a national landmark that can still be seen today.
Originally, there were to be eight columns for the U.S. Mint, but two of them were on the Zephyr on the night that it was shipwrecked. The Zephyr was a three-masted barque that was built in Medford, Massachusetts in 1855. It arrived at Newcastle Island on January 31, 1872, to take two of the eight sandstone pillars to the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. In stormy weather it left from Departure Bay at 10:00 a.m. on February 12, but on that Monday at 3:30 in the morning, it hit bottom at Mayne Island. Captain Hepson and crewmate James Stewart drowned but the rest of the crew made it ashore safely. The Zephyr today is commemorated on Newcastle Island with an exhibit about the ship including one of the pillars that had been rescued from the sunken Zephyr.
After the success of the Mint, many other companies wanted leases to cut stone. It was used until 1932 for places such as the BC Penitentiary, the Nanaimo Post Office, the Nanaimo Court House, the Bank of Montreal, the British North American Bank of Vancouver, the St. John’s Church in Victoria, and the Oddfellows Hall in Victoria.
Due to the immense forestry industry on the west coast, there were many mills that were used to produce paper and pulp. The pulp mills needed pulp-stones to grind the woodchips into pulp. That is where the Newcastle Island sandstone comes in. In 1923, the McDonald Cut-Stone Company was created to take advantage of the pulp-stone industry. To cut the stone they would first use plaster of Paris to level the cutting area, then use the cutting machines that would rotate slowly to cut a 40″ deep, 54″ diameter stone in just 45 minutes. After the circular cut had been made, small charges of gunpowder would be placed in holes drilled at the base of the stone to break it free. A derrick would then lift the free stone before the final cuts were made and a lathe could complete the smoothing process. The finished product would be 18-20″ high with a 48″ diameter.
This was a successful business until the entire company moved the operations to Gabriola Island in 1932 where it stayed until the industry was taken over by artificial stones. Artificial stones could be made relatively cheaply and would last four to five years in comparison to the sandstone which would only last three to twenty months.
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