Susquehanna County: The Heart of Pennsylvania Bluestone
What is Pennsylvania Bluestone?
Pennsylvania Bluestone is a unique sand stone found only in Northeastern Pennsylvania and mostly in Susquehanna County. Pennsylvania Bluestone derives its name from its typically blue color. It is marketed in two types: dimensional (architectural grade) used for stairsteps, window and door fixtures, countertops, and tabletops, and flagstone, which is used for walkways and patios. As sediments fossilized into rock, minerals carried by groundwater through rock deposits created other colors, including: blue, green, earthtone, and lilac or a combination of these shades. Pennsylvania Bluestone is a strong, stable stone that resists cracking and won’t discolor. Pennsylvania Bluestone is highly prized as a building material and for adding architectural details because it can be easily separated into slabs of desired size. The Starrucca Viaduct (right) is an outstanding example of the strength and durability of Pennsylvania Bluestone as a building material.
Pennsylvania Bluestone is appealing to landscapers and architects seeking a connection to the environment. Pennsylvania Bluestone is flexible, fitting into contemporary and traditional designs. Landscapers use Pennsylvania Bluestone to create walls, steps, sidewalks, patios and as a complimentary material in building facades. Pennsylvania Bluestone is also used in interior decorating for fireplaces, countertops, flooring, lamps and other architectural details. Artists and crafters also use Pennsylvania Bluestone to create interesting gifts such as clocks, lamps, tables, desk plaques and signs, along with imaginative and captivating works of art.
The Geology of Pennsylvania Bluestone
Looking across the Endless Mountains of Susquehanna County today, it is difficult to imagine that that here, 400 million years ago, several different river systems drained into an ancient sea, creating a vast area of tidal flats. Geologists categorize Susquehanna County as the Wyoming Lobe, a delta system that is one of the most famous sequences in the Appalachian-Catskill Delta.
Over a period of millions of years, the landscape changed: The oceans receded; the rivers changed their course. Left in their wake were simple life forms – clams, shells and ferns—caught in deposits of sediment. Eventually the organisms fossilized and the sediment turned to rock, known today as Pennsylvania Bluestone.
The sediment deposits that eventually formed into Pennsylvania Bluestone were formed in the transition zone between land and ocean where fast moving, shallow waters dropped sediments in long stretches. Geologists have identified three different types of quarries formed in this shore environment:
Off-Shore Bar: Ancient tides ebbing and flowing over submerged or partially submerged banks deposited the materials that today show the highest quantity of Bluestone.
Beach: Created by wave action constantly washing over the sand.
Inter-channel: Created by tides entering the mouth of the river system.
More Recent History
“A stone quarry, of some prospective value, has been recently opened near Drinker’s Creek (Oakland Township),” wrote Miss Emily Blackman in her History of Susquehanna County, published in 1873. She added, “Stone has also been drawn from a quarry in Auburn Township for building purposes, both to Wilkes-Barre and Montrose.”
One outstanding monument to the strength and durability of Pennsylvania Bluestone is the Starrucca Viaduct, located in Lanesboro, Susquehanna County. Completed in 1848 by the Erie Railroad, the Starrucca Viaduct is now a National Civil Engineering Landmark and is still used by the Norfolk-Southern Railroad. The viaduct is one thousand feet long, with seventeen arches rising between 90 and 100 feet high supporting the span.
William S. Young, author of The Bridge of Stone, writes that the viaduct’s builders were delighted to discover an abundant quantity of such a suitable stone. He adds that quarrying became a local industry some time after the viaduct was built. In the mid-1800’s at least six quarries in the neighborhood of the viaduct were cutting Bluestone to be shipped away.
In 1931, local writer Hosea M. Benson wrote an account of the building of the Starruuca Viaduct for the Montrose Independent. Benson explains how the stone was cut and transported to the Viaduct site:
The stone was cut and numbered and loaded on the stone cars, drawn in by horses and mules over the piers and was unloaded by derricks down on the piers. They drilled holes in a large stone, about two feet apart. They had a short chain with a ring in the center and short plugs on each end. They would stick these plugs in the holes with the derrick, hook in the ring and let them down on the piers where they were fitted to go.
The convenience of Pennsylvania Bluestone as a building material made it possible for the Starrucca Viaduct to be constructed. In turn, the more convenient method of transportation by rail allowed quarrymen to sell their product to a larger market. Before the advent of bulldozers, teams of horses cleared off the overburden of rock and soil. Blasting was also used to open up old quarries. To separate the blocks of stone into manageable sizes, quarrymen drilled holes along a line on top of the stone slab then pounded sets of wedges into the holes then drove a second set of flat wedges in-between the first set. They used stone axes with two and a half inch square blades and rows of teeth set about a quarter inch apart to smooth the edges of the stones
Pennsylvania Bluestone Today
Today’s quarrymen use saws with diamond tipped blades to cut through the blocks of stone. Production of cut and sized Bluestone continues on-site in quarries. Massive blocks of Pennsylvania Bluestone are also trucked into “saw shops”, manufacturing operations in the county that produce dimension stone for the market year round.
The production of Pennsylvania Bluestone is regulated by several different state and federal a gencies and is under Pennsylvania’s Non-coal Surfacing Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act. The law is designed to protect water quality and the environment and at the same time allow minerals to be extracted. Under this law, quarry operators must obtain both a license and a permit to operate.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection reviews applications and issues a permit to open a quarry. This permit is accompanied by a Erosion and Sediment Plan, which details how the operator will control soil and water run-off in his operation and a reclamation plan, which is put into effect when the quarry ceases operation. The quarry operator posts a bond based on estimated cost of reclamation. If blasting is necessary to open the quarry, another permit is required. Quarry operators must also obtain liability insurance and meet Mine Safety and Health regulations for their employees.
The Pennsylvania Bluestone Association
The Pennsylvania Bluestone Association is dedicated to the improvement of the Bluestone Industry and can provide further information on the industry and the qualities of Pennsylvania Bluestone. Currently there are 105 members of the association.
Contact Information: Pennsylvania Bluestone Association, Inc. PO Box 336 Susquehanna, PA 18847
Where in the World is Pennsylvania Bluestone?
Pennsylvania Lanesboro: The Starracca Viaduct (National Civil Engineering Landmark) Montrose: The Susquehanna County Courthouse Hawley: “The Castle,” one of the largest Bluestone building in the United States Red Rock: Ricket’s Glen State Park Visitor’s Center Philadelphia: Exhibits at the Philadelphia Flower show exhibits Philadelphia: Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia: Independence Mall
The United States Washington, DC: The White House Rose Garden terrace New York City: United Nations Headquarters – The Peace Bell Garden and walkways surrounding the headquarters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University – Goldwin Smith Bench Durham, NC: The Doris Duke Center, Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University New Orleans, LA: The Downtown Development District and the Vieux Carr Princeton University, NJ: Walkways and buildings Saugerties, New York: Opus 40 – Bluestone Sculpture Pittsburgh, PA: Riverwalk along Allegheny River
The World Where in the World Have You Seen Pennsylvania Bluestone? Send your PA Bluestone siting to firstname.lastname@example.org to be included on our list.
Sources for this article include:
Janoski, Elizabeth. “Pennsylvania Bluestone: Past, Present and Future.” (3 Part series) Susquehanna County Independent. June, 1988
Young, William S. Bridge of Stone Available from: Susquehanna County Historical Society