Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: December 1949 Volume 7 Number 2, Pages 33–41

The stone quarries, ore mines and sand pits of Easttown and Tredyffrin

Franklin L. Burns

Page 33

Preceding the more prosaic enumeration of the location and industrial value of the mineral deposits under the earth, it is in order to give a brief resume of the geological surveys of our two townships. It seems a marvel that this community has failed to produce the eminent geologist or at least the amateur student of the science, since nowhere in south-eastern Pennsylvania can the pages of geological history be turned so rapidly and with so little effort as in an afternoon walk of half a dozen miles from near the Sugartown Road in Easttown, thru Berwyn to the Nutt Road, at Valley Forge; revealing practically all forms of exposed rock found in the entire county.

The entire lower part of Easttown is composed of the oldest of sedimentary rocks, mostly in the form of boulders, in period of time Azoic (lifeless) and metamorphic (altered by heat, moisture and pressure) in form. It is called the Delaware black rock by Professor Hall and Syenitic granite by Dr. Frazier. It makes a most durable stone wall when bedded properly, but owing to its color and the difficulty in working it, the local mason refers to it as the "nigger head" stone. The Wayne Mansion is built of this stone.

The above formation is bordered by a narrow trap rock dyke, traceable only by broken fragments parallel with the Sugartown Road; then by a narrow serpentine dyke, exposed in an old quarry on the Waters farm. Like the trap rock it is probably igneous, tho it sometimes shows stratification. The eruption of the gaseous and molten mass thru cracks and fissures in the earth's surface doubtless preceded all forms of life. Fortunately, since its presence denotes thin or barren soil, it is exposed on a very small area in Easttown, mostly on the Wayne Estate, a part of the famous Paoli Barrens which sustains a plant and animal life peculiarly its own.

This "Green-Stone" when freshly exposed from its watery bed, is soft putty-like, and easily worked into building stone, and was formerly esteemed for its color and used extensively in buildings of the University of Pennsylvania, Academy of Natural Sciences, Crozier Library, West Chester Normal School, and other public and many private buildings; but in time it was found lacking in durability upon exposure to the elements and its use has been abandoned.

Page 34

A Geological Map of Easttown and Tredyffrin by Franklin L. Burns

Page 35

The South Valley Hills, sometimes called the slate ridge upon which Berwyn is situated, is composed of hydro-mica-schist, Dr. Hartman advanced a most novel hypothesis on the origin of this stone. He claimed that it was the sediment of an ancient river which had its source in Georgia and ran Northward to northern New York where it terminated in the Atlantic Ocean. However, his views are not shared by other geologists.

This rock is totally devoid of animal life, but fossil remains of plant life occur. In all gaps or creek ravines this friable stone exhibits a considerable dip and it is naturally exposed on the eastern sides, while the opposite sides are covered with earth. This slate stone, as it is called by the mason, in its best state is the most easily worked and the most satisfactory material for foundations and buildings, of all our local stone.

Owing to a strange superstition in building a wall, the Scotch- Irish mason would not allow a piece of flint or quartz as large as a man's fist to go in its construction, lest it would not stand; yet one may see beautiful gateways built entirely of quartz from the hills nearby, along Irish Road, Valley Forge.

The floor of Chester Valley is composed of limestone, which is also sedimentary, composed of pulverized shells, coral, etc. It is often exposed sometines under a strata of mica slate as in the old quarry at Howellville. From the earliest times of European occupation it has been our most valuable stone as the numerous quarries testify, and it is easily quarried, having a steep almost vertical inclination, due to some great convulsion of the earth's surface in the past. The value of our local pockets of iron, lead, copper and zinc pale into insignificance in comparison with our limestone which is practically inexhaustible.

The North Valley Hills are chiefly of white or Pottsdam sandstone or quartzite. At some period of ancient geology of this continent, it was submerged beneath the ocean, where it is thought to have remained about 2,000 years, as sediment is deposited at the rate of about a foot a century; it then emerged, a second immersion occurred, and most of the immense sandstone deposit was swept away.

Professor Heilprin discovered a simple star-like fossil in the North Valley slope. He called it Scalithus Linearis. It appeared the only evidence of former life in the white sandstone and represents the dawn of animal life.

The exposed face of a quarry on the southern slope of the North Valley Hills is conspicuous from all points of the South Valley Hills from Strafford to Frazer. For a long period the rock from this quarry was loaded in cars and hauled on a privately owned narrow gauged railroad to Valley Forge where it was crushed into sand for the iron furnaces of the Schuylkill Valley. The hills back of this quarry contain some earlier quarries of the same nature.

Page 36

The new red sandstone at Valley Forge and beyond, so rich in mineral deposits and fossil remains, is of a comparatively recent Mesozoic period, the age of gigantic reptiles, and marks the beginning of flowering plants, of birds and mammals.

The red mud and sand were deposited to the depth of probably 2,000 feet by an arm of the sea, and, according to Dr. Frazer, originally extended over the limestone valley entirely to the South Valley Hills, and from Paoli to Conshohocken. Its waters contained numerous shell and ganoid fish, and on its muddy shores doubtless the monstrous reptiles of the period, wallowed, fought, and filled the air with their horrid cries. The Pterodactyl or Flying Lizard's fossil remains have been found in the construction of the Phoenixville tunnel. The vegetation was of enormous fern, conifer and calamite types.

The Mesozoic time closed in mighty upheavals that destroyed almost all existing life and marked the end of the great reptiles. The water which had been salty, then brackish, became fresh as it drained off to the sea, and the forests sprang up in familiar types. The age of birds and mammals had arrived, mostly unfamiliar, but many very similar to present types.

There were snakes and tortoises of several species, the turkey, snipe, the bat, mouse, shrew, squirrel, rabbit, fox, martin, at least five species of skunks, the otter, badger, two species of small horse, a bison, cameloid, and slender horned deer, five species including the giant sloth, three species of the peccary, a great tapir and the mastodon, the latter resembled the elephant but with tusks sometimes fourteen feet long and teeth weighing seventeen pounds.

The carnivora were both numerous and formidable, including the coyote, wolverine, great weasel, puma, eyra cat, wildcat, and the enormous cave bear. There were also two species of the terrible saber-toothed tiger, an animal said to have been capable of mauling the modern species. All are now extinct, probably thru the climatic changes that marked the close of the Pleistocene epoch and heralded the Glacial epoch which has been estimated to have been anywhere from 3,000 to 1,000,000 years.

Dr. Frazer stated that the red sandstone superimposing the limestone of the Chester Valley was removed thru the much more rapid erosion of the limestone underground which formed caverns and let down the sandstone in broken masses, to be reduced to mud and carried out to sea with the bones of the extinct animals, by the underground torrents.

At the Rennyson quarry, Howellville, the underground stream was broken open about 1878, revealing a cave deeply flooded with water and unexplored. In recent years this underground stream flooded the quarry west of the village to the depth of, it is said, 80 feet. For a time it reappeared, bubbling up thru a sandy bottom, near the Henderson marble quarries in Upper Merion, but has since disappeared coincident with the sinking of the deeper shafts of the talcum works.

Page 37

A fissure cavern was discovered by Mercer in 1870 at Port Kennedy near the bottom of Irwin's quarry. Its width is 15 feet and it was exposed to the depth of 40 feet and there found to be merely a chimney connection of some lower cavern of greater depth. Into it had been washed, with mud and sand, the remains of plants, leaves, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, representatives of both living and extinct species.

Here Professor Cope found the fossil remains of about 35 undescribed species of mammals, all of which he described, named and indicated as types. Sone species were represented by numerous remains, others by few and imperfect bones, but such was the skill of this great paleontologist that when the entire specimens of some of these specie were later found in the asphaltum beds of California, their description agreed substantially with his restoration.

America was being prepared for man altho his existence in the Glacial epoch is doubtful, even though it has been alleged that human stone implements have been found in the gravel beds of the Delaware Valley.

While there are some old iron ore mines, flint and quartz quarries, and terra cotta beds, scattered over Tredyffrin, and in the vicinity of Valley Forge, and copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold ore, have been found in limited quantities, the township has benefited little from these minerals, and commercially has gained little from her few sand pockets and brick clay-beds, worked semi-periodically.

On the other hand, Tredyffrin's limestone quarries have been worked regularly year after year for a long tine, giving employment not only to many quarrymen, drivers and kilnmen, but also in former times to many woodchoppers. A high grade lime for land and building purposes has long been produced from the extensive works in the vicinity of Cedar Hollow, and the Howellville quarries yield a magnesian limestone suitable for buildings, or when crushed, excellent for railroad ballast, macadam roads, and concrete work.

It was perhaps to subdue and sweeten the virgin soil that induced the farmer to spread quantities of lime on his land. In the early period some of then had their own private quarries and kilns. The stone was quarried and the wood cut during the winter months. Such plants existed upon the Reese and Davis farms, the latter (now the University of Pennsylvania farm) was operated a generation or so ago commercially by Harry Moore, and after his retirement to the Masonic Home, by Dougherty Bros.

It is impossible to state at this time just when the oldest quarry was opened at Howellville. Doubtless it was not on a commercial basis until some years following the Revolutionary War. Hugh Steen, late from Vincent Township, leased from John Workheiser the tavern across the road from the original Howell's Tavern, from about 1872 - 1886, and during these years acquired the old Odd Fellow's Hall, store and several dwellings.

Page 38

He also apparently operated the quarry and lime kilns, for he had been heard to remark at a later date that he paid off the hands on Saturday nights in the bar-room and by midnight had most of their wages back again.

Later Operators abandoned the kilns and installed the crusher. Due to the employment of foreign labor the smart little town became a sordid, slovenly Italian settlement slum, until the recent flooding of the quarry by an underground stream.

Captain William Rennyson came to Howellville in 1869 and opened the quarries east of the village and south of the Swedesford Road. He was the first to pulverize and bag lime for shipment. The first quarry was old and evidently used as a dumping place; the second was run out to the Supplee line where a natural cave with a deep water floor was discovered in 1878. After blasting away the rock which held back the waters of the cave, the flood quickly filled the quarry and it had to be abandoned. The third quarry was opened back of where the Rennyson Mansion was later constructed, and continued to be worked until about 1885.

The plant was ideal, eight large and deep kilns were built midway between the three quarry openings, on a natural terrace, with a cartway to the top. Two tracks or sidings connected with the Chester Valley Railroad at Rennyson's (now Chesterbrook) Station. The cars could be run under the long kiln sheds level with the lower openings of the kilns. The kilns had heavy iron grates upon which were placed a layer of coal, then about two foot of limestone and the process repeated until filled. Cord wood was then placed below the grate. Sullivan, the firer, for many years, had charge from 7 P.M. to midnight, "Until the gas got him".

The office and scales were close to the lane leading out to the Swedesford Road next to the White's, and a little further back on the opposite side, was a building in which the beasts were shod, tools sharpened, and the dinky cars constructed. A little further up the dell on a flat piece of ground, a great stone stable stood, forming three sides of a square and capable of stabling the 50 or 60 horses and mules.

The 60 men employed almost constantly about the plant, were for a time mostly Irish, for whom eight stone houses were built in pairs and in a row along the Swedesford Road (Rennyson Row). All had fresh water supplied directly into their kitchens by gravity from a spring far up the dell. Many of the single employees boarded at the farmhouse formerly Detwiler's.

So many of the Irish insisted on celebrating after payday that the works became seriously crippled. William Showback was the foreman previous to 1879; Harry Shainline from that year until the works were closed. The latter brought out from Philadelphia two Hungarians to fill the places of two absentees, then the Irish quit, but the Huns proved so satisfactory that the foreman had an employment agency fill their places with Huns.

Page 39

The labor of bagging was done by hand, the men had to wear something over their faces to keep out the caustic white dust, and in consequence of its unpleasant nature the men received 60 cents an hour, the highest pay for a laborer.

The lime was used by farmers to improve impoverished land; by masons and plasterers in mortar for buildings; and by glass factories as an essential ingredient in the manufacture of glass. It was also used in some water paints to cheapen the cost.

Sometime after the beginning of this industry, Captain Rennyson found a need of more capital to carry his project through. At that time Squire Bill Walley Davis and David Havard were the local capitalists and bankers, and it has been said that either one could usually meet local demands without leaving his home. Rennyson applied to the former for perhaps $20,000 and his wants were satisfied. He offered a mortgage on the place, the reply, according to the informant, was "What do I want with your blanked stone pile?" They contracted business on a simple promise to pay "once upon a time".

For a long time the business proved highly profitable, but there came a time when magnesia lime fell into disfavor as an inferior product, the industry decreased so rapidly that work on an improved kiln was abandoned.

In 1895 - 1897, a Company was formed to manufacture some of the products of the American Surgical Works of Bridgeport. The Company was Captain Rennyson, Hibbard, Doctors Jacob Ricksbaugh, James Aiken, and Charles Roberts. It was managed by Cal Wilson. They proposed to manufacture antiseptics, plasters, surgical needles, etc., in the large stable. Though the orders poured in faster than they could be filled the venture proved disastrous, chiefly from the lack of expert workmen.

Later, Captain Rennyson headed a Company with springs north of Berwyn on the State Road, bottling and vending "Lithia Water". A large two storied frame building was erected near the head of Trout Run. This plant did considerable business until the Buffalo Lithia Water Company made then change the name to "Tredyffrin Water. Though it added a soft drink, it failed and the building burned down.

Samuel Givens reopened an old quarry between the Swedesford Road and the Chester Valley Railroad. He had previously lost both arms in a premature blast of dynamite. He specialized in crushed limestone, and was followed by Ellis Johnson and this quarry, the only one in Howellville now in active operation, does a thriving business.

When the Schuylkill Canal was in active operation, and when the Reading Railroad was new, Port Kennedy in Upper Merion was a busy place, with its many limestone quarries and kilns, mainly worked by Kennedy of that place. Today only the Johns-Manville Magnesia Works survive on the border of Tredyffrin. They are situated in a quarry once the property of the Todds, and a milk white stream flows from this works into a small stream. A narrow tongue of land extends into the Valley Forge Park on which a row of frame houses filled with foreign employees, forms a blot to the otherwise serene aspect.

Page 40

Isaac Anderson, in his History of Charlestown, stated that about 25 years before the Revolution a small party of Germans prospected for silver and excavated a deep shaft in the North Valley Hills about a mile west of the creek (Mount Misery), and in two years ruined their farmer backer.

In recent years, Kirk, Bean and Sugarman, were reported to have made separate attempts to find gold in the same hills and although traces were found, they were so small that it did not warrant development. Chris Issinger went down 30 feet in search of platinum back of the Kirk Farm without result.

A number of iron ore mines were operated in Tredyffrin prior to 1854. That on the Roberts Farm near New Centerville had the unusual proportion of two parts ore to one part dross. Machinery and a tall stack were erected and the ore shipped to the Port Kennedy Iron Works, but the influx of water finally was too much to make it profitable.

The ore banks of Nathaniel Jones, Charles Beaver and Buck & King, all near the Great Valley Baptist Church caused considerable excavations above the southern margin of the Valley, and Samuel Beaver's ore pocket near the foot of the North Valley Hills about a mile southeast of the head of the Valley Forge dam was also of considerable size, and there were large pockets of excellent brown ore mined west of the Valley Creek on the southern slope of the North Valley Hills, most of which was smelted in Phoenixville. Indeed this range of hills is pock-marked with old mines.

Perhaps the last iron ore vein to be uncovered in Tredyffrin Township was in 1885 on the Latch Farm in the bank along Contention Lane.

Much of Easttown's building stone came from surface boulders. Beside the two small quarries of serpentine already mentioned, a quarry of gray granite was opened about 1796 to supply locally stone for the bed of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike. There were no stone crushers in those days. All the stone had to be crushed by hand with sledges. The farriers preferred the summer road of earth which lay beside the pike during that season, to the hard road of stone.

During the last two decades of the 19th century sand pockets supplied an excellent grade of sand for the building trade. One was along the Newtown Road above Burnham's Dam and the other on the road to St. Davids Church, on the Shank (later Dr. Penrose) Farm.

During the same period William McClure, Jr. a son-in-law of Flories the well-known brickmaker of Overbrook, opened a brickyard where Bumhan's Dam is now situated. His employees were largely negroes and they produced a serviceable quality of soft, hard and stretcher brick for the local trade, but about the time the strata of suitable clay had been used up the manufacturer was forced to make an assignment.

Page 41

Possibly fifty or more years ago a dream, especially of buried treasure, assumed more of a portent of actuality than it, does today. At any rate a resident of Hickory Hill, south of Devon, dreamed three nights in succession that a pet of gold lay buried under the roots of a grand old white oak tree in the middle of the road leading off from the Sugartown Road to Cabbagetown. It stood and still stands at the foot of Signal Hill. He determined to put his dream to a test and for several nights dug in the spot indicated in his dream until the Road Supervisor, fearing that the tree would topple over, put a stop to further excavation. For many years after, this tree was called the "Golden Oak".

To this day one may see a funnel shaped pit at the edge of, the woods perhaps a quarter of a mile west of Hammer Hollow. About a 100 years ago a gentleman residing on the farm on the Conestoga Road back of the old State Tavern at Glassley, happened to be out walking with his blind son on a Sunday. When they neared a remote part of his farm, near an angle of the woods, the son tapping the earth with his cane remarked, "Father, there is gold here. If you dig deep you will find a hard flint rock, but if you can got thru it you will find plenty of gold." The young man died soon after, and the father, thoroughly convinced of his son's second sight, employed several men to sink a shaft in tho most primitive manner, the earth and stone being removed by means of a bucket and a hand windlass.

At length they struck a hard quartz rock and mere traces of gold were found, but his money ran out before the rock was pierced. Mr. Hill disappeared for some years but eventually returned it is said with $5,000 in cash, and resumed work on the shaft. Whenever a workman expressed his opinion doubtful of the ultimate result, he was replaced by one more sanguine.

The strata of hard rock proved thick and the ready cash again ran out before it yielded to the golden promise. He never got to the bottom of it. The idle remark of a blind and innocent son had ruined the father and it is said that he died of a broken heart. For many years thereafter this deep hole in the ground, now almost refilled with earth and almost forgotten, was referred to as "Hill's Folly".


Page last updated: 2018-11-19 at 17:27 EST
Copyright © 2006-2018 Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society. All rights reserved.
Permission is given to make copies for personal use only.
All other uses require written permission of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society.