By Charles Calhoun
In the early twentieth century, the very bedrock of Maine was quarried—often by immigrant workers—and shipped to build courthouses, post offices, and temples of commerce throughout the United States.
The state’s granite industry, centered on the island of Vinalhaven, flourished from the 1850s until the 1930s, but today is only a memory. When steel and concrete replaced granite as the major building material, the Vinalhaven quarries gradually closed. The local population declined, the economic base shifted back to fishing, and seasonal tourism became the new “natural resource.”
In addition to the public buildings, Vinalhaven’s granite quarries produce another enduring legacy—a remarkable archive of glass-plate photographs taken by William Merrithew between 1888 and 1925. Forty prints from this collection are on view at the Vinalhaven Historical Society through a grant from the Maine Humanities Council. The council’s Century Project has sought to make such collections available to a wide public.
“We feel that Merrithew has given us the tools we need to add the human dimension to the facts about Vinalhaven during the granite years,” says project director Esther Bissell.
Merrithew was an island native and professional photographer who recorded many aspects of coastal life. In 1993, the historical society acquired 580 of his dry-plate negatives, 150 of them documenting the extensive granite quarrying and carving that took place on the island. The forty images being exhibited are museum-quality modern prints made by Tillman Crane from the negatives.
“Not only is the technical and artistic side of Merrithew’s work impressive,” says Bissell, “His innate desire to chronicle his time and place gives his work historical significance. Much of the factual material is known to us. The exciting part is the clues the photos give about the human side of the industry.”
The exhibition reminds the modern viewer to what degree Maine’s economy was tied to the larger world even a century ago. As Bissell points out, “Here are the men who carved the heads of the Eight Races of Men for the New York Customs House or quarried the enormous blocks of granite for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s columns.”
She adds: “Here are dozens of men working in a quarry now silent and filled with water. Here are the young boys whose job it was to carry the carvers’ tools to the blacksmiths to be sharpened. Here are the steam-powered drills, an innovation that made carving faster but also increased the risk of silicosis from the granite dust.”
The photographs, in short, “give us a fuller understanding of the lives of the people of Vinalhaven in the exciting and stressful times of the island’s granite era.”