Celebrating Waterford’s historic foundation

I live in a gravel pit.

Well, it was a gravel pit before being re-purposed as a housing development in the late 1970s. My neighborhood isn’t the only place in Waterford — or New England — with an abundance of stone. Eons of glacier and tectonic plate movement left souvenirs that made farming a challenge, but underwrote an industry that was a major part of Waterford’s economy for 200 years.

In 1651, John Winthrop, Jr., was granted hundreds of acres at Nehantic Hill (Millstone Point). By the 1700s, millstones were being quarried there, both for local use and for shipment to the West Indies.

In 1788, Benajah Gardiner acquired 138 acres of Millstone Point, which stayed in his family for generations. Major excavation began in 1831, when Warren Gates leased part of the Gardiners’ property. Benefiting from a contract with the Harlem railroad (one of the first railroads in America) and from proximity to a deep water harbor, Gates’ quarry flourished. In the 1870s, growing demand for granite brought immigrants from Europe into the workforce. Those who couldn’t speak English wore numbered brass discs on strips of leather around their necks for identification and accounting purposes.

In the mid-19th century, quarry operators and their workers built homes along Rope Ferry Road, forming a community called Graniteville that extended from St Paul in Chains Catholic Church to just past Gardiners Wood Road. According to the application for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, there are 31 buildings extant from that era, including an attractive structure that’s home to a Boy Scout Troop but used to be a two-room schoolhouse, and a rustic red barn (adorned with a heart-shaped wreath) that originally belonged to Warren Gate’s son.

In 1888, Henry Gardiner regained direct control of the quarry from his leaseholders and built a railroad station, store, schoolhouse, and post office within the Millstone complex.

William Booth, a stonecutter at Millstone, and his brothers opened their own granite business off Great Neck Road in the early 1890s. Booth, sometimes called King William, sounds like a character. According to Willard Reed’s excellent book “The Granite Industry of Waterford” (available from the Waterford Historical Society), Booth sealed a deal with a prospective client by biting into a piece of his competitor’s granite to demonstrate its inferior quality. (He just happened to have his rival’s sample in his pocket, which I think raises a few questions.)

Booth was frugal; when a granite slab fell and crushed one of the oxen at the quarry, he had the animal butchered and served to his workers at dinner. One quarryman refused to consume it, stating he couldn’t bring himself to eat a fellow laborer.

I was surprised to learn how many quarries operated in Waterford and how many roads reflect that heritage. Besides Millstone and Booths’ quarries, there were Goos Quarry on Dayton Road, Somers Quarry on Rope Ferry Road, Flat Rock Quarry near Crystal Mall, and Scott’s and N. A Richards’ quarries, both in Quaker Hill. Street names like Quarry Road and Granite Court recall the industry that fueled Waterford prosperity.

Labor shortages during the World Wars and the growing use of concrete brought an end to the glory days, but not before Waterford granite became building blocks in lighthouses and forts (including Forts Sumter and Trumbull) up and down the East Coast. Structures as diverse as the United Nations, Grand Central Station, the New London Custom House, the Supreme Court, and the Statue of Liberty all rest on Waterford granite. Many of the beautiful buildings on Connecticut College’s campus showcase local stone.

On September 9, when the Waterford Historical Society hosts its 50th birthday party, “An Olde-Fashioned Gathering at the Green,” the entire community will have lots to celebrate. There’s more to Waterford than its rock-bound past, but granite laid a proud foundation.

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