Milford granite used for treasury building columns

Editor’s note: Polly Cote, of the Milford Historical Society, is in the process of transcribing her great-grandmother’s diary. Using the diary and photos taken by her great uncle, Chas, in the early years of the 20th century, Cote learned the story of how Milford granite was used to build the columns on the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington.

What do Cate Langdell, her son, Chas Langdell, a chain on display at the Historical Society, the Lovejoy Quarry in Milford and the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington all have in common?

Photos taken by Chas Langdell more than a century ago tell us a lot about the quarry industry, and yet they tell us nothing historic without some further investigation.

Entries from the diary of my great-grandmother, Cate Langdell, and a faded 1909 newspaper clipping from Washington, D.C. provide clues as to how Milford played a significant role in replacing the columns at the Treasury Building. Three photographs by Cate’s son, Charles Langdell, also provide pieces of the puzzle.

The east wing of the Treasury Building had been built during the Jackson administration 1829-1837.

It had 30 beautiful buff-colored sandstone columns on the east front of the building, and they had stood for 80 years and were expected to stand for another 80 years.

A local newspaper reported that “though they looked good on the outside, they were rotting within. High above the street they looked substantial, but the supervising architect found them to have cracks and seams. The cracks were filled up with cement and the sandstone was cleaned and crated with a patent preparation that was supposed to prevent further flaking and cracking. However, treasury officials reported that one day a piece fell from one of the columns and nearly killed a man passing along the sidewalk below.”

In 1907, Congress agreed to appropriate $360,000 to have all the columns on the east front of the building replaced with granite.

A contract was eventually entered into with Herbert E. Fletcher of Westford, Mass., to furnish the granite for the monoliths from a quarry in south Milford, as the stone from this quarry was determined to nearly match the old sandstone columns.

Sometime in early 1908 granite blocks were taken from the quarry of the necessary size and sent by train to the Webb Granite Co. of Worcester, Mass. to be cut as required. They were shipped to the U.S. Capital needing only a little carving to finish them and, it was hoped that as the work progressed, everything would be ready for the 1909 inauguration of Howard Taft.

Everything went well until the 30th column was to be set in place in the fall of 1908.

The 30th was rejected due to a supposedly “dry seam,” 11 feet long and discovered by a government inspector. It had been reported that the seam had been detected in August 1908 before the column left New England, and the contractors had been told that it would be useless to finish the cutting because the stone would not be accepted.

It is said that the contractor went ahead despite the warnings, finished the cutting and shipped the column to Washington. The superintendent in charge of the construction work, seeing the flaw, rejected the column on Sept. 22. His action was approved by the supervising architect on Oct. 3. The contractors were then ordered to cut another stone, the 31st.

The order was protested by Fletcher and the Webb Granite Co.

Architect James Knox Taylor reported that Massachusetts senators, Sen. Jacob Gallinger of New Hampshire and other New England congressmen urged the department to reconsider its decision condemning the 30th column.

The contractors contended the seam was unimportant, and the column was no better or worse than any other stone. Despite all these pleadings and protests, the 30th column was rejected and the contractors were ordered to furnish a new one.

The contractors said the cost of the rejected column had been estimated at $10,000, but according to Taylor that was excessive and could have only run from $3,000-$5,000.

When all was said and done a new stone was cut and was due in Washington in early May. The reconstruction of the east front of the Treasury Building was not completed until June 1, 1909, long after Taft’s inauguration. Because the contract with the government had run out by December of 1908, fines were assessed of $50 per day for each day’s delay. The fines eventually ran to more than $5,000.

Whether the department would enforce the penalty was not known. As a general rule, however, it was inclined to deal leniently with contractors who could show some good reason for delay.

Under the contract, the government had paid the contractors, from time to time, 90 percent of the value of the work that had been completed. The total payment at that time had been $250,000, with $75,000 still due.

Cate, in her diary entry for Thursday, Dec. 10, 1908, writes, “Chas has taken some pictures for Mr. Carlton and Sam Lovejoy today.”

On Thursday Dec. 17, 1908, she writes – “Chas went over to Lovejoy’s Ledge to take some pictures this PM.”

And finally on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 1908, Cate writes – “Chas has been printing quarry pictures this eve.”

Charles was an active member of the Milford Camera Club and had his own darkroom upstairs next to his parlor. Many times he was commissioned to take historic pictures of events in Milford.

The photos now make sense to us. These pictures taken by Chas show the 31st column quarried for the Treasury Building wrapped in a chain, loaded onto a railroad car and being taken away by train. The derricks shown in the pictures were made especially for the undertaking of quarrying this granite. They were the largest derricks, not only in town, but also in New England when they were built, being 111 feet high with a boom 90 feet long and made of Oregon pine to lift the granite up from the quarry. Each piece of granite was 31 feet eight inches by 4 feet six inches by 4 feet six inches in size and weighing 90 tons each.

The chain (or a chain just like it) that weighs more than 100 pounds and was used to wrap the piece of granite for lifting, will be on display at the Carey House, 6 Union Street. Tours are free.