A Rocky Business: Quarries in Virginia

Modern quarries in the Old Dominion owe their existence to the automobile – and muddy roads. In fact, in 1928, before the state took over road maintenance, Fairfax County opened a quarry near Centreville to extract crushed stone for county roads. Now privately owned, the Luck Stone Corporation quarry site on Route 29 provided material to build Interstate 66, Dulles Airport and schools and hospitals in the state. Other quarries operated by the company, which has 18 sites in the commonwealth, have contributed material to the Route 288 connector in Richmond and Henrico County’s Short Pump Town Center Mall.

The Pounding Mill Quarry in southwest Virginia dates from 1913 when a young engineer returned to the area after working on the New York aqueducts. He opened a limestone quarry that originally sold its entire product to the Norfolk and Southern Railroad.

Crushed stone, sand, gravel and dimension stone quarries are spread across the state. A number of quarry operations with multiple sites belong to the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, a trade association that includes aggregate producers. “Aggregate” is the term used for particulate materials used in construction for foundations, roads and railroad beds, among other uses. For example, concrete is made up of 80 percent aggregate stone. Dimension stone quarries, which differ from aggregate quarries, extract flat stone, which can be used for flagstones, counter tops, roofs and other projects that require large slabs of stone.

A quarry differs from other mines because it is not built underground and is usually no deeper than 60 feet. A quarry operation begins with a shallow pit excavated in a deposit of rock, which is gradually expanded to remove the valuable rock. Explosives are used in gravel or crushed-stone quarries to break up the rocks before they are transported to processing or construction sites. Dimension stone has to be more carefully removed to keep the slabs intact. Active quarries can be threatened by groundwater and rain so they are often surrounded with moats of water-tight materials that keep seepage out and are covered to protect the quarry from rain.

According to the Division of Geology and Mineral Resources of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the state ranked 10th in the country for crushed stone production in 2003. About 75 million tons of crushed stone were produced, valued at $479 million. Since then, crushed stone production and price has not changed much. Here in the commonwealth, limestone, dolostone, sandstone, quartzite, granite, gneiss, basalt greenstone, aplite, slate and marble are all quarried for crushed stone.

Sand and gravel operations rank second in nonfuel mineral operations after crushed stone in Virginia . In 2003 there were 279 such operations in 55 counties or states in the commonwealth. They produced 14.5 million short tons of material with a value of $82.4 million. Since 1990, production had decreased 38 percent due in part to the need to produce large quantities to make a profit. Transportation is also a cost, so many sand and gravel operations produce their material for local markets.

Quarries have a limited life. Once they are no longer profitable, quarries sometimes begin second lives as training grounds for scuba divers or rich resources for fossil hunters. Apparently, scuba divers at one time came from all over to fine tune their skills at the Millbrook Quarry in Haymarket. One enthusiast was thrilled to find an old plane, four boats, two cars, a UPS truck, school bus, dunking tank, and motorcycle submerged and ready to explore. Diving was suspended for a time after the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries found zebra mussels, which can clog water treatment and power plants, in the quarry in 2002.

The Solite Quarry in Pittsylvania County in Southside Virginia is a prime destination for fossil hunters. Considered by many scientists to be one of the top five fossil sites in the world, it has yielded 25 different types of insect fossils, as well as plants that are more than 200 million years old. Once a deep lake, the Solite Quarry has yielded complete insects that show details such as wing pattern, antennae and even microscopic hair on their small bodies. There are also plant fossils of cones, palm-like leaves and tiny ferns. Scientists actually discovered the fossil of a new type of flying reptile, which they named Mecistotrachelos apeoros or “soaring, long-necked."

Whether you are a diver, a hunter of ancient insects or just a seeker of the perfect granite slab for the kitchen and want to advertise your passion for quarries, check out the gear offered by Pit & Quarry Magazine. There are “Mine Your Ps & Qs” and “Got Rocks” T-shirts, mugs, barbeque aprons and even infant bibs. All for under $20.

-- September 8, 2008

NOTE: The authors of  the “Nice & Curious” column would like to thank Jim Bacon for his many years of enthusiasm for our quirky articles. We have come full circle. One of our first columns in late 2004 was “The Dirt on Virginia’s Roads” about those who prefer unpaved byways. Since then we’ve written on every Virginia topic imaginable from the commonwealth’s earthquakes and airports to its melungeons and obsolete laws. Thank-you, Jim, for indulging the curiosity of two “information professionals” and we wish you well in all your future endeavors.

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