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Sandstone Industry

Sandstone Industry

Just up the creek from Aquia Landing was one of Stafford’s major industries—the sandstone quarries. Located on what is now Aquia Harbor property, the quarries operated off and on from the 1650s until the 1930s and provided building stone for some of the most important buildings in the nation, the White House and Capitol among them.

In 1652 the Governor of Virginia set aside fifty acres for the town of Aquia, about three miles up the creek from Brent’s Point. The Aquia warehouse and tobacco inspection stations were built but, soon after, the sandstone was discovered and the tobacco business was all but forgotten. One of the earliest uses of the stone was in grave markers; the earliest surviving of these markers, which dates back to 1681, can be found in the Brent family cemetery.

This stone was used for the foundations and chimneys of many houses in the area, including Woodstock. Some buildings, such as Aquia Church, were built of brick and trimmed with sandstone. Christ Church in Alexandria was also trimmed with Aquia stone. The windows, doors, and corners of the building were all decorated with sandstone.

Gunston Hall, home of George Mason (IV), also combined brick and stone. Mason’s great-grandfather had settled in Stafford after leaving England, and his father had operated an ordinary at Marlborough.

Long known as the best building stone in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay region, Aquia sandstone was used in many fine buildings including Gunston Hall (1754), Fort Washington (1808), and Mount Vernon (1743). Even the nation’s White House and Capitol were built of Aquia stone. During the War of 1812, both of these buildings were burned. The stone was cleaned and repaired and the exterior of the President’s home was painted white.

Most of the Aquia stone, called “freestone” by the colonists, was a reddish color. In 1822, a “white stone” with a grayish hue was discovered at Aquia and this was used to build the Old Patent Office Building in Washington.

Aquia produced a fine stone ranging in color from cream to reddish-brown. Large particles of quartz and feldspars caused the stone to appear mottled. The stone was easy to work owing to the fact that unlike most sandstone, the matrix of the Aquia stone was harder than the crystals and not brittle. The demand for this stone continued until after the Civil War when architectural preferences called for a stone of a solid color.

While there were a number of small quarries along Aquia Creek, much of the stone came from Wiggington Island. Also known as Government Island or Brent’s Island, it is separated from the mainland by a marshy bog near the marina at Aquia Harbor. On December 2, 1791, George Brent of Woodstock sold eleven of the island’s twelve acres to architect Pierre L’Enfant who had been sent to find stone for the new city of Washington[1] which he had been contracted to design (one acre had earlier been sold to Robert Stuart, a stone mason from Baltimore). Brent received £1800, equivalent to about $6000. L’Enfant also arranged to rent another quarry on the creek belonging to John Gibson of Dumfries (Gibson had bought the quarry from Brent). A canal was dug between the two facilities and buildings erected to house twenty workers at each site.

Local slave owners, anxious to make some extra money, hired out their slaves to work the quarries to provide stone for the nation’s new capital.  The wages were paid to the masters while the government provided food and shelter for the workers.

Skilled stonemasons were difficult to come by, however; after advertising in the eastern states failed to bring a response, the city planners advertised in Europe and finally had to agree to pay transportation costs for the men and their wives and guarantee their social standing upon arrival. Hence, stone cutters were finally hired from Scotland, Holland, Germany, and France.

To cut the stone, the workers marked off blocks with chalk. Then, using a pick, they chipped along the chalk line to a depth of eight to sixteen inches. Wedges were finally pounded in until the blocks broke free. The blocks were then moved by block and tackle to waiting boats on which they were shipped to Washington.

The plans for the presidential mansion called for the walls to be made of stone, which required a tremendous amount of stone to be cut at a far faster pace than was being done at the time. The commissioners in charge of planning directed that each worker be given one half-pint of whiskey each day in the hopes of increasing production. When this failed, they authorized the hiring of twenty-five more slaves. Production, however, was still not great enough, so the planners decided to build the mansion of brick and use the stone as a facing only.

By 1800 the President’s house and the north wing of the Capitol were in use. Sometime between 1800 and 1803, however, the Aquia quarries had to close down because the workers were unable to find any more “fine” stone. The project’s new architect, Henry Latrobe, believed there was more usable stone in the quarry and it was reopened. By 1807 another wing had been added to the Capitol. When the British arrived in Washington in 1812, the Capitol consisted of just these two wings joined together by a wooden walk. The British set fire to many of the public buildings and had it not been for a rain storm that night, the damage might have been unrepairable.

After that war, the Aquia quarries were again closed, reopening only when needed. During the 1820s and 1830s, stone for the central portion of the Capitol was quarried as well as stone for the eastern portion of the Treasury.

Aquia Creek was navigable at low tide for large ships, making transport of the stone relatively simple, although hauling stone by ship was risky due to the incredible weight. The stone was transported by longboat close to its building site, then placed on flatbed train cars and rolled on a track to its final destination. The first lighthouse built in America was located at Cape May, Virginia, and was built of Aquia stone.

Architects from Boston to Jacksonville specified this stone in their buildings until after the Civil War when architectural changes demanded a solid color stone. The warm-colored stone then fell from favor and the quarries were abandoned. Trees grew up in the quarry, obliterating its presence. It was almost totally forgotten until, in 1891,, an attempt was made to revive the use of Aquia stone. The Aquia Creek Stone Corporation was chartered but operated for only a short time before closing.

Because preferences in stone colors and architectural design change almost as rapidly as tastes in clothing style, the quarry was again opened in 1922, this time by the George Washington Stone Corporation of Virginia. Aquia stone was again being requested by architects in the northern cities. In 1923 the company purchased the Marine Railway and Coal Company Shipyard in Alexandria, making it one of the largest stone-cutting businesses on the east coast. Facilities at Alexandria included a 250-foot pier, cranes, saws, rubbers, and the like for handling the stone. Six railroad trunk lines came into the plant at Alexandria, providing rail transport all over the country. At Aquia, a short railroad and derricks were constructed on the four-acre quarry site. The silted creek was dredged, a loading wharf built, and a tug and barges purchased.

All this effort was in hope of obtaining a contract to supply the building stone for the new Masonic Temple in Alexandria. That contract did not materialize; however, the stone did again become popular. “Colonial Freestone,” as it became known, was used in buildings at Yale University, the New York Gallery of Fine Arts, and many other notable buildings in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Financial problems during the Depression caused the sale of the properties to the Ford Motor Company. Ford doesn’t seem to have done anything with the quarries. The property was sold to the Aquia Colonial Freestone Company and they cut a little more stone from the quarries.

In 1936 one last effort was made to operate the quarry. Aquia Colonial Freestone Quarries of Washington cut stone there for about four years. Finally, the quarry which had provided stone for some fo the finest structures on the east coast closed permanently.

Not only was the stone used in public buildings, it was also popular for use in many fine homes. Lord Baltimore, Lord Fairfax, Thomas Jefferson, the Masons, Tylers, Lees, and Washingtons all used the excellent building material in their homes.

There were numerous other stone quarries around the county. It is difficult to find information about operations at these other sites because, unlike the Aquia quarry which became a major government operation, most of the quarrying was done sporadically. A little stone would be cut for use in or around a new house, maybe a few blocks would be cut and sold by individuals, etc. Only two other quarries seem to have operated with any consistency. The Conway quarry was also located on Aquia Creek (see “Rock Ramore” in Chapter 6) and Robertson’s was next to Rocky Run a mile or so behind the court house.

This article originally appeared in They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 until 1865, by Jerrilynn Eby, and appears here with the author’s gracious permission.


[1] Washington was laid out as a square, each of its four corners oriented to the four cardinal points on a compass. Lines were marked by boundary stones quarried at Aquia. Each stone was one foot square with a pyramidal top. Each bore the name of the state it faced on one side and “District of Columbia” on the other. George Washington set the first stone at Jones Point on April 15, 1791.