Rockport’s Historical Buildings–Week 1: Sewall-Scripture House and Rockport’s Granite

Quarriers+standing+on+the+Granite+Keystone+Bridge
Back to Article
Back to Article

Rockport’s Historical Buildings–Week 1: Sewall-Scripture House and Rockport’s Granite

Quarriers standing on the Granite Keystone Bridge

Quarriers standing on the Granite Keystone Bridge

Quarriers standing on the Granite Keystone Bridge

Quarriers standing on the Granite Keystone Bridge

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Today, Rockport is best known as a small fishing village and artist community, but 100 years ago, Rockport was, as its name suggests, an important port for granite rocks. Rockport’s granite was formed over 400 million years ago by volcanic activity as the supercontinent of Pangaea was forming. Over the almost half a billion years that followed, these miles-high volcanoes were worn down, eventually revealing the granite bedrock that Rockport is founded on.

As the industrial revolution was underway, Rockport turned to its vast supplies of granite to fuel its economy. Rockport’s granite was used around the country, primarily for paving streets. Many major cities, such as San Francisco, Philidelphia, New York, and New Orleans used Rockport granite for their streets. In Boston, the Customs House is partially made of granite quarried in Rockport.

Over the course of the granite industry, from the mid-1800s to the early 1930s, over 60 quarries were used on Cape Ann. Some of the major granite companies included the Rockport Granite Company, the Pigeon Hill Granite Company, and the Cape Ann Granite Company.

To quarry the granite, workers used hand tools and black powder. They cut out massive pieces of granite and using trains, transported it out to the ocean. Granite Pier, just north of downtown Rockport was built by the Pigeon Hill Granite Company for just this purpose. From the piers, the granite would be sent on specially designed sloops and sailed around the nation. For the workers, it was hard and dangerous labor. Often, workers would need to stand under blocks of granite weighing several tons. Rockport quarriers were often immigrants, especially from Scandinavia and Italy. Quarries offered room and board to workers for $3.50 per week, and these quarriers worked 6 days a week.

Levi Sewall was one of the owners of the Pigeon Hill Granite Company, which he co-founded in 1870, along with George Bradford and Amos Rowe. Pigeon Hill’s primary quarries were Steel Derrick, Big Parker, and Little Parker, which are now used for swimming. Before Levi owned a granite company, he worked as a granite cutter for Proctor, Fernald & Company, and became wealthy enough to build a home, the Sewall-Scripture House for his bride, Mary Roberts, in 1832. After Levi died, he passed his house and his granite company to his son in law Frank Scripture, who eventually sold the company to the Rockport Granite Company in 1914. Frank also founded the Granite Savings Bank, which was converted into the Toad Hall Bookstore after many decades. The Sewall-Scripture House was lived in by descendants of Levi Sewall until it was purchased by the Sandy Bay Historical Society, which maintains it as a museum (see last week’s post here).

Sewall-Scripture House

Nathaniel Kirby
Sewall-Scripture House, the home of the Sandy Bay Historical Society

 

Although the Pigeon Hill Granite Company ended in 1914, the Rockport Granite Company continued to thrive and purchased almost every granite quarry on Cape Ann. The Rockport Granite Company had offices all across the country, including in Cleveland, New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other major cities.

The granite industry made Rockport so important that in 1885, the United States began a project to use Rockport as a naval base for the North Atlantic. The official title was the “Sandy Bay National Harbor of Refuge.” The plan was to construct a breakwater to protect the harbor and the 70,000 ships that Rockport handled each year. After the breakwater was finished, a naval base would be built. However, as costs increased and steamers became more popular than schooners, the federal government abandoned the project, after completing only about 10% of the original plan. In 1917, all work stopped for good. Today, the small portion of the breakwater that was actually constructed can still be seen off the coast.

The granite industry seemed like the path for Rockport. Rockport, it appeared, would be a major port city. And it could have been if it wasn’t for the Great Depression. In 1929, when the economy collapsed, granite was no longer affordable on large scales, due to the labor needed to quarry it. Instead, the country turned to the newly invented and far cheaper concrete, and Rockport became a backwater.

Next week’s edition will take a look at the Cape Ann Tool Company.

Do you know of a historic building in Rockport? Let us know and we may feature it! Please contact us at tlt@rpk12.org and use the subject line “Rockport History”