Monday, March 1, 2010

Scottish Stonecutters Build Texas Capital in 1882

The capital building in Austin, Texas, was built by Scottish stone cutters from Aberdeen.  The complete story has been told in The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.  These stone cutters first came to Texas as the result of a labor dispute.  The state capital building in Austin had burned in 1881, and construction was under way in 1882 on a new structure of pink Texas granite.  The unusual building material was donated by George Washington Lacy, but the granite had to be cut, finished and imported 45 miles from the quarry near Marble Falls.

Governor John Ireland had signed a contract with the State Penitentiary Board for 500 convicts to work the quarries and construct a railroad from the quarries.  Controversy arose over the use of convict labor and the Granite Cutter's International Union boycotted the capital project.

To bypass the boycott, Superintendent Gus Willse sent to Aberdeen , Scotland, for stone masons who were considered the best in the world.  After difficulties with Federal alien contract laws, 62 Scots accepted the offer of $4.00 per day and arrived in Texas.

With the exception of cut-stone moving equipment, blasting powder and a few hand drills and wedges, they took the stone from the quarry, cut it to size and shaped it for construction with tools rarely measuring more than eight inches.  The granite generally was cut by the use of wedges.  To make a uniform break, a line of holes was drilled no deeper than four inches and no farther apart than ten inches.  Two metal shims with a small wedge between were placed in each hole.  Workmen hit each wedge in serial order driving all into the stone at approximately the same rate.  Under this consistent pressure, the stone would crack.  Granite of almost any size could be split in this manner, but sheets less than one inch thick seldom were worked.  Nor was stone at the quarry commonly wedged apart in thicknesses of more than six feet.  Blocks were moved to sheds and worked by hand into their finished shapes.

The granite was "bankered" up to a height convenient for the standing stone cutter.  The cutter set to work with hand patent bush and striking hammers, folding rule, steel square, chalk, plumb, straight edges and bull sets.  With these seemingly crude tools, the workers were capable of cutting stone with a tolerance of 1/640 of an inch.  In most cases the cutters worked alone, a single stone taking from several hours to weeks, depending on its complexity.  After six years of work, the new capital was occupied in September, 1888.

The simple tools used by these world-renown craftsmen from Aberdeen have been on display at the Texas Institute of Texan Cultures. If you would like more information about the Texas Capital go to the Site Preservation Board or Wikipedia.  It would be interesting to know how many of these Scots stayed in Texas, or moved to some other area.  I have heard that Scottish stone cutters worked on Navy Pier and the Art Institute, but have not been able to confirm.
Every state in the Union has Scottish stories.  It would be nice if each State had a Scottish historian who would ferret out those great stories and publish them on their own blog.  For the next few days, I will write more Texas Scottish stories.

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered that a great-great grandfather came from Glamis, Scotland. He did a four-year apprenticeship as a stone-cutter and arrived in Wisconsin in November of 1842. He purchased a stone quarry in Genesee, Wisconsin, and supplied stone for the state capital in Madison, Wisconsin, the Waukesha Methodist Church, and Carroll University in Waukesha. Today the quarry is listed on the National Register of Historical Places because of the lime kilns operated there.