This article describes how the early colonial history of Vancouver Island led to sandstone quarrying on Newcastle and Gabriola Islands. It also traces the early quarrying connections among San Francisco, Nanaimo, and Gabriola.
This article traces the history of the sandstone quarry for building stone that operated on Gabriola Island during the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. It names the local people who worked there and the principals of the Vancouver Granite Company, who owned the quarry. The physical arrangement, equipment, and operation methods of the quarry are also described, as are some of the prominent buildings in San Francisco, Victoria, and Vancouver that were built using Gabriola sandstone.
This history of the millstone (pulp stone) quarry that operated in the early 1930s on Gabriola Island names the local people who worked there and gives detailed first-hand descriptions of the processes the quarriers used. It also describes how the stones were used in BC's coastal pulp mills. It details the involvement of the Coats family in the quarry site and traces the history of the J.A. & C.H. McDonald Company, which operated the quarry.
This article explores the family histories of pioneer Gabriolans who were involved in the local sandstone quarries (and other coastal quarries) through land-ownership or their labour. It includes the family stories of Captain John Canessa, Alexander Hoggan, Mike Manly, John "Bunky" and Martha Easthom, and Bill Coats.
Most Gabriolans are aware that a sandstone quarry on Gabriola produced millstones for use in pulp and paper mills for a few years during the 1930s. Much evidence of this local industry survives: a short walk from Descanso Bay ferry terminal and a slightly perilous scramble up from Eastham Road there is a serene and curious greening area of cylindrical sandstone pits filled with rainwater, and in front of Gabriola’s Museum a large cylinder of sandstone lies next to a rusted industrial circular saw. Many more of the huge perforated stone cylinders are piled into an impressive entrance to Clyde Coats’ driveway off South Road, just past the golf course.
But fewer people are aware that for more than a decade at the turn of the century the same outcropping of sandstone was quarried to produce building stone for beautiful and historically significant structures in Victoria and Vancouver.
Stone blocks quarried and “dressed” (trimmed and finished) for building are often referred to in the trade as measurement stone or dimension stone. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as wealth accumulated and lumber and mining camps gave way to monied settlements on Vancouver Island and on the mainland, a strong market developed for good quality dimension stone. The islands in the Gulf of Georgia were rich sources of stone suitable for the new public buildings. Up in the mouth of Jervis inlet, a cluster of islands including Nelson Island was found to have fine quality granite, and Haddington Island near Alert Bay had the hard volcanic rock called andesite. And closer to the rich coalfields of the Nanaimo area, Newcastle and Gabriola Islands were found to have superb sandstone.
The earliest record (other than for use in local projects) of sandstone quarrying in the Nanaimo area occurred when sandstone was cut on Newcastle Island in the early 1870s and shipped to San Francisco for the new United States Mint being built there. Alexander Hoggan, a Gabriolan pioneer, is known to have worked briefly at the Newcaste Island quarry in that period. But another generation passed before anyone decided to make use of Gabriola's splendid outcroppings of sandstone.
In 1895 we read in The Victoria Daily Colonist:
"NANAIMO, June 7:
H. Keefer, the well known contractor of Vancouver, is about to open a quarry on Gabriola Island. The site is in the vicinity of the 'Farmers' Landing'... The opening of this quarry will necessitate the employment of some 30 men."
In November, another article reported that the new post office and customs house in Victoria was to be built by the contractor Messrs. Elford & Smith using Gabriola sandstone. Samples of the sandstone had been sent to Ottawa for analysis and approval and was reported to be "a light gray in color and handsome in appearance, taking a nice finish". The article continued:
"The quarry has been in operation all summer and a lot of the stone is now being supplied for several buildings in Vancouver. On account of a full plant for quarrying and loading being already at the quarry and the works in operation the stone can be brought down to Victoria at short notice. Consequently by Thursday or Friday the first cargo will probably be landed and cutters at work on it. "
The 1904 Ministry of Mines Report said that the dimension stone quarry’s “equipment consists of three large derricks, a hoisting engine, and a short piece of track by which the stone is conveyed to salt water.” The photograph accompanying this report shows the derricks against the quarry face below where Easthom Road runs today.
The sandstone was shipped from Gabriola unfinished and loaded directly onto barges at the quarry site.
Many of the techniques used in early quarry operations are still used today, including black powder blasting, and “plug and feather” splitting. A stone cutter can split small sandstone blocks by hand using short blunt wedges called “gads”, which are hammered into the rock along the desired line of splitting. To split a larger block, the cutter would first drill small holes and these would be expanded by placing into each hole a pair of small “feathers”, which act rather like shoehorns, allowing the gads to be hammered down between them to split the rock.
The line of splitting must be carefully chosen to take into account the bedding planes of the rock. Apart from the difficulties in splitting the rock smoothly without shattering it, if the bedding planes are inappropriately aligned in finished sandstone, its ability to withstand wear and weathering can be compromised, as has happened in the old Post-Office building in Victoria.
The same principle is used to split large blocks of stone from the quarry face with the help of explosives. A series of long holes are drilled vertically down into the rock along the desired line and explosive powder is inserted into the drilled holes and detonated simultaneously to blast off the rock with a clean face. In pre-industrial settings, a long hand drill would have been turned by one worker while two others alternated hits with their hammers, but later, the drills were steam powered.
After blasting, a lot of stone rubble called “rip-rap” is left and this is often used for landfill and for building wharves and docks near the quarry to simplify transporting the stone to clients. Rip-rap is still visible along the shore below Easthom Road and near the ferry dock on Gabriola, as well as near the Newcastle Island quarry sites.
Gabriola’s sandstone acquired a good reputation and was used in several significant buildings in Victoria and Vancouver during the building boom at the turn of the century.
Buildings using Gabriola sandstone around 1900 include:
Quarrying building stone on Gabriola continued well into the first decade of the twentieth century. In the Victoria Daily Colonist of January 20, 1907, we read :
"The Gribble & Skene Co. is constructing a large apartment house adjoining the Hotel Vancouver and for this work alone has used about 3,000 feet of stone from the Gabriola Island quarries. This gives a lot of additional work to local masons. The stone is brought down from the quarries to Victoria in mill blocks, and cut here before being shipped to Vancouver. The only loss suffered be the company mentioned during the recent cold weather was of stone, worth about $1,000, that became penetrated by the frost, which rendered it unsuitable for working."
But in the early decades of the 20th century, andesite from Haddington Island began to replace Gulf Islands sandstone as the preferred building stone in Victoria and Vancouver. Andesite was attractive, easy to finish and carve in fine detail, and its crystalline structure made it much more resistant to weathering than sandstone. By the 1911 census nobody on Gabriola was listed as a quarry worker and sandstone quarrying on the island ceased until the 1930s.
No photos can be found of Gabriola's working dimension stone quarry or its quarriers, though we have records of some who worked there. A Ministry of Mines report in 1904 noted that the Gabriola sandstone quarry had been worked for several years by "Messrs. Kelly and Murray of Vancouver". In the 1901 Gabriola census, George D. Murray was listed as a Scottish-born stone-cutter of 53, living with his 20-year-old son Jack A. Murray. It seems most likely that George was the Murray of “Kelly and Murray". Kelly was most probably the Martin Kelly who owned Kelly Island and its quarries.
John Holm, a 33-year-old Swede, in Canada since 1888 was listed in 1901 as a quarry labourer lodging with Murray. This census also reported that Martha Holm (Alexander Hoggan’s daughter, born in 1883) and her baby daughter Elizabeth, described as Swedish, were living on Gabriola, though not with John Holm at Murray’s place.
Two other quarry labourers were listed as lodging with Murray: Dale Soderberg, a 32-year-old Swede in Canada since 1894, and Angus McAuly (or McNally?), a 33-year old Scot. A 54-year-old Welsh engineer named David S. Roberts who had arrived in Canada in 1871 also lodged with Murray, as did young “Jim” the 17-year-old Chinese cook, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 9 years old. In the same Gabriola census John Easthom was listed as a 22-year-old quarry labourer living with his (remarried) mother Martha Higham. This constitutes a decent-sized quarry crew.
Talking about the old building stone quarry, Jimmy Rollo told June Harrison:
“…John Eastham and Dick Eastham were cutting stones, Gib and Jack Murray also worked there. The Vancouver Granite Company was here before I can remember, and it has been a quarry as long as I can recall … Then, the stone buildings were not being built and the quarrying decreased, as the demand for stone declined.”
Martha and John Holm’s second daughter Hillma Holm Lenshaw wrote this account of “The Gabriola Stone Quarry around 1910”:
“On the bluff there stood a big bunkhouse, divided down the middle with the bunks for the quarrymen on one side and a common room and kitchen on the other.…The cook was a Mrs. Brace, who was a veteran of quarry camps. Her daughter was married to the quarry carpenter, named Coleman. Before I was born my father was the blacksmith who sharpened the drills. He met my mother because she did the baking for the camp and came almost every day with bread, pies, and cakes. George Murray was the boss of the quarrymen and William Keefer was the superintendent for the Vancouver Granite Company. Keefer came to the island periodically to check on the operation… When my father married the pie baker and bought a farm up from the ferry landing, George Murray was a frequent visitor to our home. He missed his grandchildren in East Vancouver and I was a handy substitute.”
But by the time of the 1911 census, nobody on Gabriola is specifically described as a stone cutter or quarry labourer, though both Richard Easthom and John Holm are listed as farmers with secondary work as labourers.
When Gabriola's dimension stone quarry first began it was on the land on Descanso Bay (then called Rocky Bay) pre-empted by John Canessa, an Italian-born fisherman. His land's legal description was "88 acres of land in the SW¼ of Section 20 of Gabriola”. Canessa and his family never lived on Gabriola, and in 1895 while he was living in Vancouver, Canessa leased his Gabriola land to William L. Nicol giving him the right to prospect on the land for the sum of $25 and to quarry sandstone there for $300 a year. There was a further proviso (hotly disputed in court the following year) that Nicol had the option of purchasing the land at $10 an acre.
Hugh Keefer was the contractor who opened Gabriola's quarry in 1895. He owned a brickyard in Vancouver and had been quarrying building stone in Burrard Inlet since 1892. H. Keefer and H.C. Godden were listed in 1893 as the proprietors of Vancouver Granite and Sandstone Quarries, Brick-making and Contractors. In 1897 W.L. Nicol was listed as the proprietor of Vancouver Granite Company with offices at 122 and 124 Alexander—the place of business of Hugh Keefer.
Canessa lost his court fight against Nicol but went to jail rather than sign over his land to his adversary as ordered. He claimed that he couldn't read English and had been cheated because the offending clause had been omitted when the agreement was read out to him. The land title documents remained in Canessa's name throughout the busiest period of the quarry at the turn of the century.
The prominent engineering and bridge-building firm Armstrong and Morrison needed granite for their bridge piers, so early in 1900 one of its principals, W.C. Ditmars signed a memorandum of agreement with other principals to form a quarrying company. The Armstrongs, the Morrisons, Ditmar, and Hugh Keefer held the shares of the new company, which was incorporated on February 21, 1900 with offices at 111 Alexander Street. In 1902 Vancouver Granite Company Ltd. bought John Canessa’s Gabriola land and its sandstone quarry for $300.
In 1910 Vancouver Granite Company moved their company offices to 813-815 Bower Building, Granville Street and by 1920 they also owned waterfront work yards at False Creek near the foot of Hornby Street in Vancouver as well as their quarries on Gabriola Island and Nelson Island. In 1923 the company shipped granite from Nelson Island for the Dominion Government Dry-dock at Esquimalt and for new buildings at the University of British Columbia. They also produced substantial amounts of stone that year for monuments and lots of “rubble”. But that year the company reported no revenue from their Gabriola operation, even though they were still taking some sandstone from Denman Island. They kept their Gabriola land until 1930, by which time Armstrong and Morrison and Co. Ltd. held nearly all the shares, Hugh Keefer had died, and W.C. Ditmars was President. The company sold the land to Gabriolan entrepreneur Bill Coats.
In the early twentieth century forestry industries were flourishing all over North America and the new coastal pulp and paper mills needed millstones to grind blocks of raw wood into pulp . The first pulp mill in Canada to use a grinding wheel for “a mechanical pulp” had been built in 1846 and the resulting “groundwood pulp” was soon widely used in newsprint manufacturing. For many years the grinding stones (called "pulp stones" in the industry) had been imported into BC, which was costly and could result in delays and mill closure.
The stones used to grind the pulp weighed two to four tons and they required good-quality sandstone because they revolved at 220 to 225 rpm with a feed pressure of 60 to 125 pounds per square inch. Before the development of artificial stones, various grades of hard and soft sandstone were used. In the pulp mill the stone would rotate rapidly as wood blocks were pressed against the grinding surface in a flow of water. They were often dangerous to operate, as flaws in the composition could cause an explosion as the stones expanded and contracted under slight changes of temperature. Natural stones needed burring from three to ten times in 24 hours, compared to only once a week for artificial stones.
Cutting pulp stones was more complicated than cutting building blocks. Workers would first level the area using plaster of Paris, then incise circular grooves into the surface to guide the saw.
The steel cutting machine would then rotate slowly but very noisily to cut 40" deep in about 45 minutes. Earl Easthom told Denise Izzard that they cut about 40 pulp stones a season and said:
"With an 8-inch trough for the circular saw to go in, we would saw one stone in the morning, and blow out its core in the afternoon. The noise of the drum cutting the stone could be heard all the way to Nanaimo..."
The biggest cutter was a large, heavy drum-shaped steel saw almost five feet wide and nearly seven feet tall. Long narrow slots were cut all around the drum's vertical surface, and the saw teeth at the bottom were spaced every 27 inches.
A similar narrow cylindrical saw was centred within the larger one to bore the axial hole in the stone. The saw’s turning shaft was connected by a series of gears and belts to the engine.
The actual cutting was done, not by the “teeth” directly but by jagged pieces of cast steel slightly larger than the saw’s thickness. These abrasive pieces were caught in the slots of the saw and cooled and lubricated with a mixture of fresh and sea water as the sawing progressed. Earl said:
“When we cut the stone from the ground, we used shot made from steel ball bearings cut in quarters, which came in 100 lb bags. I would climb a 12 ft frame housing the circular saw, and throw half a tobacco can of shot into the drum, which had slots in it to carry fresh water—with a certain amount pumped from the sea—which seeped into the Plaster of Paris, which held the shot until it hit the stone, cutting its centre."
After the vertical sawing, the cylinder of stone was still fixed in the rock at its base. To break it out, holes had to be drilled horizontally under the base of the rock cylinder so that small charges of gunpowder could be placed under the stone to blast it loose. They cut and blasted stones progressively inland from the cliff face.
A derrick would then lift the free stone onto the surface before the final cuts were made and a lathe could complete the smoothing process on the grinding face.
The finished stones were variously said to have ranged from about 3.5 to 5 feet in diameter with 2.5 to 4 feet deep grinding faces. The dimensions would be determined by the pulp mills' equipment.
Clyde Coats told me that steel cables were strung from the hill up behind where the pub is now, over to the rocks on the far side of the tiny bay beside the ferry dock, and the millstones were supported by these cables while being lifted to the loading point near the dock.
Life of a natural sandstone pulp stone seldom exceeded one year and imported stones were expensive, with slow delivery. The J.A. and C.H. McDonald Company Ltd. was created to take advantage of the market for pulpstones. They operated at first on Newcastle Island and were in production well before the company's official incorporation. Eventually, on January 19, 1925, the brothers John Alexander and Clement Harold McDonald signed a memorandum of association and their new Company was incorporated the next day with $75,000 in $100 shares, alotting themselves 136 shares each and each buying 45 more with cash then and another 30 the following year. The share distribution stayed like this until 1930 when the company transferred a further 211 shares to a widowed relative, Louise Elizabeth McDonald. Among the Company’s assets were listed Haddington Island Quarry, valued at $16,500, as well as companies in Kamloops and Powell River, and the Poole Construction Company.
The Company cut pulp stones on Newcastle Island until 1932, employing ten men in 1930 and eight to twelve men in 1931, including a certified blaster, but by 1932 very little work was being done.
Meanwhile, in January 1930, the astute Gabriola farmer and entrepreneur Bill Coats had bought Vancouver Granite Company’s old quarry site for $1000. He was convinced that Gabriola's sandstone was superior to Newcsastle Island stone and was determined to prove it to the McDonalds. Bill told Frank Howard that he:
“…rigged up the rear shaft of a Model A Ford as a miniature wood room of a pulp and paper mill. He mounted two small sandstone wheels on the shaft, one from Gabriola rock and one from Newcastle Island rock. Blocks of wood sprayed with water were held against the grind stones, and the Ford put into gear.”
After a few trials, Coats was convinced that Gabriola sandstone would be acceptable to the pulp mills and he must also have convinced the McDonald brothers because on June 22, 1931 he leased the Gabriola quarry to them. The deal probably involved both royalties and an arrangement for Coats' store to supply whatever food and goods the Company needed. The Ministry of Mines' Annual Report said of McDonalds' operation: “The entire equipment has been transferred from Newcastle Island to Gabriola Island and work was done for a short period during 1933.”
In 1934, J.A. and C.H. McDonald Co., increased their sales of pulp stones from Gabriola about 100%. The proper quality of sandstone was rare in Canada, and Gabriola supplied British Columbia pulp mills, while New Brunswick stones were used in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. During their production, Gabriola’s pulp stones were sent not only to Port Alberni, Powell River, and Ocean Falls, but also overseas to Scandinavia. Bill's son Clyde Coats said that each stone sold for $450.
But the demand for sandstone pulp stones quickly disappeared and the life of Gabriola’s pulp stone quarry was brief because artificial pulp stones were proving superior. In 1934 the Canadian Department of Mines reported that:
“The artificial pulp stones made of silicon carbide segments and also more recently of fused alumina segments are gradually but surely replacing the natural stone. Probably about 125 of these manufactured stones are now in use in Canadian mills.”
In 1935, the Gabriola quarry was in satisfactory working condition but operated only intermittently, and although the quarry was noted in 1936 and 1937, no specific activity was reported. Locals and Ministry reports seem to agree that the Gabriola quarry stopped producing pulp stones in 1936.
Although by 1936 quarrying had finished on Gabriola, J.A. & C.H. McDonald Ltd. didn’t disappear. In 1942 John McDonald incorporated Steelweld Limited, but some reporting technicality caused the company to be dropped from the Corporate Registry. It was reinstated in 1952, the same year that Clement McDonald died. By 1954, John McDonald had died too, but the company remained in the McDonald family. In 1957, the company office was still listed at 1571 Main Street, Vancouver, and the Ministry of Mines reported that they were operating the Haddington Island andesite quarry. In 1988 the J.A. and C.H. McDonald Company Ltd. was amalgamated into Steelweld Limited, which still operates.
Bill Merilees reports that that the McDonald Company paid its workers:
In the 1930s, Earl Easthom learned the quarrying trade by working first for a year and a half on Haddington Island cutting building stones and then at Granite Island cutting tombstones that were shipped to Vancouver. Back on Gabriola, he says he worked for $3 a day as the youngest member of the pulp stone quarry crew, helping everyone and learning the process. At the time of writing, Earl still lives in the family home on Eastham Road on Gabriola. He was born in 1916, the son of Dick Easthom who had worked in the dimension stone quarry. Earl says he was trained at the local quarry by Holden Pruden, a 30-year-old East Indian, whose mother was the cook and whose Italian stepfather was the quarry manager, named in Ministry of Mines reports as Eugene Bottiselle.
Jimmy Rollo also used his one-ton single axle truck to help haul the huge stones from the quarry site to the barges. Alas, that is all we know of the Gabriola pulp-stone cutting crew—memories are short, many who would have known have since died, and we have no census information from this period.
Back in 1939, in the Easter edition of “Anecho”—Gabriola’s school newspaper—one child “D.C.” wrote:
“This afternoon we went down to the rock quarry... There are lots of holes where pulp stones have been taken out. In these water holes we found many frogs and frog’s eggs. Some of the frogs were green and others were brown. It was fun watching them jump and swim. Dorothy Westwood and Beverley Anderson took some of the eggs in the jelly to school and put them in jars. We are all waiting to see baby frogs.”
On December 10, 1993, Clyde Coats’ company transferred the covenanted historic quarry site (“Lot 5 on Plan VIP 57861 Section 20”) to the Islands Trust Fund Board. At that time, the property had a declared market value of $100,000. In 2000, The Islands Trust Fund, Gabriola Historical and Museum Society, and the Nanaimo and Area Land Stewards Society became the registered joint stewards of the covenanted lands. The site is currently temporarily inaccessible due to safety concerns.
Created: April 24, 2009, updated January 4, 2014
by Documents that Work