The State Stonemason’s Scandal

Today I’m really excited to be able to reprint an article by David Dockery, Director of the Surface Geology Division of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, that appeared in the DEQ newsletter Environmental News in February 2010. This article really opened my eyes to the stone that crops up in buildings and landscapes and cemeteries around the state, and I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did. (Yes, I worked hard on that pun.)

We’ll have a few more articles from Dr. Dockery upcoming that investigate the intersection of architecture and the state’s geology. If you’d like to read the article in its original context, DEQ has put their newsletters online, and you can see this one here.

THE STATE STONEMASON’S SCANDAL

By David T. Dockery III, Office of Geology

Figure 1. Catahoula sandstone chimney of the Porter House built around 1830 and moved to Raymond, Mississippi in 2004. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

Figure 1. Catahoula sandstone chimney of the Porter House built around 1830 and moved to Raymond, Mississippi in 2004. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

The State Stonemason’s scandal was brought to my attention by Cavett Taff, an independent museum exhibit designer, who was concerned that the renovations to the Old Capitol Building match the stone facing of the original building. The stones of the original building had been taken down long ago due to deterioration and were discarded. The State Stonemason awarded the contract by the Board of Commissioners of Public Buildings on March 31, 1836, for the stonework and brickwork on the ground story of the state house had instead high-graded stone from the quarry at Mississippi Springs for use as grave stones and was late in his deliveries of stone to the construction site of the state house. When architect William Nichols visited the stone quarry to investigate, he discovered and later reported that “the ground around the quarry is covered with headstones and footstones…[and] large square tombs.” According to Skates’ (1990, p. 37) book, Mississippi’s Old Capitol: Biography of a Building, Nichols charged stonemason Baird “with pilfering the best stone from the state’s quarry while sending the inferior stone to be used in the state house.” Baird was fired and his ex-partner Robb was assigned the job to finish the work. Baird must have taken his high-graded gravestones with him, as the action by the Board of Commissioners of Public Buildings to accept Robb as the new stonemason happened in September of 1836, while gravestones in the old Raymond cemetery (not far from the stone quarry) have dates of 1837 and 1838.

Figure 2. Catahoula sandstone steps and facing/foundation stones in a building on the Raymond town square. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

Figure 2. Catahoula sandstone steps and facing/foundation stones in a building on the Raymond town square. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

Figure 3. James Starnes behind box-grave monuments in the old Raymond cemetery made of Catahoula sandstone quarries at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 601-24A) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 3. James Starnes behind box-grave monuments in the old Raymond cemetery made of Catahoula sandstone quarries at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 601-24A) taken on December 19, 2006.

One event in the 1830s which may have facilitated the stonemason’s scandal was the great loss of life due to yellow fever and malaria epidemics along the Mississippi River and inland. A yellow fever outbreak in Natchez, Mississippi, from September 8 to November 25, 1837, claimed 280 lives. Demand was high for gravestones and monuments in communities where families lost loved ones, especially wives and children. Cavett Taff located some of the gravestones described by Nichols as headstones, footstones, and large square tombs in the old Raymond cemetery. He asked the Mississippi Office of Geology to confirm that the stones came from the Mississippi Springs quarry. Upon examination, the cemetery stones were found to be sandstone with opal cement typical of sandstones in the Catahoula Formation, such as those at Mississippi Springs. Some eight months later, an absentee landowner living in a distant state asked us to look at rock on her property east of Raymond, Mississippi. Her property was on a proposed right-of-way for the Norrell Road extension (Byram-Clinton Norrell Corridor Project) from Interstate 20 to Siwell Road at Davis. The landowner wanted to develop the property and thought the stone might be a valuable resource. When we examined the property, we found the old Mississippi Springs stone quarry.

Figure 4. James Starnes standing behind the ruins of a box-grave monument in the old Raymond cemetery made from Catahoula sandstone quarried at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 603-21) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 4. James Starnes standing behind the ruins of a box-grave monument in the old Raymond cemetery made from Catahoula sandstone quarried at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 603-21) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 5. Alston family monuments in the old Raymond cemetery with death dates of 1838 (bench in foreground) and 1837 (tall monument in background). Monument stones are slabs of Catahoula sandstone from a quarry at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 603-23) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 5. Alston family monuments in the old Raymond cemetery with death dates of 1838 (bench in foreground) and 1837 (tall monument in background). Monument stones are slabs of Catahoula sandstone from a quarry at Mississippi Springs. Picture (color negative 603-23) taken on December 19, 2006.

Though it was our first time to visit the quarry, the location had been published by others. Watson Monroe gave the location in his 1954 publication on the “Geology of the Jackson Area, Mississippi” (U. S. Geological Survey Bulletin 986), in which he reported the quarry to have been in operation from 1833-1839 in the construction of the state house and to have been a working quarry in the early 1950s for building stone and riprap. Stone from the state quarry at Mississippi Springs had also been used as building stones for private structures in the Raymond area. The Porter House, built around 1830, had a large fireplace and foundation stones from the quarry. In 2004, this house was moved from its original site to the Robert A. Brigg family lot at the corner of Oak and Court Streets in Raymond. Today it serves as a bed and breakfast and has been renamed Cedarwood.

Figure 1 shows Cedarwood’s reconstructed chimney made of sandstone from the Catahoula Formation. Figure 2 shows Catahoula sandstone steps and lower facing stones in a building on the Raymond town square. A stone tomb or box grave made of Catahoula  sandstone is shown in Figure 3; the ruins of another are shown in Figure 4. Figure 5 shows the monument for two sons of P. M. and A. Alston–John M. Alston (died September 5, 1837, at an age of 5 years, 9 months, and 15 days) and 8-year-old Absalom H. Alston (died September 7, 1837, at an age of 8 years, one month, and 9 days). Figure 6 shows the inscription for Absalom Alston, which is remarkably clear after withstanding the weather for some 170 years—something that can’t be said for the cemetery’s old limestone monuments. Figure 7 is a grave-size slab of Catahoula sandstone, which marks the grave of Sarah Ann Alston, who died on June 5, 1838, at the age of one year, 8 months, and 18 days. Figure 8 shows Cavett Taff and his son Philip examining a sandstone exposure in the old Mississippi Springs stone quarry (Guy Cavett Taff passed away at age 60 on September 26, 2009, after a two year battle with cancer).

Figure 6. Catahoula sandstone monument in the old Raymond cemetery. This stone came from the quarry at Mississippi Springs, where stone was quarried for the Old Capitol Building in Jackson, Mississippi. Picture (color negative 603-5) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 6. Catahoula sandstone monument in the old Raymond cemetery. This stone came from the quarry at Mississippi Springs, where stone was quarried for the Old Capitol Building in Jackson, Mississippi. Picture (color negative 603-5) taken on December 19, 2006.

Figure 7. Catahoula sandstone slab marking the grave of Sarah Ann Alston, who died on June 5, 1838, at the age of one year, 8 months, and 18 days. Picture (digital) taken on September 18, 2007.

Figure 7. Catahoula sandstone slab marking the grave of Sarah Ann Alston, who died on June 5, 1838, at the age of one year, 8 months, and 18 days. Picture (digital) taken on September 18, 2007.

Figure 8. Cavett Taff (right) and his son Philip examining a Catahoula sandstone ledge at the old state stone quarry at Mississippi Springs east of Raymond, Mississippi. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

Figure 8. Cavett Taff (right) and his son Philip examining a Catahoula sandstone ledge at the old state stone quarry at Mississippi Springs east of Raymond, Mississippi. Picture (digital) taken on September 20, 2007.

First published in Environmental News, February 2010, volume 7, issue 2, pages 11-14



Categories: Architectural Research

4 replies

  1. What a great article (as usual)! I really enjoy your blog and wish that we had as valuable a resource as this in my home state of Georgia. Keep up the great work!

    Like

  2. Great post! You have to wonder about someone who names there son Absalom, which seems sort of asking for a tragic end, although not necessarily as early as age 8.

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  3. i work with the property owner of the land that this quarry is on soon to become a highway….

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  4. The property on which the Porter House is located should be identified as the Biggs property; not Brigg. It was owned by my maternal grandfather Robert A. Biggs.

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