Stone Quarries of the Apostle Islands

Superior Brown Stone Quarry at Bass Island with Schooner STARLIGHT RD Pike Archive Center

Superior Brown Stone Quarry at Bass Island with Schooner Starlight
RD Pike Archive Center


‘The first quarry in this area was opened in 1868 on Bass Island, by the Bass Island Brownstone Company. The first stone quarried was furnished to build the Milwaukee Courthouse in 1870, and people expressed many great fears respecting the advisability of using a new and untried stone in such an important structure. But difficulties which the early operators experienced in placing their product on the market is well depicted in the newspaper comments and the report of committees and experts, on the suitability of Lake Superior brownstone, for use in this building. In a report to the Board of Alderman, published in the Evening Wisconsin, March 16, 1869, the fitness of the stone was questioned by certain members Gindele, Chesbrough, and Bauer, of Chicago; by Cols. Wheeler and Farquhar of U. S. Engineers Office of Milwaukee; and by J. L. Whitmore, Engineer of the Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Paul Railway.

After careful examination it was pronounced by Prof. I. A. Lapham, LL. D., Peter White, Esq., of Marquette, Michigan, Professor James Hall of Albany, New York, Wm. R. Sill, late Chief Engineer of the LaCrosse and Milwaukee Rail Road, and Mr. N. Merrill, a well-known stone cutter. It was in the face of a very considerable opposition, mainly by engineers, who favored a conservative policy, that the Court House was finally built from brownstone of the Bass Island quarries. The building has not crumbled or fallen in a few years, as was predicted, but stands today almost as fresh as if it were built but yesterday.

The credit for first developing the brownstone industry probably belongs to a prospecting party on which Mr. Almson Sweet of Milwaukee was a member, and in which Mr. D. L. Wells of Milwaukee was largely interested. Since the evening opened the first quarry on Bass Island seven other important quarries have been developed in this area.

Quarry Observations: The sandstone occurs in heavy beds, often 12 or 15 feet in thickness. Thin layers of clay or shaly material, 1 to 5 feet in thickness, are occasionally interbedded with the sandstone. It often happens that stratification planes cannot be observed except where cross bedding or concurs. The stone possesses a capacity to split rapidly, parallel to the bed, at almost any depth.

Two major sets of jointing planes, striking about north and south, and east and west, occur in most of the quarries, although in a few the strike is northwest and southeast. The joints are approximately vertical, in generally smooth sided. Two sets of joints, dipping generally at an angle of about 45 degrees, occur at irregular intervals in many of the quarries. Fortunately they are not abundant. The regular joints are too far apart to be of assistance in quarrying and are therefore seldom made use of. Blocks of any desired size can be obtained at all the quarries, where the facilities for handling are adequate.

The amount of soil stripping depends on the location of the quarry, and varies from nothing, in some quarries to 10 or 12 feet in others. If capping on the soil is light, the sandstone, to a depth of 10 or 12 feet below the surface, is generally much broken up. Stone taken from this part of a quarry is used mainly for pure and breakwater purposes, and seldom more than pays for his removal.

Besides the many shades of brown and red, white streaks and spots occur in portions of certain queries, give me the rock a variegated color.

Color: Where the surface of the sandstone has been exposed to the weather for many centuries, it has a light grayish or yellowish round color, which extends to a very shallow depth below the surface. Lichens grow in many places on the natural exposures, giving some evidence of durability. The stone obtained from the several quarries of this area is very similar, differing mainly in the shade and color and fineness of grain.

The shade of color varies not only between different quarries, but also between different beds in the same quarry. The sandstone from certain quarries has a light reddish brown color, while that from others is very dark, almost a blueish tone. Besides the many shades of brown and red, white streaks and spots occur in portions of short curtain quarries, giving the rock irrigated color. The different shades a brown are nicely shown in the accompanying plate. Between the dark and light shades, there are many intermediate tints, which give variety to the color effects of the stone. In any particular opening the difference is color are mainly between the different beds. The color of stone in the individual beds of a quarry, is generally uniform throughout any single opening. When observed at a short distance, the different shades of brown in many of the beds is scarcely noticeable. The color in all respects permanent, discoloration resulting only after thousands others of exposure view, and then, as shown by the rock any natural other crops, it only affects the surface.

The white spots in streaks mentioned above are only objectionable when stone of absolutely uniform color is desired and are in no way related to the strength or durability of the rock. The white spots and streaks do not occur throughout any considerable portion of the quarries, although none of the quarries in this area are entirely free from them.

Sandstone is composed mainly of medium sized grains of quartz, with which occasional feldspar grains are mingled. The grains vary in size and in different samples. The gains are subangular in shape, and more or less cemented together by secondary quartz. Iron oxide, in the form of dirty, reddish brown hematite, is present in all the samples, coating the grains, and giving coloring to the rock, but not serving as an important cement, as some have suggested. Besides these abundant constituents, sandstone also contains occasional grains of chert, and small amounts of argillaceous material.   A close examination shows that the sandstone is sufficiently well cemented for practical purposes, and that the mineral constituents are such as will decompose only with great difficulty.

Certain portions of individual beds, in all the quarries of this common area are more or less injured by what are commonly known as clay pockets. Stone which is affected by clay pockets is very appropriately spoken by the quarrymen as having the “liver complaint.” The clay pockets are small, oval, or are you regular nodules of soft clay, which readily disintegrate and fall away from the stone after it is exposed for a short time to the weather. The result is a shallow depression or cavity in the face a lock the rock. The clay pockets range all the way from those the size of a pea, to those which are 2 feet long by 6 inches thick.

Hardness: The brown sandstone from this area is harder than many sandstones of this character. The Wisconsin brownstone saws 4 inches an hour, well that from the Portage Entry runs as high as 28 inches for hour. This difference is so great that there is no question as to which of these two stones is harder.

The Output: The output from these queries is generally graded and sold, on board the cars are in rough scabbled dimension blocks. None of the quarry operators to my knowledge, dress any of the stone at the quarry. It is generally graded into numbers 1, 2 and occasionally, 3 mill blocks; numbers one and two ton stone; and rubble. The stripping is sometimes sold under the name of rip-rap, but this stone is worthless for most purposes, with the exception of filling for breakwater.

The brownstone in these quarries cannot be successfully worked by blasting,  on account of the readiness with which it is shattered and broken. In some instances quarrymen have attempted to work their quarry by blasting, but more stone has been destroyed and injured, through this crude method, then would furnish profit to a large concern.

The only successful method of exploiting this stone is by use of channeling machines and wedging. The stone should be cut by channeler’s, in two directions, and wedging. This stone should be cut by channellers in two directions, and then wedged off along the building plane to the desired thickness. The channel cuts are ordinarily  about 8 or 10 feet deep, but it is customary in removing the blocks to make them two or three feet in thickness across the bed.

A number of the quarries are equipped with sawing machines; by which the stone can be cut desired to dimensions. Where a quarry is provided with facilities for sawing, the stone can be much more readily and satisfactorily graded than otherwise.



Apostle Islands

Historical: The Bass Island Brownstone Company is located on Section 4, T. 50 N., R.3 E., on the south end of Basswood  Island, one of the Apostles, at the head of Chequamegon Bay. This place was selected by Captain Sweet and other prospectors, who had spent some fifteen months prospecting along the shore of the bay and lake. After the land had been purchased, the necessary buildings erected were, docks were built, and machinery placed in preparation for the development of the first brownstone quarry of northern Wisconsin.

The stone for the first building, constructed out of Lake Superior brownstone, in Wisconsin, was taken from this quarry. As previously stated, that building was the Milwaukee Courthouse, the erection which was begun in 1869. 

In 1871 Chicago capitalists became interested in the Bass Island quarry, and for some years the output was principally utilized in that city; but during the rebuilding of Chicago, after the memorable fire of 1871, the management became seriously involved. Legal difficulties arose affecting portions of the title to the quarry realty, machinery, and marine adjuncts, which led for a number of years to comparative in action. About 1879, the quarry was leased by a new firm, and the output for a number of years was very fair. This firm, however, operated large limestone quarries, and had no special interest in exploiting sandstone exclusively. From 1885 to 1889 local circumstances connected with the brownstone interests in the Lake Superior region created some business uncertainty and disquiet, and the output of this and other quarries, of younger growth, was materially reduced.

In 1891, the quarry was leased to the Superior Brownstone Company, which gave its name to the output of the quarry. Until the panic In May, 1893, this company conducted a successful and growing business, building up a strong and healthful reputation. The alarming depression, incident to that time, induced the higher interest to curtail operations, which policy has continued up to the present time of this print (1898). During the last few years no work has been done in this quarry, except in stripping and utilizing the surface for rubble purposes. This, however, has greatly improved the condition of the quarry.

During the time that the quarry was operated by the Bass Island Company the output was transported exclusively by water, railroads being unknown at that time in the section of the country. The company owned two vessels by which the transportation was carried on.

The quarry and equipment, including 80 acres of land, owned by Mr. George P. Lee, of Chicago.

Quarry Observations: The quarry consists of one large irregular opening about 400 feet long, 300 feet wide and 40 feet deep. The top of the quarry consist of from 3 feet to 4 feet  of clay soil, which constitutes the maximum dead stripping. The 15 feet immediately underneath this is rubble. Up to the present time the sale of this rubble for pier, break water, and other similar purposes, has paid for its removal.

The bed of rubble is followed by 2 feet of soft, worthless, argillaceous material.

Below this is a bed of from 7 to 7 ½ feet of mainly No. 2 stone. This bed contains very few clay pockets, and much of the stone might be sorted, so as to be salable as No. 1.  Immediately beneath this is a bed of from 8 to 10 feet of No. 1 stone, from which blocks of any dimension may be obtained.

The upper part of the bed, in some parts of the quarry, is cross bedded, and undesirable for building purposes. This is the lowest bed in the quarry, but the sandstone has been tested western by means of drill holes to a depth of 20 feet below this floor, giving evidence that to this depth the stone is of somewhat inferior quality.

Below this, the drill passed to some depth through clay layers. The clay pockets in the bed of No. 2 stone are generally small, but in places they are quite abundant, giving the rock a somewhat vesicular appearance.

The bed of No. 1 is exposed for about 250 feet and is generally uniform throughout. It contains an occasional clay pocket, which may be easily avoided in cutting and dressing.

In different parts of the quarry one occasionally finds a few very small pebbles imbedded in the matrix of the sandstone. The pebbles are not sufficiently large to be deleterious to the stone and are of such infrequent occurrence as to be scarcely worthy of serious attention.

It is somewhat difficult by an examination of the quarry face, on account of his long exposure to the atmosphere, to determine how much of the stone is spotted or variegated with white, but it is thought from the general appearance that the variegated stone is not abundant.

General Considerations: The stone has been used largely for buildings, basements, piers and foundations.

Dimensions of any size under 175 cubic feet can be ordinarily quarried, but for transportation purposes the stone is usually cut into blocks about 8 feet, by 4 feet, by 2 feet.

The markets for the stone have been mainly Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Dakota, and Michigan. Attention may well be called to the fact that the stone in all of these buildings has thus far with stood the elements without any unwarranted decay. St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Milwaukee was built out of brownstone from this quarry, in 1883. This stone has a rock face finish, with carved door frontals and tower carvings. The fine carved edges remain sharp and distinct, and unless the structure be subjected to unnatural treatment it is apparently good for generations to come.

Samples of stone from this quarry were thoroughly tested in preparation of this report. The best stone was found to be equal in strength and durability, to most others of behind this, and in all reports suitable for building purposes.




Apostle Islands

Historical: about a quarter of a mile north of the Bass Island Brownstone Companies quarry is a small opening known open as the Breckenridge quarry. It appears that Colonel Breckenridge, of Kentucky, was one of the joint owners of a tract land of land embracing most of Bass island. The Bass Island Brownstone Company bought out a number of interested parties, and then leased the south end of the island and opened the quarry which has just been described. Through legal proceedings, the whole property was afterwards divided into individual interests, and allotted to respective partners. Colonel Breckenridge’s allotment was next north of the Bass Island quarry property and showed signs of brownstone. In 1892 it was leased for the purpose of developing a quarry. A considerable amount of stone was blown out with powder, but on account of lack of means to supply power and machinery, the work was abandoned after two or three shipments of broken stone.

Quarry Observations: the soil has been removed along the shore for a distance of 80 or 100 feet north of the quarry, exposing a very good ledge of stone. The face of the query is about 12 feet deep, an extends about 60 feet north and south. The stripping above the face is about 6 or 8feet thick, but this will probably increase somewhat as the quarry is worked back.

The quarry is composed of two beds, both of which are comparatively free from white spots. The upper bed is about 7 feet thick, and the lower measures from 4-6 feet. A few small clay pockets were observed in both ledges. They occur in bands running through the center of the ledges, injuring the stone less than if they were scattered promiscuously through the beds. Very few pebbles were observed in the stone.  The color is very uniform. The joints strike east and west, and north and south.

The indications are very favorable at this locality, the stone is easily accessible, and the exposed beds are largely No. 1 stone.

Wilson - Hermit Island Map Ashland County Plat Book c 1905

Wilson – Hermit Island Map Ashland County Plat Book c 1905


Wilson-Hermit Island

Historical: The Excelsior Brownstone Company quarry is located on the southeast ¼ of Section 13, T. 51, R. 2W., on Wilson Island, one of the group of Apostle Islands, between Bass Island and Presque Isle. The quarry was first owned and operated by Frederick Prentice, of the Prentice Brownstone Company, who purchased the land sometime in 1857. In August of 1890 E. E. Davis, of Ashland, began the work of prospecting for the location of the quarry, and on May 21, 1891 the quarry was set in operation. The first cargo, consisting of 7000 cu. Ft., left for Buffalo, New York, on the 17th of June the same year. In 1892 Mr. Prentice formed a stock company under the name of Excelsior Brownstone Company, which has owned and operated the quarry. Owing to financial difficulties, the quarry was not operated in 1897-98.  Up to 1897, the average annual output was about 220,000 cu. Ft., with the exception of 1896, when it fell to 100,000 cu. ft.

Quarry Observations: The quarry on this island is located immediately adjacent to the shore and consists of two openings. The sandstone outcrops along the shore, on either side of the quarry, exposing several beds having a thickness of 10 feet or more. The opening farthest south is irregular in shape, having a face 180 feet long with a maximum thickness of about 20 feet. This is the smaller opening and consists of four benches, the upper one of which is 4 to 8 feet deep, while the other three are each 4 feet deep.  The stripping is very light, being not over 4 feet thick, with the probability that it will not increase for a considerable distance back from the face.  The jointing and irregular cracking of the face are essentially the same as that observed in the quarries of neighboring islands.

The color of the sandstone is a shade or two lighter brown than that obtained from other quarries of this area. Occasional light colored spots occur on the face of the quarry, indicating that the stone is mottled, in places, with white. That these are not abundant is shown by the large blocks, free from whited spots, which have bee quarried and near the opening.

The most unfortunate feature of these beds in the occurrence of numerous small clay pockets. There is essentially no difference between the different benches in this project. None of the exposed beds of this quarry can be classified entirely as No. 1, although it is possible here, as elsewhere, to obtain by careful selection, a limited amount of No. 1 stone.  Pebbles are of infrequent occurrence and occur mainly on the natural beds.

The second opening, which is a few rods north of the first one, is much the larger of the two, but the character of the stone in the different benches does not differ materially from those of the first opening. Operations have extended to a depth of about 32 feet, but the character of the stone in the lower benches is not materially different form that which is obtained from those higher up.

General Considerations: The amount of stone which is accessible in this quarry is unlimited, as it is at the other brownstone quarries. The company is well equipped with machinery for quarrying, and each of the openings is provided with a good pier, built of logs and stone. About $150,000.00 have been invested in the development of this quarry.


Statistical Data:

  • Facilities for quarrying: 1 25-H.P. engine, 3 channelers, 4 steam derricks, tug and scow
  • Average number of employees in 1898- None at present
  • Average value of each grade per cubic foot: No. 1, $.50, No. 2, $.30


Partial List of Buildings Constructed from the Prentice/Excelsior Brownstone Company:

  • Lumber Exchange- Minneapolis
  • Potter Palmer residence- Chicago
  • Walnut Street Opera House- Cincinnati
  • The brownstone from the Prentice Brownstone Quarry has been used for constructional purposes in a total of 10 states and 40 cities, among which are the following;
    • New York- New York City, Brooklyn, Ogdensburg, Rochester, Troy, Buffalo
    • Ohio- Cleveland, Toledo, Sandusky, Cincinnati
    • Michigan- Detroit, Port Huron, Lansing, Escanaba, Bay City, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Battle Creek
    • Illinois- Chicago, Peoria, Rockford, Bloomington


Presque Isle 

The quarry of the Ashland Brownstone Company is located on the south shore of “Presque Isle” island, one of the Apostle Islands, about 8 or 10 miles northeast of Bass Island. This island is one of largest of the group and contains an abundance of excellent building stone. The quarry on this island was opened in 1869, and has been operated continuously each year, until operations were suspended in 1897.  The quarry is now leased by a Michigan Company, which has been operating for some years in the Portage Entry sandstone.

Quarry Observations: the company controls about 91 acres of land surrounding the two openings, from which a major part of the brownstone has been quarried. The first opening, which is adjacent to the shore has very irregular outline. The main face of this opening is about 45 feet deep and consists of 12 benches.  Near the lake the quarry has been developed about 28 feet deeper, making in all 19 benches, with a total thickness of 73 feet.

The upper portion of the quarry, comprising 6 benches, is considerably mottled and streaked with white. The lowest 12 feet include the hardest and most uniformly textured and colored stone in the quarry. The intervening bed are mottled in certain parts with white spots and streaks.

The upper bench is contained numerous vesicles caused by the weathering out of small clay  pockets. The lower 12 feet contains only occasional large pockets, generally occurring near the center of the bed.  They are few in number, and do not interfere with the possibility of obtaining excellent No. 1 dimension stone. No. 1 stone can be obtainable from different parts of the same bench, shows the necessity for carefully grading the output. One cannot point out any individual bed that is composed entirely of No. 1 stone. Certain parts of the benches are No. 1 stone, while other parts are No. 2 or No. 3. The stripping of the soil is very light, consisting at the most of on 2 or 3 feet.

The second opening is much smaller than the first and is located on the side of the bluff above the first opening. The covering of soil is light, being not over two or three feet thick. This opening is about 255 feet long by 105 feet wide, and somewhat irregular in shape.  The excavation comprises four benches in the deepest part, and two on either end. The stone from the upper bench is mainly rubble, while that of the lower three benches is largely No. 1. These benches are composed of remarkably clear, uniform stone, and best observed in either opening. The stone from these benches is remarkably free from clay pockets and exhibits but few white streaks or spots.

General Considerations- One of the commendable features of the quarry is its freedom from accumulation of rubble and stripping, which in many quarries interferes with easy working. The company is well equipped with modern machinery for quarrying and is prepared to furnish stone for all purposes for which brownstone is used, including basements, piers, breakwaters, and building. The markets are the same as those of other quarries.


Statistical Data:

  • Amount of capital invested: $110,000.00
  • Facilities at hand for quarrying: 3 75-hp engines, 4 channelers, 5 steam derricks, 2 steam drills.
  • Average number of employees: 75 when running
  • Wages paid different classes of employees: $1.50-$3.50
  • Cost of cutting and dressing stone per cubic foot: Sawn, $.25
  • Cost of transportation: By rail, Chicago, $.10 per hundred; by water, Chicago, $2.00/Ton
  • Average value of each grade per cubic foot: No. 1, $.50; No. 2, $.40; No. 3, $.30; ton, $2.50
  • Shipment for the last five years
    • 1892- 200,000 feet
    • 1893- 175,000 feet
    • 1894- 230,000 feet
    • 1895- 285,000 feet
    • 1896- 240,000 feet 

Partial List of Buildings Constructed from the Ashland Company:

  • 1896 Bridges Wisconsin Central Railway
  • Chicago-St. Paul-Minneapolis-Omaha: Eau Claire
  • Hudson Building- Detroit
  • Knight Block Building- Ashland
  • Schmidt Block- Detroit
  • Telephone Building- Detroit

This history brief was written by Robert J. Nelson. Generously sharing our local history through his research and writing.