For almost three months, giant earthmovers have been carving away at thick orange-red rock layers on an outcropping of sandstone near the southern edge of McMillan Mesa, 1 mile east of downtown.
When the rock cliffs are aflame in sunlight, traffic sometimes slows on Route 66, as drivers pass the intersection at Enterprise and look at the colorful sight on the hill.
Grading is almost finished and construction will begin soon on Flagstaff Fire Station No. 2.
In 1888, this same location was alive with activity as workers cut the distinctive red rock from the face of the newly established Arizona Sandstone Co. quarry.
Hand-worked pulleys, drills and saws allowed more than 50 laborers to produce stone of any size and amount.
A sales brochure from the time said, "The quarry has a perpendicular face of solid stone" more than 50 feet high and extending more than 700 feet long, according to "Secrets of the Sierra Sin Aguas," a 2006 book by local historian Malcolm Mackey.
Once loaded, a railroad spur that went to the quarry allowed boxcars to transport big blocks of Moenkopi sandstone to be used to construct buildings here and farther afield.
One of the biggest projects started in 1889 with more than 500 boxcars, which were sent to California to build the Los Angeles County Courthouse.
BETTER THAN WOOD
Today, classic sandstone structures still stand, such as Old Main at NAU, railroad depots in Flagstaff and Holbrook, Flagstaff Federated Community Church, Coconino County Courthouse, the Babbitt Brothers building and the historic Weatherford Hotel.
Also called Arizona Red, Moenkopi sandstone is named for the geological formation spread across northern Arizona, eastern Utah, western Colorado and New Mexico, which was deposited about 240 million years ago when the area was an extremely wide coastal plain.
The use of this red stone became the standard in Flagstaff after a series of fires devastated wood structures downtown.
"Quarrying sandstone was by now an important industry and in August 1889, Arizona Sandstone Company was paying $500 a day freight on stone shipped for construction purposes to points as distant as Omaha," according to "They Came to the Mountain," a 1976 book by local historian Platt Cline.
By 1892, the sandstone industry had become second only to lumber operations in its contribution to the economy of a fledgling Flagstaff.
BIG BLOCKS USEFUL
Before the Arizona Sandstone Co. quarry started operations, builders of the railroad first opened the Sunshine Quarry, which was located 35 miles east of downtown Flagstaff, said 25-year Flagstaff resident Marie Jackson, whose 1999 book, "Stone Landmarks" explores the use of native stone to build our town.
"That's where they first started quarrying sandstone for structures up and down the rails," said Jackson, reached by phone at Cornell University, where she is researching how the ancient Romans used volcanic ash to create concrete. "They also used big blocks of it as support for trestles."
Sandstone blocks were also used for dams and for lining holding ponds along the railway.
The local rocks used as building stones in many buildings lining the streets of downtown Flagstaff were formed long ago by huge desert sand dunes, an ancient tropical sea, a desert river system, large flows of molten volcanic rock and an explosive volcanic eruption, Jackson said in her book.
OLD FLAGSTAFF UNCOVERED
The fortunes of the sandstone industry in Flagstaff went up and down with good and bad economic times.
Red sandstone also seemed to deteriorate faster when subject to a moist climate or acid rain, such as in the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, which was built in 1892, according to "Stone Landmarks."
"The Whittier Mansion in foggy San Francisco suffered the most," Jackson added.
Still, the artistic touch of the community of stonecutters from Scotland and the English county of Cornwall, who moved here in the mid-1880s to work in stone, can be seem in the delicately carved cornices, moldings, arches and scrolls on the sandstone buildings that remain.
Many of these elegant details have only recently been appreciated, said Jackson, who wrote her book in the 1990s, when there was a movement to take newer facings off older buildings downtown.
Many building owners were putting money, effort and interest into bringing older buildings up to code and making them last for another century, she said.
"The courthouse had the 1950s Coconino sandstone facing and Babbitt's department store had the aluminum facing," she said. "One by one, on the buildings downtown people were starting to peel off the facing ... Looking around town, it was really neat to see old Flagstaff get uncovered."
Betsey Bruner can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2255.
Five building stones native to Flagstaff
The wonders of Moenkopi sandstone were well-known to the ancients, such as the Sinagua who, from about A.D. 1100 to 1225, used the stone to construct their villages at Wupatki National Monument northeast of town.
Jackson said there are five different building stones, all native to Flagstaff: Moenkopi sandstone, Malpais basalt, Kaibab limestone, pumiceous dacite and olivine basalt lava.
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"You can see how early inhabitants of Flagstaff took those rocks and see how they fashioned them into special architectural styles," Marie Jackson said. "It's very unique that all that rock came from within the city limits. Many cities have stone buildings and most of that stone was imported in from elsewhere. All these stones came from Flagstaff."
The Arizona Sandstone Co. quarry lasted through the 1940s, operating intermittently to produce stone for many buildings, particular on the campus of NAU.
Jackson, who has a doctorate in earth sciences, said the Flagstaff schools have a program to teach third-graders about the geology of Flagstaff and its building stones, but adults don't always know the importance of historic buildings in Flagstaff.
-- Betsey Bruner, Sun staff reporter
The Milligans and their bricks
By Betsey Bruner
Arts & Culture Editor
In the late 1800s, the brick industry in Flagstaff also figured significantly in the building boom that put early Flagstaff on the map.
James Curtis Milligan, a Civil War veteran, arrived in Flagstaff in 1887 and worked with the Hochderffer family to establish a brickmaking company in town.
The Hochderffer family, led by father Frank, arrived in Flagstaff from Illinois in 1887, just after one of many fires had leveled much of the business section of town.
They knew how to make bricks and started to work rebuilding the downtown.
Milligan, and his wife, Flora Hopkins Milligan, had also moved from Illinois to Flagstaff, via Las Vegas, N.M., where her family lived. Some of their extended family descendants still live in Flagstaff today.
FIRST MUNICIPAL BUILDING
Some historical sources say the site of the brickworks was where the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library is today on West Aspen Avenue. Others say Thorpe Park and at the foot of Observatory Mesa.
"It was for the reddish clay used in old Flagstaff brick, before they started importing more durable yellow brick from Gallup on the train, about 1910," said Marie Jackson, a local geologist and author.
Milligan brick is featured in the two-story residence of J.C. Milligan, who in 1904 was serving as Justice of the Peace when he built the Milligan House, now at 323 W. Aspen Ave. and currently used by the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"A Milligan built the very first municipal building in town ," said Flagstaff's Terrence Milligan, adding that J.C. Milligan was either his great- or great-great uncle. "If you look at some of the old buildings, they covered up some of the brick. I just saw some Milligan brick at Collin's Pub. They did a remodel. They had a stamp, but they didn't stamp every brick."
He said he knows the brickworks had a kiln, but he is not sure where "they got the mud."
A CATHOLIC CONNECTION
Terrence Milligan said his is a large, Irish-Catholic family and that most of his relatives have been in the logging or farming industries.
Milligan said he was raised in the Pacific Northwest and his family used to come to Flagstaff to visit family.
"We always came here when I was a little boy," he said. "We'd go to Oak Creek Canyon and come to Flagstaff. My cousin moved out here, so I had an opportunity in 1982 to move here, so I did."
Other Milligan brick buildings in Flagstaff include the first U.S. Post Office (1898), Taylor Hall at NAU (1905) and other homes and office building.
Today, Milligan and his wife have five daughters, and he is supervising the construction of the new church facilities for the San Francisco de Asis Parish at the top of McMillan Mesa, just above the site of the old Arizona Sandstone Co. quarry.
Coming full circle, some of the Arizona Red sandstone recently cut out has been moved up the hill to the grounds of the new church.
Read all about our stone history
WHAT: "Stone Landmarks: Flagstaff's Geology and Historic Building Stones," by Marie D. Jackson
A wonderful layman's guidebook to geology, with a unique local-interest approach that brings the rocks to life. Discover how earth and human history meet in the walls of Flagstaff's lovely stone buildings.
Publisher, Piedra Azul Press, 1999