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Block Busters

In one of the world's largest underground marble quarries, workers cut white stone out of Vermont's Dorset Mountain. MONUMENTAL STONE

THE entrance to what may be the world's largest underground marble quarry is not only understated, it is totally unpublicized. There are none of the ``See Mammoth Cave'' type signs dotting the New England countryside; only a winding, unmarked rural road with a couple of quaint houses leading up to the quarry's entrance outside Danby, Vt. This is a working facility, not a tourist attraction, and unless one has been specially invited (as this reporter was), the inside of Dorset Mountain is destined to remain a mystery.

By mid-morning, this region of southwestern Vermont is heating up rapidly. Inside the Vermont Marble Company quarry, however, it is perpetual sweater weather - dark and cool.

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To get to the bottom, one has to take ``the plunge,'' which is superintendant Mike Blair's way of describing the gradual 3/4-mile descent down through the nine-layer trough of marble in the bowels of this otherwise undistinguished mountain. But this is no claustrophobic tunnel. It's a sprawling cathedral of monumental stone.

``Steven Spielberg would love this place,'' says another visitor. And, indeed, the vaulted corridors might hold cinematic appeal for Hollywood's ``Lost Ark'' creator.

Using the room-and-pillar method of quarry development, huge columns of unfarmed marble have been left to support the inside of Dorset Mountain. The main underground avenue is wide enough to drive a semitrailer truck over.

The interior has a carved-out look, as well it should given the nature of marble quarrying. The 400-million-year-old stone is removed in 15-ton blocks that measure roughly seven by five by five feet.

The occasion for this rare tour, given to a small group of state and business bigwigs and media members, was to help christen a ``Vermont Makes It Special'' marketing campaign for in-state products.

The program is meant to play on ``the mystique and special aura'' that Gov. Madeleine Kunin says surrounds the state. Vermont maple syrup is already famous, and the state wants to focus attention on Vermont's rich marble deposits, which are virtually unmatched in the United States. The sparsely illuminated subterranean complex here is the home of the renowned Danby (white) marble.

``You don't need a salesman for this stuff,'' Mr. Blair says.

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Once the blocks are extracted from the catacombed 27-acre site, they are trucked to Proctor, Vt., home of the company's charming factory, which has an inn-like quality with summery green awnings accenting the white-clapboard exterior. The geologic harvest from three separate quarries is cut to size and polished here.

Sawing the Danby-white blocks requires about six hours. The green Verde Antique marble, on the other hand, takes two days to cut through. It is the hardest of the company's three marble varieties, the other being the fossil-rich (Lake) Champlain black. The latter two are quarried from open pits, the common practice. (There are about 1,000 varieties of commercial marble, many identifiable by veining variations.)

Marble's influence is visible almost everywhere you look in Proctor, which takes its name from the Proctor family, who owned the company for many years. A marble bridge and marble churches might not immediately identify the local product, but passers-through get the picture once they've noticed the marble-clad firehouse.

It looks nearly as monumental as some of the structures in Washington, D.C., built using Vermont marble, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Supreme Court Building, and the three Senate office buildings. The government has also used their headstones for servicemen back through the Civil War.

Marble is a metamorphic rock that results from the crystalization of limestone. In the US, the most significant deposits are in northern Georgia and Vermont.

Where once there may have been a hundred quarries in Vermont (mostly of the open-pit variety), now there are only three of consequence. All are the property of Vermont Marble, which is celebrating its 120th year in business.

``The belt of marble that runs through the state is pretty well mapped and identified,'' says Mike Hussey, a company geologist. ``There's still plenty around, but it's rare that you find a big enough area to quarry economically that isn't under some town or being used in some other way.''

Since opening the Danby site in 1907, the quarry has yielded roughly 3 million cubic feet of marble. Current annual production is about 200,000 cubic feet, an ambitious pace given the small in-ground work force of 23 men.

``By using automated equipment we are able to produce more marble than we ever have with fewer people,'' says John Mitchell, the company's president, who places overall employment at about 100.

A new 8-foot, diamond-studded belt saw has recently been imported from Italy. It has made for a more efficient operation in the Danby quarry, but not so efficient that it threatens the marble reserves.

From core samples, geologists predict that supply could last another 75 years or more. ``After a certain point it doesn't continue to pay to prove how much exists,'' Mr. Mitchell observes.

Whatever the reserve's actual size, plenty remains to meet the increasing demand. Limestone, granite, and marble, the three main building stones, are making a comeback after a period in which fabricated materials were more popular.

The Marble Institute of America reports a 500-to-600 percent growth in marble use over the past decade.

``It's used by architects to make a classic statement,'' says Mitchell. ``It gives mass, it gives beauty, and it gives wear, plus it takes a polish, so you get a nice clean building.''

For a time, marble may have been viewed as too expensive, but that has changed as the energy costs of glass and steel, in manufacturing and insulating, have negated some of their advantages.

``Architects are saying if I have to pay [a higher] price I'll take marble, thank you,'' Mitchell observes.

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