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As Lincoln Memorial turns 100, Marble town history is written in pure white stone

Locations: News Published

After visiting the beginnings of Colorado-Yule Marble Company in the town of Marble, architect Henry Bacon insisted on using its luminous, white stone for the Parthenon-styled exterior of the Lincoln Memorial he was designing. Its color was, he asserted, “immeasurably superior” to the four tried-and-true marble sources also being considered by the Lincoln Memorial Commission.

Colorado Yule marble was far more expensive to extract and difficult to transport to the Memorial’s site in Washington D.C. than the other contenders were. Could Yule marble, mined at a remote quarry located at an elevation of 9,500 feet on Treasure Mountain, be produced in sufficient quantity and fabricated to Bacon’s exacting standard?

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In 1914, the Memorial Commission finally accepted Bacon’s choice. Doubt remained, however, as to whether this pure kind of metamorphosed limestone when fabricated could — to paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln — long endure.

It’s still too soon to say. May 30 marks the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication, when both the ideals embodied by the 16th president and the marble temple enshrining them, seem a little worse for wear. The dedication occurred on Decoration Day, precursor to Memorial Day, a national holiday instituted to commemorate soldiers killed during the Civil War.

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A century later, the Lincoln Memorial remains the Yule Marble quarry’s most spectacular commission. To commemorate the anniversary and beginning of its summer season, the Marble Historical Society (MHS) hosts a barbeque benefit at the Marble Hub on May 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Specimens of Marble’s unique contribution to the iconic Lincoln Memorial are preserved at the outdoor Marble National Historic Site. Kimberly Perrin, a longtime resident of Marble who worked for subsequent owners of the Yule mine and is now the MHS president, led The Sopris Sun on a tour of the historic site. Massive cut blocks and fluted drums of sparkly calcium carbonate, or “fishbones,” which is what Perrin said Yule marble metamorphosed from, were left behind due to defects in the stone or in the cutting.

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Inspection at the mine and at the mill — once the largest building of its kind in the world — was required to be “sufficiently severe,” according to George P. Merrill, the project’s supervising geologist. Less than 20% of the marble extracted and fabricated met the quality standard, said Perrin. Rejected material was tossed aside or used as riprap to stabilize the banks of the Crystal River. Some rejects were positioned to curb avalanches and mudslides.

“About 1,000 to 1,500 men worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two years,” said Perrin. Many advanced marble cutters came from Italy and Austria. The 4,130 separate pieces of finished marble filled 500 railroad cars bound for Washington. It took laborers 22 hours to fabricate the 413 perfectly fluted marble drums, weighing about 13 tons apiece; each was then trimmed to subtly different diameters to achieve the visual perspective Bacon admired in ancient Greek architecture.

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In D.C., the drums were assembled into the gracious 44-foot-tall colonnade mirrored in the National Mall’s reflecting pool. The colonnade’s 36 columns symbolize each of the states constituting the United States when Lincoln died.

“The workers did too good a job,” said Alex Menard, MHS treasurer. Menard surmised that the mining company spent so much on manpower and wasted so much stone that it was driven into bankruptcy shortly after completing its contract, five months ahead of schedule. The last Yule marble exterior block was laid at the Memorial in November 1916. Soonafter, Italian and Austrian workers were returning home to fight one another in World War I.

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In a show of American patriotism, when the mine was closed during World War II, Menard said that a do-gooder in town reportedly “recycled” Bacon’s original Memorial drawings. The fireproof cottage of hewn marble brick where the papers were stored still stands. The National Park Service, which tends the Lincoln Memorial, supplied copies of some drawings displayed at MHS, which is located in the old schoolhouse where classes still meet.

Through decades Marble’s mine weathered the typical cycle of openings and closures. The Italian firm R.E.D. Graniti purchased the property in 2011 and combined it with Colorado Stone Quarries which employs about 24 people in Marble.

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While Bacon was determined that the Lincoln Memorial’s exterior would be made entirely of Colorado Yule marble, he selected stone from Confederate states for the interior to represent restored national unity. Pink marble from Tennessee clads the walls. The powerfully seated Lincoln sculpted by Daniel Chester French is of white Georgia marble; the ceiling is Alabama marble.

War seems to have created a special niche for Yule marble. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery is another famous example of the stone’s application. At more than 140 national cemeteries where annual Memorial Day commemorations honor the nation’s fallen, thousands of gleaming white headstones fabricated from Yule marble mark their final resting place.

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Tags: #Alex Menard #Lincoln Memorial #Marble
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