How The Stone Quarry Industry Sparked Door County’s Economy And Shaped The Great Lakes



“Door County’s first export consisted of stone.”


While Door County presently thrives on the tourism industry, it was the stone quarry industry which brought economic growth to the area which made it resemble what we see in modern day. Throughout the Great Lakes is rich, textured limestone which was quarried from Door County and transferred by water for use in the construction of breakwaters, harbors and piers by the federal government.

The rich, textured bluffs seen around Door Peninsula were formed more than 400 million years ago during the Silurian Age from sediment deposited on the floor of the ocean waters which at that time covered most of the continent. Millions of years of the continents shifting coupled with the advance and retreat of glaciers has eroded any softer layers of the bedrock and exposed a rock ridge of solid dolomite, a limestone rich in magnesium. This dolomite basin contains Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Erie (Wikipedia).

A map of the Niagara Escarpment which spans across the United States and Canada and runs predominantly east–west from New York through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The escarpment is most famous as the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls, for which it is named.
A map of the Niagara Escarpment which spans across the United States and Canada and runs predominantly east–west from New York through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The escarpment is most famous as the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls, for which it is named.

The cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment have the oldest forest ecosystem in eastern North America. They stretch in a horseshoe shape through Ontario, along the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and finally ending at its namesake, The Niagara Falls.

It was in 1834 that the Federal Government began to quarry stone at the Government bluff which rises 150 feet above the waters of Sturgeon Bay. The governments attention was originally attracted thanks originally to Stanley Greene’s article for the Door County Advocate in June of 1976 on the city of Sturgeon Bay’s “Golden Age of Stone”. It was this newspaper article which attracted Samuel Straumbaugh, a Indian Agent at Fort Howard in the 1830s, who while reporting in letters to the government fell in love with the “commodious and beautiful” harbor and later proclaiming the shoreline of Door Peninsula to be a prime location for quarrying. In these reports he cites the quantity and quality of the stone and the ease of transport of the Great Lakes which led the government to secure 100 acres of land overlooking Sawyer Road, which is currently the site of Potawatomi State Park.

Though the government was first led here from Straumbaugh’s reports on the stone, the land was originally intended for a military fort that was never constructed. Instead, in 1834 a company of Green Bay men obtained a permit to open a quarry on the land from the federal government, as mentioned in M. Marvin Lotz’s book Discovering Door County’s Past. There was one condition, “that the stone be sold only for the purpose of building breakwaters and harbors.” This quarry came to be known as Government Bluff. From it, millions of tons of limestone have been used by the federal government in the construction of nearly all of the harbors, breakwaters and piers found in the Great Lakes. Soon after, other quarries began opening in the area which tapered off business.

The original quarry wouldn’t be reopened until the early 1880s by a squatter, Frank Hogan, who went on to start the Green Stone Company in Sawyer (now part of the city of Sturgeon Bay).

Government Bluff with it’s astounding view of Sturgeon Bay as seen from Potawatomi Park’s historical marker.

The view from Government Bluff is astounding. The amazing view and historical sight can be found by searching for the historical marker located deep inside Potawatomi State Park, on northbound North Norway Road (the road ascending to the Potawatomi Tower) at the mouth of Sturgeon Bay.

Thanks to the original rock quarry’s success, shipments of stone by water began way from Door County at very early dates. Alanson Sweet, a vessel owner and commission man in Milwaukee, in 1849, opened a quarry at Baileys Harbor, whose founder he was, and took a number of cargoes of stone to Milwaukee in the following two or three years.

A stone quarry was also opened at Door Bluff as early as 1854 by some men from Green Bay. The character of the rock found there led to the belief that it contained marble of fine quality for building purposes and preparations were made for extensive operations in the product. Village lots were laid out on the summit of the bluff*, and a large pier was constructed.

The marble proved to be a delusion, however, and the works were abandoned after a few cargoes had been shipped. The foundations of the ill-fated Newhall House, Milwaukee’s large and elegant hotel, were built of stone quarried at this quarry in 1856. This hotel was destroyed by fire in 1882 and about one hundred of its inmates perished in the flames.

Leathem D Smith Quarry in 1918

The stone quarry started by Mr. Sweet at Baileys Harbor was re-opened in 1868 and for a few seasons large quantities of stone were shipped to the east shore of Lake Michigan. The stone industry is generally said to have been started by Robert Laurie and his son, John. In 1880 the Laurie Stone Quarry was opened up and about nine hundred cords of stone were shipped from this quarry in that year. A large part of this was building stone which was taken to Marinette and retailed to builders in that and neighboring towns. In the same year L.R . McLachlan opened a quarry. He shipped about the same amount of stone. His stone, however, was shipped across Lake Michigan and used by the Government for harbor construction. McLachlan’s quarry was operated for a time by the Washington Ice Company and is now known as the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company.

Early in the eighties Frank Hogan opened a stone quarry in the Government Bluff at the mouth of Sturgeon Bay. Being only a squatter on this land he was driven off*, whereupon he started a quarry in Sawyer. This is now known as the Green Stone Company.

In 1893 Leathem & Smith opened their quarry at the mouth of Sturgeon Bay which became one of the largest crushed stone plants operating in the state with a capacity of 1,000 tons of crushed stone per day.

In 1914, a huge stone crushing plant was constructed on the lower quarry floor. On the upper level, a steam shovel loaded stone into carts, which were hauled to the crushing plant by a miniature locomotive. Conveyors carried the crushed stone to screens where it was washed and sorted. From stockpiles, the stone was loaded onto ships converted to barges. The steel frontage and wooden pilings along the shore are remnants of the quarry dock. Just offshore lie the remains of two of the stone barges, the Joseph L. Hurd, built in 1869 as a passenger steamer, and the Mueller, built in 1887 as a steam-screw.

The marker is located at Olde Stone Quarry County Park, Harbor of Refuge and Boat Launch on southbound Bay Shore Drive / County Road B, about a half-mile north of its intersection with Bay Shore Heights Drive, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin 54235.

The crushing machines have been put to waste after decades of never being utilized.

Photo courtesy of Door County Historical Museum.

According to historical records, here’s how the entire stone quarry process worked:

“There are fully two hundred thousand cubic yards of chips in one large pile extending north end of the quarry which accumulated. These chips are loaded into cars by a steam shovel, each containing four cubic yards or five tons of stone, and conveyed to the crushing plant by the “dinky” locomotive.

The cars dump onto the large crusher, which chews and crunches and appears to swallow the entirety of five tons in four minutes. An apparently endless string of cars is being dumped continually into the mouth of this massive machine.

A photo of the rock quarry workers whose employer stayed in business the longest in Door County on Government Bluff.
Photo courtesy of Door County Historical Museum.

From there, the filtration process begins using conveyors to screens where the stone is washed and assorted into the
various sizes and the stone which came through too large is returned to two smaller crushers where it is re-crushed.

There are five sizes of crushed stone. From the screens the product is carried by means of chutes into separate bins and carried out from these bins by tunnel and piling conveyors to stock piles. By a tunnel conveyor the stock is loaded on the boats.

The greater part of this stone is sold to various towns who use it for building concrete and macadam roads. In connection with the crushed stone plant is the stone quarry proper, from which is derived the rubble stone and rip-rap, which
is used entirely in breakwater work and by the Government.

Rubble stone is used for curb work and is called one-man stone, weighing between 50 and 100 pounds. Rip-rap stone each weigh from two to five tons, are used for the same purpose as the rubble, and are handled and loaded by a derrick.
A n interesting part of the quarry work is the blasting in which a ton or more of dynamite is used in one explosion, throwing down 20,000 tons of rock in a single blast.

The present face of the quarry is about fifty feet in height and a drill machine works along the top boring 6-inch holes fifty feet deep to the base. A series of probably ten holes are drilled and loaded with dynamite. When the explosion occurs it appears as though the whole side of a mountain had been blown away. Eventually the quarry will have a 70-foot face.”

The apparent success of these early stone quarry companies induced a number of others to follow their example. In the ’80s and ’90s stone quarries were opened at Ephraim, Mud Bay, Ellison Bay, Garrets Bay, Washington Island and other points, and for a short time a large amount of stone was quarried.

As World War I broke out, civic building projects came to a halt and the quarries in Door County had a difficult time staying in business. Lotz states, “Basically, when the period of harbor building on Lake Michigan ended, so did the life span of many of the quarries.” However, it should be noted that by the time Holand’s book was first printed in 1917, “millions of tons of Door County stone [had] been used in harbor improvement. Almost every harbor on Lake Michigan was built in part with Door County stone.”

While traveling through Door County it’s possible to not realize just how significant an impact this industry had in creating the modern day towns, villages and cities. The legacy of the stone age can’t ever be dismissed though, as the stone which was first quarried here has shaped nearly all the harbors along shores of the Great Lakes.

It’s thanks to this industry that the National and State Historic Landmark, Bullhead Point, exists today for all to see.

Additional Sources:

The Legacy of an Industry: Quarrying for Stone in Door County
By Allison Vroman, Door County Living

“Quarries Provided City ‘Golden Age of Stone,’” by Stanley Greene. Door County Advocate, June 10, 1976.

History of Door County, Wisconsin: The County Beautiful, Volume I by Hjalmar R. Holand. Wm. Caxton Ltd., Ellison Bay, WI, 1993.

Discovering Door County’s Past: A Comprehensive History of the Door Peninsula in Two Volumes, Volume I by Marvin M. Lotz. Holly House Press, Fish Creek, WI 1994.

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