• Granite Column: Railroads fight, but trucks take over
    October 07,2013

    This article, Part II of the latest in a monthly series on Vermont’s granite industry, is provided courtesy of the Vermont Granite Museum.

    By Andreas Kuehnpast

    In Part I, we looked at the development of the railroads serving the Barre granite industry into their golden years of a near monopoly of this business. In the 1920s, truck transport of granite commenced, but its inroads into the granite hauling market were slow due to the limitations of truck technology and poor road conditions. In Part II, we will see how both trucks and roads improved, how the railroads fought back, and the final virtually complete takeover of granite transport by the truck.

    Trucks and roads evolve

    Over the decades, the trucking industry and federal and state governments were able to work on all the factors limiting the use of trucks. Trucks became much more reliable and grew both in capacity and size.

    Pioneer trucker Ted Rossi from Barre stated in an interview in 1982: “We started with straight trucks, eventually went to tandem-wheeled trucks, and then we graduated up to the tractor-trailers. We began with trucks that had four speeds (gears) and now we have rigs with nine, 13 and 15 speeds with two gear boxes. Two rigs can now haul the same amount of memorials that used to be carried by 11 truckers.”

    Wally Belville, son of trucking pioneer Tom Belville, who was a partner in the first trucking company in Barre, founded in 1935, said in a 1982 interview: “Hell, when I was growing up, an 18-foot trailer was fantastically long. Everyone has 40-foot trailers now, and some are even 42 feet long.”

    Today the flatbed trucks used by local market leader Bellavance Trucking for transporting rough granite blocks and finished monuments can haul more than 20 tons and are warranted for 500,000 miles.

    With today’s network of well-paved roads and streets, many people do not know or do not remember how difficult it once was to drive from one town to another. Outside of towns and cities, road conditions were rough until the 1940s. With the improvement in road conditions and the construction of additional roads, truck traffic grew in volume and range covered. This affected the finished monument traffic that had been a mainstay for the Barre & Chelsea Railroad and Central Vermont Railway’s Williamstown Branch. 

    Railroad fights back

    The Barre & Chelsea Railroad tried to defend against the intrusion of the truckers into its core business by cutting costs wherever it could. It did not buy any new freight cars after 1911. Instead it acquired secondhand freight cars from the Boston & Maine Railroad. The only exception was the one steel well-hole flat car bought in 1938, and that car ran on used trucks that were about 20 years old.

    The same acquisition policy also applied to steam locomotives that were bought secondhand from the Boston & Maine Railroad. Often these locomotives were so run-down that they lasted only for a few years.

    In addition, the Barre & Chelsea Railroad deferred maintenance on buildings and tracks and switched to short-term cost-saving materials like untreated ties that would rot quickly in the wet Vermont climate and needed to be replaced more often.

    The Barre & Chelsea Railroad had been related to the Montpelier & Wells River Railroad since it was created in 1913. They had the same stockholders, the same management and used the same offices in the Montpelier & Wells River station in Montpelier. Actually, the relationship between the two railroads dated back to the founding of the Barre Railroad in 1888. To reduce the administrative and management costs, the Barre & Chelsea Railroad merged with the neighboring Montpelier & Wells River Railroad in January 1945. A substantial cost-cutting measure that constituted a major investment for the cash-strapped Barre & Chelsea was the switch from labor-intensive steam locomotives to the new labor-saving diesel locomotives in 1947.

    The railroad not only made those defensive steps, it also offered a new pickup service for smaller monument shipments that went in less-than-carload service in the Barre granite district. This service did not last long and was canceled in the 1940s. Most likely it was replaced by cooperation with one of the local trucking companies. In addition, the Barre & Chelsea Railroad provided faster and cheaper service for small granite loads that were sent out in complete cars (not requiring reloading en route) directly to major cities in the United States.

    Trucks take over

    Despite all the defensive actions by the railroads, trucks took over one after another the service areas once considered a railroad monopoly.

    The transport of rough granite from the granite quarries was one of the first areas into which trucks made inroads. Until the 1920s, the Barre & Chelsea had a quasi-monopoly for transporting granite blocks from the quarries. Starting in the 1930s, the share the railroad had in the total volume of granite originating at the quarries began to shrink. As Barre granite manufacturer William Barclay stated in a 1939 article on the Barre granite industry: “In recent years, automotive trucks have been competing vigorously with the railroad in transporting rough granite from the ‘hill’ (as the quarries are locally termed) to the manufacturing plants.”

    In Barre, the standard saw blocks had a weight of about 20 tons for a long time. For early trucks, the 20-ton saw blocks were much too heavy. This kept them from being transported by truck for a long time. Smaller blocks, though, were transported by truck starting in the 1920s.

    Over the years, the size of blocks that trucks could transport did increase. In 1934, trucks had transported only 17 percent of the rough granite; by 1949, their share had grown to 36 percent; and in 1955, they transported 54 percent of the granite quarried on Millstone Hill.

    By the 1920s, the first truckers also began transporting finished monuments. In the beginning they only covered a small range, but as trucks and roads improved they gradually extended their range. In 1934, trucks transported 16 percent of the rough and finished granite out of the Barre granite district. By 1938, their share had grown to 22 percent.

    The 1940s brought the big change in truck transport. 1949 was the first year in which trucks transported more rough granite blocks and finished memorials out of the Barre granite district than the Barre & Chelsea and Central Vermont railroads combined. This trend continued in the following years. Between 1970 and 1977, the volume of granite transported by the Montpelier & Barre Railroad (the successor of the Barre & Chelsea) dropped from 9,497 to 1,459 tons — about 1 percent of the granite quarried on Millstone Hill. Now all of Rock of Ages’ shipping is done by truck — its own and independent truckers from its quarries and mostly Bellavance Trucking from its manufacturing plant.

    Another important area was transporting grout pieces from the quarries to the grout piles. As 85 percent of the granite quarried in Barre was discarded as grout, this constituted the largest share of granite transport. Into the 1920s, grout removal was done by Blondins (aerial cableways), horse-drawn wagons and small railcars that were pulled up steeply inclined grout piles. Some of the larger quarries also had started operating their own side-dump and end-dump grout cars around 1905. For this they created inclined grout piles.

    In the 1920s, the quarries first started using small trucks to transport their grout. In making this change, they also had to go back to creating level grout piles. Both the horses and the early trucks could not go uphill while moving heavy grout loads.

    Out of the big five quarries in operation on Millstone Hill in the mid-20th century — E.L. Smith, Pirie, Rock of Ages, Wells-Lamson and Wetmore & Morse — two switched to grout transport by truck in the 1920s: Pirie and Wells-Lamson. The other three transported their grout by rail into the late 1950s. Then they also moved to trucks. Today they still heavily rely on a fleet of mostly old dump trucks with a capacity of 35 tons.

    Starting in the 1920s, dump trucks were used to remove overburden when new areas were prepared for quarrying. The first known such use of trucks dates from the late 1920s when a 1925-27 Ford TT dump truck was used to transport overburden at the Pirie Quarry. Trucks have continued in this service, growing in capacity over the decades.

    Less-than-carload service was important for the Barre & Chelsea Railroad and the Central Vermont Railway, the two railroads that competed for the granite traffic originating in Barre. This service was an “intermodal” traffic since the finished monuments were delivered to the freight houses of the two railroads (in the center of Barre, close to Depot Square) by truck and then continued their journey by railroad. Over the years this service became truck only, eliminating the railroad part. Starting in the 1970s, consolidation of granite loads from different manufacturers was moved from the railroad-operated freight houses to special consolidation buildings, mostly old granite sheds.

     After a struggle that lasted half a century, the Montpelier & Barre had to give in in the 1970s. It was not able to keep a substantial share of the Barre granite volume. Today trucks dominate the scene, both at the quarries, where grout is transported by huge 35-ton dump trucks and granite blocks are moved by giant flatbed trucks, and in the granite manufacturing plants, where flatbed trucks are used to move the finished monuments to monument dealers.

    When I last visited Barre in May and June of this year, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Washington County Railroad still active in serving customers in Barre. Not too long ago the railroad had even moved a lot of rip-rap down from Millstone Hill. It was good to find the ghost of the old Barre Railroad still around, 125 years after it was constructed.

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