Making A Splash

The fascinating history of the Dorset Quarry and Vermont’s marble industry


The influence of Southern Vermont’s marble industry remains profoundly evident in Manchester and its surrounding hills and valleys, from the quarry remnants dotting the slopes of Mount Aeolus to the celebrated swimming hole at the former site of the Dorset Quarry. Although the legendary Dorset Quarries largely ceased operations in the early 20th century, visitors can still relish a firsthand glimpse into their historic splendor by indulging in a refreshing dip in Dorset. Every summer, visitors flock to this renowned swimming hole, touted as one of the finest in the state. Once abandoned by the marble industry, the quarry gradually filled with water by the 1920s, fed by both a mountain stream and a natural spring.

Over the past several decades, the colossal, 60-foot-deep swimming hole has emerged as a celebrated destination. Its popularity surged in the advent of YouTube videos, as well as an accolade bestowed by USA Today, who named it as one of the “Top 12 Best Swimming Holes.” Photographs fail to capture the quarry’s true grandeur. Stretching 120 yards in length, its sheer scale leaves onlookers in awe. The water shines with an indescribably-vibrant blue and green hue, which transitions to a deep, midnight black at its maximum depths. Majestic slabs of marble adorn its periphery while sunbathers bask in the sunlight and swimmers drift leisurely in its cool waters. 

In celebration of one of Dorset’s most popular natural attractions, we at Manchester Life have partnered with Shawn Harrington, Curator at the Manchester Historical Society, providing a glimpse into the storied past of the Southern Vermont marble industry. While the historic quarries have ceased operations, their legacy remains alive in the hearts of all visitors and proud Vermonters.

An Iconic Beginning

The Dorset Quarry is believed to be the oldest in the United States, with quarrying activities dating back to 1785. Initially, marble was extracted for small-scale purposes, such as headstones. In the first half of the 19th century, larger blocks began to be shipped out via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. During its peak, the quarry served as a significant employer, with approximately 30 operational quarries in Dorset. At one point, the community balanced farming and quarrying, with around 400 individuals engaged in each occupation.

Some local structures were constructed using Dorset Marble, although its reach extended far beyond the region. Notable projects sourced from the quarry include the New York Public Library and a prominent building at Harvard Medical School. 

While the quarries and mills that once operated in Southern Vermont from the 18th to the early 20th century have faded into history, echoes of the most prominent among them endure in Manchester. The sparse vestiges of a once-mighty finishing mill now lie just off of Richville Road. In the early 1900s, it stood as a pivotal establishment – and it was possibly once the town’s principal employer. This mill was where Dorset marble was transformed into key structural components, which were used in some of the nation’s most iconic buildings.

TOP ROW LEFT: A derailed train car near the Manchester, Dorset, and Granville Railroad carrying Dorset Marble. TOP ROW RIGHT: Orlando Whitney Norcross, Co-Founder of the Norcross-West Company of Dorset. MIDDLE LEFT: A stockyard full of Dorset Marble. BOTTOM LEFT: Freshly quarried marble slabs. BOTTOM RIGHT: Horses hauling Dorset Marble

Building Prosperity

The Norcross Brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts, stood as eminent builders at the close of the 19th century, and were well-known for their quarries across several states. Their initial foray into Vermont was prompted by securing the contract for the esteemed New York Public Library. Their exclusive quarrying rights and capability to handle such a monumental project secured their victory.

It all started when Orlando Whitney Norcross ventured to Dorset in search of white marble in the quarries on Mount Aeolus. In partnership with local marble entrepreneur, Spafford Holley West, they established the Norcross-West Company of Dorset in 1900. Their new quarry would supply over 500,000 cubic feet of “Dorset White” marble for the library’sconstruction, both inside and out.

The expansive endeavor necessitated significant infrastructure expansions in Manchester and Dorset, complementing their established operations in Worcester, Massachusetts, Providence, Rhode Island, and Tuckahoe, New York. Quarrying operations in South Dorset kicked off promptly, while ground grading for the new mill in Manchester Depot commenced in October 1901. By the end of November, the foundation was set. The framing swiftly followed suit, with the building’s completion achieved by late January of 1902. Equipped with a steam boiler, engine, eight gangs of saws, rubbing beds, and a sizable overhead traveling crane, the mill was primed for efficient marble processing.While the mill primarily employed local laborers, Norcross Brothers drafted supervisors from their other ventures. Workforce fluctuations were common, ranging from a large team of 300 workers during peak periods to a skeletal crew during quieter times. To optimize their investment, Norcross Brothers pursued additional contracts as the mill ramped up operations. Plans for expanding the mill and doubling its initial size were unveiled in June of 1902, with heavy timber supplies sourced from Hapgood’s lumber mill in nearby Peru.

However, the conventional method of transporting marble from the quarry to the mill using manual labor proved cumbersome. This hindered the timely supply of blocks needed to fulfill contracts. The proposition of constructing a company railroad gained traction, yet the project faced resistance from Norcross, who deemed it excessively costly. Nevertheless, construction commenced on the new Manchester, Dorset, and Granville Railroad in November 1902, with passenger services opening to the public on September 2, 1903. Operating from the station situated north of the mill at the Depot Street crossing, the service made one stop before concluding its journey at the South Dorset quarry station. The locomotives shuttled empty flatcars and a passenger coach from the mill to the quarry and back, loaded with marble on the return journey.

At the apex of the booming marble market, Norcross’ ill-fated ventures in outside investments cast a shadow over the Northshire in July 1903. Uncertainty gripped Manchester, dominating both newspaper columns and local discussions. However, by the end of August, reassurance arrived from the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the Norcross Brothers’ assignment would not impact the Norcross-West Marble Company or the railroad.

Initially operating around the clock, seven days a week, the mill sustained a hectic pace, fueled by orders from new contracts and smaller projects across the northeast. Passenger service on the railroad also thrived as a popular mode of transportation between Manchester and Dorset. To meet the demands of projects like the New York Public Library and other contracts, the mill underwent three expansions within the first five years. In November 1906, the final shipment of stone for the New York Public Library departed. Subsequently, the mill’s nighttime operations ceased, triggering speculations about its closure and the transfer of machinery to the Norcross Brothers’ mills at Tuckahoe. Tragedy then struck on 

December 15, 1906, with the passing of Spafford West. His demise, amidst the mill’s constant operation, reverberated in shockwaves throughout the Southern Vermont community. However, come spring, former employees received notices announcing the mill’s reopening in June 1907, with an initial workforce of 18 men. 

Ernest, Spafford West’s son, was groomed for a role in the business from childhood. As a result, he naturally assumed leadership. Spafford’s memorial stone, sourced from the Norcross-West quarry, underwent cutting, sanding, and carving at the mill. Transporting the finished stone was a logistical feat: loaded onto the railroad, it journeyed to South Dorset, then transferred to a sleigh drawn by six teams of horses to Dorset’s Maple Hill Cemetery. 

In 1908, the company’s building projects surged, including the interior finishing of the Bureau of American Republics building in Washington D.C. Subsequent projects included the historic OAS (Organization of American States) building and the Memorial Continental Hall, D.A.R., in Washington, D.C. It boasted 13 fluted columns, which were carved from single monoliths sourced from the quarry. Unexpectedly, in May 1913, the Vermont Marble Company of Proctor, Vermont, announced its acquisition of the Norcross-West mill, quarry rights, and the railroad. The deal, encompassing over 2,000 acres, marked a significant shift. 

A Lasting Legacy

By February 1916, rumors circulated about extending electric lines to the Dorset quarry, but the end was near. Workers were given a month to complete contracts, and the excess marble inventory and scrap were sold off. The revitalization of the local marble industry dwindled swiftly, marked by the abandonment of South Dorset properties, the cessation of railroad and mill operations, and the gradual filling of the quarry with groundwater. 

In 1934, the large mill in the depot was quietly razed, and its passing was noted in the Manchester Journal. It is estimated that approximately 3,300,000 cubic feet of marble had been quarried from the Norcross-West quarries, with workers from diverse backgrounds leaving their mark on the region. Despite the company’s demise, their legacy endures, as descendants of those workers still call the Green Mountains home.

In the present day, only one marble mine continues its operations in the vicinity of Dorset: the majestic Danby Quarry. Situated on the eastern incline of Dorset Mountain and extending deep into the earth for one-and-a-half miles, this enterprise currently stands as the largest underground marble quarry in the world. Within its cavernous chambers, massive blocks weighing up to 25 tons are hewn from its white walls. Presently under the ownership of an Italian firm hailing from Carrara, Italy, the quarry boasts an entire subterranean facility capable of shaping slabs according to clients’ specifications, readying them for dispatch worldwide. Yearly, the quarry’s miners excavate approximately 200,000 cubic feet of marble, with company officials foreseeing a continuous excavation into Dorset Mountain’s depths for years to come. 

Pride of Ownership

Contrary to popular belief, the Dorset quarry is privately owned and operated. Dick and Kirsten McDonough acquired the quarry and its adjacent property in 1997. Since then, they have invested in its continual enhancement to maximize safety and visitor enjoyment. The clearing of pathways, expansion of parking facilities, and establishment of grassy picnic areas exemplify their commitment to providing recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike.