Miners’ quarry: The perfect marble block

Carrie Click

Deep in the bowels of Treasure Mountain above Marble, quarry workers are searching for a massive block of perfect white marble to replace one of the nation’s most prominent military symbols: the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The Tomb, an enormous memorial of white marble also quarried in Marble, was installed in 1931.

It marks the burial place of an unidentified World War I soldier at Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater in Virginia.

Alongside it, three plaques signifying unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, lay beside the main tomb – although the Vietnam War soldier’s body has recently been exhumed and identified through DNA testing.

With or without the use of modern science identification techniques, the Tomb of the Unknowns is a powerful reminder of those who have given their lives for their country.

But the center tomb has a crack in it – a significant enough fracture to warrant the installation of a new, unblemished piece of stone.

“I visited the tomb in 1990 with a U.S. Parks Department guide and could see they were filling the crack in with paste,” said mining engineer Rex Loesby, owner of Sierra MInerals Corp., which operates the Yule Marble Quarry above the tiny town of Marble.

“My guess is the crack was always there, however faint. Back in 1931, the quarry was on a deadline to get the marble to Arlington, so they probably decided to ship the piece out even though it wasn’t perfect. Those Washington, D.C., winters likely opened it up, when water soaked into the crack, froze and expanded it,” Loesby explained.

Local entrepreneur and former auto dealer John Haines read about the Yule Marble Quarry’s search for the tomb’s new block of marble in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent in September.

“I read that the crew was getting ready to look for and replace the tomb’s marble,” he said, “and that the (Veterans Administration) and Arlington were accepting bids on the replacement piece.”

Haines said he couldn’t imagine the replacement marble coming from anywhere else than Marble. He decided that instead of leaving the selection to the bidding process, he would pay for a piece of marble from the Yule Marble Quarry and give it to the Arlington cemetery.

Haines figured this would guarantee Colorado’s legacy would continue at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“With the bidding process, the V.A. could have accepted marble from Vermont, Georgia or Mississippi,” he said. “Knowing what the tomb stands for, the lives that have been sacrificed for our freedoms, I thought, `John, you can do this for your country.'”

Haines looked up Rex Loesby’s number in the phone book, and reached Kimberly Perrin, the quarry’s administrator, in Marble.

He told Perrin of his idea.

“Let’s just give them the stone,” Haines said to her.

The cost to find, quarry and extract the block – essentially the price of the block – is expected to be $31,000.

Perrin contacted John Metzler at Arlington National Cemetery, who requested a letter from Haines.

“I had to state the marble was an irrevocable gift,” Haines said with a smile.

With that commitment, Haines made a couple more well-placed phone calls, to Harry Colborn of Harry’s Heavy Haulers of Rifle, and Bruce Wagner, the Caterpillar dealer for Colorado.

Colborn committed the use of one of his trucks to haul the marble to Arlington, and Sandy Lowell, a Cat salesman for Wagner, committed the use of a trailer – painted red, white and blue, no less – to carry the stone across the country.

Transporting the marble block from Marble to Arlington will cost the two companies $7,000 to $10,000.

Now, Haines is on the lookout for a finisher – or sculptor – willing to donate time and skill to sculpt the piece. He anticipates it will likely be an eight-month job.

Loesby has been associated with the Yule Marble Quarry since 1980, when he first visited the then-closed down operation.

The quarry, which produced marble for the Colorado State Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and hundreds of other statues and buildings, originally operated as the Colorado Yule Marble Co. beginning in 1896. It closed in 1941, when marble lost its value in favor of more needed wartime materials like metals and fuels.

The quarry sat dormant until 1988, when Loesby, Loesby’s friend and “mineral land guy” Sandy Dunn, and a third partner financed the operation and leased it from the Vermont Marble Quarry and OMYA Inc., the company that owns the quarry property.

But when Dunn was killed in a car accident, Loesby disengaged himself from the quarry. The operation went bankrupt in 1998.

“That’s when I came in, chased everybody off, and picked up the pieces,” Loesby said.

Since 1999, Loesby said, the quarry has earned back its reputation as a one-of-a-kind quarry in the world, famous for its bright white, uniform marble.

The marble is in demand from sculptors and building contractors, and from Italians, whose marble supply at fabled Italian quarries is running thin and tends to have more of a grayish pallor.

“We tend to think Michelangelo would have loved our marble had he seen it,” said Kimberly Perrin, the quarry’s administrator.

With the quarry firmly back in his hands, Loesby recommended that Arlington and the Department of Veterans Affairs replace the tomb’s marble.

But wanting to replace the giant stone and actually doing it are two different things.

Quarry superintendent Gary Bascom said much of discovering the perfect stone, extracting it from deep inside Treasure Mountain and getting it down off the mountain is up to forces beyond anyone’s control.

“It’s up to the mountain whatever it will give us,” he said.

Loesby said the crew is not on a deadline, so they can take their time finding the most ideal stone for the monument. Even so, Loesby would love to locate an appropriate block of marble, and bring it down on July 4.

“Memorial Day would be even better,” he said, “but the quarry road is still pretty questionable at the end of May.”

For the Tomb of the Unknowns, Bascom and his crew are asking the mountain for a lot.

They’re looking for a perfectly consistent block of white marble, precisely 7 feet 4 inches by 13 feet 4 inches by 6 feet 6 inches.

The slab, expected to weigh roughly 110,000 pounds, will be removed in one piece and transported down the quarry road using the company’s specially-built, six-gear hauling truck.

Bascom and his crew thought they located one suitable slab of marble, but while crews were cutting it out of the quarry, they found streaks and potential fracture lines running through it.

“That’s the dreaded phone call to Rex,” said Bascom, “when we find those fracture lines.”

Now, Bascom and Loesby have their eyes on another promising block of stone, located near the section where quarry men extracted the original block in the early 1930s.

“It’s beautiful stone,” Bascom said. “We’re hoping for the best. It’s not going unless it’s perfect.”

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