Apostle Islands National Lakeshore




Stone Quarries of the
Apostle Islands


If you had visited Hermit Island in the early eighteen-nineties, you would have found a scene far different from the tranquility that exists today. All around would be the noise and bustle of a busy stone quarry. Steam drills and derricks roared and belched smoke. One hundred men shouted and sweated as they worked the machinery that cut and moved the stone. At the end of the day, the workers went home to a village of company-built cottages, while not far away, the company owner lived in a stately mansion overlooking the lake.

During the period from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century, stone quarrying was one of the most important industries in the Chequamegon Bay region. Sandstone from quarries on the Apostle Islands and the nearby mainland was shipped to growing metropolises such as Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, where it was used to build some of the cities' most distinctive landmarks. Buildings of local brownstone can be seen in the nearby towns of Bayfield, Washburn, and Ashland as well.

The Story Behind The Industry

Several factors combined to encourage the development of the Chequamegon Bay brownstone industry:

Geology: The Lake Superior brown sandstone, lying beneath the Apostle Islands and extending in a thin band six to eight miles inland from the lake, was found to be desirable building material.

Economy: The second half of the nineteenth century was a time of rapid expansion throughout the Midwest. One example: Milwaukee's population grew tenfold between 1850 and 1890. Booming cities provided a strong market for construction materials.

Architecture: As the growing cities changed from frontier villages to industrial powerhouses, communities wanted grand buildings that reflected their prosperity. The disastrous Chicago fire of 1871 underscored the importance of replacing haphazardly laid-out expanses of wooden buildings with planned arrangements of more substantial structures. This spirit helped ensure the success of the "Romanesque Revival" style of Henry Richardson, an architectural movement that employed massive stone construction to invoke the feel of the medieval Romanesque style.

Quarry Operations In The Apostle Islands

Four sites in the Apostle Islands eventually hosted seven separate operations during the boom period from 1868 to 1898. The first quarry site in the region was established on Basswood Island in 1868 by the Bass Island Brownstone Company, and the first stone taken from the site was used to construct the new Milwaukee Courthouse. The economy was subject to wide fluctuations in that era, however, and a recession in 1873 slowed the industry's growth for a while.

Prosperity returned about a decade later with the establishment of rail links to Washburn and Bayfield. During the 1880s and 1890s, new quarries were established on Stockton Island by the Ashland Brownstone Company (1889) and on Hermit Island by the Excelsior Brownstone Company (1890-1891).

The quarrying technology employed in the region covered a broad range, from unsuccessful attempts at blasting- which tended to shatter the rock into rubble- to hand drilling and animal powered hoists, to state-of-the-art steam-powered apparatus.




Sandstone Blocks

Sandstone blocks, Hermit Island



Frederick Prentice

The single most important figure in the development of the local quarrying industry was Frederick Prentice, who began investing in potential quarry properties on the islands as early as 1857. Called "the father of the Chequamegon brownstone industry," Prentice eventually operated several quarries in the mainland, as well as one on Hermit Island in the Apostles.

In the early 1890s, Prentice, by then more than seventy years of age, married a young lady some fifty years his junior. He built his new bride a fine mansion, Cedar Bark Lodge, on Hermit Island, but tradition says she was not fond of island living and spent very little time in the house. Cedar Bark Lodge fell into ruin, and was demolished in the 1930s.

What Happened To The Quarries?

Two major factors brought an end to the quarrying industry in the Apostle Islands. The economy took a plunge in 1893, discouraging construction and virtually eliminating demand for building stone. Faced with bankruptcy, Frederick Prentice sold his holdings to a group of investors. The new owners continued operation for a few more years, but operations ceased for good in 1897.

When the economy picked up again, architectural tastes had begun to shift. Dark brownstone was out of fashion; lighter stones and brickwork took its place. As the twentieth century opened, new materials such as concrete and steel offered even more options for creative architects. The brownstone era was over.


Visiting The Quarries

Visitors can take a look at abandoned brownstone quarries on three islands within the National Lakeshore: Basswood, Hermit, and Stockton Islands. The Basswood Island loop trail takes hikers to Frederick Prentice's large Bass Island Brownstone Company quarry, as well as the smaller Breckenridge Quarry. The Ashland Brownstone Company quarry on Stockton Island is accessible by trail, about 1.5 miles from the Quarry Bay dock, or about 5 miles from the Presque Isle visitor center. Quarry remains on Hermit Island are more difficult of access, but the landing area can be seen from a boat, with large blocks of cut sandstone still waiting for shipment.

When visiting the quarry sites, please stay on trails and use caution near the steep, and sometimes slippery, rock faces.



  • One early proponent of the Apostle Islands quarrying industry was future U.S. Vice President John C. Breckenridge, from Kentucky. In 1854, Breckenridge joined a group of investors in a short-lived attempt to develop a quarry on Basswood Island. Breckenridge later served as Vice President under James Buchanan, ran for President himself in 1860 (he was defeated by Abraham Lincoln) and fought as a general in the Confederate army.
  • Though one sometimes hears that the famous brownstone houses of New York City are made from Chequamegon Bay stone, this does not seem to be the case. Extensive deposits of brown sandstone in New Jersey and the nearby Connecticut River valley provided a much closer and cheaper source for builders in New York.



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<b>Frederick Prentice</b>

Frederick Prentice


<b>Cedar Bark Lodge</b>

Cedar Bark Lodge
Hermit Island


Last Updated: December 18, 2002
Author: apis_webmaster@nps.gov