Journey to the Marble City

Published 8:30 am Saturday, March 11, 2023

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VALLEY — On Friday, April 14th Bradshaw-Chambers County Library will be taking a Library Travelers group to Sylacauga for the city’s annual Marble Festival. This has been taking place each year since 2009 and offers visitors the chance to see contemporary works of  done by sculptors working with the white marble Sylacauga is famous for. 

As a prelude to the trip, the library’s speaker series on Thursday featured Alabama author Ruth Beaumont Cook, who discussed her book “Magic in Stone: The Sylacauga Marble Story.”

Cook noted that Alabama is well known for its rivers, iron, coal and rich biodiversity. Less known are the marble outcroppings in Talladega County that gave Sylacauga its nickname, the Marble City.

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The city of Sylacauga has approximately 12,500 residents. It dates to the 1830s and was built on one of the finest deposits of white marble in the world. Famed sculptors such as Italian-born Giuseppi Moratti (1857-1935), who built the huge statue Vulcan in Birmingham, and Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), best known for Mount Rushmore, worked extensively with Sylacauga marble.

One of his best-known works is a bust of Abraham Lincoln, which he carved out of a six-ton block of white marble from Sylacauga. It is on display today at the U.S. Capitol crypt in Washington, D.C. In addition to Vulcan, Moratti also made the marble work Head of Christ, which he valued as his greatest work. He carved it from some of the first marble quarried in Sylacauga for artistic purposes.

“I feel like the final resting place of this first sculpture from Alabama marble is in this state,” he said.

The work is now on display at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Borglum once said he knew Sylacauga marble was some of the best in the world because of the way he could depict an expression of kindness on Lincoln’s face. He’s never been able to do that with other types of marble.

Cook told a sizable gathering inside the library’s Lanier Room that Talladega County was quickly settled by people of European descent in the mid to late 1830s following the removal of the Creek Indians. The first person to realize the commercial value of Sylacauga’s white marble was a man named Edward Gannt, a Tennessee doctor who had accompanied General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-14. He had seen some of the marble in the 1820s and retuned to the area during the land rush following the removal of the Creeks. He founded the earliest and best known of the Talladega County quarries. It’s still known as Gantt’s Quarry. A town of that name had a population of 0 in the 2000 Census. It’s now a ghost town, but the quarry survives.

A vein of crystalline white marble extends some 35 miles across Talladega County. It’s an estimated 400 feet deep and is approximately a mile-and-a-half at its widest point not far from Sylacauga.

By the end of the 1830 decade, several quarries had opened around Sylacauga. They made use of the Plank Road, which extended to Montgomery, to get a product that was in much demand to market. One of the first pieces quarried was shipped to Washington, D.C. to become part of the Washington Monument. Sylacauga marble is also in the Lincoln Memorial and in the U.S. Supreme Court building, including 36 massive interior columns measuring 22 feet in height and three feet, four inches in diameter.

In the early days, most of the marble was used in buildings, cemetery headstones and grave markers. By the early 1900s, New York interests purchased the Gannts Quarry site and made it the epicenter of marble-working activity. The nearby town of Gannts Quarry grew up, and the business became known as the Alabama Marble Company.

“It was during the early 1900s when people nationwide began to appreciate Alabama marble,” Cook said.

It was during this period that Moratti and Borglum came to Alabama. 

Moratti was well known in Europe in the 18oos but gained notoriety in the U.S. with his state of Vulcan, which was on display at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. It was later taken apart and transported to Alabama for permanent exhibit. While in the U.S., Moratti had a meeting with a man named Charles Adams. He noticed the carving of an open book on his desk. He closely examined it and asked him where he got the marble. He told him that it had come from Sylacauga.

“I have to go see it,” he told him.

Moratti made that trip and liked what he saw in Alabama marble. He carved the well-known Head of Christ out of it,

Many of his works are on display in Sylacauga and Birmingham.

Moratti was what would call a Renaissance man. He was not only a gifted sculptor but was also quite a singer. He was a close friend with the famed tenor Enrico Caruso and corresponded with him regularly. Stories have been passed down through the years that the famed Caruso visited him in Alabama and the two sang duets together.

Moratti was an accomplished artist but not a good businessman. A number of his ventures failed.

Cook talked about how Sylacauga marble had gone into beautiful buildings all over the country. Examples included the Dime Savings Bank and the Mercedes-Benz Showroom in New York City, the Al Jolson Shrine in California, the historic post office building in Chicago, city hall in Philadelphia  and the Chrysler Mausoleum in New York. Some of these classic buildings no longer exist. A L&N Train Station built in Birmingham in 1909 had marble floors, trim around the windows, marble countertops, all from Sylacauga. It was torn down in the 1960s when not much thought was being given to historic preservation.

Cook said the quality of Sylacauga marble can be seen at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s in the ceiling and is only an eight of an inch thick. It’s translucent and lets in enough like to create a golden glow. 

The Sylacauga quarries were busy places in the 1920s and 1930s. Engines known as dinkys pulled blocks of marble from the quarries to nearby places where they were finished. The dinky ran at slow speeds on tracks, and children from the nearby villages were allowed to ride on them. Cook said she has talked to people who told her they had risen on the dinky where they were children.

Electricity come in the 1920s, replacing steam-powered operations. There were blacksmith shops around the quarries to take care of daily needs. In her PowerPoint display, Cook shows a 1930s photo of men operating sanding machines at the quarries.

A derailment of a train in 1933 that was carrying Sylacauga marble left broken debris over a wide area. Monks from Cullman County retired some of it and took it back to Brother Joseph at Ava Maria Grotto, who fashioned the pieces of marble into some of the figurines that are on display at this well-known site today.

Over the years, technology has brought about change in what goes on at the quarries. At one time, the marble was ground into powder to be used in steel production in Birmingham. In more recent times, the calcium carbonate from the quarries is grinded into a natural known as GCC.

“It’s blasted and ground into a powder,” Cook  explained. “It’s sold to all kinds of industries. When you go home today, you will find it in all kinds of products in your house. It’s in bread, toothpaste, Walmart bags and items in your medicine cabinet like Tums.”

There have been a number of ownership changes over the years. Alabama Marble was acquired by Georgia Marble for a time. In 1995, Georgia Marble was acquire by the Imetal Group of Paris, France. The name was later changed to Imerys to reflect a new minerals processing organization.

Gifted sculptors are continuing to make beautiful works of art from Sylacauga marble. One example includes an artwork on display at Ivy Green, the childhood home of Helen Keller. It depicts young Helen at the water pump with her teacher, Annie Sullivan, when the breakthrough moment takes place. With the cool water rushing over her hands, she understands that Annie’s hand signs are telling her what it is. It opens up a whole new world for her.

The sculpture of the young Helen Keller with her teacher even has a hand pump that can be operated.

Ruth Beaumont Cook is a graduate of The Ohio State University and has lived in Alabama since 1970. She is the authored of three books of narrative history and has written numerous articles of Birmingham magazine, Alabama Heritage and other local, regional and national publications. Her second book, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire, receded a bronze medal for outstanding history writing from the Independent Publishers Group. It’s about a World War II prisoner of war camp in Aliceville, Alabama.