The deposits in the Crystal River valley are the only major source of marble in Colorado. Quarries in the area were developed most extensively by Channing Meek’s Colorado Yule Marble Company, which constructed a vast marble mill that operated from 1907 to 1941. The quarries have supplied marble for the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Capitol Building in Denver, among many others.
The marble deposits in the Crystal River valley are about 50–60 million years old. They are made of dense black “Leadville Limestone,” which formed during the Paleozoic Era (542 million years ago–251 million years ago), when central Colorado was under a shallow sea. Roughly 200 million years later, when the Rocky Mountains uplifted, magma rose to the crust and heated the limestone around the current town of Marble enough to kill all the organic matter and cause metamorphosis. The result was pure white marble. When the magma cooled, it crystallized into granite around the marble.
The Crystal River valley opened to white settlement when the Ute Indians were removed from most of Colorado after the Meeker Incident of 1879. Geologist Sylvester Richardson first noticed the region’s marble in 1873, when he took part in an expedition to the Elk Mountains. Prospectors continued to take note of the area’s marble deposits throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but they were primarily interested in precious metals and made no attempt to quarry the stone, which was in any case too heavy to transport without well-established wagon roads.
Early Quarries and Transportation Quandaries
The neighboring towns of Marble and Clarence were established in 1881. Soon miners in the area were reporting that the roofs of their mines were made of fine white marble. The first marble quarry in the Crystal River valley was established in 1884.
Starting in 1885, when Gunnison County first tried to get the contract to supply stone for a new Capitol Building in Denver, a long series of entrepreneurs tried and mostly failed to develop quarries around Marble. The main problems were a lack of capital and insufficient transportation infrastructure. There was not enough money to get a marble mill up and running, nor were there good enough roads to get the marble out of the valley cheaply.
By 1888 both the Colorado Midland and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroads had reached Carbondale, about twenty-five miles from Marble. This was the nearest rail link for shipping marble out of the Crystal River valley, making it considerably easier to get it to market, though still not easy or cheap enough for the quarries to do any substantial business. Marble nevertheless grew to about 150 people, got a post office, and merged with nearby Clarence in 1892.
In 1895 the Yule Creek quarries were awarded the contract to supply 140,000 square feet of marble for the floors of the Capitol Building in Denver. The quality of the Yule Creek marble had helped the bid, as had the chance to use local materials in the state capitol. This was the first time any of the quarries in Marble had gone into full-fledged operation. The transportation problem still needed solving, however, and there were almost immediate delivery delays. Soon the state helped get a new road built from the quarries to Marble, where a recently completed wagon road made the journey to Carbondale relatively easy. In 1897 the quarries shipped about $100,000 of marble to Denver for the capitol’s interior.
Despite the success of the Capitol Building project, the marble quarries did not immediately enjoy a period of prosperity. Many people continued to focus on precious metals in the area, and transporting the heavy stone was still expensive. The Crystal River Railroad Company incorporated in 1898 and made plans for a railroad from Carbondale to Marble, but the project was abandoned because of difficulties with the terrain and the weather.
Channing Meek and the Colorado Yule Marble Co.
Demand for marble went up after 1903, when a large fire in New Jersey showed that marble withstood intense heat that could destroy granite. Suddenly people wanted to line their floors, walls, and vaults with marble. New entrepreneurs arrived in Marble.
The turning point in Marble’s history came in 1905, when the former president of the Colorado Coal and Iron Company, Channing F. Meek, came to town. Meek was to Marble what Jerome B. Wheeler was to Aspen: he brought the capital and transportation infrastructure that allowed the town to boom. Meek bought large tracts of land in and around Marble and consolidated several smaller marble companies into the Colorado Yule Marble Company. He spent $3 million developing quarries, building the Crystal River and San Juan Railroad—which reached Marble in November 1906—and constructing the world’s largest marble-finishing mill. Other marble companies continued to exist in the area, but from then on Meek’s Colorado Yule Marble Company was the dominant marble concern in the Crystal River valley.
By the summer of 1907, Marble had a new railroad, marble mill, and power plant, but the Colorado Yule Marble Company still had not secured a major contract. It sent out thousands of small samples to advertise the area’s marble. Finally, in October, the company won a $500,000 contract to supply marble for the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland. That large contract and several smaller ones were enough to get the quarry into full operation and even required an expansion of the new mill. By the end of the year, more than 700 people had arrived to work in Marble.
In 1908 the Colorado Yule Marble Company received another big contract for an Ohio county courthouse, this time in Mahoning County, and had to expand the mill again. Soon the plant had 900 workers. The company built fifty new four-room houses to ease the town’s housing shortage, installed a telephone system, and began to supply electricity to the town.
Five hundred Colorado Yule workers, mostly Italian, went on strike in 1909. All across the country, American Federation of Labor workers supported the strike by refusing to handle Colorado Yule marble. After three months the strike ended badly for the Colorado Yule workers, who returned to work with a pay cut. The company continued to increase production after the strike as it received more large contracts, including the Denver Post Office and the Montana State Capitol in 1910.
The mill had to be expanded yet again, with a new electric tram to connect the mill buildings. By the early 1910s, the large mill complex on the south side of Marble encompassed about 100,000 square feet and included four interconnected shop buildings, two mills, and a large stone yard. It could process 40,000 cubic feet of marble per month. With only one major marble quarry, Colorado ranked third in the country in marble production, behind only Vermont and Georgia.
Major Projects, Major Problems
In the 1910s Colorado Yule was awarded its largest and most prestigious projects yet also suffered its largest setbacks. A large avalanche hit the mill on March 20, 1912. No one died, but the mill was severely damaged. After repairs, the mill was operating again by the summer, and the company began to build a huge avalanche wall of marble waste to protect the mill complex.
In August 1912, not long after the mill started up again, an accident on the complex’s electric tramway injured Meek. He died two days later. Mortimer Matthews took over as the company’s interim president. He quickly secured a $1.8 million loan to improve the marble works as well as a $1 million contract to supply 1.2 million square feet of marble slab for the interior of the Equitable Building in New York—the largest marble contract ever at that time.
The company’s Eastern representative, J. F. Manning, was named permanent successor to Meek as president, probably because of his many personal contacts in Washington, D.C. At the time, the Lincoln Memorial Commission was searching for the right marble to use for the memorial. The memorial’s designer, Henry Bacon, wanted the whitest, soundest marble available. Manning convinced the commission to send a representative to inspect the stone at Marble, and Bacon judged Colorado Yule marble “immeasurably superior” to the others being considered. The commission voted in favor of using Colorado Yule marble in September 1913 and officially awarded the contract in March 1914. Because the Lincoln Memorial had very strict requirements for its stone, only 10 percent of the marble quarried for the project was shipped to Washington. With up to 1,000 people working on the project at once and labor costs of up to $95,000 per month, the company was able to fulfill the contract by June 1916, a few months ahead of schedule.
The Equitable Building and the Lincoln Memorial were two of the largest contracts the company ever completed, but at the same time the company was dangerously overextended because of the loans it had taken out to expand its plant. World War I pushed the company over the edge. The company’s many Italian workers went home to fight in the war, and the prospect of American entry into the war dried up demand for marble. Already in July 1916, just a month after completing the Lincoln Memorial contract, the company could no longer make payments on its bonds. Shareholders filed suit, the company was placed in receivership, and the payroll shrank to only 200 workers by September.
A series of natural disasters dealt the deathblow to the struggling company. A fire tore through town in 1916; a flood washed out parts of the railroad tracks in 1917. The railroad petitioned the State Utility Commission to allow it to stop service to Marble. Over the next year, Marble experienced an exodus of workers and residents. In January 1918, the company was put up for auction because it had not been able to pay its property taxes. Manning successfully assembled a bid with the Colorado National Bank to retain control of the company, but it was foreclosed on in July 1919 and put up for auction again that September.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Marble was nearly a ghost town in 1920. The company had been split in two at auction, but the separate owners each incorporated in 1921–22 and agreed to cooperate. Demand for marble was growing again after the war. The railroad was repaired, workers returned, and shipments of marble resumed. By 1924, when the two companies merged to create the Consolidated Yule Marble Company, there were 200 men on the payroll.
But natural disasters continued to bedevil the company. A fire ripped through the mill on April 22, 1925, destroying more than half of the mill. The mill was insured for less than half of the damage, however, so the company could not afford to rebuild in full. In December 1927, Jacob Smith of Buffalo, New York, bought the company for $1 million. He operated as the Yule-Colorado Marble Company, but business was slow and he sold out to the Vermont Marble Company not long before the stock market crash in 1929.
In 1930 the Yule-Colorado Marble Company secured its most prestigious project, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The company was chosen because it had the only quarry capable of cutting a single block of marble large enough for the proposed design. Workers spent more than a year cutting a 124-ton block of marble, the largest ever quarried at the time. That block was cut down to fifty-six tons and shipped to Vermont, where the marble was finished before being installed at Arlington on November 11, 1932.
The End of the Marble Mill
The company continued to quarry stone in the late 1930s, completing projects for several large state and federal buildings in Denver. Costs continued to climb while the demand for marble declined. The last block of marble came down from the quarry on October 25, 1941, and the mill shut down on November 15. Morse Brothers Machinery Company of Denver bought the marble mill’s machinery and immediately scrapped it. The railroad tracks to marble were torn out in 1943, the same year the Marble post office closed.
No large-scale quarrying took place in Marble for decades after World War II. The use of marble declined after the war with the rise of cheap marble-veneer substitutes and modernist steel-and-glass skyscrapers. Colorado marble, in particular, suffered from being far from the major East Coast markets, where it had been used only when quality rather than cost was the primary consideration. In 1953 the Basic Chemical Company bought mineral rights around Marble and planned to sell ground marble, but high transportation costs caused the company to shut down its operation after only a year.
Marble never became a true ghost town and always retained at least a handful of year-round residents. An Outward Bound school opened near Marble in 1962.
The old Colorado Yule marble quarry reopened in 1988, when a small operation leased the quarry from the Vermont Marble Company. The quarry has operated on and off since then. In December 2011 the Italian company RED Graniti of Carrara bought the quarry, which it sold to Colorado Stone Quarries in 2014. As of 2014 the company employed forty people at the quarry and was producing more than 1,000 metric tons of marketable marble per month.
The old Colorado Yule marble mill site has overgrown since it was scrapped in 1941, but some surface artifacts and abandoned marble stock remain. The original Oil House still stands and is owned by the town of Marble. The only other extant mill building is the Document Storage Vault, which stored blueprints and project plans.
The town of Marble has about eighty full-time residents and swells to 170 in summer. The town gets 5,000 visitors per year. Some come for the annual Marble/marble Symposium, which has been taking place for more than twenty years and usually draws three or four dozen sculptors.