...in 1838, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Natural Bridge just outside of North Adams. It was just the kind of awe-inspiring scene that so moved early tourists. A 30-foot-long natural marble bridge the only one on the continent spanned a deep chasm that had been carved by melting glaciers thousands of years before. A Romantic, Hawthorne found the crags and fissures, torrents and pools, brilliant white marble and deep shadows uplifting. He noted with regret that nature's work was even then being re-worked by man. Quarrymen were extracting pure white marble. Fortunately, even after a century of quarrying, Natural Bridge is intact. It is as compelling a sight today as it was in 1838.
North Adams's "Natural Bridge" predates the town and human habitation by millennia. It is a product of natural forces that compressed, crystallized, scoured, and eroded the site over millions of years. Today, visitors to the ancient bridge also encounter a much newer feature on the landscape an 80-foot-tall, crescent-shaped wall of white, almost blinding in its brilliance. Unlike the bridge, the wall is manmade, the remains of a quarry that began operating in the early years of the nineteenth century. As Tim Zelazo, the Supervisor of Natural Bridge State Park, puts it, "the interplay between nature and man and technology [is] stunning."
The story of Natural Bridge began 550 million years ago, when a warm, shallow ocean covered the area. Shells deposited over millions of years dissolved into a while chalky sediment called calcium carbonate. Eventually, the accumulated weight compressed the deposits into limestone. When continents collided and began the slow process of building the Hoosac and Berkshire mountain ranges some 350 million years ago, the limestone was folded, lifted and subjected to such tremendous heat and pressure that it crystallized into marble. At the end of the last ice age, 13,000 years ago, melting glaciers sculpted the chasm. Torrents of water poured through, carrying minerals that reacted with the calcium carbonate, dissolving the marble, and forming the white marble span.
The first European-American known to describe this natural wonder was Seth Hudson, a soldier from nearby Fort Massachusetts in the 1700s. He gave his name to the brook and the largest cave on the site. By 1810 several companies had laid claim to, and begun quarrying, the high-grade pure-white marble around the bridge.
At first most of the marble was used as stone for cemetery monuments, storefronts, fireplace mantels, and hearths, and sold locally. A marble dam, the only one in North America, was built across Hudson's Brook, and in the early 1800s a mill was constructed to cut marble slabs. The high quality of the rock meant that in crushed form calcium carbonate it could be easily shipped around the county and to Canada and Mexico, where it was used for tooth and face powder, putty, and paint pigment. Zelazo explains that in the 1830s, "if something needed to be white, this is the marble they used to whiten it. It's so bright that it was blinding to the workers when they were blasting it."
Tourists were already familiar with the site when Nathaniel Hawthorne visited in the late 1830s. During the weeks he spent exploring the state's northwestern corner in the summer of 1838, he made several visits to Hudson's Cave and Natural Bridge. On July 31st, he observed that "there is a marble quarry close in the rear, above the cave, and in the process of time the whole of the crags will be quarried into tombstones, doorsteps, fronts of edifices, fireplaces, etc. That will be a pity."
In fact, the "whole of the crags" were never completely excavated. Parts of them were still intact after a century of intensive mining at the site. As late as the 1940s, the quarry was producing 200 tons of marble a day, but the operation was not profitable enough to be worth rebuilding when a fire destroyed the mill works in 1947. The owners sold the property to a couple who ran it as a tourist attraction until 1984. The following year, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts acquired the Natural Bridge and 47 acres for a state park.
American Notebooks, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. by Claude M. Simpson (Ohio State University Press, 1972).
Boston Herald, April 29, 2004.
Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation website
Mohawk Trail: Natural Bridge State Park