Bear Mountain granite quarry
Nothing lasts forever, but a few things come mighty close. Tupperware comes to mind. A really bad movie. A cricket match. Road construction on I-10 between Boerne and San Antonio. Some school board meetings. And a block of Bear Mountain granite.
Bear Mountain got its name when John Burg, an early Fredericksburg settler, killed a bear near the summit of a large granite dome four miles north of Fredericksburg. People have called that hill Baeren Berg, or in English, “Bear Mountain,” ever since.
Located on the winding road between Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock, Bear Mountain covers a little over 80 acres at its base. It was probably formed from a volcanic eruption that took place millions of years ago.
At first, Bear Mountain was just another boulder-strewn hill. The value of the granite as a building material came later.
That’s because granite, like a diamond, is no thing of beauty in its natural form. It is a course-grained lump of unsightly igneous rock. It is hard and durable, but quite ordinary at first glance.
It is only when expertly cut and polished that granite transforms into an object of amazing beauty. The warm red color of Bear Mountain granite is especially handsome. The polished surface is deep, smooth, shiny and cool to the touch.
Frank Teich, “The Sculptor of the Hills,” cut and polished the first slab of Texas granite when building the San Antonio National Bank and the San Antonio City Hall in the 1880s. He used granite quarried from Bear Mountain.
There is a lot of granite at Bear Mountain. An article in the Fredericksburg Standard stated that “Drills sunk into its base were still biting into the same kind of granite 107 feet below.” Experts estimated that it would take 100 trains, each with 100 cars, 100 years to haul the mountain away.
The story of the train symbolizes the big problem with granite — the high cost of transporting the massive granite blocks. Frank Teich used oxen to drag the granite slabs, loaded on wooden skids, the 80 miles from Bear Mountain to San Antonio. The trip took months. Teich eventually had to abandon the Bear Mountain Quarry because the transportation costs were so high.
Other men took on Bear Mountain, believing they could make it pay. Joe Wild quarried granite at Bear Mountain around the turn of the 20th century, but the business closed within a year.
Most people in Gillespie County associate Bear Mountain with the Nagel family. Willie and Emil Nagel were sons of German immigrants who settled on a stock farm near Comfort. They were sculptors and stone cutters who operated a granite yard in San Antonio. They cut and polished granite in Llano and California before buying an interest in Bear Mountain.
Willie and Emil, along with brothers Rudolph and Otto, eventually bought out the other landowners and acquired complete ownership of Bear Mountain. Members of the Nagel family quarried Bear Mountain granite for much of the 20th century.
Quarrying granite is difficult and dangerous. In the early years quarrymen drilled a series of deep holes about four inches apart. They drove wedges in the holes until the granite slab cracked and separated.
In a more modern process called jet-channeling, quarrymen used a wand that spewed fire and water to cut a narrow groove 20 feet deep without drilling holes.
Granite is normally too expensive for general building purposes, so it is mostly used for headstones, monuments, decorative elements in commercial buildings and large building foundations. The base of the 1939 Gillespie County Courthouse in Fredericksburg is made of Bear Mountain granite.
One of the largest blocks of granite quarried at Bear Mountain sits in downtown Dallas. It forms the base holding the bronze statue of legendary newsman George Bannerman Dealey, in Dealey Plaza.
Quite a few of the grand old buildings along Fredericksburg’s Main Street have cornerstones carved out of Bear Mountain red granite. Some of those cornerstones are already over a hundred years old.
Whether or not they will last forever is yet to be determined.
Michael Barr is a retired teacher and principal, living in Fredericksburg where he spends time writing books, columns and magazine articles. Contact him at email@example.com.