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H.D.S. Greenway

Change is carved in stone

HURRICANE ISLAND, Maine LIKE BEADED earrings hanging from the ear of Vinalhaven Island, Hurricane is but one of the lesser islands trailing down from Penobscot Bay into the Gulf of Maine. Its New York owner is away, perhaps until next year, and there is no one here now. Beach peas, fireweed, rosa rugosa, and the last of the season's raspberries abound. But here and there you can see huge shapes of cut granite, some of it finely worked with ornamentation, lying among the late summer grasses abandoned and forgotten like a lost civilization, at one with Nineveh and Tyre, as Kipling might say.

Huge steam engines, like abandoned locomotives from a previous industrial age, lie rusting in the weeds. Once they powered steam drills that would pry the granite blocks from the island rock, and the spruce forests that now cover the island hide the foundations of what was a prosperous village of stonecutters numbering in their hundreds. They lived a life on an island "a scant 150 acres in size, with a motley population of Yankees, Italians, Swedes, Finns, Irish, and Scottish laborers," according to Eleanor Richardson's book about Hurricane. There were six boarding houses, an Italian Socialist Club, a church, a school, and a town hall.

Hurricane was a dry town at first, but the "rum fiend," as a local newspaper put it, triumphed when saloon schooners anchored offshore.

In the boom years following the Civil War granite was king. Great schooners crowded Hurricane Sound taking stone upwind to Boston and Portland. Granite from Hurricane was used in building the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston, the Baltimore Court House, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, the St. Louis Post Office, the Pittsburgh Post Office, and the New York Customs House.

But by the early 20th century, new technology, in the form of reinforced concrete, was replacing granite as the building material of choice. In 1914 the bosses announced that work in the quarry would be permanently suspended, and that there was only enough money to take people to the mainland to find work. The entire community was deserted almost overnight. The empty houses would be later torn down for the lumber. Today, granite is quarried in Maine only for special orders. Hurricane Island and all its considerable infrastructure was abandoned.

Stonecutting was not the only industry to be overwhelmed by new technology. Ice cutting on the rivers and ponds employed thousands in New England and New York State. Ships took the ice in sawdust as far as South America, India, and China. The financial street of Hong Kong is named Ice House Street from those days. Ice houses as big as cathedrals lined the rivers of Maine. But when electricity could make ice cheaper and more efficiently in the early 20th century, the entire industry died. Today the saws and tools for cutting and storing ice can be seen in museums and antiques shops only, as old fashioned and out of date as whale oil lamps.

Where once there were 300 Maine islands with year-round populations, today there are only 15. The internal combustion engine ended the days of sailing ships, which once provided the major means of transportation along the coast.

It is the fate of industry to die or change because of new technology, or because someone somewhere else can do it cheaper or better - witness the red brick mills all over New England that have either been shuttered or put to different use. Americans bemoan the transfer of industries overseas, but the nation cannot avoid these great economic shifts anymore than could the state of Maine.

Will US automobile manufacturing one day be just a memory like ice houses, or the granite industry of Hurricane Island? Will the newspaper you are holding - if you are holding a newspaper rather than reading online - slide into oblivion as did the village that once stood here?

There is a coda to the Hurricane Island story. Outward Bound, the nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire "self esteem and self reliance" in young people, set up shop here with its pulling boats and rock climbing courses in 1964 - 50 years after the island had been abandoned. But today, Outward Bound, too, is gone and its buildings left neglected. A spokesman said they are renegotiating their lease, and they hope to be back next year or maybe the year after. But who knows? Life, be it for industries or nonprofits, is uncertain.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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