In 1847 Griffith Griffith came to the United States and worked in the granite quarries on the East Coast, before leaving for the Gold Rush. However, the bedrock of the Sierra’s promised a more lucrative career than the ever-elusive gold.
The immigrant to California’s gold country quickly abandoned mining and returned to what he knew. Born in Wales in 1823, Griffith’s father had been the superintendent of a large slate quarry and passed away when Griffith was 14. To support his family, he soon became a quarry foreman.
Griffith established his first quarry at Big Gulch, near Mormon Island and Folsom in 1853. The granite from this quarry was used in the construction of Fort Alcatraz and Fort Point in San Francisco. With the extension of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Griffith moved to Wildwood Station, near present day Granite Bay and proceeded to open the first quarry in Placer County there in 1862.
However, the Central Pacific Railroad was making rapid eastward progress on the Transcontinental Railroad. This ruined the prospects of smaller lines, like the Sacramento Valley Railroad, and forced Griffith to reconsider his quarry at Wildwood. In 1864, he leased land along the Central Pacific Railroad for a new quarry.
Griffith opened the Penryn Granite Works in 1864 and it was well known throughout the state by 1870 for its high-quality granite.
By leasing property from the Central Pacific Railroad, and constructing a spur track linking the quarry to their main line, Griffith quickly opened the state to his products.
It became one of the most successful manufacturing businesses in Placer County due to Griffith’s business acumen and skilled workers.
Blood, sweat, and black powder kept the Penryn Granite Works in operation. Workers hand drilled holes into the rock face of the quarry pit before packing them with black powder or dynamite. Once they were detonated, large chunks of granite were blasted into the bottom of the pit.
There, quarry workers drilled a series of smaller holes about six inches apart then hammered in a plug and feather.
This caused the granite to split into manageable pieces.
These pieces were lifted out of the pit using a steam powered derrick. Like a crane, a boom moved up and down and side to side to retrieve granite blocks and load them onto flat carts.
These were taken to the main work sheds to be cut, shaped, polished, and shipped.
There were many productive granite quarries in the area, but Griffith set himself apart by obtaining lucrative supply contracts and utilizing new technologies.
The granite in Penryn was also notable for its variation and lack of iron, earning it praise as a superior material. When Griffith installed a polishing mill in 1874, the first in the state, he secured Penryn’s place as the premier quarry in the state.
The success of the Penryn Granite Works also benefited the local community. The original location of the quarry, an area known as Stuarts Flat, flourished with the new industry. The town which expanded around the quarry adopted its name, which was originally taken from the Penrhyn Slate Quarry in Wales.
By 1885 almost 400 people lived in Penryn. There were three general stores, an equal number of saloons, two churches, one schoolhouse, a large meeting hall, and a post office.
When Griffith passed away in 1889, his obituary read that upon coming to California he had viewed the granite bedrock of the gold fields as “his familiar companions of past years.”
After Griffith’s passing in 1889, his nephew, David Griffith, took over Penryn Granite Works. While the quarry operations formally ceased when David died in 1918, the history of the site lives on today.
David’s daughter Enid Griffith left the property and “anything of historical value” to the County in 1976. As a Museum, a Park, and a location on the National Register, the Griffith Quarry illustrates one of the many facets of our county’s fascinating history.
For more information on the Griffith Quarry Museum, and the geology of Placer County follow the links, below.