191 Coal Landing Road, Stafford County, Virginia
Welcome to Government Island. This 17-acre historic site is an American quarry originally named Brent’s Island or Wiggington’s Island. As early as 1694, stone was quarried from this site for use as architectural trim in Colonial America. The quarry’s fine-grained sandstone was called Aquia (ah qui´ ah) stone, due to its locations along the Aquia Creek, or freestone, for its ability to be freely carved without splitting. The stone was a desirable building material for its composition as well as its beautiful white color.
In 1791, the federal government purchased Brent’s island for the purpose of constructing the President’s House (latte referred to as the White House) and the United States Capitol. Extensive quantities of freestone were extracted from this site from 1791 through the 1820s.
In 1791, President George Washington (who was in Stafford County 10 miles south of this site at Ferry Farm) appointed three Commissioners to oversee construction of the new federal capital city (later named Washington, D. C.). The Commissioners sent Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to survey the lands along the Potomac River for adequate deposits of freestone.
L’Enfant selected Brent’s Island for its bountiful supply of good quality freestone, proximity to the capital city, and accessibility for water-transit.
On December 2, 1791, L’Enfant purchased the quarry for the federal government. Thereafter, the site was known as The Public Quarry. Today, the site is commonly know as Government Island.
The Commissioners also contracted with other nearby, private quarry owners to supply additional building material. The use of the quarries, in addition to Government Island, helped to further establish quarrying as an important industry in Stafford County.
Aquia stone was easy to carve, which made it a natural choice for intricate decorative details and trim elements around windows and doors. From the late 1600s through the 1700s, Aquia sandstone was commonly used for gravestones, boundary markers, fireplace mantels, millstones and bridges. This stone was used throughout Virginia and the mid-Atlantic colonies. During the Federal period, intricate carving of Aquia Stone created striking features at the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Approximately two miles northwest of this site stands Aquia Episcopal (1751-1757), which has freestone architectural components, including keystones, quoins, and pediments. Aquia sandstone was used in other prominent Virginia buildings, such as Kenmore in Fredericksburg (ca. 1772), Gunston Hall at Mason Neck (1755-1760), and Christ Church in Alexandria (1767-1773).
Quarrying stone during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was very labor intensive. Stone quarried here was cur and shipped with the use of simple machines and animal power. Various workers were needed to extract the stone. A master-mason, usually a European who was a master in all aspects of stone work, would oversee the entire quarrying operation. Skilled workers include stone cutters and stone carvers who extracted and rough-cut the stone into desire sizes. Blacksmiths were constantly needed to make and sharpen the cutting tools, wedges, chisels, trimming hammers, sledge hammers, picks, mattocks and axes. Tool marks are still visible in the quarry faces today.
Many common laborers, or unskilled laborers, worked the site. Slaves were hired out by their owners who collected the slaves’ wages. Workers received housing and food, which included “…one pound good pork or one pound and a half of beef and one pound flour per day…” along with a half pint of whiskey (Commissioners Letter, April 10, 1792).
How the Stone Was Quarried: First, all vegetation was removed from the top of the stone. Once the stone was exposed, a vertical stone face was picked away, creating a working area. Two vertical channels or side trenches were made 20-feet apart, rectangular section. Grooves were chiseled along the stone face where wedges were inserted to remove a block from the large stone mass. Once a block of stone was cut, it was hoisted out with a derrick and pulley system, placed on a skid, and hauled by oxen to the wharf.
In 1647, Giles Brent established the first English settlement in this area along Aquia Creek. Nearly 50 years later, George Brent, Giles Brent’s nephew, became the island’s first documented owner. George purchased “..a small tongue or neck or Island of Land with small point of marsh…” in 1694. The property remained in the Brent family for almost 100 years, during which time it was used as a private quarry.
In 1791, the property was purchased by the federal government, which bought all but one acre. That one-acre parcel had been sold previously in 1786 to Robert Steuart, a stone mason from Baltimore, Maryland. Steuart delineated his parcel with four stone boundary markers, the largest of which sill remains and is clearly marked with his initials, “R.S.” It is located nearby this sigh.
Down the trail, there is a large pit, lined with cut stone, which measures approximately 50 feet by 150 feet. Its purpose is currently unknown. However, due to its proximity to the quarry, the pit was likely connected to the quarrying operations.