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Quincy Quarries: The Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Rebirth of an Urban Crag

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“When you climb at the Quarries, you get good at slab climbing or you leave.” —John Strand

Tom Callaghan had trained for this. Bolt kit in hand, he stepped above the anchor he’d sunk standing on the shoulders of Mark Bowen. The two were on pitch five of Benedictus (5.11c), on the 1000-foot face of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. This pitch was the farthest they’d gotten on their seven-year project to free and extend the route, and as Callaghan stared at the new terrain, classic smooth Cannon rock, he was unsure he’d find a stance to set the next bolt. He swiftly “stuck his nose into it,” as Bowen later said in the documentary “Benedictus,” heading off into 20-plus feet of slick, runout 5.11b. Callahan moved habitually, as he had long done on the dime edges and glassy walls of the Quincy Quarries.

The Quincy Quarries, aka the “Q,” were once the heartbeat of the Boston climbing community. The man-made granite atrium is just nine miles south of Downtown Crossing, and its thin faces and easy access made it the main crag for the coastal city.

During the peak of the place’s popularity, in the days of leisure suits and disco, Callaghan spent most of his lunch breaks soloing on the walls. He climbed there three to four times a week, losing himself in 30-plus minutes of continuous movement: up, down, and diagonally. The motion was mind and body training for the many runout slabs of New Hampshire, where he would establish countless R and X-rated routes with his partner John Strand. The climbs ranged from shorter ones such as Sticks & Stones (5.11b R), Reelin’ In the Fears (5.10 X), Footsy Quence II (5.9 R) and Bits and Pieces (5.11 R, drilled on lead), all with Strand; to Black Flies Consume Jim Dunn (5.12+, bolted on lead), with Jimmie Dunn; and some of the then-hardest multi-pitch routes in the Granite State, including the 11-pitch Benedictus/When I Paint My Masterpiece (5.11c, with sections of 5.9 R), freed by Callaghan, Bowen, and Tom Nonis in 1999. Strand, a leading Quarry developer as well and a guidebook author, suffered health issues and, sadly, died in 2017. 

“I spent thousands and thousands of hours soloing [at Quincy Quarries],” Callaghan says. “I rarely used a rope. I could center and focus completely, and lose everything else in the world. It developed into a spiritual place for me.” 

The connection he formed with the granite palisades makes today’s sight hard to bear. 

“It’s really difficult for me to go there,” he says. “I physically get sick when I do.” 

Today, the Q is a historic relic covered in layers of graffiti so thick you can almost peel it off in strips, like flyers posted on a telephone pole. The bases of the walls, many of which were once water, are flat grassy landings littered with trash and quarried blocks. Teenagers go on dates to tag the rock. Families hike among the corridors. What you don’t see is climbers, or not like you used to. Once they left, stewardship declined and paint proliferated, but there are still those who care about the place.

This is a story about how to preserve, or lose, an urban crag in the face of metro expansion and a changing climbing landscape. Today, the park is in limbo. Will the climbing fade away or find renewal?

Today’s Quincy Quarries cityscape. Image by Patrick Geoghegan

Granite is the cornerstone of climbing in New England. Beginning in the early 1900s, some of the first-ever technical routes and boulder problems in America were established on the hard, coarse-grained stone of the Northeast.

Starting in 1918, Frank Mason, the 43rd president of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), led trips to the Old Peabody Boulders north of Boston. The hulking “lumps of granite,” as they were described in AMC excursion notices of the time, were eventually broken down for use as building material, portending future conflicts between conservation and development in the area.

In 1928 America’s leading climber, Robert Underhill, and Lincoln O’Brien climbed the face of Cannon Mountain,  the highest cliff in the East, for the first time. According to Laura and Guy Waterman’s Yankee Rock & Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States, Underhill was an aloof Harvard philosophy professor who learned his skills from Mason and applied his training over summer trips to the Alps alongside other social elite. Upon returning from the far side of the Atlantic, the intrepid travelers refined their techniques on the quarries around Boston.

The quarries have hosted generations of climbers ever since. Tales from the heydays portray a vivid social scene: In the 1970s and 1980s, a fine weather day convened a hundred people. Topropes were set up like the vertical lines of graph paper. Climbers cycled from route to route well into the night, and afterwards it was beer and pizza at D’Arcy’s down the street. There were no gyms, the Boston community was small and close-knit, and the Q, with its dark gray granite and concentration of climbs of all grades, was the essential gathering spot for Eastern Massachusetts climbers.

Before sport climbing popularized in New England, trad on slab was a celebrated genre, and it will always be respected here as classic. The walls of Cannon Mountain, Cathedral Ledge, Whitehorse and elsewhere in New Hampshire share surprising similarities to the thin slab and poor protection found in Quincy. The quarries were a perfect weekday training ground for bigger objectives up north.

Late 1980s. Alison Osius on squarecuts at the Quincy Quarries, still fairly well-traveled. The advent of the area’s first climbing gym, in 1989, was one of various factors thinning out use. Photo by Jeff Brewer

Nowhere was granite more important than in Quincy, Massachusetts. In the 1800s, the city was the epicenter of a burgeoning industry in America, providing its recognizable gothic stone to cities as far flung as New Orleans and San Francisco. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the quarries were instrumental to the industrialization of the country. At the operation’s height, there were 54 active quarries, and the captains of the industry pioneered technology from advanced rock cutting and polishing processes to implementing the first commercial train in the U.S., in 1826. The Granite Railway, as it was known, shuttled rock to Charlestown for the erection of the Bunker Hill Monument, on the site of one of the first battles of the American Revolution.

The granite boon precipitated a population growth that introduced highways and an ever-expanding suburbia to the area. Then, in the early 1900s, granite fell out of favor compared to simpler materials like steel-reinforced concrete. The quarries closed for excavation, then opened for recreation.

Robert Sagerman on Ship’s Prow (5.8/5.9), A Wall, Quincy Quarries. The walls are given alphabetical designations. Image by Luke Foley

Around the 1920s, climbing, hiking, and cliff jumping became popular quarry activities. Without active water pumps, underground reservoirs and rain pooled in the deep-cut stone, producing swimming holes. The abandoned pits were a favored destination for hot summer days and daredevil showmanship. Top spots such as the Bridge and the Roof had heights well over 70 feet. Up to 51 people were killed cliff diving here between 1960 and 1998, according to John A. Laukkanen’s book Quincy Quarries: Gold and Gloom.

The city and land managers maintained a hands-off policing approach, retained to this day. Instead, they implemented deterrent measures such as dumping felled trees and telephone poles into the pools to discourage diving. The material sank out of sight, sometimes just under the surface of the water, which heightened rather than diminished the danger. Ultimately, the city determined the best course of action was to fill in the quarries.

In the 1990s, Boston’s downtown complexion and snarled traffic patterns were overhauled. The Big Dig was a megaproject to transform an elevated six-lane artery into an underground tunnel, and required dumping grounds for excavated materials. The Quincy Quarries, which had been accumulating refuse for decades, offered a convenient way to cap off the trouble areas. By the early 2000s most of the 54 quarries were sealed with what reports give as 700,000 to 800,000 tons of dirt.

The only remaining climbing walls can be found at what is now a state park, the Quincy Quarries Reservation. This land would likely be under a strip mall or housing development if not for the efforts of one of the earliest climbing-access efforts in America. 

This early-1980s grassroots political effort was led by the AMC, Friends of the Blue Hills (a local conservation group), railroad buffs, quarry historians, and local residents, including a city councilperson. Alan Rubin, a lawyer and longtime Boston climber, was one of the leading organizers.

Rubin wrote a rallying cry in the article “Taken for Granite: The Quincy Quarries—Urban Resource or Refuse?” in the summer 1983 issue of Appalachia journal: “Unless something is done soon, a unique urban open space and recreation area, which is also the scene of an important part of New England history, is likely to become just another industrial park.” 

Through persistent advocacy and some serendipity, the park was eventually saved by Governor Michael Dukakis in what may have been a political goodwill move leading up to his Presidential run. 

Rubin says that initial efforts with the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), which oversaw many of the state’s parks and waterways, were defeated. In the early- to mid-1980s, though, the MDC came under fire for pollution in the Boston Harbor.

While he cannot be certain, Rubin believes Dukakis may have looked to the MDC Commissioner to seek some sort of environmental success. In any case, he says, the commission “reversed their position.”

“What I can say for sure,” he says, “is that very soon after [a pollution] incident and the negative press, we were contacted by staff and told that they would work to purchase the Quarries and protect it from development.”  

Though the park was secured for recreational use and conservation, various changes to the region caused Quincy climbing to fall out of favor. The metro area had experienced unprecedented economic and population growth from the 1970s onward: Traffic was clogging I-93 South, making it difficult to get to the walls; in 1989, Boston’s first indoor climbing gym opened, in Woburn, nine miles north of Boston; and in the ’90s, two hours northwest of Boston, development took off at Rumney. Today, Rumney is the premier sport destination in New England, featuring steep faces and athletic moves on big holds, a style often emulated in gyms. Since the turn of this century, the crowds have all but stopped gathering in Quincy.

Wednesday night at the quarries, circa 1983. Image by Ron Levenson / Appalachian Mountain Club

It’s early winter in the quarry, and the afternoon sun hangs low in the sky. The air is crisp with the leading winds of an oncoming storm and mixes with sharp paint fumes meted out of spray cans from a couple nearby. The rush of highway traffic echoes off the walls. To grab the painted rock is like touching waxy plastic. Microholds have lost texture, and what were once feasible technical moves now feel like pedaling on uneven glass. 

“There’s a lot of good climbing you can still do now. But the best stuff, the stuff that made a huge difference years ago, is under half an inch of paint,” says Callaghan. Climbers still go, mostly for gym-to-crag toprope lessons organized by local gyms and schools and for quick after-work sessions. Other local crags, such as Hammond Pond; Rattlesnake Rocks, in Quincy; and College Rock in Milford have seen similar drops in usage.

Unidentified climbers at Quincy Quarries, June 1960. Photo Appalachian Mountain Club

These days the park is a playground for graffiti artists, not that they ply their craft legally. 

“In the last 10 years, the park has seen an escalation of graffiti; however, individuals are prohibited from painting such art at the quarry,” the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for the State of Massachusetts replied to my inquiry.

Despite posted warnings, there are daily contributions of spray paint to the site. The granite offers the largest graffiti venue around, a melting pot for established muralists and budding taggers. Nearby are other open-air galleries, such as Modica Way in Cambridge. One of two legal walls in the Greater Boston area, Modica is largely self-policed and is supported by the city. Quincy might be able to incorporate that model; it has the potential to be a multi-use destination with designated areas for climbing and graffiti. 

Rubin believes we should think about the higher and better use when considering how to protect or manage a resource. “Graffiti can potentially damage rock, and there’s a limited amount of rock around. I personally think [the graffiti] should be removed. However, the far side of C Wall”—quarry walls are designated as A Wall, B Wall and so on—“barely gets climbed. Maybe that can be set aside for graffiti,” he says.

The resource could feasibly be shared. If only there was a plan.

The Southeast New England Climber’s Coalition (SNECC), the local climbing organization, knows a preservation project is possible. However, the grassroots-led volunteer group needs a leader to step up and manage what would be a multi-year project, involving resource planning with the city and state, environmental rehabilitation,  graffiti removal, and enforcement.

“Do I think it’s doable? Absolutely,” says Tim McGivern, the co-founder of SNECC. “But it needs the support of Quincy, DCR, [and] a regular group of stewards who are going to be the eyes and ears for the climbing community. There are a lot of questions, such as, once the graffiti is removed, how is that status maintained?”

For a plan to come together, disparate groups need to advocate cohesively for stewardship the way they did in the 1980s. 

Says Callaghan: “You can’t take local areas for granted. Development rolls along. You have to work with private landowners. You have to work with other people who are using that same resource, to preserve the areas.”

As Frank Mason’s boulders were once broken down for building material, perhaps the quarry will disappear under the increasing layers of paint. After all, recreationists and spray painters are the primary users today. Without clear oversight and regulation, and with changing land use, the future of the Quincy Quarries is uncertain. 

“I always thought I would be able to go back and climb there,” Callaghan muses. “I met my wife there. I thought we would go when we retire and all that. Now I just can’t.”

Aaron Gerry is a freelance journalist based in Boston and around the world. He enjoys bouldering because it’s mostly sitting around.

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