Lake Superior Brownstone

In the United States, brownstone as a building material reached the height of its popularity between 1868 and 1898 as growing cities built grand buildings to show off their new prosperity. In addition, the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871 highlighted the importance of replacing wooden buildings with more substantial structures. This helped ensure the success of the “Romanesque Revival” style of Henry Richardson, a popular architectural movement that favored massive stone construction.

Brownstone quarry

A Brownstone Quarry in the 1880s

High-quality brownstone (a reddish-brown sandstone made up of rounded grains of quartz sand) is found around the south shore of Lake Superior. The first quarry in the region was established on Basswood Island (one of the Apostle Islands) in 1868 by the Bass Island Brownstone Company. Other brownstone quarries were located near Fond du Lac, Port Wing, Amnicon, Iron River, and Bayfield.

Fairlawn Mansion

Fairlawn Mansion

Here in Superior, Martin Pattison started building Fairlawn in 1889. He used blocks of Lake Superior brownstone for the foundation and porches of the mansion. The brownstone used at Fairlawn came from the quarry of the Arcadian Brownstone Company, located about 10 miles away along the Amnicon River. The stone was hauled to Fairlawn by rail.

During the twenty years of its existence (1886-1906) the Arcadian Brownstone Quarry shipped out more than a million cubic feet of stone to cities throughout the Midwest. The old  quarry is located in what is now Amnicon Falls State Park.  Two major factors brought an end to the brownstone quarrying industry in the Lake Superior region. The national economy crashed in 1893, discouraging construction and virtually eliminating demand for building stone. By the time the economy improved, architectural tastes had shifted. Dark brownstone was out of fashion; lighter stones and brickwork took its place. The brownstone era was over.