Carved in Stone

Brooke Wisdom

April 1, 2011

P is for Pit

A gravel pit that was a source of happy childhood memories showcases the evolution of mining technology.

By Bill Langer

pit, gravel noun – an open excavation from which gravel is, or has been, obtained.

‘the gravel pit whence the roads are mended’ (Thomas Huxley, 1878, Physiography: an introduction to the study of nature, page vii)

I grew up in Alfred, a small rural town in western New York State. Its population at the time was 2,862. I have fond childhood memories, which include the town gravel pit. There was something magical about that place that attracted my friends and me. The pit was about two miles out of town — an easy bicycle ride. Not only was it a place ‘whence the roads were mended,’ it was the source of many an adventure.

In those days, there was nothing guarding the pit from marauding kids; no fences, no gates, not even a ‘keep out’ or ‘warning’ sign. People were expected to recognize the inherent dangers of a hole in the ground. We went there to have fun, not to make trouble.

Actually, there was one sign in the pit; it read ‘No Dumping.’ Nevertheless, some people found it easier to stop at the pit than to go to the town dump. We knew we were in for some fun the day we found an old tire. Rolling it off the pit face and watching it bounce across the pit brought cheers from the whole gang of kids.

The construction of a new house or road in Alfred was a big deal, and not a lot of gravel was used around town. The national annual consumption of aggregate at the time was about one quarter ton per person. On the generous side, that pit might have produced a thousand tons per year. Much of the sand and gravel was sold as bank run. No fancy equipment was needed; just a grizzly and a few screens. Nothing was crushed; oversized material was set aside in a big pile. That led to another great game — boulder bowling — seeing how far you could get a boulder to roll across the pit floor after launching it from the top of the pit.

Even when the gravel was processed, it was not washed. The only water we ever saw in the pit was rainwater that collected in the low spots. We would collect pollywogs from those pools, take them home, and watch them sprout legs, lose their tails, and turn into frogs.

I haven’t been back to Alfred since I was a young adult, so while writing this article, I took a look at the pit on an aerial image served up on the Internet. Wow, what a change! Lengthy conveyors move excavated material from the working face to a crusher and screens. From there it goes to a surge pile, then to further processing, washing, and finally to stock piles. Process water sits in settling ponds. One part of the pit is fully reclaimed; other parts are just beginning to be reclaimed. Everything is neat and tidy.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The gravel pit at Alfred has made the same advancements during the last half of the 20th century that typify sand and gravel operations across the country. Automated plants have become the standard as operators continue to improve extraction, processing, and loadout techniques. Reclamation is now part of the life cycle of the gravel pit as companies strive to provide a sustainable product to their customers and satisfy public concerns while meeting the ever-increasing (not counting the last few years) demand for sand and gravel.

If I ever get back to Alfred, I might drop by the old gravel pit. Maybe they will let me roll a tire off the pit face or go boulder bowling. Or not.

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