Queenston cement works (1885-1904)
by Harold Usher
In the 1870's Isaac Usher was a masonry contractor, working on the third Welland Canal. At the time poured concrete was little used, as practically all masonry construction was of cut stone bedded in cement mortar. Some evidence of his work is still visible north and south of Glendale Avenue a short distance east of General Motors plant No. 2 at St. Catharines.
During the canal excavation it was discovered that a layer of natural cement rock underlay the blue dolomite under much of the Niagara Escarpment. William Hendershot, of Thorold, owned and operated the Queenston Quarries where the layer of cement rock was six to ten feet in thickness. In 1885 he leased a portion of his holdings to Isaac Usher on a royalty basis. The latter established his cement plant about one quarter mile east of St. Davids under the title of "Isaac Usher & Son."
Three kilns, later increased to six, were constructed on the face of the escarpment. They were built of rubble stone, roughly shaped, about ten feet in diameter and forty feet high. These were lined with fire brick and fire clay, and the grates at the bottom were steel railroad rails cut into convenient lengths. The mill was steam operated and located at the base of the kilns, so that no material would have to be lifted. The warehouse was located at the bottom of the escarpment on the south side of the Michigan Central Railway on a siding from the main line. The cooper shop for the making of barrels was built on the north side of the railway line immediately opposite the warehouse. Each barrel contained 350 pounds of cement. The ground or finished cement was transported from the mill to the warehouse by means of a conveyor belt and chute, and all handling from the raw cement rock to the finished product was by gravity.
Since only one layer of the sedimentary rock was being used, it was more economical to tunnel it rather than attempt to remove the heavy overburden of many feet of limestone. Four tunnels were driven into the escarpment, eventually totalling a length of between six and seven miles. No map or plan of these tunnels was ever made, so that when the quarrying operations extended above them in the 1920's, they caused many problems. Quarrying required drilling and blasting, and in many cases when the dynamite exploded nothing happened, as the force blew down the roof of the tunnel and left the limestone above undisturbed, causing the quarry to waste uncounted feet of drilling and great amounts of dynamite.
Drilling the tunnels was done by steam drills, which was cumbersome because two lines of hose were required. Dynamite was used on account of its shattering effect, and picks, wedges and striking hammers were used to break up pieces that were too large to lift into the mine cars. Light-gauge steel rails were laid following the advance of the tunnels, and the mine cars were hauled to the kilns by ponies or small horses. Large pillars of unexcavated rock were left to support the roof, and timbers were used to shore up the roof in necessary spots. Subsequent quarrying caved in the tunnel roofs in many places, but several parts of them are still visible.
Firewood and soft coal were placed on the steel rails at the bottom of the kilns, and then alternate layers of cement rock and soft coal until the kiln was filled. The fires were then lighted and kept burning around the clock, pouring out black smoke across the landscape. The grates at the bottom of the kilns were shaken daily, and the ashes or cinders were placed on a conveyor belt to the mill. As the contents of each kiln subsided more coal and cement rock were added from the top, and it was a continuous process.
The millstones were made in France of French burr stone, which was extremely hard, but even so, it was necessary to re-dress them at least once a year to maintain the sharp edges of the grooves. The bottom stone was stationary, and had grooves cut from the centre to the edges. The upper stone revolved, driven by a steam engine, and its centre was cut out, leaving a hole through which the burned cement rock was poured.
As the upper stone revolved the ash or cinder was ground into a fine powder, and as it fell from the outer edges of the stones, it was collected and conveyed to the warehouse below. Here it was packed into barrels made on the spot, and either loaded into railway box cars or stored for future shipment. Two or three years before the plant closed, heavy paper bags came into general use, replacing the barrels. These bags held 87 1/2 pounds of cement, or one-quarter the weight of a barrel.
Isaac Usher himself had very little to do with the operation of the cement plant. When the Welland Canal work was completed, he continued his contracting business, mainly railroad and waterworks construction in the United States. He took his elder son, Hudson, into partnership and left him to run the business. Hudson, born in 1869, was sixteen years old when he took charge of this operation, and he continued to manage it for another sixteen years. The business employed about thirty men, and the output averaged 250 barrels per day.
In 1901, Isaac and Hudson dissolved partnership, the latter taking over the operation of the Queenston Heights Stock Farm which raised and showed purebred Shorthorn cattle. Three years later Isaac was forced to close the cement works. Natural cement could not compete with the new "Portland" type which came into use at the beginning of this century. Although of very high quality, it took about 24 hours to set, whereas Portland took only six, and was preferred by contractors and builders as it greatly speeded their production.
During its operation the Queenston Cement Works supplied cement to the Sault Ste. Marie and St. Lawrence canals, as well as the usual building trades. In 1932 when the siphon at Welland, which carried the Welland River under the Welland Canal, was removed, the adhesive quality of this cement was so great that in the blasting usually the stone itself broke before the cement bond gave way.
In 1899-1900 Hudson Usher and his wife constructed a residence to see whether it would be practical to build one of poured concrete. That house is now owned and occupied by the writer and his wife. Within the next five years three more were built locally. One was for Isaac Usher, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. L. McRae, located on the north side of York Road almost opposite the cement kilns. The second was for the Presbyterian manse for which Isaac Usher (himself an Anglican) donated the cement. This house, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. B. Humphries, has been stuccoed. It is located on the west side of Four-Mile Creek Road opposite the old Odd Fellows Hall in St. Davids. The third, built as a wedding gift to Isaac's youngest daughter Bonnie, is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. K. White. It is located on the east side of the Four-Mile Creek Road in St. Davids, just north of the last village mill still standing.
About thirty years ago the house built for Isaac Usher was completely burned out. Fortunately, the heat did not damage the walls or the basement floor, and the house was rebuilt within its original concrete shell. The Queenston Cement Works has gone, but these four houses, now continuously occupied since early in this century, bear silent testimony to the quality of its product.
(Mr. Usher, a local history enthusiast, has lived all his life in the house mentioned in the story, between Queenston and St. Davids.)
Queenston Cement Mill.
A student report prepared by the Grade 8 class of Col. J. Butler School and teacher T. A. Clifford with assistance from Mr. Harold Usher.
In 1885 Isaac Usher and son opened a cement operation on the face of the Niagara Escarpment above 8A Highway between Queenston and St. Davids. The Ushers mined a layer of cement rock, fired it in kilns , ground it into power, and barrelled the finished product. A warehouse and cooper shop were located below the operation on a spur of the Michigan Central Railway Line that ran to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The cement works ceased about 1905 with the introduction of Portland Cement which set in five or six hours as compared to 24 hours for natural cement.
The mining of the cement rock was accomplished by the use of tunnels which extended in from the face of the Escarpment. Tunnels were used instead of open pit since only one layer of the sedimentary rock was used. The overburden was to thick to remove economically. Eventually, six to seven miles of tunnels existed.
Dynamite was used to loosen the rock inside the mine because of its shattering effect. Black powder, usually used in quarrying because of its slower explosion, was not used. Steam drills were used to drill holes for the dynamite. Picks, hammers and wedges were used to break up large pieces for loading into mine carts that then carried the rock to the kilns.
The steam drills were a disadvantage over the later air drills in that a period of a day or more was lost after each blast while the miners waited for the air to clear of steam and dust. Compressed air would have allowed a rapid ventilation of the mine.
To prevent cave-ins of the mine, large pillars of rock were left unmined to support the roof. Water was frequently present on the floor of the mine and had to be removed by the use of steam operated pumps.
In later years, after the cement operation ceased, most of the tunnels were destroyed when the area was quarried for the limestone overburden.
The processing began in the kilns. First the railway rails were laid across the kilns. Before a fire was started wood kindling and soft coal were placed in the kilns. Cement stone was added. The fire was then lit and kept going by dumping more coal on it. A kiln, once lit was not allowed to go out. It went constantly.
Every day workers shook the rails at the bottom so the pieces of fired cement fell down to the base of the kiln. This coarse cement was put on a conveyor belt in a shed which covered the base of the kiln. The clay was then brought to the mill where it was ground into fine dust. It was then put into barrels at a loading shed for later shipment by railway.