Curious Nature: Where will you find a piece of the Rocky Mountains?
How rocks and minerals from Colorado quarries wind up all across the world
Three-hundred million years ago, modern day Colorado was covered by a warm inland sea. These waters left behind thick layers of sedimentary rock that have been warped, jostled, pushed and melted. The result? Rocks and minerals of fantastic variety, concentration and quality.
Mining these rocks and minerals became Colorado’s most significant industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries and remains an important industry today. Red sandstone, gypsum and marble mined right here in Colorado are highly sought after for a variety of uses ranging from home construction to the construction of our national monuments. Let’s explore their historic and present day importance.
Lyons, located just north of Boulder is home to large deposits of sandstone. These deposits were once dunes, beaches and sandbars at the edge of ancient inland seas. Over time these sands were buried and compacted into the layered beds of red sandstone that exist today.
Lyons sandstone is naturally strong, uniform and thin in width. Beginning in the 1880s, it was quarried for paving material. After the introduction of asphalt and concrete, Lyons’ quarries barely survived; but the emergence of the suburban lifestyle post World War II created new demand. People wanted patios, landscape features and artwork crafted from Lyons sandstone. Internationally famous for its beauty and strength, the sandstone quarries of Lyons are still in operation today.
Gypsum is a soft mineral layered in sedimentary rock. Deposited from? You guessed it, that ancient inland sea. Gypsum has been mined in Colorado for over a century. It has many uses, but its greatest is in drywall.
Drywall may be surrounding you right now, as it lines the walls of most homes and buildings. Drywall made with gypsum is favorable to older plaster walls because it is lighter, more fire resistant, easier to patch and much faster to install. Most of our gypsum is mined in Gypsum, just off I-70. Gypsum is scraped from the earth, processed into sheets of drywall, and shipped all over the country.
The Yule Marble Quarry in Marble is one of the most important marble deposits in the world. Renowned for its pure color and composition, Colorado marble holds a prominent place in the world market. Formation of marble requires the heating and squeezing of sedimentary limestone until it forms interlocking calcite crystals.
The formation of Colorado’s marble happened on a much more localized scale than most other North American marble deposits, resulting in its superior quality. This quality comes at a high price, as extraction of marble at this high altitude quarry is no easy task.
Yule marble is a desirable building material and can be found in banks, capital buildings and hotels. Most notably, Colorado’s marble was used to construct the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.
From patio pavers to drywall to the monuments in our nation’s capital, pieces of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains can be found around the world. Each serves as a reminder of North America’s diverse and long geologic history. Where can you find a piece of the rockies?
Sarah Noyes is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. You can find her frolicking on snowshoes, or quietly sitting on the banks of the Vail beaver pond. Sign up for a snowshoe tour with Sarah at Walking Mountains Science Center or the Nature Discovery Center.