Interviews With CSI Professor of Geology Alan Benimoff and The Friends of Graniteville Quarry Park Co-Founder Kathy Romanelli
Graniteville Quarry. A place where old hulking 1950s cars once sat rusting, where Graniteville residents tell us local teens went to sneakily drink back in the 1970s among the tall grasses, weeds, and interesting outcroppings. Its impressive rock outcroppings remain, but the skeletons of old paint-flaking Fords and Chevys, many of which had been burned, leaving only metal frames, along with the gaggles of black heavy metal shirt-wearing teens with long hair hiding from adults, are all but gone today.
Its slight elevation presented a scenic overlook facing West, where exceptionally beautiful sunsets could be seen, made all the more precious by the high amount of particulates bellowed out by the bevy of steam-stacks into the air over Linden, New Jersey, home to all sorts of industry.
What was once a Mariner’s Harbor (Please note that various residents also referred to the area as Graniteville, and even Elm Park.) wasteland is now in the midst of transformation, a desolate dumping ground once an abandoned area, now officially a city park, clean and well-maintained. We islanders have a few key figures to thank for the preservation of this parcel of land.
One person central to this story is Professor Benimoff, full Professor in the Engineering Department, whom we met with a couple of days before Thanksgiving at his office, located in the 4N building on the grounds of the sprawling College of Staten Island Willowbrook campus.
Professor Benimoff looked familiar; neither of the interviewers had taken any classes with him, but he has hosted a bi-weekly community TV show both interviewers had watched many times before, being avid geology enthusiasts and rock collectors, as well as dedicated CTV viewers back in the ’90s and ’00s. He is a friendly and hospitable person, welcoming us warmly to his cramped office, asking us to pardon the numerous interesting-looking rock specimens and cores sitting on nearly every flat surface.
The space looked like a mini-geology museum, unmistakably the office of a geologist passionate about his work. He began by explaining how the quarry came to be saved, and how his discovery of a rare rock there played a significant role in its recognition as an important geological site.
It all started in 1977, when Professor Benimoff, then a student, was completing a project for his coursework at Lehigh University. Back then, the quarry was much larger, as parts have since been filled in by dump trucks, and subsequently built upon. Back then, the quarry looked very different, as the area that remains undeveloped has since been filled in, for the most part.
Of course, homes built within the footprint of the original quarry have no basements; no builder was going to carve out underground space for future homeowners’ use in the hard rock, as boring into the stone would be necessary, and costly. Assemblywoman Elizabeth Connelly prevented the quarry from further development back in the 1980s. Sadly, a portion of the quarry was developed upon, but the remaining area was left intact due to Connelly’s effort.
When Professor Benimoff first set eyes on the quarry in 1977, the abandoned cars were still there. And, of course, the massive geological formations. That’s what he was there for; after all, he had changed his major to geological science, after initially getting his Engineering Science Associates degree at the old Staten Island Community College (now a part of CUNY CSI; see article on State Senator John Marchi for details) with future plans of studying Electrical Engineering.
How The Trondhjemite Was Discovered
But as life happened, Professor Benimoff’s scholastic, and career, path veered sharply, taking an unexpected turn as he decided to pursue the study of rocks and minerals. Having started by working full time in the Staten Island Community College physics lab back in June of ’67, the next summer he was hired to take care of the geology lab. Professor Benimoff’s love for geology quickly became apparent, as he helped students and learned more about the subject himself. After taking a trip with students upstate to a geological site organized by a part-time professor, his heart was set on a different future. One that included rocks and minerals.
Professor Benimoff went on to pursue his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree part-time at Brooklyn College. After a sabbatical year, he later went on to do his Doctoral Dissertation at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Like so many islanders, Professor Benimoff was born a Brooklynite and relocated to Staten Island a while ago. Today Professor Benimoff is a Full Professor of Geology at CSI, having been so for 52 and a half years. In total, he has been at CSI for 53 years.
While at Lehigh, the professor decided to study the geology of the Graniteville quarry as part of a project for a graduate-level class on igneous rocks. The quarry was a spot local to Staten Island, where he lived, and so he knew he’d find igneous rocks there. Igneous rocks are made from magma that had solidified, mantle that had risen and cooled. The layer deep below the crust, comprising most of the inner Earth, is the mantle.
Expecting to find only two contiguous rocks, the xenolith and the diabase, after sawing the rocks into thin sections after he brought a few Graniteville Quarry samples he removed with a geology pick and a hammer back to the Lehigh lab, an inspection of the rock revealed something quite interesting. The professor discovered three rocks when visiting there, where he was only expecting to find two.
About 200 million years ago, when Pangaea, the supercontinent, broke apart, molten rock rose from inside the Earth, extruding between layers of sedimentary rock. Pieces of the rock broke off, and a chunk of xenolith fell into the Palisades diabase rock. As this rock cooled, at its margins, a new type of rock was formed. This was the trondhjemite, which is what makes Graniteville Quarry so special.
The Palisades Sill is primarily what’s under Graniteville. It runs from Nyack, New York, all the way down to Princeton, New Jersey, surfacing on Staten Island along the way. Along most of its path, this rock formation is buried deep underground. (The rocks visible on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge are of this type.)
The parent of the trondhjemite is the xenolith that melted, but ions diffusing due to chemical potential between the two make the trondhjemite unique; it’s actually made from both rocks, of a totally new chemical composition! Specific elements that are high in one melt and low in the other always moves from the area of high concentration to low. And of course, each of the two rocks has a different chemical composition. And so, a new rock was formed.
Graniteville Renamed Trondhjemiteville?
Granite generally contains potassium feldspar. Trondhjemite is comprised of sodium feldspar. Professor Benimoff explained that the idea that there is no true granite in Graniteville is dead wrong; he joked that there are cemeteries with granite grave markers, among them the vast Baron Hirsch Cemetery, once adjacent to the quarry, now separated by houses built on the part of the quarry closest to the cemetery a few decades ago.
However, Professor Benimoff reminded us that when the town of Graniteville was named, any rock that looked like granite was simply called granite. What’s there is actually basalt diabase, more often known as “trap rock,” from the Swedish “trappa”, which means “stairway.” This is an apt name for this rock because the slow-cooling magma created layers that look a lot like steps.
He does not think renaming the town to Trondhjemiteville is advisable. This rare rock is actually a very small component of the overall geology of the area. Nor would BasaltDiabaseVille, or TraprockVille, be a change in name for the better. Once named Bennett’s Corner, after the family that owned the quarry, the town was also once known as Granite Village and Fayetteville.
The “granite” in Graniteville, more accurately diabase, was once used as wall stone for building construction. On Jewett Avenue, there is a church that has stone walls made from this rock. Fort Sumter, according to legends the professor has heard over the years, was made from rock quarried in Graniteville. He does provide a disclaimer that he is unsure of the veracity of this claim, and so far, no one in the national parks Service can confirm or deny this claim.
According to the NYC Park Department, the Christ United (Episcopal) Methodist Church, now the Korean Methodist Church, was constructed from rock quarried in Graniteville. (See Photos Below) We surmised as much; shipping is costly, and that was true even 100 years ago. Further, the church looks to be of the same rock as the next-door quarry’s outcroppings.
A Brief Graniteville Quarry History
The Graniteville quarry operated from 1841 to 1896, Belgian blocks being the finished material extracted therefrom, cubical-shaped cobblestones used in paving and edging. Larger quarried stones were also used in foundations and walls. The town of Graniteville was once known as Bennett’s Corners, named for the Port Richmond family that owned and operated a quarry of the same name, later referred to as the John Street Quarry and the Elm Park Quarry, located where the approach to the Bayonne Bridge is now situated.
According to the December 6, 1897 edition of the Tammany Times, “A National Democratic Newspaper,” archived at the Cornell University Library, and now digitally available through Google Books, Frank Bennett, son of James Bennett, original owner of the Bennett Quarry, had been foreman of the quarries for the last eighteen years prior. The Bennett quarry was still in operation at the time of the printing of this information.
According to the article, the Bennett’s trap quarry lands totaled thirty-nine acres, and at the time were thought to contain granite, or syenite. In the Proceedings of the 1967 Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Elm Park quarry was filled during construction of the Bayonne Bridge. In fact, the exposed diabase at the Richmond Terrace Exit, on the North-bound side of the highway, is said to be the only remaining outcropping from the quarry.
Broadway, perhaps Manhattan’s most-famed street, featured a legacy Belgian block cobblestone roadbed paved with stones quarried at the Bennett family’s Staten Island quarries, however, it’s uncertain whether Bennett owned one, or both of the quarries, and so the 39 acre figure cite in the Tammany Times, may be a total of acreage of both quarries combined, the one located on Forest Avenue, as well as the one formerly sited at John Street in Port Richmond. It seems likely that the Barretts owned both, as the town the Graniteville quarry is located in once bore their names, and the references were always to “quarries” in the plural.
Pictures taken by photographer Percy Loomis Sperr, archived at the NYPL digital collection, show what the Graniteville quarry looked like in the first quarter of the twentieth century. By this time, the quarry had already been abandoned as an industrial resource and quarrying was no longer taking place.
According to Staten Island at its people: A history, 1609-1929, the quarries were first worked in 1841. A topological map of Mariner’s Harbor from August, 1909, depicts the land elevation of the Graniteville Quarry area. Very clearly, the higher land had been stripped away as trap rock was mined, only to be filled in again in the 1980s and 1990s.
Why Is There Diabase Rock Exposed on Staten Island?
Staten Islanders can thank the Ice Age for our island’s interesting topography and areas of interesting exposed rock-face. 25,000 years ago, the glacier came through Staten Island, massive ice sheets tearing through the surface, creating hills and valleys, kettle ponds and littering the ground with rocks of all sorts. There was once another mine in Travis, where diabase outcroppings were also mined in the past.
The West Shore Expressway also passed through diabase, and part of this rock outcropping was removed to create the flat area for the roadbed. Staten Island is comprised of many kinds of rocks: on the surface we find igneous rocks, diabase serpentine, cretaceous deposits near Killmeyer’s and Mount Loretto beach, white sands, as well as sedimentary rock which lies deeper down (revealed during boring for the original Goethals Bridge support piers back in the 1920s). The oldest serpentine on the island is around 440 million years old, Professor Benimoff explained.
How Unique Is The Graniteville Quarry?
The outcropping of bedrock here is quite rare. Usually, the diabase is simply enclosed within the zeolite. Here, an entirely new rock was formed. Professor Benimoff has taken students from CSI there many times, as well as groups of geology students traveling from all over the U.S. to see the site, firsthand. An igneous rock parent, side-by-side with its parent, is rare. The parent rock of the trondhjemite is the xenolith that melted. There are three contiguous rocks: Xenolith in the center, trondhjemite around it, and the diabase surrounding both of those types of rocks.
Trondhjemite was first discovered in Trondheim, Norway. While not perfectly identical to the Trondhjemite there, it was similar, and so Professor Benimoff decided against ascribing a new name to the rock. He explained, “I could have named it Staten Islandite…but I didn’t feel like cluttering up what’s out there already.”
There are also glacial grooves evident in the outcropping of rock at the quarry. That is another distinct geographically important land feature. This is where the glacier scraped against the ground, leaving a trail of its precise direction of movement. Where the glacier passed over, the rock is smooth. Where it was quarried, the exposed rock is broken off.
How Did the Park Become Recognized As Important?
Friends of the Graniteville Quarry Park helped to keep the quarry from being developed. The professor’s discovery was timely; in 1977, the area had been purchased by developers, and plans were in place to build. Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, led by Ellen Pratt, helped to broker a deal by the Trust for Public Land between the builder and the City of New York. The area is bedrock; skyscrapers could easily have been built on the site, though that was probably not what the builder had in mind. More likely, there were just going to be more cookie-cutter houses planned for the site.
In 1988, according to the professor, dump trucks began arriving from Brooklyn, and began filing in the area of the then-giant quarry immediately south to Baron Hirsch cemetery with dirt, an area that was not included in the four acre parcel of the quarry the city chose to purchase. The professor remembers the now-covered-and-built-upon area as a giant amphitheater, shaped by quarrying.
Locals choosing to remain anonymous tell us that’s where kids would sit and hang out drinking beer and taking in the view, with dozens of old car carcasses down below, and Mariner’s Harbor in clear view to the West. During the same time frame, perhaps a little later, this is where the professor and his students would sit and discuss geology.
Fortunately, the area with the unique outcroppings yet remains. What’s lost is saddening, but at least we have something. Before quarrying, the hill was a bit higher, but never quite as high as similar rock formations near the G.W. Bridge. There are also similar outcroppings near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway Richmond Terrace Exit, when headed North, toward the bridge.
Friends of Graniteville Quarry Nonprofit Formed
Kathy Romanelli and Marco Justine formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called The Friends of the Graniteville Quarry, an organization seeking to turn the quarry into an outdoor geology museum of sorts, with placards on the rocks labeling their composition. We interviewed Kathy over the phone in late November, 2019.
Kathy is a native Staten Islander. Her parents moved here after briefly living in the Bronx and then relocating to Staten Island. Kathy had been President of the Mariner’s Harbor Civic Association before embarking on this quest to save the quarry.
Kathy said that she first became aware of the Graniteville Quarry shortly after 9-11-2001, while riding a bus on Forest Avenue. While looking out the bus window, she noticed that there was a garbage-strewn lot and became curious as to what the site was all about. Upon doing some research,, Kathy discovered that it was a disused quarry, with the property ownership split between the state, and city, of New York. Mrs. Romanelli stated, “I wanted to give back to my community. I wanted to clean up this horrible eyesore of a lot. Then I discovered there was a beautiful rock formation in there that nobody even knows about!”
Setting about to make the area into a park, Kathy wrote countless letters and made many phone calls for over ten years. This is truly a testament to why persistence is essential in accomplishing community goals. The goal had been the relinquishment of the State’s claim to part of the land to the city, so that the NYC Park Department could go about making the area an official green space. Finally, NY State Governor David Patterson, agreed to transfer the state’s portion of the quarry to New York City.
Forty Tons Of Trash Removed in 2010
Kathy explained that in 2010 over forty tons of trash was initially removed by the city Parks Department, including trash, construction debris, and old cars. Since that time, The Friends of Graniteville Quarry organizes a bi-annual cleanup event, inviting children from five local schools to assist with the clean up effort. The Parks Department supplies shovel and wheelbarrows, rakes, garbage bags, gloves, as well as tick repellant.
For the last two years, grants from the Citizen’s Committee pays for a breakfast for participants that takes place before the cleanup, partnering with the church next to the park. The 2019 event drew over 75 participants, including Girl Scout troops and students at St. Peter’s Boys High School.
In 2017, members of the Local 79 Construction and General Builders Union pitched in to help plant 1500 daffodil bulbs and 100 echinacea plants during the 15th Annual Graniteville Quarry clean-up.
Professor Benimoff also attends, providing college students, and local residents, with a tour of the park, including information about the rocks found there. This last cleanup, volunteers removed about ten large contractor bags filled with trash, including over one hundred Colt 45 bottles. Many of the children live in the Mariner’s Harbor projects and this is their first experience planting in the ground.
Local residents in their seventies and eighties reminisced with Kathy about how they once hung out down in the quarry. The local kids back then would play music and hang out in what was an amphitheater-shaped depression that has since been covered with fill material. Being below street level, sound was not conveyed to the surrounding streets.
So what we see today is the result of the quarry having been used for decades by Staten island developers to dump dirt and rocks from other Staten Island construction projects. Kathy hopes that one day there might even be funds to remove the dirt fill and restore the quarry to what it looked like before it was filled in, a deep depression shaped much like a bowl or amphitheatre.
Graniteville Quarry: A Hidden Jewel
The quarry is “a hidden jewel”, according to Kathy, and efforts continue to help further the park’s development. The Friends of Graniteville Quarry is not nearly done with their work; efforts continue to place additional signage, park benches, paths, and polish some of the exposed rock. To date, funding hasn’t yet been secured for any of this. However, Kathy remains hopeful that the digging out of the “amphitheater”, as well as these other sub-projects, moves forward at some point in the future, when additional funding is secured. Daffodils and tulips sprout merrily in the Springtime; that’s because the nonprofit planted over 1,500 bulbs, courtesy of a grant secured by Councilwoman Debi Rose.
Homelessness remained an issue at the newly created quarry park. In recent years, outreach involving Reverend Terry Troia’s Project Hospitality has been conducted with the assistance of both the City Parks Department, as well as the officers at the 121 precinct, located only blocks away. Unbeknownst to most area residents, homeless encampments were hidden within the park, complete with structures comprised of scrap wood, blue plastic tarps, containing mattresses and everything else usually associated to living in a home without walls. These structures have since been remove,d according to Kathy.
While researching about the park, Kathy learned of Professor Benimoff’s discovery of the rare rock formations at the quarry. Community Television served as a forum where Kathy and Professor Benimoff shared their ideas with the Staten Island public. There was no community opposition to creating a park; of course, local residents were overjoyed to see a garbage-covered lot transformed into a place everyone could enjoy visiting. There are future plans for an “Open-Air Museum” with clear markers on the rocks that are significant, geologically. Local businesses contribute funds to keep the Friends going, including Shop Rite, 7-11, and others. The remainder of the funding has been secured each year by grants. Partnership For Parks helped get the nonprofit off the ground.
Are There Any Structures We Know of Made From The Rocks At Graniteville Quarry?
Professor Benimoff said that a church on Castleton Avenue was constructed using the stones. He also said he’s heard, but has no research to back up the claim, as he’s not a historian, that Fort Sumter was constructed from the stone removed from Graniteville Quarry.
We also wondered whether some of the foundation stones for the Christ United Methodist church adjacent to the site were also quarried there, as the transportation costs would be nonexistent, and the rocks look similar. At least, to an untrained eye, they do. (Upon further research, this turned out to be the case.)
Traveling around the North Shore, we found a number of old walls that looked like the same rock. Whether these were mined here on the island remains a mystery. (see photos)
Here are some images of other walls and structures located on Staten Islan’d North Shore that may also have been built from Graniteville quarry stones. Can you recognize any of these?
Are there Any Gemstones On Staten Island?
Of course, being avid amateur geology enthusiasts, we had some additional questions for the professor relating to Staten Island geology, but not the quarry, specifically. According to Professor Benimoff, as well a 56 page book published in 1972 entitled, New York City’s Last Frontier: Field Trips on Staten Island, authored by Arthur M. Shapiro, when a water tunnel was bored between Staten Island and Brooklyn, large gem-quality red garnets were brought to the surface. These could be found in material dumped in Mariner’s Harbor at a slag heap, but the site is now largely developed.
Does Staten Island Have Asbestos In The Rock? Can It Cause Lung Cancer For Islanders?
While it is true that our island’s serpentine often contains mineral asbestos, the professor is doubtful it is the cause for health concerns, nor is it correlated with any trend of ill health on the island. According to him, back in 1988 or so, an apartment building was planned for the side of Grymes Hill. There was widespread concern at the time because asbestos was found in the rock that was removed. The New York City DEP found chrysolite in the serpentine at the time. Weathered serpentine exposed to acidic air is reduced to something akin to Epsom Salts.
More About Professor Benimoff
Professor Benimoff teaches Geology courses, both for the general study body, as well as Geology Majors, as well as Earth Science Graduate Classes. He’s also taught engineering science classes at CSI in the past. His research has spanned a variety of geology topics, often funded by grants. He has even discovered a new mineral, requiring reclassification of an entire mineral group.
Professor Benimoff’s scholarly article, “Coexisting silicic and mafic melts resulting from marginal fusion of a xenolith of Lockatong Argillite in the Palisades Sill, Graniteville, Staten Island, new York”, published in 1984 in American Minerologist, Volume 69, Pages 1005-1014, co-authored wit Charles B. Scholar of Lehigh University, details the precise physics and chemistry behind his magnificent find that put Graniteville on the geological map, and saved a little bit more open space for the North Shore community.
Geology Forum On Community TV, led by Professor Benimoff, is aired every second Friday on Channel 35 (FIOS) 79 (Spectrum).
Abstract of Professor Benimoff’s Work
Coexisting silicic and mafic melts resulting from marginal fusion of a xenolith of Lockatong Argillite in the Palisades Sill, Graniteville, Staten Island, New York
ALAN I. BENIMOFF
Department of Applied Sciences The College Of Staten Island, the City University of new York
715 Ocean Terrace, Staten Island, New York 10301
AND CHARLES B. CLAR
Department of Geological Sciences
Lehigh University, Bethlehem,Pennsylvania 18015
In the Palisades Sill on Staten Island, New York, is an extraordinary example of two coexisting chemically divergent magmatic liquids, now represented by the diabase of the Palisades sill and a pyroxene trondhjemite derived by fusion of the margins of a xenolith of Lockatong argillite.
The xenolith is a vertical tabular body 30 m long and 0.5 m thick. The xenolith has a Na/K weight ratio of 75, a norm dominated by albite and quartz, and contains 0.5 wt.% each total iron oxide and MgO. The pyroxene trondhjemite contains 32 wt.% normative albite, 18 wt.% normative quartz, and 6–7 wt.% total iron oxide. The mineralogy and chemistry of the surrounding diabase, the mafic (67) and felsic (25) indices, and the position of the diabase on the AFM differentiation trend of the Palisades magma indicate that the xenolith is now 525 ±50 feet above the base of the Palisades sill if these data are normalized to the Englewood Cliff section of Walker (1969). The mafic index of the diabase indicates a magma temperature of 1160°C which is above the liquidus for a broad range of composition in the system albite–quartz. The high normative albite and quartz of the xenolith are manifested in the trondhjemite by relatively large euhedral albite crystals and an albite-quartz micrographic (granophyric) intergrowth which constitutes the groundmass of the trondhjemite. Chemical analyses of the xenolith, the trondhjemite, the contiguous diabase, and a diabase sample 13 m from the xenolith indicate that iron, magnesium, and calcium diffused into the coexisting trondjhemitic magma; correspondingly, sodium diffused from the trondjhemitic magma into the surrounding diabase magma. The diabase and the trondhjemite do not appear to have an immiscible relationship. The high viscosity of the dry silica-rich trondjhemitic magma may have prevented physical mixing of the two coexisting magmatic liquids.