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Fri., Oct. 31
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Consultant tracking Potsdam sandstone, NNY stonemasons

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POTSDAM — In 1870, Pat Harrington was 38 years old and had six children. The Irish stonemason lived in Potsdam, working in the sandstone quarries.

He is one of about 500 St. Lawrence County residents to make a living carving or working with the stone that made the area famous.

Now, a historic preservation consultant is working to track the masons and dozens of sandstone buildings their skills helped to build in Ontario and New York.

The stone was used in buildings ranging from armories in Brooklyn and Ogdensburg to the Canadian Parliament buildings and, in Potsdam, house foundations and sidewalks, among other things.

"It was recognized as such a beautiful and durable stone that it was chosen by the Canadian government as the trim on the Parliament buildings," historian John Bridges said. "And here, we're doing 15 miles of sidewalks in it and doing foundations under little saltbox houses. To someone like me, using the stone like this is almost an embarrassment of riches. I'm hoping this helps people appreciate what's here."

For more than a year, Mr. Bridges, a former stonemason, has been checking historic documents to find records of where Potsdam sandstone went and of the workers who worked in the quarries.

Eventually, the information will be compiled into a series of interactive maps and added to the Potsdam Public Museum's website. Mr. Bridges said he had hoped the site would be ready in time for the town's second annual sandstone festival, which concluded this weekend, but technical problems have held it up.

"The data part of it is complete and has been for several months. The work is being done by a student from Clarkson who has graduated and is really busy at his new job," the former stonemason said. "It's kind of a disappointment that it's not ready in time for the festival, but it's beyond our control."

Eventually, the same work may be done on other industries in the region, including the marble quarries in Gouverneur and the history of dairy farming.

Even though the website is not ready to go, the festival was well-attended, with several walking tours and lectures over the past week. It has expanded, as well, with some businesses offering special discounts and a festival Saturday on Fall Island sponsored by the chamber of commerce.

"All year long I've been going to people and telling them, 'Oh, we're doing the second annual Sandstone Festival. Would you like to be involved?'" museum creator Mimi Van Deusen said. "Everything we did last year, we expected dribs and drabs. Everything was very well-attended and people were talking about it."

The festival ended Sunday with a walking tour of Bayside Cemetery.

Thousands of tombstones were made out of Potsdam sandstone, along with other small markers such as carriage blocks and ballards of fences.

In Potsdam, Mr. Bridges has plotted 34 demolished buildings, 24 extant buildings and 25 other structures, including monuments and entry gates. Nearly 500 houses in the town have sandstone foundations and, at one time, nearly 15 miles of sidewalks. The sidewalks alone amounted to 4,300 tons of the stone, according to Mr. Bridges.

"It's stuff you've seen around but people don't put it together. Some of them are very humble to incredibly ornate," he said. "When you see it every day, it becomes invisible. When you actually plot them as a significant use of sandstone, it becomes clear how much it permeated all of the environment in Potsdam over 100 years."

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