January 1, 2000

Backgrounder: The Rock Solid History of Graniterock

What do John Steinbeck, Governor Romualdo Pacheco, and the road to Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park have in common?

They are all part of the rich and colorful history of Graniterock, as it celebrates a century of building roads and communities in California.

Granite Rock Company is a leader in the construction industry, winner of the acclaimed Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and is listed in Fortune magazine’s ranking of the “100 Best Places to Work for in America.”

The story of Graniterock is not just the story of a business; it’s the story of a family, a community, and a region. It is the story of a company as it grew through a century of social, cultural and political change. All of the elements of a great tale exist: the grandeur of the Westward Movement, the unpredictable forces of nature, and the stories of the individual men and women who are the foundation of Graniterock.

It all began at the end of the 19th century with the discovery of a deposit of high quality granite, along the Pajaro River east of Watsonville (near Aromas). Two men, Arthur R. (A.R.) Wilson and Warren Roberts Porter, purchased the land for a rock quarry, supplying rail bed ballast to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Logan Quarry (later renamed the A.R. Wilson Quarry) had its start.

Granite Rock Company was officially founded on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1900.

A.R. Wilson was the nephew of Romualdo Pacheco, the only Hispanic to serve as Governor of California, and the first Hispanic to chair a committee in Congress. Legend has it that he was also the only California governor to lasso a grizzly bear. Because A.R.’s father died early, Pacheco had a profound impact on young Arthur’s life.

Life at the quarry was tough. With Southern Pacific in steady need of ballast, the men were assured a day’s pay: $1.75 for a ten-hour shift. They rose early and worked hard and long, using sledgehammers and picks to break the rocks. Demand for product was growing as fast as California during this decade, and 175 tons of rock were generated by muscle each day. Wearing long-sleeve, buttoned-down shirts, suspenders, vests, overalls or work pants and brimmed hats, the men stood at the face of the rock wall and shattered the rock with 18- and 20-pound sledgehammers. From there, they shoveled the rock into flat cars with wooden sides, and pushed the cars to the main rail line. The quarry produced only two sizes of rock, six inches plus and six inches minus, sized on the pitchforks they used to load the railcars. Each man sweated through 12 tons of rock a day.

In 1903, the company purchased the first steam mechanization for use at the quarry, a #3 Gates and a #5 Austin Chalmers crushers. This same year, Granite Rock Company was awarded a contract for $11,290 to build a Carnegie library for Watsonville.

The Great Earthquake of 1906 wreaked havoc on Central Coast, as it sat within two miles of the San Andreas Fault, California’s most powerful and active quake zone. Southern Pacific rail lines lay buckled and twisted in some parts, shifted up to fifteen feet in others. The quarry’s new steam plant was demolished.

In San Francisco, fires set off by the tremors swept through the city, burning eight square miles and leaving hundreds dead and a quarter million homeless. A.R. loaded up his car with all the bread he could find and headed to San Francisco to help rescue Central Coast residents missing after the quake. After the quake, Graniterock crews were hired to build a San Francisco Wells Fargo building and the Gilroy City Hall, both of which stand today. The Wells Fargo Building included an eighth floor home for the California Supreme Court.

In 1907, the company’s signed its first road construction contract to perform macadam paving for the City of Watsonville. Rock was first spread over the graded roadway and then a coating of oil was applied.

In 1909, Graniterock bought its first steam shovel. The quarry operation was becoming much more sophisticated, and the power of steam and electricity made hand labor largely a thing of the past.

By 1915, the Ford plant in Detroit had produced one million automobiles, and fifty-three of them were in the Pajaro Valley. The Model T, or “Tin Lizzie,” could be seen careening up and down the state. Californians were getting the fever for cars, and with cars came the need for paved roads. This kept Graniterock busy.

The biggest project of the decade was the construction of a railroad to the Doheny oil fields in Southern California. Logan Quarry provided rock for this project and men from the Logan Quarry traveled south to work on the project.

Life at the quarry resembled that of a small, bustling town. The men lived at the bunkhouse. There were also houses for families, and a ranch, complete with horses, mules, cattle, pigs and alfalfa that offered fresh food and a sense of home. Blackberries and apricots grew, peaches and plums, too. The Chinese cook, Wing Sing, put out meals, at 15 cents each, for hungry men at the cookhouse.

In 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. At that event, Graniterock received the Gold Ribbon for Excellence in crushed rock.

In 1918, Graniterock began to build a road between Moss Landing and Castroville. Also known as “Cauliflower Boulevard,” it was the place a sixteen-year old boy named John Steinbeck worked as employee of the Graniterock road gang; he made $2.75 a day working as an oiler on a dredge that drained sloughs in preparation for road building. Graniterock manager Bob Cozzens remembered young Steinbeck sleeping roadside with the crew, and taking meals for 35 cents each at the Little Bennet Hotel in Castroville.

In the 1920s, the addition of two new separate corporations, Granite Construction Company and Central Supply Company, created prosperity for Graniterock, as they could now offer “A Complete Chain of Service” from materials to finished construction.

Graniterock was busy building roads: Chittenden Pass (now Highway 129) and Blohm Road were just some of the projects that Graniterock successfully completed in the twenties. In a cartoon published in the Watsonville Register in 1922, a reporter quipped “the R. [in Arthur R. Wilson] stands for roads.” The original construction of Route 129 through Chittenden Pass was done using a moving paving caravan that mixed concrete in transit. This process was revolutionary at the time. Graniterock purchased its first highway paver, a 121E Multifoote, to complete the Chittenden Pass paving job.

Just ten days before the great stock market crash, A.R. Wilson died suddenly at the age of 63. His wife Anna and son Jeff took on leadership of the company as the nation entered The Great Depression.

These years produced hardship throughout the country, and Graniterock experienced tough times as well. On a Yosemite Park road construction project, unexpected conditions were combined with unforeseen expenses, and the job brought perilously close to ruin its Granite Construction Company and its parent, Graniterock. Anna R. Wilson sold her family’s shares in the company her husband had founded in 1922 and Graniterock and Granite Construction Company parted ways forever.

There were other government programs to help keep things moving, and Central Supply Company delivered concrete, centrally mixed at the bunker on Chestnut and Jeanne Streets, in dump trucks for the construction of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, a WPA project. Flooding, not uncommon in the Pajaro Valley, had been a force of contention since before civilization arrived. In the thirties, this was especially true. Twice in the decade, the people of Graniterock had to deal with the whims of nature. In the thirties, just west of Logan Quarry at Elkhorn Slough, a coastal wetland that reaches seven miles inland over 2,500 acres, the mud was shifting and the Southern Pacific Railroad track was sinking. The rail was out of sight, and the wheels of trains were partially submerged. It took a Graniterock crew processing rock around the clock to shore it up. The track was repaired in time for the Stanford football team to make it to the Rose Bowl.

Graniterock slowly began to recoup the losses of the Depression. Company projects at Fort Ord and Camp McQuaide kept the quarry and Central Supply’s asphaltic concrete plant operating at full speed. The parade ground at Fort Ord, paved with base rock from the quarry and asphalt from a new hot mix plant, was a source of pride. They also provided materials for the Navy airport in Watsonville.

The Depression had left much equipment outdated or in a state of disrepair, and in 1946, a new primary crushing plant was installed, and first operated on Easter Sunday.

Half a century after its founding, Graniterock still worked closely with Southern Pacific. In the 1950s, there was so much truck competition from the Livermore Valley at the time that Graniterock was able to negotiate special freight rates based on the volume of rock it moved. This relationship with Southern Pacific, nurtured since A.R.’s day, didn’t protect them from one of their biggest competitors: sugar beets. Called the “beet campaign,” each year in September when beets were harvested, the number of rail cars available to Graniterock shrank drastically. But Graniterock was not deterred. In a stroke of genius, John Kempton, salesman for Graniterock, thought that because the beets were much lighter than the usual load, the cars could handle more volume. The railroad agreed, and built up the sides of the cars two feet higher. This freed up cars for Graniterock to meet the needs of the growing communities up north.

In the 1960s, government and its citizens were thinking more about establishing institutions for the public good, such as universities and libraries. Public safety was a concern, too. Northern California was booming, but people didn’t want to see it grow haphazardly. Excellent quality concrete would be needed to develop infrastructure in a safe and responsible way. The University of California at Santa Cruz was among the projects developed in this era, and all the concrete, to exacting specifications, was supplied by Central’s Santa Cruz Branch.

Graniterock began to investigate and market aggregate for Graniterock’s high-performance concrete in the sixties, providing “high performance aggregate” for the Stanford Linear Accelerator, St. Mary’s Hospital (now Seton) and St. Mary’s Cathedral. These new concrete formulations, using Logan Quarry rock, would crack and curl much less than regular concrete. Proud of their product and a name that so many people associated with quality, in 1969 Granite Rock Company began using the trade name “Graniterock,” and the trademarked cube was established as a logo. Soon, the Central Supply name was dropped, and the Company’s product and service offerings were all known under the name Graniterock.

Population growth continued into the seventies. The high-tech field was a promising one, and it was a time of rapid-fire growth, particularly in office building around the San Francisco Peninsula. “Silicon Valley” was where the action was, with the need for housing and commercial building continuing at an unprecedented rate. No one could hire people fast enough or build houses fast enough. Universities were built and existing universities expanded. Expansion at UC Santa Cruz kept Graniterock busy.

The use of advanced technologies wasn’t only going on in electronics and high-tech. Modernization at Logan Quarry began with the installation of the world’s largest mobile crusher. Designed by Krupp of Germany and Graniterock’s engineering team, the behemoth featured ten-foot tall Goodyear tires. It was the first giant mobile crusher mounted on rubber, and stood more than four stories tall. Three loaders scooped up the granite boulders and fed them into a 27-cubic yard hopper, where it passed through to a feeder that carried it to a scalping grizzly, then finally to the crusher. The giant primary crusher reduced the rock size to 8-inches and less, and sent it away on a mile long conveyor belt for further processing. The conveyor system replaced six 50-ton Euclid rear-dump haul trucks.

Almost 90 years after the birth of Granite Rock Company, it fully entered the age of information technology. After installing the mobile crusher, Graniterock installed a completely new secondary processing plant that is entirely computer controlled and operated. GraniteXpress now automatically performed customer truck loadout, which had been done by front-end loader for years. An automated loadout system, GraniteXpress, forever changed the way contractors pick up product. Featuring ten overhead storage bins to assure immediate access, GraniteXpress was ready at the customer’s disposal, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Drivers could pull in, flash their ATM-like GraniteXpress card, and advance to the lighted overhead bin lane. One tug of a chain would drop the right amount of rock into the rig, and off they’d go. Hassle-free, fast and accurate, GraniteXpress revolutionized the industry and received the industry’s highest award for innovation, the NOVA Award. At the dedication of the new plant, the quarry’s name was changed from Logan Quarry to A.R. Wilson Quarry. In 1999, GraniteXpress2 provided even more advanced approaches to quickly loading trucks including electronically tracking customer trucks as the move through the quarry.

Late in the eighties, a significant business decision was made — create the construction arm of Graniterock, Pavex. In the early years at Graniterock, the company paved roads and highways throughout the Monterey and San Francisco Bay areas, many still in existence due to the use of durable aggregate from Arthur R. Wilson Quarry. Demand remained high for roads, as well as on-going maintenance of existing infrastructure. Graniterock’s Pavex Construction Division began business in March, 1989, with only two people but has grown to over 200 professionals today. Pavex again filled the need (as in the early days of Graniterock) for “a Complete Chain of Service” in providing finished construction. Whether it was the San Francisco International Airport, Highway 1 at Devil’s Slide or Stanford University, Graniterock was now offering high quality materials as well as finished construction work.

Pavex arrived in advance of decisions by public transportation agencies to require contractors to assume greater responsibility for finished construction work quality. In 1997, Graniterock completed its first QC/QA (Quality Control/Quality Assurance) project for Caltrans. The project consisted of milling existing pavement and repaving with close to 19,000 tons of hot mix asphalt on 19th Avenue near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a main thoroughfare for traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a demanding job. One challenge was to make sure the flow of traffic was disrupted as little as possible. Under QC/QA, Caltrans now paid contractors based on finished quality materials and workmanship, financially penalizing contractors for poor quality results. Ghilotti Construction, with asphaltic concrete supplied by Graniterock, got the job done two months ahead of schedule and the Ghilotti-Graniterock team earned a bonus for the finished work quality.

Also in 1997, Graniterock developed a specialized mix for the San Francisco International Airport. The new 747-400 airplane, with an expanded second-story passenger area, presented a unique challenge. When it stopped during take-off and landing, fully loaded on a hot day, the wheels sank into the asphalt and created tiny depressions under the plane. Over time, this would seriously damage the integrity of the taxiways and runways. No studies had been done on the type of mix that would support such a load. Working with the airport’s consultant, the construction arm of Graniterock applied their knowledge of asphalt to test sections at the San Francisco International Airport. The new mix worked. Later, Pavex was awarded a $12.1 million “time is of the essence” job at the San Francisco International Airport. They reconstructed one of the major take-off runways, and finished the job in record time—only twenty-two days.

Graniterock wondered what made European roads able to tolerate heavier loads moving at higher speeds. At Wilson Quarry, there is a test strip of German asphalt, known as stone mastic asphalt. On Europe’s autobahn, you can drive well over 100 miles an hour exerting greater forces and stress than experienced on California’s roadways. It’s all about staying ahead technically, and exceeding customer expectations for durable and lasting roadways.

Entering the lobby of Graniterock’s corporate offices in Watsonville, the first thing one notices are the awards. Plaques and certificates show a decade of achievement: Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Places to Work in America,” the California Governor’s Golden State Quality Award for Overall Excellence, the Association of California School Administrators Award for School-Business Partnership, and the American Society of Civil Engineers award for technical achievements. Most prized is the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Congress established the Baldrige Award, named for late Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, in 1987. Aiming to raise awareness about quality management practices, the Baldrige recognizes companies with cutting-edge approaches to high performance business results. Graniterock first applied for the Baldrige in 1989. It would take four more years of work and refinement to achieve the very high results needed to win. After learning it had won, Graniterock held a lottery and people from throughout the company were selected to attend the award ceremony in Washington. D.C. After a four-day tour of the nation’s capitol, the group cheered as President George Bush presented the award to CEO Bruce W. Woolpert.

The innovative practices of the company had people taking notice. In a feature story in the January 12, 1998, issue of Fortune magazine, Graniterock was listed as the 23rd best company to work for in the entire country. The search began with over 1,000 companies that exhibited innovative and successful work practices. The list was narrowed down to 263 companies that might be “a great place to work.” Fortune’s researchers surveyed randomly selected Graniterock People to gauge workplace satisfaction. The results found that 90% of them said that Graniterock was a great place to work, a great place to feel pride in your work, and a place where individual contributions have special meaning. A full 87% plan to work at Graniterock until they retire. The findings were not surprising. “Working for Graniterock is like working with family,” is a sentiment echoed by hundreds of Graniterock People since the company’s founding. Graniterock rose to the #19 position in the recently published 2000 ranking.

Without A.R. Wilson’s vision and the support of generations of Graniterock People, Graniterock and their 17 locations would not be the leader in industry they are today. The Company continues to achieve industry and business accolades in which only much larger companies are typically recognized. For example, theFortune’s “Best 100” list includes other companies many times larger than Graniterock.

Today’s Graniterock has locations in Aromas, Felton, Seaside, Redwood City, Salinas, Hollister, San Jose, Santa Cruz, So. San Francisco, and Watsonville. There are 659 Graniterock Team Members.