The past 100 years of the aggregates industry

By |  July 5, 2016

One hundred years of history are neatly shelved in a corner of the North Coast Media office in Cleveland, which Pit & Quarry calls home.

The history of the aggregates industry is vividly told there, on varying degrees of yellowed pages of Pit & Quarry that were published over the past 100 years. The photographs of century-old equipment serve as reminders of the tremendous advancements made over the years, and the articles published within the archives preserve the stories of countless aggregate producers, equipment manufacturers and industry association leaders.

Challenges have been encountered in every era of the aggregates industry. For example, imagine producing aggregates or other industrial minerals with the constraints early-20th-century producers faced. Equipment capabilities were far below today’s standards, and hourly production capacities were a fraction of the output of today’s plants.

“If the magazine stays afloat for another 50 years, we’re really going to hang up a memorable celebration.”  – Ray L. Smith Jr. Pit & Quarry, senior vice president (1966)

“If the magazine stays afloat for another 50 years, we’re really going to hang up a memorable celebration.”
– Ray L. Smith Jr., Pit & Quarry, senior vice president (1966)

As written 50 years ago in Pit & Quarry, which became a North Coast Media property in 2012: “It would have taken a battery of any given type of equipment – crusher, screen, kiln, drills – to match the capacity and power of one modern unit of the same type. Plus a bankrupting capital investment.”

Consider that statement was written a half-century ago, and that the aggregates industry has arguably made even more remarkable strides in the past half-century than it did over the first half-century of the magazine. Imagine what the industry’s founders would think upon seeing crushers that are capable of processing 1,000 or 1,500 tph; or drones racing in the skies to calculate inventories; or the design precautions equipment manufacturers take to keep miners safe.

The industry’s earliest operations worked with the same materials as today’s, but their tools were significantly less powerful. The limitations led to an extraordinary amount of experimentation, which resulted in the development of prototypes in the early 20th century that resemble today’s modern equipment. Among the prototypes developed were drills, revolving shovels and draglines, vibrating screens, feeders and conveyors.

As told in Pit & Quarry’s October 1966 edition: “Interestingly, the basic designs of some early equipment were so sound that with relatively minor modifications, improvements in metallurgy or other materials, and advances in power sources, they have come down to today in much the same form. Among these are many types of crushers, rotary kilns, mills, slackline cableways, drag scrapers, elevators and conveyors, to mention a few.”

As vital as quality control is to today’s production standards, it was also a consideration in the early 1900s. According to that same 1966 edition of Pit & Quarry, “The producer in any given field had a material with the potential of a top quality product, and the early spec writer showed signs of wanting to make the best possible use of it. Together they sparked a product quality consciousness that has contributed immeasurably to the recognition of the value and growth of the nonmetallics industries.

“The way was not smooth then, is not always now and probably will have dips in the future; but in the long run and in the majority of cases, producer and spec writer are working toward the same goal to the benefit of the general public.”

A whole new world

PQ0616_pq100-evolution-2Can you imagine the endeavor of shipping aggregates in 1916?

According to Pit & Quarry’s archives, “In the matter of delivery or shipment of almost any of the products of the nonmetallics operations prior to the first World War, choice was no problem – the live horse or the iron horse, depending on the distance and quantity.”

Trucks were insignificant at the time beyond a limited radius from an operation, and barge shipments weren’t prevalent because of economic and equipment limitations.

Although early producers faced transportation disadvantages compared with today’s producers, they potentially had one advantage over the modern era: plentiful and inexpensive labor.

As one Pit & Quarry edition from the mid-20th century reads: “This was fortunate in terms of the manpower needed then for such manual operations as hand loading. However, and despite the fact that the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction, there are few operators today who would be willing to see their crews involved in hand loading, however low the hourly scale.”

“You can have the finest machine tools, spiffiest factories, the greatest of inventories, but if you don’t have good employees, you have nothing.”  – George Sidney, McLanahan Corp. (1996)

“You can have the finest machine tools, spiffiest factories, the greatest of inventories, but if you don’t have good employees, you have nothing.”
– George Sidney, McLanahan Corp. (1996)

Regardless, the nation’s production of construction sand and gravel and crushed stone has continued upward over the past 100 years. Production of both increased exponentially during Pit & Quarry’s first 50 years, and it’s continued upward over the past 50. Crushed stone is produced in the United States today at more than 15 times the rate of what it was 100 years ago, and production today is nearly double the rate of what it was in 1965.

Sand and gravel production has also grown over the years, increasing tenfold between 1916 and 1965 and continuing upward over the past half-century.

As Pit & Quarry’s October 1966 edition reads: “What other segment of the economy has registered a 900 percent increase in production between 1916 and 1966? The value of non-metals production in 1966 is equal to about 10 percent of the entire gross national product of 1916.”

Aggregate production particularly took off in the 1940s and 1950s. The industry became a key contributor to the economic progress of the nation with President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway campaign. This put new emphasis on aggregates, which producers successfully delivered to provide for one of the world’s greatest infrastructure networks.

New highs in sand-and-gravel production were achieved in the 1960s to meet road construction demands. Crushed stone was also produced at record levels that decade owing to the first phases of automation, including computer controls. Articulated trucks and nonelectric delay blasting emerged at that time, as well.

The 1970s and 1980s brought more demand for aggregates due to the requirement to maintain and upgrade the federal highway system and meet the surface transportation needs of a growing population. The 1970s also brought the Mine Safety and Health Act, which called for improved approaches to safety and health. Energy and the environment were hot topics of the era, as an energy crisis led to increased fuel and electricity costs, and new considerations were made to mining lands and the communities around them.

Modern era

“Our industries’ services to the monumental construction programs of the ‘60s and ‘70s were vital to the success of the [nation].”  – Buren C. “Sandy” Herod, Pit & Quarry editor (1984)

“Our industries’ services to the monumental construction programs of the ‘60s and ‘70s were vital to the success of the [nation].”
– Buren C. “Sandy” Herod, Pit & Quarry editor (1984)

Interest in safety and the environment carried over into the 1980s, 1990s and the 21st century, and technologies continue to improve drastically. The industry is also more visible on Capitol Hill, where the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association regularly serves as a voice for aggregate producers on economic, regulatory and safety issues pertaining to their businesses.

In addition, much of the 1990s and early 2000s saw internal industry growth, as larger companies acquired and merged with smaller producers. Multinational ownership appeared. Aggregates production hit an all-time high in 2006 at 3.09 billion metric tons of crushed stone, sand and gravel worth an estimated $21 billion. The workforce at that time was made up of about 121,000 direct employees.

Then, in 2007 and 2008, the Great Recession struck, adversely affecting aggregate producers. Production fell off sharply as all sectors of the construction industry came, in many areas of the country, to a virtual halt.

Generally, producers kept their heads above water through a lean period between 2007 and 2011. Some producers survived by seeking and finding alternative uses for their products and by downsizing or reducing production cycles.

The recently passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, a five-year surface transportation bill, has infused some optimism into the industry. Cautious optimism is now the general mood as aggregate producers look ahead to the coming years.

The nature of the aggregates industry – one that crushes large rocks into smaller rocks – hasn’t changed over the course of 100 years. Like always, operations are intent on producing aggregates as efficiently as possible. Modern producers are simply better equipped to produce efficiently, and they’re more prepared to produce in ways that promote safety and the best interests of the communities and environments around them.

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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