A print on a wall at the bottom of a staircase. An antique rifle kept racked behind glass. A milling machine thought to be the oldest in America. A plaque hanging inside a white-slatted house. An interior wall that looks suspiciously exterior. A plot at the back of a bucolic cemetery.
And between them all, roads.
Improbably enough, together these clues relate the story of Eli Whitney Blake (1795-1886), a New Havener whose tale historians have largely declined to tell, but whose labors dramatically changed the world. None did so more than the revolutionary stone breaker, or crusher, he patented in 1858, which paved the way for improving roads en masse.
Producing a far superior result compared to fickle dirt lanes—plagued by “mud and mire… during seasons of wet weather” that “have long been the subject of loud and full complaint,” as Blake once put it—the crusher would break up larger rocks into pebbles that could then be applied and compressed into a relatively solid street surface. The process—called macadamizing—had been around since the 1820s, but because the stone had to be to pulverized by hand, it was extremely cost- and labor-intensive.
Blake’s invention changed that. The print-on-a-wall mentioned above resides within the Eli Whitney Museum and features a detailed rendering of the first functioning stone crusher Blake built. To situate the crusher and the engine that would power it, a large wooden platform with stone foundation was built into a rise in the land near West Rock. Housing the engine was a wooden shed with an exhaust pipe pointed skyward and a slotted metal wheel on the side; fitted to that wheel was a belt, which looped around a similar wheel attached to the breaker. The engine turned the first wheel, which turned the second, which moved the crusher’s proprietary dual jaws. Once ground to a sufficient granularity, the stone would fall down a chute into a horse-drawn cart positioned to the side of the platform.
The apparatus, which took special skill to fabricate and operate, was not the work of a mechanical novice. Blake had cut his engineering and manufacturing teeth at the Whitney Armory decades prior, where he’d apprenticed under—and then, with his brother Philos, taken over for—his famous uncle Eli Whitney, who died in 1825.
The Eli Whitney Museum keeps a gorgeous memento of this period in Blake’s life: a Whitney Armory flint lock rifle, bearing the inscriptions “New Haven 1826” and “P. & E.W. Blake” on the lock plate. The armory’s lock plates were fashioned by mechanisms called “milling machines” on the factory floor.
As it happens, the oldest such milling machine in America resides just a mile and a half down the road. It’s kept in the New Haven Museum, and get this: it was used in the Whitney Armory. Located in the permanent exhibit off the main foyer, the museum dates it to “around 1827,” raising the tantalizing possibility that it was the very machine used on the 1826 rifle.
In 1832, Blake and his wife Eliza, who married 10 years earlier, would purchase a home at 77 Elm Street, on the northern edge of the New Haven Green. Don’t go looking for that address today; it doesn’t exist. But the house still does. See, in 1915, as part of a wider revamp, the city changed the number from 77 to 155.
Now the building’s occupied by the Elm City Club’s Graduate Clubhouse, which knows how to show its appreciation for history. Out of respect for Blake, when the club constructed a major addition to the house in order to expand its facilities, it had the foresight to preserve part of the original exterior of Blake’s house as an interior wall. If you’ve ever been in the main dining room and wondered why one of the walls features outdoor siding and a 12-paned window, now you know.
The club has maintained a more obvious tribute to the house’s previous owner: a large, round medallion featuring Blake’s likeness. Set into a square wooden frame and hung on the wall near the entrance, it carries its own intrigue. Digging through Yale’s archives unearthed a typewritten “final statement” in the execution of Blake’s estate following his death in 1886. In the document, $88.14 was allocated to pay for bronze “memorial plaques of Eli W. Blake,” to be “sent to one representative of each branch of the immediate family.” A note written in pencil by an unknown hand further clarifies that the plaques are “circular in form and about 9 inches in diameter.” So it could very well be the case that Blake himself paid for the tribute which now resides in the clubhouse.
Something else he paid for posthumously? His family plot at the Grove Street Cemetery, which cost $100 and included “perpetual care.” The large familial stone in the center, which has Blake’s name across the bottom but is not in fact his headstone, is itself an informative source document. It lists Eli’s and Eliza’s 12 children, suggesting a rather loving and spirited marriage. It also reveals heartache, paying special tribute to the couple’s son Edward Foster Blake, who died in Virginia on August 9, 1862, while fighting for the north in the Civil War. Also given a special note is their son James Pierrepont Blake, who died in South Carolina while “devoting himself to the welfare of the freedmen.”
As for Eli Whitney Blake himself, he adopted a very small headstone, which tells us something too: that he was a man of modesty and thrift—incidentally, qualities demonstrated over and over again in his personal papers and letters.
Like the pulverized fragments of stone that emerged from his crushing machines—many of which must still reside beneath New Haven’s modern-day pavement—bits and pieces of Mr. Blake’s story remain all around us. We just have to know what we’re looking at.
Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by Dan Mims with the exception of the upper left image, which was scanned and provided by the Eli Whitney Museum. This lightly updated story was originally published on October 17, 2014.