Crushing It

Crushing It

A print on a wall at the bottom of a staircase. An antique rifle racked behind glass. A machine thought to be the oldest example in America. A plaque hanging inside a historic house. An interior wall that looks suspiciously exterior. A plot at the back of a bucolic cemetery. And between them all, roads.

Together these clues relate the story of Eli Whitney Blake (1795-1886), a local figure whose labors dramatically changed New Haven and the world. None did so more than his invention of the stone breaker or crusher, patented in 1858, which paved the way for the mass improvement of roads. Enabling a superior alternative 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 laid and pressed into a much more consistent and reliable street surface. The process, called macadamization, had been around since the 1820s, but because the stone had to be to pulverized by hand, it was very cost- and labor-intensive and therefore little utilized.

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Blake’s invention changed that. The wall print 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 crusher, by size a small fraction of the total setup. The engine turned the first wheel, which turned the second, which moved the crusher’s proprietary dual jaws. (The New Haven Museum displays a stripped-down, seemingly commemorative version of Blake’s crusher dating to 1876, its toothy maw still fairly intact.) 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 taken over for, with brother Philos—his famous uncle Eli Whitney, who died in 1825. He’d also long since founded, with brothers Philos and John in 1836, what Rollin G. Osterweis’s Three Centuries of New Haven (1953) describes as “the first manufactory of domestic hardware” in America: the Blake Brothers hardware company, located on what we now know as Blake Street.

The Eli Whitney Museum keeps a memento of the earlier of those periods 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, which would have been fashioned by a milling machine on the factory floor. And as it happens, the oldest such machine in America resides just a mile and a half down the road, within the New Haven Museum, in the permanent exhibit to the left off the main foyer. Amazingly, the machine was used in the Whitney Armory at the time of Blake’s tenure; the museum dates it to “around 1827” and says it “was likely used on lock plates for guns,” raising the tantalizing possibility that this very machine helped make the 1826 rifle.

In 1832, Blake and his wife, Eliza, 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. In 1915, as part of a wider revamp, the city changed the number from 77 to 155.

Today, the building, painted white with dark green shutters with a flagpole like a bowsprit, is occupied by the Elm City Club. Out of respect for history, when the club constructed a major addition to the house, it had the foresight to preserve part of the original exterior 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 also 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 in the entry hall, 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’s likely that Blake himself paid for the tribute which now resides in the clubhouse.

He also posthumously purchased 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 to go with his much smaller 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.”

Eli Whitney Blake’s legacy extends far beyond New Haven, but it’s concentrated here. Like the fragments of stone that emerged from his crushing machines, some of which must still linger beneath New Haven’s modern-day pavement, bits and pieces of Blake’s story remain all around us.

Photo Key:

1. The print at the Eli Whitney Museum.
2. The (possibly commemorative) stone crusher at the New Haven Museum.
3. The lock plate of the rifle at the Eli Whitney Museum.
4. The milling machine (detail) at the New Haven Museum.
5. Blake’s home at 77 Elm Street, as depicted in a photo hung inside modern Elm City Club.
6. What 155 Elm Street (née 77 Elm) looks like today.
7. The formerly exterior wall at the Elm City Club.
8. The bronze and wood plaque at the Elm City Club.
9. The Blake family plot at Grove Street Cemetery.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on October 17, 2014.

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