Business and Labor

Maine’s Duchess of Dix Island and The Rise and Fall of The Great Granite Ring

The story of the Duchess of Dix Island begins with a bad investment. In 1839 Horace Beals became a partner in the Franklin Granite Company, with quarries in Quincy, Mass., and New York.

After just 18 months, the firm floundered, leaving Beals with nothing.

dix island

Granite Quarrying in New Hampshire

It wasn’t the only time he would fail, but he was a determined man. Beals would later accept a piece of land in Maine – the 55-acre Dix Island and some smaller neighboring islands – as payment for a debt. That decision would make him a millionaire many times over.

At first glance, Beals wasn’t in love with Dix Island. If someone were looking for a good place to commit suicide, he concluded, Dix with its high granite peaks would be a fine choice.

Over the next 50 years, the tiny Dix Island’s population would explode and contract, topple a political dynasty and give rise to a Spanish duchess before finally slipping into the hands of her flamboyant American gigolo and returning to obscurity.

Dix Island

Dix Island is about three miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. Today it’s home to a handful of summer houses. While private, its owners welcome polite visits from day tripping boaters. When Beals acquired it, along with several neighboring islands, Dix was a tiny, potential granite quarry. But it also put Beals at the nexus of an unusually ambitious and corrupt group of politicians and businessmen.

Beals was the operations man at Dix Island. Others provided political and financial clout. Courtland P. Dixon was essential to Dix’s first big job – providing granite for the Charleston customs house in far-off South Carolina.

Dixon was son of a Rhode Island senator and brother to a New York congressman. He lived in the South and had a strong network among the politicians there. So it was no surprise the final design of the customs house in South Carolina included Maine granite in its specifications. In those times, senators got to sign off on the details of federal construction jobs in their states.

The work at the quarry slowed during the Civil War, but Beals and Dixon were perfecting their operation and they would join together with three others and form what would become known as the Granite Ring – a scandalous business association that rigged public construction contracts for decades.

The ring was made up of General Davis Tilson’s Hurricane Island Granite Company; Mark St. John of Clark Island Company, J.R. Bodwell of the Bodwell Granite Company of Vinalhaven and Dixon’s Dix Island Granite Company. Bodwell would go on to become a governor of Maine, but for the most part these men relied on (bribed) two of Maine’s notoriously corrupt Republican leaders, senators James Blaine and Eugene Hale, to handle the politics.

The team worked a multi-pronged approach. Get the federal architects to specify granite for major new buildings and then get their congressmen to deliver them the contracts for their quarries. By working together they could rig the bids and direct the work where they wanted, setting prices as they pleased.

15 Percenters

To make the deal even more lucrative, the quarry contracts were known as “15 percent contracts.” The quarry owners would supply finished granite and charge the entire cost of mining and finishing it plus 15 percent. This obviously provided every incentive to produce the granite as expensively as possible.

Over time, other states demanded to get in on the action, but with federal construction projects exploding after the Civil War there was plenty of money to spread around. Congress decided that town after town, no matter how small, needed a post office, customs house or other federal building. In an interview about the Granite Ring scandal after it had erupted the Treasury Department’s chief architect, Alfred Bult Mullett, would explain the way the ring worked:

“This new contracting for the public buildings is a steal clean through. The quarry men put it up and paid Ben Butler $50,000 to get it done.”

“Tell me, Mr. Mullet,” I said, “all about that quarry job, and who were in it?”

“It was a Maine job,” said Mullett, “engineered by that little villain Eugene Hale. Originally they designed to let in only Maine quarries, but Condit Smith, General Sherman’s old quartermaster you know, Big Smith, he found they were going to count out his quarry, the Westham (Richmond, Virginia,) quarry, and he burst it open. They had to let him in and Jonas French, Ben Butler’s quarryman of Cape Ann. The Bodwell granite company is in it on behalf of the Cincinnati post office. They own the Fox Island quarries. Then the Hurricane Island and the Dix Island quarries join in, too.

“That granite ring is an offshoot to the lime kiln ring that governs Maine politics. These fellows sold me out.”

With the politics in place, the only problem the quarries had was finding enough labor to deliver the enormous edifices on time. Dix Island and the other Maine quarries advertised internationally and soon attracted interest from Scotland and Ireland. The first men to arrive were well-paid and well-treated. The word spread rapidly, and soon stonecutters from Europe were flooding into Maine by the hundreds.

At its peak, more than 1,400 men were living and working on tiny Dix Island, mining and finishing the huge blocks of granite for federal projects (some estimates put the number as high as 2,000). The U.S. Treasury building in Washington, D.C., the New York City Post Office and Philadelphia Post Offices were built largely of Dix Island Granite. And countless smaller projects were made of the stone.

The more skilled workers were put to work carving eagles and other decorative architectural elements while the unskilled workers were polishing and finishing stones. Or they were pulling the blocks from the quarry with the 52 oxen that called the island home.

More than a thousand workers lived in island boarding houses and hotels. The Dix Island Hotel had 250 rooms, The Aberdeen, 200, and largest of all, The Shamrock, had 350 rooms. In addition to the workers, the hotels played host to congressmen and businessmen when they had to visit.

Boats made their way daily out from Thomaston and Rockland carrying even more workers – ferries and small rowboats alike making their way out in the dark morning hours and back home in afternoon. On one side of the island a steady stream of schooners arrived to carry the granite south to the cities. The island was outfitted with a school for the children of the workers and a church. Forges were needed to sharpen tools and stores to supply necessities.

There was a seemingly limitless demand for labor. More workers meant more money for the Granite Ring. The monthly payroll at Dix Island alone topped $100,000. A lot of that money found its way back to Ireland and Scotland, but plenty stayed local. In addition to driving prices for land and goods, it fueled illegal liquor sales and a gambling house in Rockland.

For the quarry ring, it was a thing of beauty. For every dollar they paid out, the government paid them $1.15. Even a Wall Street banker couldn’t imagine such a fantasy.

The good times couldn’t last forever, however, and they didn’t. By 1870 decline was setting in. With the sweetheart deals under scrutiny, the quarrymen tried to squeeze the workers. Though outright strikes were rare, the workers were angry about the company stores they were forced to buy from and the health effects of inhaling years of granite dust were becoming apparent.

The election of 1878 focused everyone’s attention on Maine when the unthinkable happened. A stonecutter who worked on Dix, Thompson Murch, ran against and defeated Congressman Eugene Hale. Both Republican and Democratic newspapers were shocked that a labor rabblerouser could win in Maine. And even though the legislature responded by installing Hale in the Senate, the election marked a turning point as the granite ring began crumbling.

Beals never saw his Dix Island quarry reach its greatest heights or its decline. He died in 1864 when the quarry was profitable but not yet enormous. His wife would be the beneficiary of his good fortune and hard work.

Jane Cornwall married Horace Beals in New York. He was 14 years older than she, and together they had four children. While Horace lived on Dix Island, he hired architects and gardeners and gave them carte blanche to build a mansion and estate, which he populated with servants to try to make the island life more appealing for her.

Beals other major investment was a hotel in Chelsea, Maine, that he bought hoping it would become a desirable tourist attraction along the lines of the Poland Spring House or Saratoga Springs. While he enjoyed it as a retreat when he was ill, the property was never a commercial success. The U.S. government would once again bail Beals out, buying his property for a soldiers home – the first in the nation – and later turning it into the Togus Springs VA Hospital.

Jane Beals never developed the affection for Dix Island that Horace hoped, and when he died she left the island – leaving the property with all its ornate fixtures to spoil. It would serve as a barn for sheep before finally yielding to time.

Free of the island, Jane Beals remarried, and remarried, and remarried. She first married a doctor and then became Spanish duchess when she married the Duke della Castellucia. That made her Jane Tamajo, Duchess of Castellucia.

There was one last gasp of adventure ahead for Jane. In 1893 the duke died. Splitting her time between Florida and New York, she would encounter her final husband: Edward Leonard Dwyer. Jane was 70 and by all accounts a shrewd woman. Dwyer was 43, an unapologetic adventurer with an astounding life story of his own.

In the six months of their marriage in 1895, Edward would manage to extract $350,000 from Jane. The duchess also gave her new boy-toy the small group of islands off the coast of Maine, now largely uninhabited and stripped of much of their granite.

In her last years before her death om 1895, Jane made five wills, each revision adding in children and grandchildren or disinheriting them as her moods swung. In the end, her family divided up more than $7 million and generated more than 1,200 pages of legal filings feuding amongst themselves.

For husband number four, just $10 was his final inheritance. He sold Dix Island, and the other islands, for $135,000 to raise a stake for his final adventures and the quarries slowly wound up business.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Laurie Neely

    March 18, 2016 at 7:31 am

    Fascinating story!

  2. Virginia Rizzi

    March 18, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Another story of the Irish working their butts off. This is an interesting story.

  3. Kristin

    April 6, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    Great story! I actually am related to one of the owners of Dix Island so it’s really great to know the rich history

  4. Bill Butman

    July 27, 2016 at 7:28 am

    Love the Island. My Grandfather owned property on the island for about eight years. My father, brother and sisters told me various good memories growing up while my Grandfather fished the coastal waters. Eventually, one of my father’s sisters purchased her favorite spot on the island. Her son’s have since built a camp. It take about 45 minutes to walk around the island and see various places like “Staples Beach, Garbage Cove, The Swimming Quarry, The big rock, etc…” I hope to get out there next week as my cousins have started an annual August “Cousin get-together” clam bake.

  5. Pingback: When Sardines Were Bigger Than Lobsters, Maine Women Had Good Jobs - New England Historical Society

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

To Top