crushing it - daily nutmeg
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 figure whose tale historians have largely declined to tell, but whose labors dramatically changed New Haven and 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 lanesplagued by mud and mire during seasons of wet weather that have long been the subject of loud and full complaint, as Blake once put itthe crusher would break up larger rocks into pebbles that could then be applied and compressed into arelatively solid street surface. The processcalled macadamizinghad been around since the 1820s, but becausethe stone had to be to pulverized by hand, it was extremely cost- and labor-intensive.
Blakes 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 crushers 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 hed apprenticed underand then taken over for, with brother Philoshis famous uncle Eli Whitney, who died in 1825. Hed also long since founded, with brothers Philos and John in 1836, what Rollin G. Osterweiss 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 gorgeous memento of the earlier of those periods in Blakes 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 ithappens, the oldest suchmachinein America resides just a mile and a half down the road. Its 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. Dont go looking for that address today; it doesnt exist. But the house still does. In 1915, as part of a wider revamp, the city changed the number from 77 to 155.
Now the buildings occupied by the Elm City Clubs 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 itsfacilities, it had the foresight to preserve part of the original exterior of Blakes house as an interior wall. (If youve 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 houses previous owner: a large, round medallion featuring Blakes likeness. Set into a square wooden frame and hung on a wall near the entrance, it carries its own intrigue. Digging through Yales archives unearthed a typewritten final statement in the execution of Blakes estate following his death in 1886. Inthe 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 Blakes name across the bottom but is not in fact his headstone, is itself an informative source document. It lists Elis and Elizas 12 children, suggesting a rather loving and spirited marriage. It also reveals heartache, paying special tribute to the couples 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 verysmall headstone, which tells us something too: that he was a man of modesty and thriftincidentally, qualities demonstrated over and over again in his personal papers and letters.
Like the pulverized fragments of stone that emerged from his crushing machinessome of which must still reside beneath New Havens modern-day pavementbits and pieces of Mr. Blakes story remain all around us. We just have to know what were looking at.