Wheeler Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

An 86-acre preserve on Maine's St. George Peninsula


By Dr. Leonard Greenhalgh

This is a story about restoration and improvement of disturbed habitat on the coast of Maine. Restoration involves undoing the harm that has been done to the natural features, thereby re-creating the place it once was for the animal and plant community. Improvement involves making the property aesthetically better than it was when we began the project. The former is within the province of ecology; the latter is within the province of art. The challenge is to enhance scenic beauty while also increasing the carrying capacity of the habitat. In the case of the Wheeler Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, both were practical goals: the strip-mining of granite had transformed the site from peaceful wooded wetlands and forested coastline into a scarred and barren moonscape. Any habitat improvements could not help but improve the scenic beauty!

What follows is an account of a 27-year “backyard” restoration project by homeowners to undo a century of thoughtless habitat destruction. The objective has been to give the place back to the animals and plants that for centuries have made it their home.


About 400 million years ago, volcanic activity pervaded what is now the coast of Maine. Molten lava welled up from the earth’s core, but didn’t break the surface to become a spectacular, smoking, ash-spewing inferno like Mount St. Helens or Mauna Loa. Instead, the pillars of lava cooled off slowly over thousands of years. As the material cooled, it formed very hard, dense crystals that fused with each other to become granite.

From our vantage point standing on the surface of the earth, we experience mountains and valleys, and the earth’s surface seems very jagged; but viewed from the moon, the earth looks very round, resembling the surface of an orange. Geologists view the peel of that orange as a flexible surface; it distorts with the fluid motions of the earth’s molten core. That flexing causes the continents to rise and fall, so that old seabeds become high plains and old landmasses become sea bottom. The old volcano cores survive as bumps on the surface.

The granite fields that constitute the coastline of Maine have gone through many changes over the millions of years since they were formed. The most recent geological transformation occurred during the last ice age (10,000-15,000 years ago) when they were scoured clean of soft mineral cover and vegetation by the glaciers. That process left bare rock showing as the ice receded.

But it didn’t stay bare: hot days and cool nights cause expansion and contraction of granite crystals, so that the surface gradually flakes off. Water seeps into the cracks and freezes, and then expanding ice breaks off more material. At the same time, dust settles. Small mineral particles and organic material (such as pollen) are swept up by strong winds, and these settle to the surface in still air. Imagine how much dusting and vacuuming you’d have to do if you left the windows open for a year: now imagine how deep the dust would be if you let it accumulate for 10,000 or so years! Plants grew in this soil, adding organic material as leaves fell in autumn and the roots of dead vegetation decomposed. This endless depositing and enriching process creates the soil cover that allows the next generation of vegetation to grow, and, in turn, further enrich the soil.

The vegetation that grew on the soil supported a food chain, with herbivores ranging in size from tiny bacteria to white-tailed deer, and carnivores ranging in size from predatory micro-organisms to wolves, cougars, bears, and our own species, Homo sapiens. In the forests of the Maine coast, a dynamic balance between species developed, and the land sustained them all. This is the ideal state of habitat restoration—providing a context in which there is enough biodiversity to re-create nature’s sustainable balance.

The Granite Industry

In the early 1800s, granite came into fashion in the United States as a building material. Architects favored it for stately buildings that were intended to last a long time, and road builders recognized its durability for paving and curbing. Granite was plentiful, but difficult to mine and shape, and even more difficult to transport.

Granite is very hard and very heavy, having a density of about 170 pounds per cubic foot. To put that in perspective, many safety organizations recommend that workers limit their lifting to 50 pounds, to avoid risk of injury. A granite building block that is only 8 inches on each side already is over this limit, so it’s easy to see why transportation has been such a big factor in the granite industry. That’s why most of the 19th century quarries were located close to a deepwater dock.

This helps us understand how the Clark Island quarries came into being beginning around 1870, operated by the Rodgers Granite Corporation, headquartered in New York City. Clark Island itself is a granite dome (what geologists call a pluton) in Wheeler Bay. It had a deepwater dock that could accommodate the heavy schooners that would transport the processed stone to key markets in Portland, Boston, and New York. The Clark Island community became a small “company town” with a boarding house, post office, general store, and all the infrastructure needed to run a granite mining and processing operation. Skilled workers were brought in from northern Europe—particularly Scandinavia and Scotland—which has a granite coastline very much like Maine’s.

The Clark Island granite has a particularly good grain for architectural use. In geological terms, it is biotite-muscovite granite of fine to medium even-grained texture. In architectural terms, it is an attractive, smooth, hard material that is suitable for formal buildings, as well as steps, curbing, and paving. Much of the industry’s success was due to profitable contracts from the U. S. government for the construction of public buildings.

Stone taken from the Clark Island quarries is used in such places as West Point; the United Nations and the Standard Oil buildings in New York City, and also the Van Wick Expressway and the Approach to Brooklyn Battery Bridge; post offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Buffalo and the Dry-dock in Norfolk, Virginia. Whenever I’m in New York City, I make a point of sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library, knowing that the smooth granite under me came from right here in the middle of the Clark Island peninsula.

The island quarry business thrived until about 1917, but the drilling and blasting opened up fissures in the island’s granite dome, which allowed sea water to pour into the old quarry and hamper the mining operation. With everything in place in the community to have a profitable granite business—particularly the skilled, experienced workforce, the infrastructure, and the ready markets—a new quarry was established on the granite dome less than a mile inland. Established in 1920 as the John Meehan Quarry, the mine was run for 30 years by its superintendent, Alfred Hocking, who took over in 1950. Alfred Hocking died in 1951, and his two sons, Darold and Arnold, took over management of the quarrying operations.

During the era of Hocking ownership, improvements in the quality of concrete and steel were quickly reducing the demand for granite as a building material so that by the mid-1960s, the Hocking Quarry was the only granite quarry in the area still operating. The industry was in steep decline, and this one remaining operation was barely breaking even. Then in 1969, a fire broke out in a wooden shed as a result of a worker being careless about oily rags and woodstoves. Unfortunately, the shed contained the expensive, special tooling that was essential to the business. Fire ruins hardened tools. This was the last straw for the increasingly marginal business. Hocking declared bankruptcy in 1969 and quarrying operations abruptly ceased.

After the bankruptcy, the machinery was sold for salvage, and the real estate subdivided. The quarry site was sold as part of a 24 acre parcel stretching from Clark Island Road to the salt marsh on Wheeler Bay.

The 6-acre quarry hole, 180 feet deep at the deepest part, slowly filled with water. Many springs had formed during the mining operations, and water needed to be pumped out daily. After a heavy rain, the large pumps had to remove 3-4 million gallons! After the bankruptcy, pumping ceased until the water reached 160 feet deep and the overflow trickled out over the ledge on the east side. The result was a freshwater lake, with the old quarry office and three outbuildings left standing on the 24 acres.

Environmental Impact of the Granite Mining

The forested land at the quarry site was clear-cut in the 1920s. This—and the noisy, dusty mining operation—altered the habitat to make it unsuitable for the species that had lived there, generation after generation, since the last ice age. Following the deforestation, pieces of granite—from small chips to automobile-size monsters—that could not be sold were dumped outside the mining area. With no awareness of the environmental consequences, and no regulations to constrain dumping, the unwanted material was deposited onto wetlands, stream beds, salt marsh, and even the Wheeler Bay shoreline.

Approximately one million cubic yards of granite were mined from the Hocking Quarry between 1920 and 1969. More than 90 percent of the mined material was dumped, covering about 20 acres of the land around the quarry. The resulting grout fields were not pure granite tailings: in the era before recycling and concerns for groundwater quality, other waste was dumped along with the debris—rusting cables, old buildings, broken pipes and tools, and simply garbage. This wasn’t done out of carelessness: people simply didn’t know any better in that era. A wetland was seen as wasted land that could be “reclaimed” by draining it; a landfill was seen as a suitable place to dispose of garbage and anything else that was unwanted. The historical context was important: environmental destruction did not achieve public awareness until the 1970s, and regulation took another decade to catch up with enlightened public opinion. By the time the environmental impact of the quarrying operations would have been constrained by regulation, the quarry was already out of business.

The Aquaculture Enterprise

The Blake family bought the 24-acre site and turned the quarry office into a house. The rest of the property remained largely just as the miners had left it. The Blakes set up a business raising trout in the spring-fed freshwater that filled the abandoned quarry. Large nets were suspended from rafts to contain the rainbow trout. People could catch their own fish, and the business supplied area restaurants with fresh trout. To the dismay of the Blakes, the operation also attracted otters, cormorants, and anything else that was fond of fish and saw an easy meal!

What ended the aquaculture business, however, was not predation, but rather human oversight. Trout need a lot of oxygen, so they need cold water. A body of water undergoes thermal stratification. That means the nets must be lowered when there is warm water at the surface. Overlooking this phenomenon resulted in a massive die-off and bankruptcy of the fledgling trout farm. The property came back on the market in 1986.

The Conservation Purchase

I didn’t start out looking for an environmental restoration and preservation project.

It was July 21, 1986. I was burned out from a long project at my full-time job in Hanover NH. I had been working 18 hours a day, seven days a week writing a research paper. It had to be postmarked July 21st, and the paper was finally finished the night before. I was waiting at the door when the Hanover Post Office opened, then I went to my office to start catching up on the stack of mail that had accumulated. But I was mentally exhausted. I found myself reading and then rereading mail and documents, and nothing was going into my head. So I gave myself the day off.

It was a beautiful summer day, so I got in my convertible and drove away. I didn’t have a plan, so I just headed east, into the sun. Several hours later, I found myself on the coast of Maine, still without a plan, and with only a vague idea of where I was. The convertible top was down, and something unusual caught my eye.  I looked up and saw an osprey carrying a fish.

Ospreys were a fairly rare sight in 1986. Poisons such as DDT had depleted the populations of all birds of prey, as poisons became more concentrated as they moved up the food chain. The national osprey population began its slow recovery after regulation had outlawed at least the most dangerous pesticides of the day. Sightings were still unusual, at least by today’s standards, and I was therefore very glad to see one of these magnificent birds, so I followed it. It flew down what later turned out to be Clark Island Road, and landed on a nest in the middle of a flooded quarry. I parked the car and spent the next hour watching the mother osprey industriously feeding her chicks.

As I was leaving, I saw a small For Sale sign by the old quarry office. My only thought was that this unique nesting site has to be protected for future generations of this osprey’s family. Within two hours, I had signed a purchase agreement. I hadn’t seen the inside of the house, or walked the property. It was an impulsive action to protect the nesting site from development that would have denied the osprey family a home.

A week later, I had to leave town for a one year sabbatical leave in California, so I didn’t even really know what I had bought. I knew it would be a big cleanup project, but I had no idea of the scale of the undertaking.

When I returned from California, I was dismayed by the mess the mining operation had created, and decided to do something about it.  I spent the first year recycling scrap steel. There were miles of rusting cable lying all over the site. When it rusts, the outer layer uncurls so that handling it is a lot like gathering up barbed wire. The rusty meat hooks wear out a pair of heavy leather work gloves in a week, and easily tear through clothing and footwear. I ended up in the Emergency Department three times that first summer. Then I bought steel-toed heavy boots and wore Carhartt clothing even on the hottest days.

Next, I began the laborious task of removing grout from the shoreline, where it was piled, on average, ten feet deep. I bought a little four-wheeler—a Suzuki Quadrunner—for the task, not knowing any better. That little vehicle carried all of the granite pieces I was capable of picking up and loading, which meant I was only removing rocks up to about 250 pounds. I did that for months on end, until the poor little machine was completely worn out.

I replaced it with a small bucket loader that had been used to clear snow from parking lots at a New Hampshire auto dealership. I became adept at chaining up the larger stones, and was able to drag away much bigger pieces. Many a time, the poor old loader bucket was so heavily laden that the back wheels came completely off the ground, and I learned to steer it that way. I wasn’t the poster-child for safety, doing that on the edge of a cliff. But I made progress, and, little by little, shoreline began to emerge from the rubble.

That ancient loader wore out too. I replaced it with a larger loader and bought an old backhoe and a small dump truck. The work went faster, and I became more ambitious about what could actually be accomplished on the site. But the tough, highly-abrasive granite was very hard on machinery. A friend let me try out a small excavator, and I realized that to really do the work that would eventually restore the habitat to its maximum potential, I needed to own one.  That’s how the project went into high gear. I was spending all my time and disposable income transforming the barren, scarred strip-mine into a wildlife sanctuary.

By the mid-1990s, the shoreline had been cleared of debris and leveled. We brought in topsoil, and hydro-seeded the shore to prevent erosion and to provide grazing. Then we built the first pond, without any real idea of how to do it. We removed the granite tailings from the inside of the future pond, built a large embankment to create a perimeter, sealed the perimeter walls with clay, and put in a drain pipe with a valve. (That all took us four years to do). Before flooding the site, we built islands for nesting birds and deep water channels and pools to provide different places for different species. I had no surveying equipment or experience, so instead I sighted down a four-foot carpenter’s level balanced on a rock heap, and yelled instructions to my wife, who used a spray-can to mark water level. (Years later, I checked our measurements with a surveyor’s transit, and our MacGyver technique turned out to be accurate within a couple of inches.)

Closing the drain valve created a wildlife pond covering an acre and a half of land that previously had been devoid of plants and animals. We then spread topsoil by hand over the entire shoreline (we were younger then, and quite buff from all the work). Next, we hydro seeded the shore with native wildflowers. We also planted bushes and rushes to provide food and cover for the wildlife we hoped to attract. And we also introduced native underwater plant species, and relocated a few hundred minnows from the quarry pond (years earlier, the trout operation had released “bait-fish” minnows into that body of water, and the minnow population had mushroomed).

The next area to tackle was a much more daunting task. Granite chunks and other mining debris had been dumped up to 30 feet deep on top of 2.5 acres of wetland. If you do the math, you’ll realize that’s a lot of tonnage to move. We knew how to move it, but where to put it was becoming a problem. For years, we had been able to dump truckloads back into the quarry hole where the heavy granite pieces sank into deep water. We could only do this in the northeast corner, where the water was about 100 feet deep: the dump truck couldn’t reach the edge at any other point on the quarry’s perimeter. But after a couple of years of doing this, the boulders—more than a thousand tons of them—were becoming visible just beneath the surface. So we had to haul the mining debris offsite. That was expensive, but we had already spent more than ten years making as much progress as we could, and it seemed we were not going to live long enough to see the project completed!

So we decided to try to get some outside funding, and applied for a grant from the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program (see Restoration page of this website). This program is a great concept and wise public policy. In the past, developers have been allowed to disturb wetlands if they mitigate the impact by creating new wetlands on site. This has rarely been a good idea. Creating a “token” wetland adjacent to a shopping mall doesn’t do much good from an ecological standpoint. It makes more sense to finance restoring or preserving wetlands where it will do the most good. So developers pay into a fund, administered by The Nature Conservancy, to be used where the effort will really make a difference. We received a grant that covered the costs of hauling a gazillion tons of granite debris from the Wheeler Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to the George Hall, Inc. stockpile in Thomaston.

We didn’t know what to expect when the granite tailings were removed. We knew a streambed once was there because a small stream disappeared under the north edge of the debris and reappeared at the south edge. But everything else was pure conjecture, and our best guess was that the debris covered a valley wetland between two granite domes that had been scoured clean by glaciers during the last ice age. We excavated and excavated, moving hundreds of tons of granite each day, until we found a hard clay wetland bottom. Luckily, we had guessed right.

We didn’t want to disturb the wooded wetlands ecosystem upstream of where the granite tailings had been dumped, so we preserved the water table level by installing a small, adjustable spillway. Doing so produced a very shallow pond with much of the water less than a foot deep. Over time, the pond will evolve into a highly-productive wetland, as a result of two natural processes. First, the bottom will slowly rise to make the water even shallower. That will happen because clay compresses when a lot of weight is put on top of it. Again, you can do the math yourself, but a 30-foot deep pile of granite puts about 2.5 tons of weight per square foot on the clay bottom. When the weight is removed, clay slowly springs back to its original thickness as water molecules seep in between the clay particles. Second, water plants will creep forward to cover the bottom, growing and dying and releasing seeds—and trapping other vegetation matter that floats by. This process raises the pond-bottom level until it reaches the water surface, at which time other marsh plants can take hold and accelerate the buildup of organic material.

Those natural processes will unfold over time. We wanted to maximize habitat value in the short run, so we studded the wetland with islands to provide a variety of sites for feeding, nesting and cover for various animals. We planted more than 10,000 Maine native plants in and around the site to prevent erosion and quickly repopulate the area with vegetation that would most likely have been there before mining destroyed the habitat.

This project required us to purchase land from our next door neighbors, who, fortunately, have a positive attitude toward environmental quality and were glad to have a productive wetland rather than a granite waste dump near to their home. We also bought additional pieces of undeveloped land when these came up for sale.

The most important acquisition was Linekin Point and its adjacent salt marsh. It is scenic, undeveloped land jutting out into Wheeler Bay, and the salt marsh is one of the few totally undisturbed areas of its type left on the coast of Maine. The 30-acre site was purchased with help from Maine Coast Heritage Trust, in partnership with the Pew Foundation, and is now preserved for future generations of the wildlife that inhabit it and the environmentally-conscious people who want to visit.

Changing Our Name

When the original 24 acre site surrounding the quarry was conserved, we chose the name Clark Island Wildlife Refuge to reflect its purpose and location on Clark Island Road.  With the acquisition of Linekin Point, a better descriptor was needed. With more than half a mile of protected shoreline on Wheeler Bay, we chose a name that more accurately reflected the preservation of undisturbed coastline on Wheeler Bay, hence the name Wheeler Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.  The name change also cleared up some confusion about where the sanctuary is located.  There is an island called Clark Island, and it is located at the southern end of Clark Island Road.  The island is private property.  The owners are nice people, and we didn’t want to be the cause of violations of their privacy by well-meaning bird-watchers looking for the wildlife sanctuary.  The name change removes that source of confusion and inconvenience.

And, on the subject of nice people, as luck would have it, we have the best next-door neighbor on Wheeler Bay that one could hope for—Hurricane Island Outward Bound—whose staff and participants share our values of respecting the landscape we tread on.

The preservation, and restoration work continues…

Work continues

Work continues…