Quarrying was carried out on a modest scale by the 1830s, when sailing ships could take on ballast at the tip of the peninsula, anchored in deep water and loading local stone. O’Brien quarries specialised in ballast, but other uses emerged as builders saw the unique qualities of yellowblock sandstone. It was easy to shape and sculpt, and turned gold when exposed to air. It was used first for local housing, then for the grand city buildings which mushroomed after the gold rushes. Master masons such as the McCredie brothers branched into building: Charles Saunders levelled Glebe Island and Darling Island, then supplied stone for Sydney’s new University, its Railway Station and its new government offices. Eventually Pyrmont sandstone was celebrated in Italianate wool stores and the Queen Victoria Building. Our quarries employed the most up-to-date technology – and skilled stone masons who – fully aware of their economic value – formed Australia’s first effective trade unions.
Teams of Clydesdales hauled immense blocks to building sites in Ultimo and the City until the 1920s, when sandstone was eclipsed by more fashionable materials. Abandoned quarries left a lunar landscape of shallow and deep pits, bounded by steep escarpments. The cutting and transport of sandstone blocks, and the smoke from the foundries made it very clear that Pyrmont was heavily industrialised. It was also densely populated, as workers in these industries (and in the port and the railway which reached Darling Harbour in 1856) had to live in ramshackle cottages within walking distance of work. In these bleak circumstances there was a brisk, but informal, business in laundry, child care and informal nursing.