The Rock Quarry Adventure

Photo note: A friend, Karen (Faulkenberry) Johnsen, found this photo in an old box.  It shows her and I goofing off at the top of Halsey Ave., near our homes, circa 1971, looking almost due east.   Halsey is a steep road and we’re sitting at the top maybe 6 blocks from Grant School. 

Karen n Gary on Halsey circa 1970 at 25 pc

In the background is the quarry cliff where this story took place circa 1964 when the quarry was owned (I think) by the Heintz brothers. By this time, the quarry was mostly depleted but at the time of my story, it was plenty active.

You can see the cliff, but not the floor where the dynamite shed, crushers and other equipment were located.  Just past the cliff, but out of sight is Highway 101 and the Petaluma River. 

Thanks Karen for sharing this photo and to several Facebook friends who helped narrow down who owned the quarry when we were trespassing for this adventure.

Young boys don’t need or want much from life except a good adventure from time to time.  Petaluma, California is about 40 miles north of San Francisco, and does not natively provide much in the way of adventure, so we pretty much had to make our own.

On a clear summer day, with fresh images from the old 12 O’clock High TV series in my head, I fleshed out and executed a brilliant idea for some serious fun. I collected the normal suspects including: Mike Stoffel and his brother, Jimmy, Rick Van Bebber, Bill Lee and a few others and grabbed the needed supplies:

  • a big piece of construction paper,
  • my mom’s scotch tape dispenser,
  • a small vial containing 2 tablespoons of gasoline,
  • an eyedropper,
  • four firecrackers from a pack I’d saved from the 4th of July for emergencies,
  • and a book of matches.

With these supplies, we set off for the nearby rock quarry. This adventure required a big cliff, and the rock quarry had the best one around.  We used the highest ledge above Heinz Rock Quarry at the south end of Petaluma.

Okay: explosives, combustible fuel, things to blow up and a cliff. . .  Parents; are you sure you want your children reading this?

There is no way to obfuscate the location of this adventure because everyone who traveled highway 101 across the high bridge above Petaluma Boulevard south, has seen the giant raw cliff with the rock quarry right there above the Petaluma River. It was something of a landmark. I suspect much of Petaluma was constructed with the rock from this quarry during the  early 1900s. Like so many of our other adventure sites, it is now a neighborhood.

hienz quarry 1954
Dutra Rock Quarry image from 1954 was later owned by Heinz Brothers by the mid 1960s as seen from Petaluma Boulevard South. Photo by Thomas Floyd Colvin.

But on this day, it was to be the site of a great grammar school boy adventure.

We trekked up the road to the Petaluma Golf and Club and then to the 3rd hole which marked the path we always took to the quarry. The path through about a hundred feet of thick oak and walnut trees was rarely used and always overgrown, but took us to a dilapidated fence which we easily stepped over and climbed the last steep few yards to the top edge of the quarry cliff and the always amazing view from the edge.

From here, we could sit on the edge (of course) with our legs swinging idly over the nearly 200 foot drop and see almost the whole Petaluma valley below us and talk about all the weighty topics that young boys discuss. We could always find loose rocks to kick and watch as they rolled down the cliff – a pastime young boys are genetically wired to enjoy.

Petaluma River Valley

We would also examine the state of the always-changing quarry work site below and, since we only went out there on weekends, there was never a crew in sight, just the cliff, various roads, piles of rocks to be sorted and the huge motorized sorting barrels.

We would have loved to go down and check out all this out up close, however, this would have meant “going into the quarry” which we had all be warned never to do.

blasting cap warningThe quarry product, the rocks, were chewed out the mountain side with dynamite ignited with blasting caps.

We had all heard stories about less-qualified boys who had discovered leftover blasting caps with, shall we say, life-changing results.

So – to brag a bit about our sense of safety, we never went down to the floor of the quarry and I have no stories that involve real blasting caps. We tried to roll large rocks down the cliff hoping to set off a hidden blasting cap – but were never that fortunate.

Today, we had our own makings for an explosive adventure, so right at the cliff edge, we set to it.

We pulled out the construction paper and:paper airplane

  • folded it into a huge paper airplane,
  • taped it so it stayed folded,
  • centered and taped 2 firecrackers under the midpoints of each wing,
  • used the eyedropper and gasoline to draw little fuel paths around the wings,
  • that all led between the back corners of the wings and the firecrackers.

It should now be obvious what we had in mind. We wanted to stand at the cliff edge then:

  • light the wing tips and launch the plane out over the quarry,firecrackers
  • while burning,
  • with the gasoline paths leading to the firecrackers,
  • so the plane would self-destruct in a blaze of glory,
  • just like the enemy planes in 12 O’clock High. Surely, this would be awesome to watch!  Let’s do this!

Since they were my firecrackers and supplies, I claimed the launch privilege and stationed a buddy with a match at each wing tip. The matches were struck, the tail tips began to burn and I gave the plane a great heave.

It sailed out into the open air, caught enough air that it sailed out straight away from us, some 200 feet above the quarry floor, and flew great for 12 very long seconds.

We could see the fire spread along the fuselage — any moment now. . .

paper airplane burningBAM! – BAM! – the first pair of firecrackers exploded,

blowing the plane into two burning fragments,

one that still sort-of looked like an airplane,

both exhibiting badly failing aerodynamics,

both still on fire and spiraling down to the quarry floor,

leaving small smoke-trails that quickly dispersed.

Eventually, both pieces landed.  The small fires consumed the rest of the paper and ignited the last pair of firecrackers, which, at that distance, made pathetic little popping sounds that only scattered a few paper fragments around – and silence returned to the quarry.

Well . . .

It was an “all that for this?” kind of moment – a huge disappointment.

We sat down at the cliff edge and discussed what we should have done differently, but the moment for this idea had clearly passed and we had no passion to actually try again. Bigger explosives would have helped, but no one had anything like that. Maybe if we could find some of those blasting caps. . .

Just kidding…

After a few more minutes of idle discussion, we left for our trip back down the hill – but the god of young boys was not done with us yet.

We followed the cliff edge back in the general direction of the trail for home and came to an unusual formation. Poking out of a less steep part of the cliff was an enormous single boulder. This giant rock stood about 12 feet tall and approximately 6 feet wide and stood like an epic monolith pointing to the sky from about 8 feet down from the cliff edge.

Now, most of you know that I’m taller than most and this was true that day. One of my buddies stood back and said something like, “I’ll bet that Gary could climb down and give that boulder a push and it would go.”

And I’ll grant that, given the epic failure of the exploding paper airplane, the idea actually appealed, but I did not agree with his assessment. That boulder had to weigh more than 2 tons and I was not going to be able to move it, yet alone break it free. It was bigger than most cars and was solid rock.

We stood there and talked about it until, that slight appeal grew into a reasonable hope. If I couldn’t budge it, fine, but if I could — EPIC rock rolling down the cliff time.  “Okay, I’ll  try.  What could possibly go wrong?  It was just a big rock.”

I slid down to the saddle point, where tall rock met steep cliff. I put my back to the cliff and feet to the boulder — and pushed — and the boulder – oh my god – yielded. . .

The monster rock actually started – very slowly — to move — ever – so – slowly down the cliff.  Not possible, but true.

This was pretty cool until I realized that I was using that rock to keep from sliding down the cliff myself. Whoa!

I really should have thought this possibility through before going down the edge in the first place because I really – really did not want to follow that rock down the cliff, because, you know, there are stray blasting caps scattered all over the quarry floor and I did not want to die from one of them.

So in a near panic, I quickly turned and scrambled against a wall of loose rocks, back up the edge before the whole saddle disintegrated.  All the loose shale fought my effort to climb back up, but lacking the availability of a stunt crew to plan out such exciting scenes, I simply turned on the speed and quickly arrived back up at the top and turned to watch the boulder.

It was still accelerating, like a small building slowly moving down the cliff. The whole saddle area I had been sitting was gone, like an enormous scoop had been taken out of the slope.

The small boy chorus together went “oooo – cool,” while I got back to my feet to stand with them.

The boulder, ever so slowly, picked up momentum and carved a giant slow-motion wake of shattered rock fragments all around the base while slowly sliding down the cliff, still standing straight and tall.

But such a large, tall rock was too heavy for its own base, and the bottom began to crumble as it picked up more speed and made a larger wake of rock fragments all of which were now making a great symphony of rock-on-rock clapping and crashing noises.

Now this was getting cool. This had to be the biggest rock ever kicked down the side of a cliff by a small boy.

This was much cooler than our puny paper airplane and firecrackers. But it was so big – we brave young boys went almost silent, enjoying sure, but also thinking… “Are we in trouble here?  Will our parents ever find out about this?”

As we watched, the bottom third of the rock suddenly dissolved into thousands of fragments and the top tilted and rolled over in the direction of the quarry floor, still about 100 feet below. That large fragment really picked up speed now as it had mostly air between it and the quarry floor. It splashed through a few cliff points – spraying waves of rock everywhere before finally crashing into the quarry floor with an enormous, almost explosive, shattering sound and dissolved into a huge rubble pile.

We boys were of one mind at this point:

  • That was very cool – much better than the paper airplane, and,
  • maybe this will finally set off one of those reluctant blasting caps (alas – no joy).
  • It was way past time for us to be gone,
  • fast!
  • You know, just in case . . .

We had witnessed something few people ever get to see and lived to tell about it.   But maybe we’ll stay away from the rock quarry for a long time this time.

I’d sure like to have been in the back seat of any car going south on the 101 that day to hear the driver and his wife suddenly notice that a giant boulder had broken free from the top of the rock quarry cliff and was sliding down to crash with such a landslide scale of commotion – and wait – “is that a gang of young boys at the top of the cliff? Could they ever have done that? Nah; that would be impossible.”

Well, actually no . . .  The god of young boys is very good about this sort of thing.

GW bio card 4

16 thoughts on “The Rock Quarry Adventure

    1. Note how often I call out to the God of small boys… I didn’t know at the time, but I’m pretty sure he was making special arrangements for me to stay alive through all this.
      And all this makes for fun stories now.
      Thanks for reading my adventure.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I think I better not give my boys any ideas by reading this little gem to them, haha, they are full of similar idea themselves. Love this story though; it has a classic feel to it and I can see scenes from several older movies with the group of boys out for summer fun. I can also see a group of my childhood friends and a few of the adventures we had (I was the token tom-girl in a group of boys). Anyway, wonderful story Gary. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Just read your adventure! Wow, very cool. And dangerous too. Boys just do stuff and we hope to live to tell afterwards. Thank you for sharing:))

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Gary, the God of small boys was certainly looking after you. However, have you ever wondered why he looked after you, but not all the small boys in the quarry and up to mischief elsewhere? I’ve particularly noticed this throughout my WWI research. Some of the soldiers came out of a battle unscathed but with say a bullet hole through their hat or jacket and there might’ve been a significant loss among their peers, but they were okay. Then, there are stories of soldiers away from the firing line who get taken out by a random bit of shell or bullet. It’s perplexing.
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha – now there’s a great question. I’d like to think there was a holier-than-me grand plan that somehow rationalized all the odd coincidences and flukes of nature, like God wanted someone alive and around to do something important later in the plan and only if one chose to live a life of being useless or deplorable, you could be allowed to fall off of that cliff or catch a stray bullet. But I fear that would be pretentious, as in, if I were qualified to understand the plan of God, would I not be him . . . ?
      Thanks for wandering into my virtual story collection and grabbing one of my favorites. I think the imagery of this story is so much fun and captures how negligent small boys can be to things like survival.
      Oddly enough, where parents have been known to share some of my stories with their kids, this particular story, eh, not so much for some reason . . .
      I hope you and your family are having an amazing holiday season despite all the virus protocols we suffer under.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is hard to make sense of the big plan…life, the universe and everything. I leave it alone most of the time, although my WWI research takes me back there pretty often.
        I need to get out more and have a bit of fun. Always seem to be stuck on my to-do list lately. Now, our son has decided to empty his room out and he’s not planning on putting a of of the stuff back in, which is great in a way as we’ve ben wanting him to clean We’re having friends over NYE so it had been be gone by then. By then, the fly on the wall is going to feel rather lost and confused. Am I in a different house?


      2. Agreed. I think we should note what is clearly the truth before us, gently try to collect wisdom while remaining forever a student but avoid flossing. Some wisdom is just too much for normal people. 🙂


  3. Wow, you were so lucky to have been able to scramble up the hill in time. It could have easily gone the other way. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the workers came back on Monday and wondered what the heck had happened. I also shudder to think of all the dumb things I did when I was growing up. I assume there is a god for young girls too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said Janis and you’re correct that this could have gone badly, but it didn’t, thanks perhaps to the God of young boys who, I suspect is the same God of young girls. He just has to work harder to keep the boys alive 🙏.
      Thanks for giving my story a read.

      Liked by 1 person

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