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BOOM! RUMBLE! YAWN

The Baltimore Sun

Their worlds are about to be rocked. During the first week at St. Joseph School in Cockeysville, Debbie Kleim prepares her afternoon kindergarten class for the inevitable.

It's noon, or close enough. They all wait.

Then the earth rumbles and, just as quickly, the vibration ends. Was it an earthquake? Did something blow up under the school? As Kleim tells her 5-year-olds each year:

"It's nothing to be afraid of. It's a rock quarry."

The children in this enclave of Cockeysville now know what others before them have known since, well, the Civil War. Quarry blasts are a dusty fact of life.

Three, four times a week, hard-hatted workers at Lafarge's Texas Quarry on Beaver Dam Road blast into shelves of limestone and marble to make little rocks out of big rocks. They end up in asphalt, concrete, riprap, golf course bunker sand - you name the stuff. The "Texas Rumble" is the shot heard 'round Cockeysville.

Crews still holler "Fire in the hole!" when the "shot" goes off and the earth tumbles into itself, only to be hauled off in red Mack trucks and yellow Caterpillar machines - every kid's bigger-than-life Tonka toys.

Generation after generation, the sonic feature continues to embed itself in the lives - and front porches - of this former quarry hamlet in Baltimore County. Settled by Irish stonecutters and somehow christened "Texas" in the 1800s, this enclave lost its name as late as the early 1990s and became another part of Cockeysville. But they didn't change the name of the old rock pit. And the Texas Quarry's repercussions are still heard not just here on Church Lane but in a small radius around town.

There's a pharmacist at the Rite Aid on Padonia Road who looks up from her work when she hears the blast. Must be noon, she says.

Yup, my dog is barking now back home, says a customer waiting for her prescriptions.

Picture frames are going to be crooked again, another customer mutters.

The nearby Bob Evans restaurant gets a courtesy call from Lafarge officials before a shot is fired off. "They got people there sitting having lunch. We go 'boom' and they go, 'What the heck?'" says Barb Geis, administrative assistant at the Lafarge office. She makes about six such calls in the community before boom time.

See, there are two types of people in Cockeysville: people who know about the quarry blasts and everyone else. On Church Lane - the land that development forgot - the regulars know the bombing drill. Nancy and Raymond Tracey rarely even notice the blasts anymore. They've been in the neighborhood 60 years - and there's seemingly 60 years' worth of dust encrusted in the floorboards of their front porch.

"Actually, the blasts aren't as hard as they used to be," says Nancy Tracey, with a trace of nostalgia.

Joanne Riley grew up around the quarry. She's 71 and lives in the family home across the tracks from the plant. Riley lives alone with her cat, Starz, and they both still jump a bit when the quarry blasts off. And it never fails - the shots make her kitchen's water heater rumble. But the quarry can make all the noise it wants; it's been part of her family since the 1930s.

"I tell everyone my dad used to blast off those holes. He was a dynamiter," Riley says. "On Saturdays, I'd go out with him to set the blasting holes." Riley's father, Howard Poe, died more than 50 years ago. Still, she thinks of her father every time her water heater rumbles.

The relative newcomers to Church Lane don't have such memories, of course. It takes them a while to get used to the noontime jolts.

"Our building hasn't fallen yet," says Margo Milliken, chuckling. Milliken runs the office for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union No. 1501. Besides the building shaking sometimes and the cars needing washing a lot of the time, the detonations are just a quirky feature of the neighborhood.

"It's like living next to an airport," Milliken says, "but the noise is just one time a day."

It can be amusing to witness the expressions on the faces of the uninitiated. It's not every day you move to an area or simply pass through on business, and the ground under you rumbles for a second or two. It can rattle a person.

"Sometimes the new clients hold on to the walls," says Beth Bachran, who runs a dog grooming business. Beth's Pampered Pets occupies the second floor of a building on Church Lane. Some days, they can barely hear the shot; other days, the building shakes, Bachran says. "We certainly know when it's a lunch time." After each shot, they simply straighten the pictures on the walls and get back to pet primping.

As for the dogs, the new ones to the shop always move to the side of their crates when the shots go off. The older dogs, Bachran says, look at them as if to say, "You'll get used to it." And they do.

It might sound as if the blasts are immense, but they are not. The short blasts register below the federal guidelines for such detonations; the decibel limit is 130, and Lafarge averages 116 decibels to 118 decibels per blast, officials say. At 130 decibels, a nearby home's drywall and plaster would be damaged.

A recurring rumor is that Lafarge mines in tunnels extending underneath the surrounding business district and neighborhood. But there's no underground mining anymore - the portals into the tunnels have long since been closed, quarry officials say. What people feel are the ground vibrations from an explosion of 21,000 pounds of ANFO - ammonium nitrate/diesel fuel - planted in 40-foot-deep holes inside the quarry during any given shot, LeFarge officials say. It's a dramatic show - and field trip.

Lafarge, once known as Genstar, conducts community, school and even Cub Scout tours at the spot formerly named the Harry T. Campbell Quarry. A quarry is a geological petri dish and a point of commerce and interest in a community - and possibly a great swimming hole one day.

Given the tree cover, motorists traveling Interstate 83 between Padonia and Warren roads probably don't notice the mile-long, 500-foot deep hole in the earth.

"We're shooting on the west wall today," says Lafarge plant manager Roger Cunningham, who offered a tour this month. Other days, they blast on the north, south or east walls, which accounts for why the sound is louder for some people and not others. It just depends on which quarry wall your home or business is facing that day. Also, blasts are louder in the winter because sound-muffling leaves are off the trees.

"Put your hard hat on. And yes, you'll have hat hair," says Cunningham, winding his Ford truck down into the quarry. Huge Caterpillar trucks grunt by. Quarry workers drive on the left side of the dirt road because if one of these front-end loaders ever loses its brakes, it can be steered into the high rocky shoulder and stopped.

A quarry is whittled away in layers, or "benches." About half a mile across the great pit, Cunningham points to a string of mounds along one such bench. A "blaster" has inserted explosives into 40 holes. There's not a soul in sight now. Watch those mounds, Cunningham says, and listen for the three whistles before the shot. The untrained eye doesn't have a clue where to look. But the whistles are easily heard.

"Fire in the hole," Cunningham says.

After a sequential detonation, a side of the rock mountain explodes neatly, folding back down on itself some 30,000 tons of raw material for the loading, hauling, crushing and selling. A five-second "all clear" whistle is heard, and the shot is completed. Behemoth trucks appear out of nowhere. Their work has just begun - again.

And at St. Joseph School every January, Debbie Kleim repeats the rock quarry lesson. But by then, her kids already know what's going on. In fact, when the noontime shot goes off, her children all yell "Quarry!" then go back to their art or phonics lessons. The Texas Quarry has become their quarry, too.

As for their windows, they still rattle when a shot goes off. Pictures become crooked but not everything on the church wall is rocked.

"We have that divine intervention," Kleim says. "That crucifix is not going to move."

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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