QUINCY — It was Oct. 2, 1992. Stephen Hennessy, 19, teetered on the edge of an abandoned granite mine. As he looked around, he found himself surrounded by jagged cliffs. The unusually warm autumn air enveloped him. Below, he saw 200 feet of blue-green groundwater subsuming the former worksite.
“I’ll be right back,” Hennessy said before diving off. But he never returned to swim and jump with his friends that day. Instead, they gathered three days later to mourn his death by drowning.
Hennessy was far from the first daredevil to lose his life in Quincy’s quarries. Nor was he the last. The site’s record of accidental deaths — at least 51, according to John A. Laukkanen’s 2004 book “Quincy Quarries Gold and Gloom” — haunt the South Shore town, which has a long and complicated relationship to its historic open-pit mines.
But those dangerous pools are gone now. In their place is a landscape of optimism and color.
In the mid-20th century, the city took to filling some of the pits with trash. By 2001, the state of Massachusetts sealed the last of the 54 quarries with leftover rubble from Boston’s Big Dig project, and the site opened as a public park two years later.
With nowhere for high schoolers to dive and swim, accidental deaths quickly tapered off. City officials breathed a sigh of relief. Nervous parents directed their worries elsewhere. Even cops and state police started ignoring the old quarries. There, teens and young artists saw an opportunity.
Over the past 20 years, the Quincy Quarries Reservation became an amphitheater for vivid graffiti. “It is beautiful when you go there and you see all this amazing art,” said Quincy native Nicole Salvatore, 20. “It just has this appeal to it.”
As you approach by car, you see the cliffs off Ricciuti Drive festooned with cartoon characters. The path from the parking lot is something of a yellow brick road, a sprawl of illegible tags directing people toward an artistic respite (where a visitor can comfortably admire graffiti while keeping a safe social distance from others). The tallest peak brandishes a massive mural that reads “You Are Conscious Matter.” Elsewhere, taggers pay tribute to deceased family and friends in looping and bubbly script. There are birthday wishes, declarations of love, prom proposals, and vulgarities. An Instagram search of #quincyquarry reveals more than 400 photos of people posing in front of chunky tags, neon rocks, and the distant Boston skyline.
All that bright, colorful graffiti juxtaposes with the park’s otherwise tattered vibe. Operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Quincy Quarries Reservation is officially advertised as a popular rock climbing destination and a family-friendly picnicking spot. Really, the public park is an “almost lawless” space, according to Salvatore. For many, the old mines have been the perfect location to smoke weed and plow through six-packs of beer.
Secluded and fenced off with scrawny wire, the quarries are littered with crushed cans and bits of plastic. There are no scheduled activities, no benches, no street lamps. There are no signs and no safety barriers, despite trails climbing higher than 100 feet. There are few trash cans and even fewer maps. A visitor has to trudge over uneven rocks and through wet grass — perpetually soaked with groundwater — for a good look at the explosion of street art.
Born and raised in neighboring Brockton, Taylor Thai remembered taking the 2:30 bus to Quincy with her friends after school. During their visits to the quarry site, they played Uno, sipped alcohol, and, of course, spray-painted all over the rocky walls.
“If you grew up in that area, you just knew that was something people did there — they tagged things,” said Thai, 21, now a Los Angeles-based film producer. "They left their name there, their artwork there.”
She remembers wading through shrubbery and across uneven wooden planks to find the perfect spot for her creations. “My thing was this really scrappy, quick job of instant noodle cups,” Thai said. “I would spray paint that and on the label, I would put my initials there: T.T.”
The quarries once stood as pillars for the tough-edged town, originally known as “The Granite City.” Founded in the 1820s, the mines fueled the city’s economic rise and a regional building boom. Workers set off explosives and then searched the debris for dark granite. The site’s stone was used to build the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Chicago’s Palmer House hotel, and D.C.'s Titanic Memorial. But the rise of modernism and metal brought the industry’s demise. Quarries in the city began to shutter in the 1920s, and the last of the town’s mines closed in 1963.
Once the pits were abandoned, underground springs kept them flooded with deep water. By the 1930s, the defunct mines were popular swimming spots with local youth. A 1938 Life Magazine cover was adorned with young men hurling themselves into one of the Quincy quarries.
South Shore teens frequented the site during the decades that followed. Locals who didn’t dive themselves knew people who did. On hot summer days, it seemed the only escape from the sweltering sun were those swimming holes.
“We all swam in the quarries,” said Quincy Quarry and Granite Workers Museum president Al Bina, 79. “We knew it was dangerous, but it was almost a rite of passage and it was a good time."
Swimmers started the graffiti trend in the mid-20th century, scaling the granite peaks to scrawl their names high above the pits.
Archival photos from as early as 1938 show painted rocks. Quincy resident Sean Curran, a regular diver in the ’90s, remembered seeing tags dated as far back as 1949. “The water levels were always fluctuating when I was a kid," Curran said. “I saw things like ‘Dick 1949’ come out. The graffiti that was under the water before was somehow completely preserved.”
The 1997 Quincy High School graduate also saw “locker room graffiti,” as Curran called it. These simplistic tags — town names, Led Zeppelin logos, Greek fraternity letters, and crudely drawn pot leaves — are visible in diving videos timestamped before the year 2000. High schoolers also marked the dives they completed with their nicknames and initials.
Still, the quarry’s cool waters held dark secrets. Stolen cars and shopping carts piled up underwater. Per local legend, mafia monsters used the holes as dumping grounds for their victims. In the ’70s, the city piled the pools with tree branches and planted old telephone poles in the depths to deter divers, but rising waters quickly gulped the pointed rods — arguably making the pools even more menacing. Fatalities were so common that jumps were named for kids who perished there: Eddie, Mike, Gorski, and Gooch.
Detailing more than four dozen quarry deaths, Laukkanen’s 2004 book ends on an ominous note: “We will never know how many perished in the quarries. May they rest in peace.”
Most of the pools were covered by the dawn of the 21st century (three regulated and shallow swimming holes remain, located just off the expressway). That’s when the graffiti really took off. Nearly two decades have brought thousands of works by amateurs and professional street artists alike.
“It was reopened as an historic site and suddenly, the public was encouraged to visit. This definitely contributed to the explosion of graffiti,” said Curran, a history aficionado who closely watched the surge of art in the public reservation. He keeps a collection of news clippings on the mines and is working on a slideshow of diving photos.
At various times, there were efforts to clear graffiti from the site — at least once in 1986 and again in 1996, according to newspaper reports. But the baking soda solution proved “detrimental to the rock itself” and “very expensive,” Curran said. The government abandoned their efforts and never returned to the project.
Quincy-based artist Cedric “Vise1” Douglas rarely paints at the quarries today, but he “gets the appeal.” He never jumped in the mines as a local high schooler, though he remembered being irked in the ’90s when a cliff was named with a racial slur after claiming the life of a Black boy. Years later, he helped his brother propose at the popular site by decorating the rocks with the big question. He estimated that experienced taggers are responsible for a third of the graffiti now visible at the site.
“It’s really just a place where young people can go and express themselves, and I think there’s value in that,” Douglas said.
Under Massachusetts law, anyone charged with destruction of property — including graffiti, tagging, and vandalism — can serve up to three years in prison. But no guards are stationed at Quincy Quarries Reservation, and most of the park is dimly lit, if at all. Underground artists are left with easy and unrestricted access to the site.
A public records request and archive search turned up only three tagging-related reports at the quarries. Bina confirmed that there have been few arrests related to graffiti during his 11 years at the museum.
Street artists increasingly work at legal graffiti walls, including one in Beverly and another near Central Square. But there aren’t enough public walls to deter illegal tagging like that at the quarries, according to Artists for Humanity cofounder Rob “Problak” Gibbs. The prominent graffiti artist and muralist used to visit “communal practice spots” in the South End, but those are gone now.
Gibbs appreciates that Quincy Quarries Reservation offers a positive place to practice — and experience — graffiti.
“The value of graffiti art is in its style,” he said. It can have a negative connotation, he continued, “because of the adolescence of it. But exposure, any exposure, is a step in the right direction.”
For now, Quincy’s history remains written all over those jagged granite walls. It lives on through visitors, through grieving families still missing their loved ones after all these years. It lives on through young adults with fond memories of the site.
Before Thai moved to LA this January, she made one last visit to the Quincy Quarries Reservation. The place played such an important role in her childhood, just as it did to so many South Shore natives. The park felt smaller than before, she remembered, but as warm and familiar as ever.
“I knew it like the back of my hand,” she said. “All the art there, I knew. Like I’d been there a hundred times ... because I had. We all had.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.