It is one of Indiana’s best-kept secrets. Limestone quarried from three Indiana counties is responsible for some of America’s most impressive structures.
It was used to build the Empire State Building, the Pentagon and the Indiana State Capitol. It bedecks the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the Tribune Tower in Chicago and the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills.
According to the Indiana Limestone Institute of America, “Indiana limestone projects exist in every American city, in smaller towns and villages, in Canada and in every type of atmosphere.”
Here’s why. Although limestone is sedimentary rock that can be found anywhere there was an ancient sea, Indiana’s is considered some of the best for construction. It is more durable than other types, has consistent neutral color and can be cut into large blocks or carved in fine detail.
Its superior quality may have something to do with the way it was pushed and tilted during the great upheaval that created the Appalachian Mountains. Whatever the cause, “the stone is remarkable in the uniformity of its texture and in its freedom from impurities and large fossils,” states a 1944 history of the Indiana limestone industry by Joseph Batchelor.
Deposits of Salem limestone, the official name used by geologists, protrude along a narrow belt from Greencastle to New Albany. Except for long-abandoned quarries at Salem in Washington County and Corydon in Harrison County, commercial production has occurred exclusively in Owen, Monroe and Lawrence counties.
The first quarry opened at Stinesville in 1827. Its stone initially was used in the immediate vicinity for bridge foundations, door sills and tombstones. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850s guaranteed a national market.
Demand increased in the 1870s after fires in Boston and Chicago destroyed wooden structures and showed the wisdom of building with stone. An estimated 53 quarries were in operation as of 1893. Their reputations lured skilled stone cutters and carvers from England, Scotland and Italy.
The quarries enjoyed a surge in demand in the 1920s thanks to technical advances in quarrying and fabrication and into the 1930s due to federal projects coming out of the Great Depression. In 1928, Indiana mills sold 413,601 cubic yards valued at $17 million. According to Batchelor, there were 33 quarries, 22 saw mills and 48 cut stone mills in operation that year, the high point for the industry.
When glass, metals and synthetic building materials became popular later in the century, limestone began to lose market share.
Today, 14 stone quarries in Monroe and Lawrence counties produce 118,000 cubic yards of limestone annually and $26 million in revenue. Although the industry is small compared with its heyday, its future is secure because the limestone supply is considered limitless.
Hoosiers interested in learning more can travel the Indiana Limestone Heritage Trail, which features 40 sites in Lawrence and Monroe counties. There’s also a walking tour of Indiana University, home to one of the largest architectural collections of Indiana limestone buildings anywhere.
The neighborhood east of downtown Bloomington called Vinegar Hill demonstrates use of Indiana limestone through several architectural periods, from Greek Revival to Art Deco.
Many of the homes there were built by big names in the limestone industry, including master carvers whose decorative skills were reflected in carvings, ornamental panels and sculptures adorning the facades.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.