Life Lines: How Indiana limestone has connected my life

Life Lines: How Indiana limestone has connected my life

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A scene from 'Breaking Away' was shot at the Empire limestone quarry in Bloomington, Indiana

By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

What do the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Flat Iron Building and the Yankee Stadium all have in common? They are all made of Indiana limestone whose quarries are chiefly in Monroe County where Bloomington, Indiana, and Indiana University are located.

The limestone industry got its start when the Welsh founder of New Harmony, Indiana, a British millionaire by the name of Robert Owen, tried establishing a utopian community (it lasted less than five years). He returned to Great Britain but his two sons liked American culture. One became the president of Purdue University and the other became a geologist at Indiana University and promoted the virtues of the limestone he studied in the Bloomington area.

By the 1830s with the advent of railroads, limestone crushed into pebbles was widely used for railroad track construction. In the 1880s the era of skyscrapers in large cities began and Indiana limestone was favored because it was easily shaped and cut.

Limestone is calcium carbonate that was formed 330 million years ago when most of the Midwest was an inland sea. Most of life on Earth was in the sea. Ameba-like protozoa sometimes formed calcium carbonate shells. So did crinoids or sea lilies, which are related to echinoderms like starfishes. The limestone for buildings came from a region of the inland sea that had mostly protozoa raining down their external skeletons when they died, forming a fine silt dozens of feet thick.

The Empire limestone quarry in Bloomington, Indiana, now abandoned

When I was a graduate student getting my doctorate in genetics, I would sometimes go on field trips to visit the caves and limestone quarry holes. One of the delights was scooping water from a quarry hole and bringing it back to Indiana University to look at a very rare organism — Craspedacusta — a freshwater jellyfish. Most jellyfish are found in saltwater oceans. Craspedacusta are small, about a half inch in diameter, and they pulsate as they swim in water. During the summer when we have visits from family and friends, we like to take our guests to Lake Monroe and collect fossils, mostly crinoids, in the fractured limestone gravel along the lake’s beachfront.

The limestone industry has supplied courthouses throughout the United States, government buildings like the Pentagon, thousands of limestone war memorials, cemetery headstones and hundreds of skyscrapers around the world.

The quarry holes are not used as landfills for trash. They dot the south central hilly terrain of southern Indiana. Sometimes the homeless or runaways live in the caves that have been dug into the sides of the quarry hole. The land around them slowly turns green with new grasses and trees. Those who work in the stone trade are like a medieval guild, with stone cutters whose families have done this for three or more generations.

In the 1979 movie, “Breaking Away,” which portrayed the Little 500 IU Bicycle Race, the children of the stone workers called their team “the cutters” and many townspeople still wear T-shirts with the word “Cutters” as a mark of pride. We are often connected without knowing it. In my childhood and youth, I was unaware as a Yankee fan that the house that Ruth built was made of limestone that would make my future retirement home (whose façade is made of limestone). I did not know the magnificent paintings I looked at and studied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were housed in limestone. I did not know that the Flat Iron Building and the Empire State Building that I saw hundreds of times in my youth were made from the same limestone quarries that would house the laboratory in Indiana University where I studied genetics.

Sometimes life imitates art where a skilled writer hopes that in a novel the reader will end up seeing everything connected to everything.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.