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Moment of Indiana History

Making Tracks Out of the Stone Age

Mechanization of the removal and transport of Indiana limestone ultimately transformed the skylines of New York, Chicago and Washington.

Settlers in the southern Indiana hill country first started turning to the area’s plentiful limestone as a building material in the early nineteenth century.

Its earliest application was decorative; dating to 1816, the lintels of the Bullett Mill in Spring Mill State Park, near Mitchell, provide the oldest example of the architectural use of the indigenous material.

The dense, homogeneous stone, capable of withstanding great pressure, also made excellent foundation blocks. Officially, quarrying began near Stinesville in 1827.

Limestone’s suitability as a building block, however, is exactly what initially restricted its use to the immediate locale. Weighing in at about 170 pounds per cubic foot, limestone’s removal and transport was arduous. It was the mechanization of those processes that ultimately transformed the skylines of New York, Chicago and Washington.

Along with the efficiency introduced by the channel cutting machine in 1863, the mid-nineteenth-century railroad boom was indispensable to the growth of the limestone industry.

The Bedford Belt Railway connected the quarries to all the east-west and north-south lines coming through Southern Indiana. Built at the relatively astronomical cost of $25,000 per mile, the 12 miles of track were ridden by three “Mogul” engines for hauling freight and stone, along with smaller passenger lines.

Also known as the Oolitic line, the Bedford Belt Railway operated in competition with the legendary Monon line, which also provided spurs to the quarries around Bedford. Tracks and trestles once belonging to the Monon’s Murdock branch are still in evidence.

“The blocks of the Egyptian pyramids weighed two and one-half tons,” read industry literature from 1931. “The average run of blocks of the Indiana Limestone Co. weigh from five to forty tons.”

A photograph from around 1890 documents “the largest stone ever shipped from the Bedford Quarries”. Recorded as 100,000 pounds, the 12 by six by six foot stone provides an object lesson in the symbiotic relationship between the railroads and the limestone industry.

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