Breaking Away: The Building Stone Movie

Prompted by Silver Fox and inspired by Geology News, this post focuses on one of my favorite geology movies, Breaking Away.  The film takes place in Bloomington in the late 1970s and centers on four recent high school graduates: Dave, Moocher, Cyril, and Mike.  Ostensibly about the relationship between stone mill workers, or Cutters, and college kids, Breaking Away is filled with the angst and self-doubt sewn into young men who cannot follow their father’s footsteps.  “They’re gonna keep calling us “Cutters.”  To them it’s just a dirty word.  To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be,” says Mike, the character played by a young Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away. 

With no work in the building stone industry, the guys have nothing better to do than loaf around, complain about the advantages of college kids, and swim in the abandoned quarries.  Those quarries are all in the Salem Limestone, a 330-million-year old rock unit that is the most commonly used building stone in the country.  The Salem formed in a quiet sea, which covered what we now call the Midwest and is most analogous to the Bahamas where limestone is now forming. It is a fossiliferous layer rich in crinoid stems, bryozoans, brachiopods, and forams.

Joe Palooka in Oolitic, Indiana

Out of the great beds of white rock came the stone climbed by King Kong (Empire State Building), bombed by terrorists (The Pentagon), and walked through by hundreds of thousands of immigrants (Ellis Island).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the stone to use for grand buildings everywhere, as well as for tomb stones, statues, and many other more modest architectural features.  If you are interested in reading more about the Salem, I recommend Scott Sanders’ excellent In Limestone Country

Unfortunately, you cannot get to the quarry where the guys swam in the movie.  It is blocked by a fence and “No Trespassing” signs.  You can, however, see the hole that the Empire State Building came from.  It is near a small cemetery just north of Oolitic, Indiana.  You can also drive through the Salem-rich Indiana University campus in Bloomington, where much of Breaking Away was filmed.

The hole where the Empire State Building was quarried.

Breaking Away is a near perfect movie, at least if you want a good view of a small part of the building stone world.  One extended scene is shot in a limestone mill and features massive cutting tools called gang saws.  When the guys go swimming, you can get a feel for the size of the quarries.  The dialogue between Dave and his father is hysterical.  And Dave, the star, rides a bike, which leads to the final, uplifting moments of the movie, a bike race between our four heroes and the snotty, snooty college boys.  What more could a geology-loving, bike-riding geek want? 

The Politics of Building Stone: Seattle

Twenty years ago today a building stone brouhaha erupted in Seattle.  On that snowy Friday, local newspapers reported that Metro, which managed King County’s sewage treatment and public transportation, would have to pay for, but not use, a half million dollars worth of granite that it had purchased for a new bus tunnel through downtown Seattle.  The reason for the rejection was that King County (Seattle is the county seat) had a policy that it could not use or purchase any goods “manufactured or fabricated” in South Africa because of apartheid.

The conflagration began when Eddie Rye of the Black Contractors Coalition notified Metro about its planned use of a green granite quarried in South Africa.  At the time, the stone, known in the trade as Verde Fontaine, sat in Italy, where it had been shipped for cutting and polishing.  Metro Council executive Alan Gibbs responded that using the stone would be “an affront to the community.”  Officials added that Rye’s notification was the first time Metro had heard of the granite’s origin and that none of the South African had been shipped to Seattle.  Turns out that neither statement was true and that a second South African granite had also been purchased. 

 Travertine and Verde Fontaine

Quarried near Bitterfontein, about 200 miles north of Cape Town, the pine green Verde Fontaine solidified underground over one billion years ago.  The green coloration comes from the mineral chlorite, which forms from the alteration of iron- and magnesium-rich minerals within the rock.  The granite is part of a suite known as Spektakel and were emplaced into supracrustal rock units (metasedimentary and metavolcanic rocks) that most likely exceed two billion years in age. 

After Rye blew the whistle, officials within Metro described how some had known about the origin of the stone but that they thought that so little was to be used that it wouldn’t be a problem.  They also noted that use of the rock technically wasn’t illegal because it was only quarried in South Africa but cut and finished in Italy. King County Council Chairman Ron Sims, a member of the Metro Council, responded ”It was a morally repugnant decision. Somebody should have to account for that. This was no longer a half-million-dollar ‘error.’ It was a conscious decision to defy public sentiment.” 

Accusations continued over the next month ultimately leading to the resignation of Alan Gibbs in late February. ”The buck stops with me,” Gibbs said at a news conference where he read a formal letter of resignation. ”The events of the last few weeks surrounding the issue of South African granite have been an embarrassment to the agency … This episode needs to be put to rest so the agency can move ahead with the important work before us.”  Two weeks after Gibbs’ resignation, an internal review of Metro concluded that Gibbs had not misled the public.  On September 15, 1990, the bus tunnels under Seattle opened, with walls covered in less polemical rock.