America’s Building Stone – Chapter 6

Go to any city across the country and you will find one building stone in all of them: Salem Limestone from Indiana. People pray, have babies, get drivers licenses, and file for divorce in structures made from this 330-million-year old buff rock. Salem was also the first stone that many people encountered when they entered the United States; the administration building at Ellis Island was completed in 1900 with Salem Limestone trimming the red brick.

As with most building stones, use of Salem started locally with workers hauling blocks eight miles for the foundation and window sills of a county courthouse in 1819. The first quarry opened eight years later but little stone made it outside Indiana until the railroad reached Bedford and Bloomington in 1853.

The big break for Salem quarriers came in 1871 when Chicago burned to the ground. Within a few years, Indiana quarrymen had set up shop to promote their stone. One promoter wrote, “This purity insures absolute integrity on exposures to the fumes of coal, while the perfect elasticity and flexibility of the mass render it invulnerable to the forces of cold and heat, air and moisture.” Others claimed that the stone cleaned itself and that it had withstood the ice age “scarcely changed in any part.”

The Salem soon became the stone of Chicago. In 1889 William Vanderbilt ordered 25 carloads for a mansion on Fifth Avenue and his august imprimatur spurred others to follow. Within a decade Salem dominated markets in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Cedar Rapids.

Several aspects of Salem Limestone combined to make everyone from Odd Fellows to opera fans incorporate the stone in their structures. Stone masons can cut, plane, flute, and carve the Salem easily and in all directions and once shaped, Salem hardens over time. It splits evenly, and in any direction. When rock had to bear the weight of a building, Salem excelled because of its low compressibility. When stone became a skin hanging on a steel skeleton, Salem remained popular because of its ease in cutting.

Changes in architectural fashions also helped sell Salem Limestone. In the last quarter of the 19th century, architects turned away from the dark, somber stones, such as brownstone, that dominated cities in the eastern United States. Salem Limestone also benefited from the growth of coal-fired plants, because Salem stones did not disintegrate under attack by coal-generated pollution like other limestones. (As geologist David Dale Owen wrote in 1838, Salem Limestone “would imbibe less water.”) By 1928, the peak year of production, Indiana quarries provided 70% of all exterior building stone used in the United States.

Salem Limestone quarries are still active, shipping rock as far as Japan and Turkey. In the United States, Salem-clad buildings occur in all 50 states, and include 27 state capitols, 750 post offices, and 200-plus courthouses. It is the most commonly used building stone in the country.

4 thoughts on “America’s Building Stone – Chapter 6”

  1. Do you know if the South Bend, Indiana public transit center on South St. between Main St. and Michigan St. is make of Salem Limestone.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am sorry but I have never been to South Bend. A couple of thoughts. Judging from the amount of Salem Limestone used in that part of the world, I wouldn't be surprised if it is, especially if the stone is ivory/white colored. Also, if you look closely can you see fossils? Look for things that look like little poker chips, snail shells, things that look like Rice-Chex cereal, and/or cross sections of clam shells. Hope this helps.

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