Indiana is known for its rocks. That may sound like a backhanded compliment to an outsider, but to the locals of southern Indiana, it’s a source of eternal pride.
Some of the finest limestone in the United States–and possibly the world–can be found in the hills around the southern towns of Bloomington and Bedford, and in the previous century stonecutters turned extracting it into a science, and shaping it into an art.
The stone was in such demand that a massive industry cropped up around it, and hundreds of thousands of tons of mammoth stone slabs were carved out of the ground and shipped around the country. A shocking number of iconic American structures are made out of Indiana limestone, including the Empire State Building, the Washington National Cathedral, the Pentagon, and 35 of the 50 current state capitol buildings.
Unfortunately, in the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, stone masonry fell out of favor as preferences shifted to glass-and-metal skyscrapers that were cheaper to build and maintain. This dissolution of the limestone industry left many southern Indiana towns impoverished, as they are to this day. Their plight was fictionalized in the 1979 Dennis Quaid film “Breaking Away.” Many of the old limestone quarries are massive, eerie rectangles etched out of the earth, but a few are still being mined today.
The most famous of these quarries is the Empire Quarry, which provided the 18,630 tons of stone needed to construct the Empire State Building. The quarry is so long and so deep, one can imagine the entire Empire State Building lying within it, refilling the 207,000 cubic feet of empty space now left vacant.
The imagery of most Indiana limestone quarries–and Empire Quarry in particular–is striking. The sheer walls and straight drop-offs of the precisely removed stone create unnaturally deep pools of water as rain and groundwater collects in the artificial basin. The deepness of these pools and minerals from the limestone foundation give the water a stunning aquamarine hue, attracting visitors and enticing swimmers and “cliff” divers to bathe in the sometimes unsafe waters. Many locals have been injured diving off the quarry walls into the water below because the depth often changes and is hard to judge.