January 1, 2014
Get your kicks on a scenic tour …
By Bill Langer
If you are even remotely associated with the aggregates industry, you probably know that highways are one of the major consumers of sand, gravel, and crushed stone. But in addition to gobbling up aggregate, there are great aggregate-related stories to be told about the things we can see while travelling along the nation’s highways. What better ways to tell the stories than via a trip along the iconic Route 66, starting in Chicago, Ill., and ending in Los Angeles, Calif.
We start our adventure on Jackson Boulevard at Michigan Avenue in Chicago — the eastern end of Route 66. A little over a mile to the north of our starting point is the Chicago Water Tower. The Tower, which resembles a tiny medieval castle, was constructed in 1869 and is one of the few buildings in the heart of the city to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Tower is built of limestone blocks quarried not too far from its location.
Let’s hop into our Horizon Blue 1960 Corvette and motor out of town along old Route 66. We take a few city streets to Joliet Road. About 10 miles down the road, Route 66 passes just north of Lemont — once the site of numerous limestone quarries. Those quarries produced a stone called the Lemont-Joliet building stone (a.k.a. the Sugar Run dolomite), the very same stone used in the Tower and in the foundations of many churches and schools in Chicago.
Production of building stone in the 1800s was all done by hand labor and depended on the quarryman’s skill and experience. The layers of stone were pried apart along joints and bedding planes using wedges and pry bars by quarrymen who were experts at detecting natural planes of weakness in the stone. They controlled the size of the slabs by scoring the upper surface of the bed with hammer and chisel. Once extracted, the slabs were hand-dressed to their final dimensions.
When the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened in 1848, it provided a direct and cheap way to send the Lemont-Joliet building stone to Chicago, thus increasing demand for the stone. At different times, quarrying was done at about 100 sites along the Des Plaines River and the canal.
As we motor on down old Route 66, we pass through Lockport and Joliet. The streetscapes of those towns are still dotted with dolomite limestone buildings of every sort. Joliet even became known as ‘Stone City’ for the many quarries surrounding the canal community.
Back in Chicago, the Home Insurance Building, completed during 1885, was clad with stone and brick. It is considered to be the first building to use steel instead of cast iron in its structural frame, and demand for Lemont-Joliet building stone fell as internal steel supports became the architectural standard. Also, improved transportation in the 1890s allowed other stone types into the Chicago market, and, by World War I, the Lemont-Joliet building stone industry had almost disappeared.
The decrease in demand for Lemont-Joliet building stone greatly affected the local quarry industry as production changed from building stone to crushed stone. During 1890, half of the Illinois limestone production was for building stone. By 1917, building stone production had decreased to 25 percent, and by 1925, only two quarries produced Lemont-Joliet building stone, and then only upon demand. Today, large quarries still operate along the Des Plaines River, but they produce only crushed stone.
And as we head off to St. Louis via Route 66, those quarries disappear in our rear view mirror.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business. He can be reached at