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Then & Now: Stone Quarries – Joliet

The term limestone is often used in general terms to describe the carbonate rocks and fossils. In a more specific sense, limestone is distinguished from a second substance, dolomite, by its smaller content of magnesium carbonate. Both limestone and dolomite are found in Illinois, but it is dolomite that was the important quarry stone of the Des Plaines River Valley.

Dolomite and limestone underlay sections in northern Illinois, and quarries are often located where thick stone deposits occur near the surface. The limestone and dolomite of Illinois were formed from the shells and skeletons of sea creatures that lived in the ancient oceans that once covered parts of the state. As these creatures died, their remains became compacted on the ocean floor and were mixed with sand or clay and combined to eventually form limestone.

In the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor, the largest concentration can be found in an area from Joliet to Lemont. The excavation and construction of the I&M Canal in the 1830s and 1840s revealed the extent of the dolomite outcroppings in the area.

Most stone found and utilized along the I&M Canal was actually quarried just north of Joliet, but two other tracts in Aux Sable and Ottawa were also utilized to build lock chambers, bridge piers, and building foundations.

Soon after the opening of the I&M Canal in 1848, commercial quarrying along or near the canal began to increase. Easy access to transportation on the canal, and the railroads that quickly followed its route, made Joliet and Lemont the main suppliers of limestone to Chicago. By the early 1870s, the towns of Joliet, Lockport, and Lemont all became the centers of 19th century quarrying activity in the region.

The city of Joliet actually sits on a thick bed of dolomite just below the surface. Quarrying was Joliet’s first industry, paving the way for early settlement and later the nickname “Stone City.”

By the 1890s, some twenty-five quarries were operating between Joliet and Lemont. Over the decades, limestone blocks were used for foundations, bridge abutments, aqueduct piers, and lock walls. The unique color of Joliet limestone made it a favorite for countless homes, commercial buildings, and churches in the area.

In the last decade of the nineteenth-century, Joliet quarries provided employment to over 2,000 stoneworkers. The quarry industry, like the canal before, attracted many immigrants, mainly from southern and south central Europe. These groups included workers from Poland, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy. Not surprising, the work was hard and the pay low. 

In the early twentieth century, the changing tastes and new construction methods caused the use of Joliet limestone to fall out of favor. Steel skeleton structures, which helped to distribute the load bearing weight of tall buildings, along with the use of different materials for building facades, caused a shift away from large, hand-cut blocks that came from Joliet quarries.

As shipping and labor costs began to rise, a different limestone material from Indiana, known as Bedford limestone, gained popularity as it was harder and much easier to slice into thinner pieces.

Today it is easy to find evidence of Joliet’s quarrying past. Not only are there several old quarries visible in the area, but street names on the west side of the Des Plaines River still bear the names of Joliet’s past with such names as Stone, Lime, Marble, and Granite.

The Then photograph shows the nineteenth-century Crusher Plant stone quarry looking south near the Illinois State Penitentiary. The old quarry was used to prepare crushed stone for public roads.

The Then image shows a similar view of the old Crusher Plant today.