Reviving a Once-Famous Industry


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 30, 1928


Reviving A Once-Famous Industry

By Howard Burba

     When the glacial age had knocked off and called it a day, after putting in some 70,0000 years at hard labor in this vicinity, it left a considerable “hump” on the face of old mother earth at a point where the little village of Centerville now stands.

     Driving southward on the Lebanon pike the motorist readily notices a pronounced grade as he enters the corporate limits of Centerville. A few seconds later he has passed through the village and is as swiftly descending. If he will reverse the operation and drive east and west from the center of the settlement he will discover the same conditions – a sudden slope in the road. And he will also realize the dimensions of this “hump” left by the grinding and churning of millions upon millions of tons of ice mountains as they beat against each other in a battle that raged through the centuries. But he will have to lift off the topsoil and make a little geological investigation if he desires to determine just what the glacial age left in the shape of a visiting card.

     The best place to conduct such an investigation is at a spot one-half mile east of Centerville, and it is an historic spot since here the first great deposits of Dayton limestone were discovered and from whence came much of the stone used in the foundations of this city’s oldest and finest residences and commercial buildings.

     Here in stone quarries opened long before the Civil War, and operated continuously for a period of 50 years, the work of the glacial age is seen at its best. Centerville boasts a few citizens hovering around the four-score mark, yet none of them seems able to recall the exact time when these quarries were opened. Charles Polk, a life-long resident of the village, recalls that it was from these quarries that the stone was taken for building the locks along the Miami and Erie canal through this territory. And the canal was started in 1825 and finished in 1829.

     Jim McGraff, another Centerville pioneer, and who probably boasts a longer period of actual service within the quarries than any other living man, admits his inability to fix the exact date the first stone was taken out. Like Polk, however, he is of the opinion that it was opened shortly before the canal discussions passed the paper form, since there are houses in the vicinity of Centerville constructed of Dayton stone that antedate the canal by several years. Both of these Centerville pioneers believe the quarry was in operation in a small way when construction of the canal started, and that the contactors, discovering the superior quality of stone coming from it were quick to seize upon it as best meeting their needs.
     Polk worked at the quarries when a young man. He remembers well the primitive methods of extracting the stone in use at the time, since he looked after the “motive power” about the quarry. In those days it consisted of a few sturdy teams and a crude tramway along the edge of the quarry to which the huge blocks of stone were lifted by hand-powered derricks. He recalls the building of the railroad along in 1881, the old Cincinnati, Lebanon and Northern, which passed within a quarter mile of the main quarry. It was a “narrow-garage,” as were most of the early steam lines of this section. At one time it had its roundhouse at Centerville.

     This rail line, however, was laid long years after the canal was in operation, and thousands of tons of stone had already been removed. That used in making the canal locks was transported to Dayton by wagon, and dressed at a stone yard near the present Third street railroad crossing. And no better test of its quality can be had than the fact that dozens of the old canal locks, constructed wholly of it, are still standing and probably would stand, if left uninterrupted until the judgment day. Wagons were also used to carry it through from Centerville to Franklin, for locks along the lower section of the canal.

     With the coming of the railroad line the Centerville quarries took on new activity and quickly became recognized as among the foremost in the Middle West. It is true that the entire Miami Valley abounded in limestone. Quarries were opened at numerous points about the fast-growing town of Dayton, while farther to the east, at a point near the western corporation line of Springfield, similar operations were carried on on a gigantic scale. In the latter instance, however, it was quickly discovered that the stone was best suited for the manufacture of lime. That which came from the Centerville quarries was of a hardness lacking in the product of other quarries, and fitted only for building purposes. An excellent idea of this hardness may be had when it is known that Bedford stone, the famous Indiana product, can be sawed at the rate of six inches an hour while the best stone saws yet invented are capable of cutting Dayton limestone at the rate of but one inch hourly.

     When the railroad was placed in operation at switch was laid to the quarry nearby and the huge blocks were transported to the main line over this. Both Polk and McGraff insist that great foresight was displayed by the trackmen who laid that switch, since it was “downgrade” from the quarry. As a result they were enabled to save both themselves and the tram-car animals considerable manual labor by starting the loaded cars, quickly disengaging the motive-power and permitting the load to coast its way to the main line. Polk smilingly relates that a car got away occasionally, but the quarrymen had to have something to break the monotony of their lives and the fun furnished on such occasions served to do so admirably.

     From these quarries came much of the crushed stone used in the construction of early Montgomery county highways. It is today the basis for much of the present Dayton-Cincinnati pike in this county, a job of road making considered out of all proportion when the contactors offered estimates of $2500 a mile. Centerville was in the early days of the quarry a prominent stopping point for stage coaches on the line between Dayton and Lebanon, one of the earliest highways in the state, and one of its first toll roads. Here again the excellent quality of Dayton limestone and its accessibility came to play.

     Some 27 years ago the quarries were acquired by the late H. E. Talbott, whose construction work had then reached a point where his ability was recognized far beyond the immediate confines of his home city. To Mr. Talbott belongs the credit for building Dayton’s first concrete bridge, the one at Main st. From the Centerville quarries came such stones as was needed in this work, while on other important construction jobs, both in and out of the city, Mr. Talbott drew upon his Dayton limestone quarry and proved the correctness of the canal builders’ theory that it was superior to anything in the way of stone found in the middle west.

    Under the ownership of H. E. Talbott the Centerville quarries were operated by men forgotten by the present generation, but venerated by older residents of the country. John Green and Frank Allen, then a man named Hinton, from over about Xenia, had charge of the big operations over long period of years. Green, under the direction of Mr. Talbott, directed the work of laying out a modern stone yard, which quickly became one of the largest in the country, and one of Dayton’s most important industries. Older citizens recall that it extended along Longworth st. for quite a distance, paralleling the present railroad yards.

     August F. Foerste, to whom the geology of the Great Miami Valley is as an open book, has explained at length in numerous highly interesting articles how the greatest transportation agency in moving fragments of rocks from Canada southward to this valley, was ice in the form of glaciers. He had explained, too, how even after the ice sheet was continuous there were certain areas in which the accumulation of ice appears to have been greatest and which served as centers of distribution, from which fell in melted form, the sediment of ground and pulverized stone which later solidified, hardened and became stratus of till, of clay and of stone.

     That the “hump” at Centerville, roughly estimated a mile in length and a half-mile in width, was one of the richest of these glacial deposits foes unquestioned. Here nature seems to have been more than generous in depositing her mineral wastes from the north, while all this part of the globe was still, in a large way, a moving, churning mass of water and mineral. Commenting on the work of the continental glacier in our own immediate neighborhood, Prof. Foerste says:

     “Some parts of Montgomery co. are remarkable for the frequency with which sold rock is exposed beneath a very thin covering of soil. For instance, in the area extending from a mile south of the Soldiers’ home to Trotwood and Amity, the rock frequently is covered by only 2 to 5 feet of soil. The exposures consist chiefly of the Brassfield limestone, and of the over-lying divisions of Silurian limestone. The Springfield limestone is frequently exposed in quarries opened for building stone. Here usually less than five feet of soil is removed in order to get at the solid rock.”

     This pertains as well to the quarries at Centerville. Long years after they were originally opened the top soil was extracted in a primitive way. The steam shovel was unknown. Today, under the direction of E. T. Walker, head of the Centerville Limestone Co., organized a little more than a year ago to reopen and operate the old quarries on a gigantic scale, the fourth or five feet of topsoil offers no problem. Huge steam shovels lift and carry the loose soil to waiting tram-cars and it is quickly shunted to the edge of the workings and dumped. With its removal there is revealed a solid, smooth floor of stone. This floor, though in reality it forms the roof of the glacial deposit, consists of two stratas of pure Dayton stone, each strata running from two to four and five feet in thickness. Beneath this is the deposit of smaller stratas, blending in color from a deep gray through tan to a pronounced blue. And then comes the Silurian deposit of shale and gravels.

     The quarries are now producing about 4000 ton of Dayton limestone a day. Within recent months the company has added to its leases, and now controls the limestone deposit beneath 75 acres of ground. Since it is only possible, working on the huge scale as at present, to dispose of but an acre of stone in a single year of operation, it is readily apparent that Dayton limestone is going to be plentifully produced for a good many years to come.

     Work of disgorging the huge masses of stone had also been reduced to a science within recent years. Where drilling and prying and wedging methods were originally resorted to, the electric drill and explosive are now used. Every four days the drillers have completed setting six holes into the heart of the stone mass. Each hole is 18 feet deep, and they are some six to eight feet apart. They are connected with electric wires, and these pass to a switch installed in a small box some distance removed from the buried explosive. One touch of the finger on the switch and there is a violent rumble, an upheaval, a cloud of dust – and beneath it all a loosened mass of stone and slag sufficient to keep the large quarry force busily engaged for another four days.

     The two top stratas of stone, pure Dayton limestone, are carefully removed and used for the building of bridge abutments, monument base, or wherever large thicknesses are required. The smaller stones are sorted out for building purposes. The still finer specimens are carted away by an ever-busy, ever-chugging little locomotive to the mill at the head of the quarry, and there pulverized into agricultural limestone, or ground and screened for the paving of our modern automobile highways.

     From out of the Centerville quarry there is now coming three colors of stone – blue, white and tan. It is sorted and sized under Mr. Walker’s personal supervision, and today is finding its way into some of the most beautiful homes in the Miami Valley. No better example of its fitness for this purpose can be had than is found in the new homes of E. G. Beichler and R. H. Grant, in Oakwood. The former is of the tan stone from these quarries, while the latter is of white. Each represents the last word in homebuilding from this material.

     “It would be foolish to state that there is no end to the amount of Dayton limestone lying beneath this hump,” said Mr. Walker to the writer a few days ago as they stood near the heart of operations in the quarry. “We have traced it closely, and we find that the deposit is confined wholly within this hump. We find its extreme outlying edges within a space one mile long and one-half mile wide. We know its thickness. As it varies but little. There will be enough building stone of the smaller sizes for long, long years to come. But the removal of the two heavy stratas just beneath the top soil is not going to take so long. The next generation will probably have to look elsewhere for a substitute for Dayton limestone of the more massive type.

     “But the tendency in building stone houses of today is not toward the more massive blocks. They serve their purpose well, better than anything else in the world, for the foundation. But today the homebuilder wants his home of the undressed stone, rugged and natural, not of highly-polished, symmetrically laid stone, all of one size and thickness, as in other days. And that is the answer to the man who seeks something different. There is no end, apparently, to the beauty obtained through the ice of building stone in its natural state, just as it comes from the quarry. It permits of a wider display of architectural skill and the working out of attractive plans that cannot be had where the material at hand is uniform, as is the case with cement block, cut stone, brick, shingles, or weather-boarding.”

     As one approached the present operations east of Centerville a lake of crystal blue water, and of considerable size, greets the eye. About its edges are flags and from its stony, perpendicular banks hangs moss and twining vines, down to the water’s edge. Here is the site of the original Dayton limestone quarries. From this wide excavation has come in years long gone the material to be found today in sturdy old Miami Valley homes that have weathered a century.  From it came the foundation and walls of business blocks in a dozen flourishing Miami Valley cities; from it came the foundations of the bridges which bear our continuous lines of auto traffic safely and securely across a hundred streams. Today it has gone back to its natural beauty, in the form of a natural lake. Within it abound the blue-gill, the crappie and the channel catfish, for be it known that this lake is the particular pride of the head of the company now operating the quarries, and he is spending both money and time in converting it into what ere long must be a fisherman’s paradise.

     But in all the years to come it must remain as an historic reminder of the work of an age when human life had no hand in its making. Back to the end the glacial age, roughly estimated at 70,000 years ago when the waters of the north receded to form lake and ocean, on back to more than a million years ago when giant glaciers began their work of transporting the silt and pebbles and stone and soil that now makes up this sphere on which we abide and from which we gather that which sustains us.