The third time I entered Billmeyer Quarry, I climbed a cliff of concrete rubble, twisted rebar, and metal roofing to get there. On the last stretch of the climb, I was faced with three concrete slabs laying at a severe angle, their flat faces giving no chance for a foothold. I clung to one for several long moments almost laying atop it, unable to go up or down. Eventually, I crawled up the last five or six feet of rubble but only after vaulting myself up to grab the top of one of the slabs. I was shaking so hard after I reached the top that I couldn’t even explore the quarry grounds. I could just see the pit through the trees, but instead of going to it I sat at the top of the cliff. The rubble pile looked the way houses would if they were just shoved off a cliff and left to decay. Sitting there I replayed, again and again, the moment I realized I was caught, that I might not make it the rest of the way up or down, laying on that concrete slab. I wasn’t frightened really, just exhilarated.
When I was little, I would take nondescript rocks from zoos, parks, and hiking trips. These were supposed to be my happy memories embodied, my exciting memories, though at that age none were quite so exciting as crawling up that cliff. When I find these rocks again today, they all just look like lumpy brown stones with sandy surfaces. They have not changed, but my recollections are gone.
Despite these rocks being undistinguished I still keep them. I get joy from holding them; their weight and texture are pleasing. I am unquestionably a rock enthusiast. Of the 346 rocks displayed in my house, the ones in my room account for 274 of them. Of all of these, only one notable rock is from a local source, Billmeyer Quarry. It’s a cylinder of limestone, one face broken off at a shallow angle to create a dangerous looking shiv.
I first visited the quarry at the end of my town on an elementary school trip. At that time, there were still buildings there. I don’t remember them, but without the buildings there’s nothing at the quarry to see but a great hole in the earth. The only thing I do remember is a pile of limestone cylinders. I remember picking one up, its weight in my hand and its slanted flat face. I remember thinking I could protect myself with this piece of stone. Holding it in my hand today I can remember the tour guide saying “Sure, go ahead and take a piece,” and I remember the moment of indecision, because really I wanted to take the whole pile with me.
Billmeyer Quarry sits tucked away in the woods at the end of a tiny town called Bainbridge in rural central Pennsylvania. Officially, the grounds are closed, fences erected around the entrance, with signs demanding “NO TRESPASSING.” The only thing left to trespass for is the great pit in the ground that was the quarry but is now a lake, and some hulking rusted kilns camouflaged in the shrubbery. The cliff of rubble is too dangerous for most people to want to climb it.
Quarries are open pit mines, which is the technical way to say that they are giant holes in the ground that are open to the sky. From these pits, miners can extract limestone, coal, marble, dolomite, slate and many other kinds of rock for many varied purposes. Mining in these quarries involves what one might expect: blasting equipment, drills, diggers, and trucks to move the rubble. Layer upon layer of valuable rock is removed from the earth until either there is nothing left to take or the quarry floods. These types of mines often create deep pits with severe cliffs surrounding the quarry.
Billmeyer Quarry was started in 1845, but when the miners hit a natural spring in 1961, there was nothing left to do but abandon the premises. A historical marker on the river path attests to the town that used to exist around the quarry. It had a general shop, a school, a church and homes for all the workers and their families. Nothing is left today. The sign describes those who once lived there as “people from diverse backgrounds [that] were brought together by their common labor.” Tantalizingly, these diverse backgrounds are never divulged and I am left to wonder what diverse is supposed to mean. Maybe it was a hub for immigrant families or was there perhaps and African-America population there? The sign gives little away and all of the families are gone now, their homes too. The irony is, of course, that quarries are designed to take solid rock and break it up into small bits but when the breaking of stone in the Billmeyer stopped the breaking of everything else started. What was no longer useful was scrapped as worthless, regardless of the lives that had been lived there, or any interest someone one day might have in the land.
Author and photographer Matthew Christopher wrote on his website, Abandoned America, of how the quarry infrastructure was demolished in 2007. He describes the quarry as “a fantastic network of enormous pipes and kilns that once supplied area farmers with lime and provided dolomite to steel mills.” He even attested to seeing paper records strewn along the floors, dated back to the 1930s. Apparently, on his second trip, the demolition had already started. The records he spoke of seemingly didn’t make it but his photos the quarry pre-demolition live on at his website.
Billmeyer Quarry mostly produced limestone for fertilization and whitewash. Later, in World War I, and again in World War II, limestone mining was given up at Billmeyer for dolomite mining, which is used to purify steel.
Limestone is, in fact, foundational to building. Like many types of rock, it represents a kind of knowledge. Most of what has survived the test of time around the world is stone. The oldest surviving bone of an ancestor to Homo Sapiens is a fossilized jawbone, which is just bone turned rock, dating back 2.8 million years. The oldest stone tools ever found are 3.3 million years old, pre-dating even humans. Rock endures and what is not rock rarely survives. Bodies, cloth, wood, and leather can all melt away, but stone remains. The great pyramids in Egypt are limestone, some Assyrian wall carvings, the ones that ISIS is destroying in Syria, are limestone, and it is even used in concrete. All the concrete you ever see has limestone in it, from the Roman Pantheon to the modern concrete used to build Washington DC, and sidewalks, and every other concrete structure. But what is limestone?
Limestone is the collective memory. Not only does it represent a foundational building material but it also represents important parts of earth’s history. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made from decomposed and compressed marine life. Pennsylvania limestone is about 470 million years old. It was formed when most of what would one day be the continent of North America was underwater. At that time, most the land of Pennsylvania was a shallow sea full of coral reefs. As the coral reef grew larger, the layers of dead coral and shells underneath were compressed and built upon, thus limestone was made.
The limestone quarried from Billmeyer is our reminder that this part of Pennsylvania was once a sea. That once the face of the earth was unrecognizable. The limestone in Billmeyer is again in water. The quarry is manmade but the water under the quarry was there without human control. Perhaps in digging into the earth miners thought they controlled it. Imagine their surprise at being reminded that for all we know about earth there is more we do not know.
After two decades of standing empty and abandoned, in 1983 the quarry became a scuba diving center. This is not entirely uncommon. Quarries are convenient swimming holes, cliff jumping sites, and scuba centers. Quarries are, of course, also dangerous places to go scuba diving, but they give the illusion of safety because their waters are clear, still, and deep. The dangers lay in hidden sinkholes, underwater industrial waste, and unknown tunnels. Additionally, scuba diving itself is a dangerous sport. Air regulators come loose, divers go too deep, get caught in currents, divers may even come up too soon or use the wrong kind of oxygen tank for the type of diving they want to do. If a scuba diver isn’t careful they could drown, suffocate, or be poisoned by their own oxygen tank. Billmeyer has seen its fair share of scuba accidents. In the years it was operational, six people died there. It’s not the kind of information someone in Bainbridge would know. It’s not the kind of information anyone would know, unless they went scuba diving at Billmeyer, or are, like me, obsessed with rocks and the mining of them. There are no plaques commemorating the dead, only a weathered sign in front of the lake warning “NO DIVES BELOW 90’ [feet]” no doubt a warning earned from bitter experience.
I can only imagine that people must have died mining here too. Even open face mining is dangerous, but if they did, there are no records I could find. That memory too is gone. What is left is my suspicion.
I sometimes hold my shiv of limestone, the one that forgotten miners broke from the earth, and wonder about the forgotten lives of the sea life that made this rock. Plankton, coral, snails, mollusks, and trilobites all make the list. They had complex and rich lives that we know nothing about because they are all dead now. Mollusks still exist of course. But other extinct creatures are hard to learn about. All we know about them is what their impression look like in stone. In my house, I have a trilobite on display on the mantel. Trilobites, often found in Pennsylvania, look like disgustingly bony beetles with too many legs to contemplate, and they are all gone. Their homes, whatever trilobite homes were like, have been destroyed by time, their sea is changed, their species no more. What remains of them is fossils in rock. The rock encasing and protecting them serves as a plaque to the existence of trilobites. Belemnites are common in Pennsylvania too. These creatures were squids with internal skeletons. Today their rosy brown bullet-like points are common finds in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Once or twice a whole fossil has been found, but mostly the only thing to mark their existence is a little point, no longer or thicker than a finger, which would only have been the very tip of a large animal. We don’t know what color they were; we can presume they mated like all squids do but we don’t know. Belemnite fossils litter my house as decoration and reminder of childhood trips fossil hunting with my father.
There are no visible fossils in Billmeyer limestone. Of the many rocks, metals, and minerals found at Billmeyer there was never any evidence of valuable fossils. It is unlikely that fossils of current animals will form either. Nothing grows in the lake other than algae. Perhaps oak leaf fossils will be found millions of years from now in this little lake.
There’s nothing particularly magical about the quarry and its lake today. The lake, which apparently doesn’t have a name, and despite being completely hidden from the view of passerbys, is Bainbridge’s worst kept secret. In my high school years, friends would tell me about going down to the lake, about getting high and drunk. One friend in particular, Zach, a tank of a boy over six feet tall, once told me about the time some buddies dared him to go swimming across the lake in the dead of night. In blind faith he tried, though he couldn’t swim. His buddies got him out before he drowned. I told him he was stupid and he threw ice at me in retaliation. After my tenth year, I stopped hanging out with the crowd of guys from my town and my access to stories of drugs and the quarry dwindled.
Zach would have been the perfect guide to the quarry, but he disappeared after his high school graduation and last I heard he was homeless somewhere upstate, all but forgotten by everyone he used to know. So, I went to Billmeyer on my own. I climbed a small dirt embankment, only some four feet tall, not even sure if I was in the right place but when I got up it, across an empty parking lot from where I was standing, was the lake. The lake is picturesque in the way small rural places that are a dime-a-dozen are. It’s special only because of its physical proximity, not because it’s unique. But I had never seen this part of the quarry before. I crept into the property, scared someone would be waiting to catch me or that a raccoon would be there, teeth ready. No such luck. As I cautiously explored, I found a changing room and a single room building, three picnic tables stuffed beside each other inside. At the bank of the lake was a recently used fire-pit and an empty beer can. And then, the lake. Everything was still as a photograph, as if just yesterday the scuba instructor had left and everything has been on hold since. The land has been sold off though; no scuba divers are coming back in the near future. In the divers’ absence, the lake is a lovely turquoise, its edges covered with a thick spongy algae that made a sick kind of slurping sound when I slipped in it. Nothing is left of the quarry, except water and stone. Nothing is left of whatever was there before the quarry, only a sheer cliff-face above an unnaturally blue lake. When I turned to leave the quarry, a mass of yellow leaves were swirling in the parking lot, and suddenly I had stepped out of the photograph.
Upriver from the lake is a row of concrete arches and a tiny concrete shed tucked behind, invisible from the path. This is all that’s left of the town other than the cliff of rubble. The shed is covered in spray paint penises, skulls, and stick figures on the outside but the inside in a monument to a local boy who died of a drug overdose last winter. “Cody I’ll miss you.” “How’s the trippy gas up there?” “It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Trippy cadets for life,” are all scribbled across the walls. Everyone in the area remembers Cody, “the poor boy, an athlete, his whole life in front of him,” is what people whisper to each other. No one remembers his friends. They took pills at his funeral and graffitied a shed in the ruins of a quarry that no one remembers. But graffiti is not stone, not permanent. It too will fade
In one corner of the shed stands a dirty old lawn chair, beside it is an empty bottle of beer, as if someone just left. The chair faces a window, glass long gone, like an easy chair would face a television. Beside the window, the word “Please” is written in gold paint with an arrow pointing out the window. Of all the paint around the shed, only this is gold, it’s like the one valuable artifact to come out of a minor quarry. When Billmeyer was still a quarry its one exceptional find was a piece natural silver wire, now it’s just the word, please. Please what? Please, get me out of here. Please, I want to be out there, maybe up there, maybe with Cody? Please let me out of this shed, this addiction, this misery, this quarry. The gold is incongruously beautiful. Someone begging to get out but begging is style. I wonder if they really wanted to get out at all. The gold doesn’t seem desperate; the words are written neatly, the “please” is almost wistful. Accepting. It would be poetic, but the only thing beyond the window is a wall of dirt.
Christopher, Matthew. “Billmeyer Limestone Quarry.” Blog post. Abandoned America. Matthew Christopher, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Leonhartd, Lance. The Formation of Limestone Deposits A Look at Limestone Deposits in the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem: Killer Interactive, n.d. The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Morelle, Rebecca. “Oldest Stone Tools Pre-date Earliest Humans.” BBC. BBC, 20 May 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Northwest Lanncaster County River Trail. Industrial Heritage. N.d. Bainbridge.
O’Grady, Cathleen. “Fossil Jawbone Discovery Is Earliest Evidence of Human Genus Homo.” Ars Technica. Wired Media Group, 3 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
 According to the article “Fossil Jawbone Discovery is Earliest Evidence of Human Genus Homo” on Arse Technica
 According to the article “Oldest Stone Tools Pre-Date Earliest Humans” on BBC News
Information from The Formation of Limestone Deposits: A Look at Limestone Deposits in the Lehigh Valley a book from the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor
Maria Wilson was the Poetry Editor for this issue. She previously won the PSH Academy of American Poets Prize in 2016. She spent an exchange year in Germany and plans to major in Global Studies.