Correction: This story has been modified from its original version.
A bench made of Hokie Stone sits in Northern Virginia as a memorial to the April 16 shooting victims. Football players touch a slab of Hokie Stone before running out of the tunnel in Lane Stadium on gameday. One of the walls in the regional landmark Hotel Roanoke, is built from Hokie Stone.
The bookstore sells it, the buildings are lined with it, and Virginia Tech tradition is permeated with it.
Hokie Stone is as ubiquitous on the Tech campus as Hokie pride. There aren’t many college campuses where a piece of stone mined 10 minutes away is a valuable collectors item, but that’s the point. Tech’s campus is not like the rest.
“The Hokie stone combined with the architectural style,” is what Clara Cox, a retired director of university relations says makes the campus unique.
Hokie Stone is the nickname given to the rock that is primarily mined just down the road in the university-owned quarry near Highland Park. Over 80 percent of the stone comes from that quarry while the rest is transported from another at Luster’s Gate, which is also within 15 minutes of Tech’s campus.
All spirited names aside, Hokie Stone is also known as limestone — a type of rock common along the Appalachian Mountains that was formed when this region of North America was under water. Dead organisms and other minerals were deposited along the bottom of the ocean floor, where they were buried and turned into limestone rock. As the Appalachians formed, the rock was pushed up to its current position.
The fossils of ancient gastropods, clams and possibly trilobites can be found within the walls of the buildings, according to geology professor Ken Eriksson. “If you walk around campus and use a magnifying glass, you can identify all sorts of fossils in the blocks of Hokie Stone,” he said.
Originally called “our native limestone” by former Tech President John McBryde, the stone was first used in the construction of the Performing Arts Building, which once housed the YMCA in 1899.
This construction signified the beginning of an architectural movement to transform the dull appearance of Tech’s campus to one that could be set apart from other universities.
“(Former) President Joseph D. Eggleston is the one who wanted to change the look of the campus because most of the buildings were brick,” Cox said. “He thought they looked like factories, and (that) the place looked poverty-stricken.”
Tech adapted an architecture style known as neo-Gothic or Collegiate Gothic, because it looked similar to European colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge.
During the early years, Hokie Stone was mined from a quarry where Derring Hall currently stands. A natural spring complicated the extraction process, making the mine a source of entertainment as well.
“The cadets would go swimming in the quarry, so they built a fence around it,” Cox said. “They had to declare it off-limits to keep them out of it because it was dangerous.”
From the construction of the Performing Arts Building until now, Tech has consistently designed each building to ensure that Hokie Stone is a part of the facade. Buildings like Derring and Cowgill Halls are exceptions, as they were built following a nation-wide movement toward modern architecture around the 70s.
It wasn’t until three years ago, however, that the Board of Visitors passed an official requirement for each new building on campus to be at least partially composed of Hokie Stone. This solidified the precious limestone’s prominent place in Blacksburg, as well as ensured the workers at the quarries that their mining services would be required for years to come.
“We’re producing 50 pallets a week, 50 weeks out of the year,” said Ricky Johnston, manager at the quarry near Highland Park.
Each pallet costs $440 and is 2,400 pounds of stone, meaning the quarry provides Tech with 6 million pounds of building material yearly.
On a typical mining day, holes are drilled into the rock, which is then blasted from the hillside with black powder. Then, large chunks of stone are taken down the hill to a diamond-toothed saw for more precise cutting. From there, the stone is taken to a hydraulic breaker, which shapes it for building. The pieces are stacked on a pallet, weighed and shipped to the construction site.
Due to shifts in technology, the quarry has cut down from 30 workers over a decade ago to only 12 now, as they learn to work more efficiently with less manpower.
“We’re under the gun all the time (to produce Hokie Stone),” Johnston said. “We have been ever since I’ve been here.”
Some students, visitors and construction workers however, are surprised to find out that Hokie Stone is mined locally.
“Everybody’s tickled with it,” Johnston said. “They’re fascinated when they come down to see the quarry. They just can’t believe that there’s an area here in Blacksburg behind the housing division that the Hokie Stone comes from.”
Once the Hokie Stone reaches job sites, it is ready to face chisel and hammer and is then sorted into shapes, colors and sizes to be placed on the building.
While it may appear that each stone is distributed at random due to lack of a pattern, there are, in fact, about 20 different criteria for installation. Ironically, not creating a pattern is one of the criteria.
“The goal with (Hokie Stone) is really to see it and appreciate it, but you don’t want to have something jump out at you. It should all blend in,” said Eric Hotek, project engineer for the new Signature Engineering Building.
When an earthquake hit Louisa County in 2011, Blacksburg felt the reverberations, raising the question of how the Hokie Stone buildings would hold up against a more powerful earthquake.
“At different levels of the building and vertically as well, you will have a break in the stone so that when the building moves, it doesn’t crack the stone,” Hotek said. “Even if the building does move, whole sections of the building will move together.”
According to Eriksson, limestone is one of the hardest sedimentary rocks to exist. However that doesn’t prevent it from slowly deteriorating.
“Hokie Stone will eventually dissolve, as all limestones do, to form caves, but that is millions of years in the future. Long after we’ve gone from this area, the buildings will start dissolving,” he said.
Since the weathering isn’t an immediate threat, Hokie Stone will continued to be used to carry on the Hokie tradition.
“It’s just so ingrained in all of us now,” Cox said.