If you have ever driven down Stone Hill Road, Long Lane, or Route 324, you may have noticed the small medieval-looking fortresses embedded into the hillsides. These stone structures were never strongholds charged with protecting local villagers, but lime kilns designed to improve agrarian life. If you are ready to start this adventure, click here. Otherwise, read on for more about Lancaster’s silent stone sentinels.
History of Lime Kilns
Lime kilns played a significant role in early agrarian communities, and our corner of the commonwealth was no exception. Any decent-sized farm in Berks, Chester, and Lancaster County had one. There was even a Pennsylvania German phrase for them “de alt kallich offe” or “the old lime kiln.”
Lancaster County alone was once home to as many as 500 lime kilns. The 1875 Historical Atlas of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania lists 442. Furthermore, several of Lancaster County’s lime kilns date to the mid-1700s. The oldest lime kiln in Pennsylvania dates to 1693 in Upper Dublin Township, north of Philadelphia. It was built along Sandy Creek by Thomas Fitzwater.
Lime kilns are civilization builders.
While the Sandy Creek lime kiln appears old by American standards, that stone monolith is an infant when compared to those in other countries. That burning limestone in a kiln is as old as civilization itself. The oldest known lime kiln dates back to 10,000 BC in Galilee, Israel where one was found in the HaYonim Cave. There was even evidence of “lime paste” — a kiln byproduct — dating back to 12,000 BC found in Sinai, Egypt.
Lime kilns are civilization builders providing the essential ingredients to both improve life and help support larger societies. For starters, the lime these kilns produced became an essential ingredient for making better mortar. The Mayans and Aztecs constructed their great temples using lime. The Roman Empire created incredibly strong concrete using volcanic dust, sand, and lime that could even harden underwater.
Farmers learned the power of lime as a fertilizer and how it would counteract the slightly acidic nature of manure. Lime was used to make a whitewash. Locally, it was used to protect barns and tree bases. By whitewashing fruit tree trunks, it helped to increase yields by protecting the tree’s bark from extreme hot and cold weather.
Lime Kilns in Lancaster County
Lime kilns were a fixture on any decent-size Lancaster County farm located in the limestone belt which is an area that extends from the County’s southwest to northeast. The technique of using lime kilns was brought to the area by German settlers.
Lime kilns were expensive to build often requiring the services of a mason as hand-cut stones were typically required. For these reasons, they were often built jointly by farm families and placed in an area where the tracts of land came together.
As early as the mid-1700s, many Lancaster County farms would have had one or more lime kilns to supply their own needs and perhaps to sell some of their excess quicklime to neighbors. Lime-burning in the kiln was an off-season job that was typically done once or twice in the wintertime when other chores slowed.
Harvesting and hauling limestone were labor-intensive and time-consuming so by 1910 as commercially available products like portland cement, pulverized lime, and inexpensive paints became available lime kilns were mostly abandoned. However, change comes slowly to Lancaster County. Some Amish farmers insisted that burned lime was better than pulverize so the last lime kiln remained in use until 1971.
The Science of Lime Kilns
Lime kilns require incredibly high temperatures (1,650 to 1,800 °F) to produce the required chemical reaction to turn solid limestone rock into quicklime powder. In scientific terms, CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2.
To do this, farmers would harvest layers of limestone from their fields. Limestone is a naturally occurring and abundant sedimentary rock consisting of high levels of calcium and/or magnesium carbonate, and/or dolomite (calcium and magnesium carbonate), along with small amounts of other minerals.
Kilns were usually built into a bank so farmers could easily feed the quarried limestone chunks into a bowl chamber on top. At the bottom, various layers of wood or coal were used to fuel the fire. It was important to keep the fire at a specific and constant temperature. If the temperature was too low, quicklime (calcium oxide) would not be produced. An excessively hot fire would produce unreactive, “dead-burned” lime. The entire operation would take nearly a week to complete. It was a dangerous and hot job.
Where to Find Lime Kilns
If you are trying to find an uncharted lime kiln two good places to look are hillsides and stream banks. We found one while hiking near Shenks Ferry while looking for the Benedict Eshleman Cemetary Another good place to look is inside the conspicuous group of trees or large tangle of brush in the middle of an otherwise clear field. Often hidden in the middle is a lime kiln.
The 1875 Historical Atlas of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is a good resource with 442 lime kilns listed. They are typically represented by a small circle often with a dot in the middle. The circle is sometimes accompanied by the letters LK or L. Kiln. You can view the 1875 maps listed by township here.
Today fewer than 20 percent of Lancaster County’s once abundant lime kilns remains. We have the exact location for 52 of them, many of which you can still visit. One even has a hidden letterboxed treasure. Scroll down for the Uncharted Lancaster Lime Kiln Interactive Map.
Lime Kiln Interactive Map
Green icons indicate easily accessible lime kilns. These are often on the edge of the road (represented by a car icon 🚗) or a short distance from the road (represented with a walking person icon🚶♂️).
Yellow icons indicate accessible lime kilns that involve longer walks (represented with a walking person🚶♂️ icon).
Dark Orange icons indicate inaccessible lime kilns situated on private property. These are typically represented with a ❌ icon).
Lime Kiln Google Tour Builder Map
If you are viewing this page from a desktop computer check out our Google Tour Builder map of Lancaster County’s Lime Kilns.
Uncharted Lancaster: Lime Kiln Adventure
But that’s enough history. If you are ready to start this adventure, click here.
Did We Miss Any?
If you know of a lime kiln in Lancaster County that isn’t documented here, comment below. We would love a photo and GPS coordinates so it can be added to the map.