You can learn a lot about a time and a place from its choice of building materials. In the 1880s, for instance, a street in Topeka, Kansas was paved with buffalo skulls.
That’s just of several spine-tingling details from a new piece over at Bloomberg View; in it, Tim Heffernan offers a history of the various spinoff economies that emanated — one after the other — from the epic buffalo massacres that accompanied the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1868. The hunters themselves made off with tens of millions of hides; the skinners, who worked on commission, took a few cuts of meat, and left everything else to rot.
And what did that leave? Plains littered with miles of bones.
Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar — a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings. Fresh bones could be boiled to extract gelatin for food, glues and photographic emulsions. Their leached husks, rich in phosphorous, were one of the first industrial fertilizers. And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it.
But even those children knew to leave behind the animals’ hollow, bulky skulls, which took up too much space on boxcars heading to the processing plants back east. Which explains how, in the 1880s, there were still enough buffalo crania lying around to pave a street in Topeka.
By 1907, however, an article in the Washington Post was calling the street’s surface material “the most expensive pavement on earth.” By then, buffalo parts had become rare, totemic souvenirs. As the Post reporter put it: “A pair of buffalo horns and the head of an animal of that breed will easily bring $400.”