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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Red Wing’s ‘Stone Age’ started in 1870

stone quarrying
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Goodhue County Historical Society
A low-slung “stone boat” is loaded with limestone and ready to be pulled away from a Red Wing quarry, c. 1890.

Thanks to the limestone bluffs and hills that surrounded Red Wing, the town became a Minnesota lime-making and stone quarrying center from 1870 to 1910. Those forty years are sometimes known as the city’s “Stone Age.”

Swedish immigrant Gustavus Adolphus Carlson began making lime from local Red Wing limestone in 1871. Within the decade, Carlson’s kilns were producing ninety barrels each day.

Red Wing lime producers used kilns to heat limestone to more than 1,640 degrees Fahrenheit. The process drove carbon dioxide from the rock, leaving powdery lime. When mixed with sand and water, lime made a sticky mortar used in construction projects to join brick and stone. It could also be used as plaster.

By the mid-1870s, G.A. Carlson owned Pioneer Lime and Stone, along with stone quarries on Red Wing’s two most famous river bluffs, Barn and Sorin’s. He built lime-burning kilns on both.

Carlson employed sixty-five workers, nearly all immigrant Swedes like himself. His crews needed to burn one ton of limestone to produce a half-ton of lime. A barrel of lime sold for 75 cents in 1874. Thus, Pioneer Lime and Stone could net $300 in sales on 400 barrels, a typical workday output. Carlson’s firm also sold stone.

Carlson’s success led other Red Wing entrepreneurs to start their own firms. Robert Berglund, a former Carlson employee, Gust Lillyblad, and Andrew Danielson were among the most prominent. Berglund and Danielson opened separate quarry and kiln operations on the bluffs leading south out of Red Wing. Berglund’s workers soon challenged Carlson’s supremacy. The masts of stone-lifting derricks made his south Red Wing quarries appear like a little shipyard or harbor.

Railroads made use of the limestone rubble left over from blasting and burning. Tracks laid in areas exposed to erosion needed protection from washouts and cheap, yet heavy and durable limestone worked well. Limestone was also often used as a foundation for the new buildings springing up around Red Wing and elsewhere in the region, during the 1870s.

Modern technology improved the local lime and stone industries. Carlson’s Barn Bluff quarry featured a ninety-foot perpendicular shaft to a 150-foot tunnel holding a railroad track. This shortcut helped produce stone more cheaply. On Sorin’s Bluff, Carlson originated a cable rail system that allowed the weight of a loaded dump car lowered down the bluff to pull an emptied car back up.

Improved explosives also made quarrying easier and more efficient. Quarrymen drilled down through the rock, filled the hole with dynamite and attach a fuse. They added dry sand on top, allowing its weight to pack the charge. If the ensuing blast didn’t free the stone, workers simply repeated the process.

By 1900, Red Wing was home to sixteen quarries. Carlson operated six kilns and three quarries in the 1890s. Berglund also flourished. He built his downtown headquarters in 1878-9 and clad it in handsome limestone. Across the street Berglund later built a Red Wing limestone giant, the 1886 Gladstone Building, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Danielson’s quarries provided stone for the piers of Red Wing’s first bridge across the Mississippi River.

Red Wing citizens worried when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad secured a contract in 1906 to remove 200,000 cubic feet of Barn Bluff. They feared such action would eventually destroy the promontory. In January 1907 a dynamite blast injured six workers; three weeks later falling rock killed a laborer. Frequent and startling explosions from the blasting process could be felt all over the city and damaged houses near the bluffs. People in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, ten miles to the north, reported feeling tremors from the concussions.

Civic leaders began a movement to buy the quarry-scarred Barn Bluff and preserve the Red Wing landmark as a park. Necessary funds were raised, and on December 2, 1910, the city of Red Wing became the owner of Barn Bluff.

The loss of Barn Bluff’s accessible stone and a reduced use of limestone in construction, coupled with a steep decline in the use of lime, dramatically changed the prospects for Red Wing quarry operators. The industry declined in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the last active quarry had closed by 1920.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Amanda Helling on 07/23/2013 - 10:58 am.

    Barn Bluff hiking

    The park at Barn Bluff has a few miles of very nice hiking. It also seems to be a favorite rock climbing spot. I highly recommend hiking the trails, viewing the Kiwanis club steps, and looking at the old kiln.

  2. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 07/23/2013 - 02:58 pm.

    Barn Bluff

    My daughter and I spent a couple of hours hiking the trails on Barn Bluff on a nice summer Sunday. The trails are good and the view is breathtaking. I was not aware at the time of all this history associated with the bluff so I wonder how large it was before it was quarried. This is truly “God’s country.”

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