Barn BluffMemorial Park
Most of us know Red Wing as a place renowned for boots and pottery. History-minded folks may even recall when the town ruled the nation’s wheat market. But from 1870 to 1908, Red Wing also led the lime and limestone industries and earned the nickname “Minnesota’s Lime Center,” in large part due to Sorin’s Bluff.

According to the Saturday Evening Spectator in 1888, the lime and limestone from Sorin’s Bluff and Barn Bluff “could not be equalled … known everywhere throughout the Northwest because of their great superiority over all others.” Gustaf Adolf Carlson became the most successful quarry owner of the day with quarries at both Barn and Sorin’s, but multiple quarries owned by men such as Danielson, Bellman, Betcher, Linne, Haglund, Berglund, and Lilliblad were found throughout the bluffs of Red Wing.

For years, quarrymen attacked the rock with chisels, pry bars, and sledge hammers, often at risk of losing or crushing limbs. Quarryman B.M. Eide, who survived numerous near-fatal accidents from ropes, rock, and explosions, wrote of one close call: “ … the end of my bar left a blue streak from my throat to the base of my abdomen; without luck on my side I could have been ripped completely open.”

Danger continued when dynamite arrived and laborers broke up the rock with explosives to speed up the process. Still the limestone industry raged on, and rock from Sorin’s Bluff and other local quarries constructed regional icons such as the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, buildings and churches throughout Red Wing, and thousands of home foundations that line local streets.

But limestone wasn’t the bluffs’ only profitable product. Residents also made money from a byproduct of the rock: the chalky, caustic powder called lime. In 1853 a man named Phineas Fish discovered he could burn the limestone chunks that fell off the river side of Barn Bluff into a fine dust. What Fish didn’t know is that when limestone burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat drives carbon dioxide away from the raw limestone (calcium carbonate) and the stone disintegrates into calcium oxideundefineda dust otherwise known as lime or quicklime. Though lime had multiple applications in life, the majority that came from Sorin’s Bluff and other local quarries was used in farming and construction.

Farmers called quicklime a “natural manure” and used it in their soil. The local brick factory mixed lime with clay to form sand lime brick, hailed regionally for its strength and artistic color variations. And most of all, lime was mixed with sand and water to form a tough mortar used in limestone buildings across the state.

As Eide wrote, lime kilns “pop[ped] up like toad stools” during the 1870s in Red Wing. Quarrymen first built small “pot kilns” but soon improved the process with taller, cone-shaped “perpetual kilns” that burned 24 hours a day. Small tracks with railcars were built along the sides of bluffs to carry stone from the quarries to kilns (one traveled from the Lower Quarry of Sorin’s Bluff down the hill, under Seventh Street, to a kiln near Barn Bluff). Laborers then hauled limestone into the kilns from above and withdrew lime from the bottom without putting out the fires.

Kilns earned names like “Siberia” because of their unrelenting heat, and as author Ida Lein wrote, the work was difficult. “If one survived the ordeal of quarrying the stone and charging the kiln, and hadn’t succumbed to the CO2 from the burning limestone, the operator could look forward to having the lump lime dust irritate the skin.” There was one high point, she notes: “The pleasures came when the young folks, neighbors from country and village, came about dusk, to enjoy a few hours’ frolic in the light from the fireplace.”

By 1879, Red Wing’s four lime companies operated roughly 12 kilns on Sorin’s and Barn bluffs, creating 500 barrels of quicklime daily. But the industries were not to last. Around 1900, lime starting growing out of favor as the country took interest in newer concrete blocks and Portland cement.

The people of Red Wing were also growing weary of quarrying. Dynamite blasts shook dishes in kitchens across the East End, the local paper reported “explosions felt over the entire city,” and people as far as Ellsworth complained of the tremors. Workers needed to constantly feed the kilns with local lumber, and the landscape was gradually growing bald. Worker injuries were ever-present and residents worried that boys playing on the bluffs were using dynamite storage areas for target practice.

When a railroad company secured a contract to remove 200,000 feet of stone from Barn Bluff, citizens began to worry that Barn Bluff and Sorin’s Bluff would someday disappear. In the spring of 1907, spurred to action by the editor of the Daily Republican, Jens Grondahl, citizens decided to rally. A year later, after hardy debate and campaigning, the contractors ended their quarrying in May of 1908.

With the industry already declining and the great controversy that had roiled, the lime and limestone industries in Red Wing quickly died. For awhile, Sorin’s Bluff sat quiet.

Sorin’s Becomes a Park
In the early 1900s, the local Women’s Community Association and their tireless president, Henrietta Pratt Taber, worked diligently to raise money for local causes. In 1923 they had accumulated $2,500 for a new Central Park band shell when they decided to change plans and donate their funds to the newly formed Goodhue County Soldiers’ Memorial Association, whose main charge was to find a place to honor the area’s soldiers. The two groups eventually raised $6,000, but they still didn’t have a memorial location. Then 1927 brought a welcome surprise.

William Lawther, one of Red Wing’s former wealthy citizens who had moved to Dubuque, Iowa, donated $10,000 to purchase land for the memorial shortly before he died. In turn, the Memorial Association purchased 99 acres of Sorin’s Bluff for $5,000, built a road to the summit, and used the rest of the funds, as directed by Lawther, for a park and “a grand gateway” as an entrance. That gateway of St. Cloud granite still stands. Local newspapers also called upon citizens to register the names of fallen heroes so a tree could be planted in the park in their honor.

The Goodhue County Tribune reported that plans were for “landscaping of the summit in such a way as to provide for children’s playgrounds and for fields for various athletic sports.” In his ceremony address, Dr. M.W. Smith, President of the Goodhue County Soldiers’ Memorial Association, said the park was given to the community for two reasons. The first, “…. to commemorate the valor and sacrifices of those who ventured all for the sake of their country; the second, for greater opportunities for outdoor recreation, not only for our children but for ourselves as well.”

Dedication ceremonies on Sunday, September 19, 1929, began with a parade along East Seventh Street filled with marching bands and veterans’ groups, including soldiers from the Spanish-American War. Congressman W.I. Nolan said, “It is proper and fitting that such a monument should not be one which will perish under the ravages of time. Bronze or stone may crumble, but this everlasting hill will stand here for all ages to come….”

BTCA (Billings-Tomfohr Conservation Area)

Billings-Tomfor Conservation Area is a 93-acre natural area, locally known as Coon Hill, adjacent to Twin Bluff Middle School and near the neighborhoods of Spruce Drive, Birchwood, Woodland Drive, Twin Bluff Road, and Neal and Perlich Streets. The bluff top area provides scenic vistas of the neighborhoods and river valley with unique natural species such as the rare American Chestnut tree and the bladder pod, a state-endangered plant. Two Natural and Scenic Area grants were provided to the City of Red Wing to help acquire 87 acres.

Over the last two years, community involvement has heightened at BTCA. In the spring of 2010, the Boy Scouts built a Neil Street entrance that includes a wood-chip path leading to the top, and last spring the City of Red Wing and Live Healthy Red Wing began adding trail markers that were painted by Red Wing High School students as a volunteer project. In 2011, a grant from the Statewide Health Improvement Program was received by the City of Red Wing to purchase roadside maps and signs pointing the way to trail heads. In 2012, Live Healthy Red Wing received a federal grant to help clear trails, construct new maps, build kiosks, and build an access trail (still in progress) to the south side of the bluff. You’ll find that trail head at the upper parking lot of Twin Bluff Middle School.

More work will continue in 2013 clearing and widening trails, adding benches, and informational signs.

 Other Links:

      Bluff Color Fest Registration · City of Red Wing · Red Wing Area Mountain Bike Organization ·  Contact Us 

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