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Red Wing’s “Stone Age”

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photograph of quarry workers

Workers use hand tools to widen rock fissures in a Red Wing limestone formation and break stone free, 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.

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Andreas, A.T. An Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Minnesota. Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1874.

Becker, Carrie Conklin. Red Wing, Minnesota: A Downtown with a Sense of Time and Purpose. Red Wing, MN: City of Red Wing, 1983.

Bluemle, John P. “Glacial Lake Agassiz.” North Dakota Geological Survey. North Dakota State Government, May 9, 2007.

Blondell, Sam. “Foundation of the Lime Industry in Red Wing.” Unpublished, undated manuscript in Goodhue County Historical Society collections.

Bowles, Oliver. The Structural and Ornamental Stones of Minnesota. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1918.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County, Minnesota. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1909.

Eide, Berndt M. History of the Lime and Stone Industry in Red Wing, Minnesota, 1850–1916. Unpublished, undated manuscript in Goodhue County Historical Society collections.

Hill, Alberta Kirchner. “Out with the Fleet on the Upper Mississippi, 1898–1917.” Minnesota History 37, no. 7 (September 1961): 283–297.

Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.

———. Red Wing: A Portable History. Red Wing, MN: City of Red Wing Heritage Preservation Commission, 2007.

Kunau, G.J. G.A. Carlson Lime Kiln. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1975, copy in Goodhue County Historical Society collection.

Posey, Chessley J. “Geographical Influences in the Exploration and Early Development of Minnesota.” Journal of Geography 14 (February 1916): 214–217.

———. “The Influence of Geographic Factors in the Development of Minnesota.” Minnesota History 2 (August 1918): 443–453.

Rasmussen, C[hristian] A. History of Goodhue County. Red Wing: Privately published, 1935.

Sansome, C.J. “Goodhue County’s Geologic Story.” Goodhue County Historical News 10 (February 1976): 1–2.

Schmidt, Edward W. “Geological Ages,” in Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, History of Goodhue County, Minnesota, 11-17. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr. & Co., 1909.

Stauffer, Clinton R. and George A. Thiel. . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Geological Survey Bulletin No. 23, 1933.

Upham, Warren. “History of Mining and Quarrying in Minnesota.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 8 (1898).

Werner, W.C. “Survey and Test on Limestone Quarries in Minnesota.” St. Paul: Minnesota Highway Department Bulletin No. 2, 1921.

Related Images

photograph of quarry workers
photograph of quarry workers
photograph of stone boat
photograph of stone boat
photograph of a group of quarrymen at Barn Bluff
photograph of a group of quarrymen at Barn Bluff
photograph of limestone kiln
photograph of limestone kiln

Turning Point

In 1871, G.A. Carlson begins lime-making operations on Red Wing’s Barn Bluff.



Swedish immigrant G.A. Carlson begins lime-making operations on Red Wing’s Barn Bluff.


The Andreas historical atlas of Minnesota names Red Wing “Minnesota’s Lime Center.” Carlson’s operation produces 400 barrels of lime each day.


Other lime producing firms open in Red Wing. They also sell stone to building contractors. Railroads order large quantities of limestone for use along tracks exposed to erosion.


Improved technology makes the city lime and stone industries more profitable.


Sixteen quarries are in operation on Red Wing limestone formations, including Barn and Sorin’s bluffs in the central city and hills on the city’s south end.


Improved explosives threaten to deface and reduce the city’s landmark, Barn Bluff. Local leaders start a “buy the bluff” movement.


The city of Red Wing takes ownership of Barn Bluff, with plans to make it a park. The lime and stone industries are in a steep decline.


Owners of Red Wing’s last quarries have shut down their operations.