As part of its landscaping for both the Conference Center and the new Church History Library, the church has brought part of historic City Creek back to the surface (it has long been channeled through underground pipes). Shallow waters flow along rock-lined channels planted with native grasses and flowers, lending pleasant natural sounds and movement to North Temple street.
If you look closely at the granite stones piled along the stream, you’ll see that a few of them bear traces of human activity: chisel marks, and small holes drilled in straight lines. These are not signs of modern vandalism. These scars, rather, date to the 1860s, ’70s, or ’80s, and are indications that a boulder came from the granite quarries in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where pioneer laborers cut stone to build the Salt Lake Temple, and later for the Church Administration Building and the Utah Capitol. Stone for the Conference Center was cut from the same quarries in the 1990s; when workmen noted these traces of their pioneer forebears, those boulders were set aside for landscaping purposes.
The first work of cutting stone for the future temple was done under the direction of James Campbell Livingston (1833-1909), a Scotsman who had emigrated to Utah in 1853. As may be imagined, the huge stones needed were a heavy burden for oxen to pull, and the loads were extremely hard on wagons. Beginning in 1865 the church began attempts to dig a 20-mile-long canal to float the stones by barge. Long before that huge public works project could be completed, the railroad had reached Utah: by 1872 a railroad spur running between Little Cottonwood Canyon and the downtown temple construction site had been built, and the temple stone was ferried down by steam power.
Workmen at the quarry found that so many huge granite boulders had fallen from the canyon sides through the preceding millennia that their work was simplified – all temple stone was taken from the fallen boulders without the necessity of cutting stone from the mountain itself. (Stone for later construction projects was taken from the mountainside as well as from fallen boulders.)
Sometime in the early 20th century, a popular but incorrect notion of the process of quarrying the stone found its way into numerous publications: Reportedly, the workmen drilled lines of closely spaced holes into the granite and filled the holes with water. Winter freezing caused the water to expand and split the stone along the lines desired. A related claim is that wooden pegs were driven into the holes and then soaked with water; as the wood expanded, the granite would split.
Neither tale is correct, although both have appeared in books and articles over the years. Granite is far too tough to be split in such a way – no stones used in the temple have ever split through the action of water seeping into carvings or crevices, and the fact that boulders lying in Little Cottonwood Canyon bearing rows of 19th-century drill holes remain unsplit despite the rains and freezes of more than a century should forever dispel the idea that granite can be quarried that way.
Rather, expert stonemen can determine the “grain” of granite, the lines along which the stone will have a tendency to split, given the proper encouragement. Stone quarriers of the 19th century worked in pairs: one man would hold an iron spike – the drill – along the line determined by the quarry master, while his partner pounded on the drill with a sledge hammer. I can hardly imagine the strength and courage it would take, and the trust in one’s partner, for a man to hold the drill as his partner swung the heavy hammer again and again, striking just inches above the drillman’s bare hands with force enough to drive the iron into rock! Yet men did so, hour after hour, day after day, throughout the decades required to cut enough stone for the temple.
Such holes, about one inch wide, were drilled about four to six inches deep and spaced about eight inches apart along the length of the stone to be cut. After dozens of such holes were cut, a “slip” (an iron bar cut down the middle) was placed in each hole, and a wooden wedge was forced between the two parts of each slip. The wedges all along the line were driven downward with mallets at a steady and even pace, until such pressure had been exerted along the stone’s natural grain that it split as desired. Boulders were repeatedly split in this way, until stones of approximately the right shape and size – some of them weighing multiple tons – were obtained. These cut stones were transported to the work site at Temple Square, where workmen with hand tools cut them into precisely the right sizes and polished them for use in the temple walls.
William Dobbie Kuhre (1863-1960) was believed to have been the last surviving temple stone quarryman when he was interviewed in 1958. He had begun his work at the quarry when he was a small boy, carrying sharpened drills from the quarry’s blacksmith shop to the workmen, and carrying their dulled tools back for sharpening. His mother worked as a cook at the boarding house built for workmen in the mouth of the canyon, where work continued at all seasons of the year. Kuhre remembered that 20 to 50 men worked at any one time, and that in the early years the men were paid “in kind” with produce and flour provided by the various wards in the Salt Lake Valley. Eventually the system developed whereby the workmen were given scrip redeemable for produce at the General Tithing Office in Salt Lake City. Cash was apparently never paid to the workmen – not an unexpected situation in the cash-poor world of territorial Utah, where debts were paid through an eclectic mix of tithing scrip, IOUs, bushels of wheat, and the exchange of labor. Kuhre confirmed in his 1958 interview that to the best of his knowledge, splitting the granite by means of freezing had never been attempted and almost certainly would not be effective; he also could recall no use of explosives during his years on the project.
The ancient prophet Daniel saw a day when the gospel would roll forth to fill the earth like a stone cut out of the mountain without hands (Daniel 2:45; D&C 65:2). The Salt Lake Temple, however, was built in no such way – it required the muscle, sweat, and dedication of many hundreds of pairs of hands, to cut the stone, to ferry it to the building site, to shape the stones and to raise them into walls that the workmen expected to last forever. The wonder is not that building the temple took 40 years, but that it took only 40 years.
photographs: Detached boulder showing signs of pioneer quarrying; aligned holes drilled in granite boulder (a half-dollar coin below the far right hole indicates scale); William D. Kuhre, last surviving temple stone quarryman.