Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Mountain of the Lord’s House

The Mountain of the Lord’s House

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 26, 2009

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.



  1. The pairing of two men in such work was common in mining as well–one man holding the drill, the other swinging the sledge hammer. I agree–the amount of trust in the man with the hammer must have been extraordinary.

    After the rough splitting of stone at the quarry, the work of final cutting and polishing, ending up with stones with smooth, flat sides and square corners is even more amazing to me. How did they do that!!

    Comment by Mark B. — May 26, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  2. Mark, I don’t know — wish I did. I know it was done at the temple site, though, not only because of comments in interviews of men like WDKuhre, but because of a Church News article I read not long ago from sometime in the (1950s?): When they built the restroom building on Temple Square (the one in the southwest corner, tucked behind the Assembly Hall), they unexpectedly ran into a subsurface layer of 18 inches (I think it was) of granite chips, debris left from the dressing of the stone for the temple!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 26, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  3. Beautifully written, Ardis. And very informative.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 26, 2009 @ 10:19 am

  4. I remember hearing those stories about freezing water in the holes to cut the granite, but I don’t think they were given much credibility in our family. One of my great great grandfathers was a stonecutter in England, joined the church, and arrived in Utah early enough that he and his wife went to live in Red Butte Canyon in a dugout to be close to the old sandstone quarries for the first temple foundation. His wife gave birth to twins in a wagon bed heated by coals from a cooking fire that first winter in Red Butte Canyon. After the sandstone was abandoned, he went to work at the Granite quarries in Little Cottonwood Canyon. A branch of the family stayed in the stone cutting business and eventually moved to Logan, where they still have a business cutting headstones and monuments.

    Comment by kevinf — May 26, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  5. The part about “the trust in one’s [stone cutting] partner” reminds me of that part in Legacy (more scandalous love story than history?) where the two men are fighting over Eliza then proceed to cut stone together in this manner. And of course the wronged man has the hammer!

    Comment by Jacob F — May 26, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  6. I had no idea that method of stone cutting was a myth (at least in this case). I wonder if other stories about stone being cut that way are incorrect as well.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 26, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

  7. My great-grandfather built a wonderful rock house in Centerville, with big wooden barns, ice house, granaries, etc. On each corner of the house are granite quoins from rejected granite cut for the temple. My aunt had three slabs of granite taken from one of the outbuildings of great-grandpa. We gave one a few years ago to the Centerville museum and the others are still at my aunt’s home, now owned by my son.

    Comment by Maurine — May 27, 2009 @ 12:26 am

  8. Thanks for this. I love learning little-known construction stories. I’d always had a suspicion that the freezing and wood stories were wrong. Nice to know I was right on that. Love the pictures.

    Comment by Annette — May 27, 2009 @ 9:09 am

  9. One of my favorite Church movies is “Mountain of the Lord” — James Livingston plays a prominent role in the story.

    Ardis, seeing this title made me wonder if you have anything on the celebration that took place when the SL temple was dedicated. The youth of the SL valley will be performing in a celebration this weekend, and the info about it says that it will be the first of its kind since the dedication of the SL temple. Do you have anything on that?

    Comment by m&m — May 28, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  10. Ardis, this is topic that hits close to home. I grew up in the community of Granite just a couple of miles from the temple quarries. The original Granite chapel (9800 S . 3100 E.) was built of ‘temple quarry granite’ and the modern one two blocks north also featured granite as part of the architecture. The western wall of the chapel was made of irregular chunks of Granite pieced together in a sort of patchwork pattern as was the bell tower. I grew up sitting in front of that wall during sacrament meeting and ringing the bell in the tower and hearing stories of Granite’s history. I remember the stories about the freezing water method of splitting the temple stones. I was still fairly young (about middle school) when I learned that wasn’t true but I still heard stories of it for many years. In about 1997 our stake published a “history” of Granite which was mostly reminiscences and fluff but did attempt to clear up the water-freezing-method myth with a short sentence.

    On a more personal note. I went home teaching with my father to a home very near the mouth of the canyon, the occupants of which were two elderly sisters with the surname kurhe. One was called Elva and I don’t remember the other one’s name but I think they’re related to this William Dobie Kurhe. Next to their house was an ancient pile of logs in the shape of what used to be a cabin, presumably used by stone cutters from pioneer times. (I don’t think it’s there anymore). In any case thanks for the post.

    Comment by J. Paul — May 29, 2009 @ 4:53 am

  11. Ardis, your post is great but I want to point out that freezing water did play a role in ‘temple quarry stone’.
    I understand your purpose in writing about the hard work, “muscle, sweat and dedication of many hundreds of pairs of hands, to cut the stone…” but you pass over the herculean effort of the forces of nature to put them there in the first place. Before all those stones could be broken up, hauled off and chiseled they were part of the mountain.

    How they got to the canyon floor is no great mystery, its geology.
    In this case the boulders containing the construction stones of the temple were literally “cut out of the mountain without hands” by the scouring force of glaciers that gouged the canyon and deposited them. Geology 101.

    If you don’t like that explanation, Ardis ironically offers one that strongly supports the erosive action of freezing water.
    Says she: “…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.” Although this freezing action wasn’t man made she is correct in assigning the action “through the preceding millennia”. How else would the “huge granite boulders” have fallen? The process is found in any Geology textbook. Erosion, including freezing water will break solid stone, it just takes a long time.

    Natural freezing action of water played another role in quarrying. Ardis alludes to this . “…Expert stonemen can determine the “grain” of granite, the lines along which the stone will have a tendency to split, given the proper encouragement.” This is looking for existing cracks and imperfections which freezing water have already begun to exploit. In other words marking grain patterns

    “No stones used in the temple have ever split through the action of water seeping into carvings or crevices…” while this is true for the stones in their current stacked, carved and fitted state. nothing in nature is static and, given enough time the temple will erode like any mountain.
    Virtually every stone used in the construction of the Salt Lake Temple was cut out of the mountain by geologic and while the notion of pioneers using freezing water to quarry stone has been discredited, frozen water both in glaciation and erosion has played significant a role in the quarrying story. Before the hand of man touched any temple stone, that stone was put there by the forces of tectonics and freezing water.

    As for the myth of the pioneers using the freeze method arising among their descendents, perhaps it came as a natural inclination to ascribe them the harnesing of nature. Its a common theme in history: to subdue nature a put all things under Man’s control.

    Comment by J. Paul — May 29, 2009 @ 4:57 am

  12. When you walk by the Conference Center, you will see various “flaws” in the granite – darker spots and veins – that bother some people. These, of course, are inclusions of darker material that were floating in the molten (igneous) rock when it was laid down eons ago. Visitors sometimes ask about it when they are one of the tours through the building, sometimes expressing displeasure that the stone is not perfect.

    I had an experience with granite inclusions in 1967 when I was construction manager on the new United States Mint next to Independence Mall in Philadelphia. Eva Adams, Director of the Mint, came from Washington to see the progress, She saw a similar situation with several of the large sections of the pink granite placed on the front of the building showing darker inclusions. She wanted us to take them off and put them on the back of the building. I had a tough time explaining the value of naturalness in the stone taken from Mother Earth as it came from the quarry. I was not very successful until I told her my guess at the cost of doing so as each slab was cut for its place in the building and the could not be swapped without cutting new pieces and fitting them individually.
    I don’t think she was ever happy.

    I had visited the quarry in West Chelmsford, Mass. to see the mockup wall placed in the quarry before shipment. The Fletcher family, quarrymen going back almost to the Revolutionary era, invited me to “dinner” during my first trip. It was really lunch, in today’s language. We got together in the old family house on the edge of the quarry. Before the meal was served, wine glasses were filled. I declined the service by turning my glass upside down. Nothing was said. After the large meal, coffee cups were filled. Ralph Fletcher, the patriarch of the family said: “You’re a Mormon!” I said I was and he said: “We granite men have a great respect for you Mormons, (What a relief.) you Mormons have the largest single shaft of granite in the country at your shrine in Vermont at the birthplace of your Prophet. We are all proud of that obelisk.” Then the conversation went to the challenge of cutting the piece and getting up the muddy road and the providential frost of the night before. He seemed to know all about the history. When the project was finished and I was transferred back to our company’s California office, he sent me a nice book about fly fishing with an expression of friendship and good wishes. That is one of the best memories of my 40-year engineering career.

    (Sorry for the long story, but it seemed to fit here.)

    Comment by Curt A. — May 29, 2009 @ 7:36 am

  13. When I was studying at the University of Wales, Swansea I had an institute instructor who, asked where I was from. When I said “Granite, Utah” he asked “Did anyone famous ever come from there?” I just smiled and said “No, just every stone on the Salt Lake temple!”

    Comment by J. Paul — May 29, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  14. I like that response, J.! Curt, I rode past the Philadelphia Mint a week or ten days ago — had I known of your involvement, I would have saluted.

    Some great comments and stories have been added overnight. Thanks for them all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 29, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  15. Smoothing the granite temple blocks with hand tools is absolutely amazing. Especially when one considers the stars, handshakes, and other symbols stick OUT of the stone.

    Building a granite temple (with walls 16 feet thick at the base) entirely with hand tools seems like an impossible task to gentiles on the American frontier and many of us today (and it probably would be). But to converts from Europe, it was commonplace. All of the great cathedrals in Europe have massive stone walls and symbolic carvings, shaped with hand tools and placed with horse-drawn cranes. The builders were used to the idea that houses of worship would take HUNDREDS of years to finish. 40 years is short compared to Notre Dame (1160-1345) or the Bern Munster (1421-1893).

    Regarding the mineral inclusions on the conference center stone, it’s interesting that the temple masons were able to avoid showing a single inclusion on the entire exterior.(perhaps because the former is veneer while the latter is solid?) In any case, I’m afraid that level of talent has gone the way of the Dodo bird.

    Comment by Clark — May 29, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  16. The temple could have been built in less than 40 years. The builders lost significant time when they had to pull out the first sandstone foundation stones. Also, during the the Utah war the foundation was completely buried and had to be dug out when the threat had past

    Comment by J. Paul — May 29, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  17. A couple of minor corrections. First, each drilled hole was filled with two slips and a wedge–all of them metal. The slips were curved on top to prevent them slipping into the drilled hole. The old-time quarrymen called the three objects “pins and feathers.”

    Second. 211 workmen dug an excavation sixteen feet deep and twenty feet wide for the footings and basement. Fifteen million pounds of sandstone from Red Butte Quarry filled that excavation almost half-way–about seven and a half feet. That was up to the basement story. From that point onward, the workers began installing the walls. That’s when too much mortar and rubblestone were used.
    I can assure you that the fifteen million pounds of sandstone were not damaged and they are still in place!

    Comment by Paul Thomas Smith — October 3, 2012 @ 10:21 am

  18. Interesting additions, Paul, and it’s fascinating to reread this old post. I recently visited an old granite quarry on Cape Ann in Massachusetts (now Halibut Point State Park — spectacular location!) and was struck by the sheer monumental scale of the work involved. Quarrying granite, or even sandstone, is not a task for the faint of heart.

    Comment by Amy T — October 3, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  19. Some portion of the original (buried) sandstone foundation was removed, as Joseph said back in 2009, not because of damage to the stone but because it had been poorly installed.

    Once the foundation was inspected after it was uncovered in the winter of 1861-62, the foreman reported that “the morter [sic] is decidedly bad.” Upon removing that top layer of badly mortared stone upon which the basement walls were to have been built, the workmen discovered that the fill had not been properly compacted, that “the main portionn of the beds are holow, as well as the joints,” and that the foundation stones were resting upon “cobils and spalls” [cobbles and spalls; i.e., loose, small rubble and trash). “Appon the hull [upon the whole],” wrote the foreman, “I think it would be unwise to build so great a structer appon it.”

    Walls built on that foundation would have been at risk of cracking, or worse, as the weight of the building caused rubble to collapse and settle, so some amount of the pre-Utah War foundation stone was removed and replaced in 1862, before the basement walls were built.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 3, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  20. Paul, # 17, interesting note. My wife’s sister’s husband is a concrete cutter in Salt Lake City, and often works in projects at the Salt Lake Temple. Your mention of rubblestone reminded me of a comment he made this summer. He was working on cutting some access holes in granite for air conditioning ducts, and on more than one occasion while cutting through what he and everyone else assumed to be solid granite, he would suddenly come into a space filled with loose rock fill. His biggest concern was that the water used in the cutting process could be controlled while cutting through the granite, but when he hit a pocket like that, the water could drain anywhere, and come out in unexpected places. More of your rubblestone, I suspect, and above ground level.

    Comment by kevinf — October 3, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  21. I’m just glad that the foreman was better at stonework than at spelling!

    As to the the effects of the freeze-thaw cycle on stone: my front steps are sorry evidence of that process at work. And so, if I remember correctly, are the pot-holed streets of many Utah cities in the springtime. And don’t get me started on New York City’s streets–the potholes are deadly for my current vehicle, a Specialized Tricross bicycle.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 3, 2012 @ 12:19 pm