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Quarrymen, Stone Cutters, and Sioux Quartzite: Sioux Falls’ Mining Heritage

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stone cutters at work
Stone Cutters in an East Sioux Falls Quarry ca. 1888
Siouxland Heritage Museums

Residents might take it for granted but one of the first things that visitors notice about Sioux Falls is the color of the old stone buildings downtown. Most of those old maroon-colored blocks of Sioux Quartzite were mined at the end of the 19th century and cut by hand. Hand-cut blocks were also used as paving stones, and not just in Sioux Falls. Millions of tons of quartzite were quarried, cut, and shipped all over the U.S.

Paving Phillips Avenue, 1880s
Federal Building, Phillips Avenue

Quartzite isn’t used as a building material very much anymore but the demand for quartzite is greater than it’s ever been. Today, the rock is used mainly for asphalt and concrete aggregate. It is an extremely hard stone - nearly as hard as diamond - and it is extremely durable. A vast deposit of the stone stretches from southwest Minnesota into eastern South Dakota. In some places, like Garretson's Split Rock Park, the stone is exposed. In other places, the deposit rests several hundred feet below surface soils.

The following text is a transcription of an SDPB Radio interview with Kevin Gansz, Curator of Education at Siouxland Heritage Museums. "In the Moment" host Lori Walsh spoke with Gansz on Monday, May 23, 2002.

Lori Walsh: Hey, Kevin.

Kevin Gansz: Hi, Lori. Thanks for having me today.

Lori Walsh: You work inside one of the most magnificent buildings (the Old Courthouse Museum) that is built of this hand cut stone.

Kevin Gansz:  I take it for granted.

Lori Walsh: How was this process done? How was it extracted from the earth, hand cut, laid into buildings?

Kevin Gansz: It's just a lot of hand labor. And you have to look at these buildings today and look up, and you just have to imagine the amount of physical labor that was put into this. These were stone cutters that had learned their trade off in the old country. They were Scandinavians. They were from somewhere in the United Kingdom where they had the stone and they had worked with stone. And they came here and the quarry industry boomed throughout the 1880s and early 1890s. And that's when a lot of the buildings that you can still see today, that's when they went up. They aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Lori Walsh: How hard are they to maintain?

Kevin Gansz: It is a very hard thing. I mean, you don't have to worry about the stone. That's not going anywhere. It's the mortar that's going to fail. And it's the tuck pointing. And those are the types of things that, when you are trying to keep up one of these buildings, that it's your main focus. And they do need TLC, like any building out there.

Lori Walsh: So when you go through the archives and on the walking tours of the quarries and tell this story to people - you've been doing this work for a long time - what still surprises you about the people who did this kind of work or how it was done? What are some of the stories that you have unearthed?

Kevin Gansz: It's really amazing, and it's the hand end of things. Today we're working with Knife River, formerly Concrete Materials, and we do our quarry tours, and we go see how everything's done today. There are giant front end loaders and 70-ton haul trucks that are moving everything around. But it is the story of these people and what they're doing. Of course, they're looking for where quartzite pops right out of the ground. So today, when we go down and we enjoy the Falls and we look around and we see those kind of boulders in that bedrock just kind of poking up here and there, that's where quarrying got started.

Kevin Gansz: And the first people, they're starting Sioux Falls here, and they're taking loose rock, and they're building buildings right from the beginning. So we knew the rock was going to be important here, but just the amount of hand labor, drilling holes, blasting quartzite, moving it to an area, where with hammer and chisel you're going to break it. And the thing is, I've had a chance to try my hand at breaking quartzite.

Lori Walsh: You have?

Kevin Gansz: Yeah. I'm not good at it. So no one's hiring me anytime soon to do that. I've done a little bit of manual labor in my life and, yeah, and it's tough to do. A stonecutter, he put a block up on the bench. He handed me a hammer and he's like, "You can easily make four rocks out of this." And I started banging away on it. I got lots of sparks, but nothing else. And then he takes the hammer back, and bang, bang, he hits it twice. There are now four rocks there. Quartzite, it has a grain, you have to know how to work it. And that's the thing. These people knew how to work the stone. And because of it, you can do wonderful things. Now, you're never going to get super decorative pieces like you would if you're working with sandstone or anything like that, but what they did do is pretty impressive.

Lori Walsh: This is still done now, but in a very different way. Quartzite is still important to the area.

Kevin Gansz: Absolutely. I mean, people drive into our community, and they're like, "What's up with the pink stone everywhere?"

Lori Walsh: The streets are lined with pink.

Kevin Gansz: The streets are lined with pink. Yeah. Pink gold as it once was referred to at the time. It's an aggregate now. And there's kind of a difference between aggregates and what was known as dimensional quarrying, where you were hand cutting blocks that were going to end up in buildings, or you're putting paving stones together. And you did get paid by the number of those you could produce, one to two cents, depending how the order was going.

Kevin Gansz: But today it's aggregates that are going into asphalt, that are going into concrete. But just take a look around our community and look at the growth that's going on. New construction, houses, driveways. I just learned that there's more concrete in the Amazon building that was just built here in Sioux Falls than is in the Empire State Building. And that's all utilizing our stone that's right here.

Lori Walsh: Is it finite?

Kevin Gansz: It was once referred to as inexhaustible, but it's the labor, it's finding where there's a good outcropping that doesn't have 30, 40 feet of overburden or dirt that's on top of it that makes it easy to get to. The more you have to dig, the more expensive it gets.

Lori Walsh: Wow. All right. Real quick on tours. It's a hot ticket item.

Kevin Gansz: It is.

Lori Walsh: You're filling up.

Kevin Gansz: So this summer we've got lots of things going on. We do walking tours in many of the historic neighborhoods, quartzite buildings and quartzite homes in there to stick with the theme. We do our Into the Pit Quarry Tours that we partner with Knife River/Concrete Materials. And they've been wonderful with us. Our May and June tours are full, but we will be advertising more July and August tours. So keep a check in with the Old Courthouse, and we'll make sure that we can get you on there.

Lori Walsh: So much happening in local museums. Wherever you're at throughout the state, check out your local history. It's fascinating stuff. Kevin Gansz with the Siouxland Heritage Museums in Sioux Falls. Thanks for stopping by.

Kevin Gansz: It's my pleasure.


East Sioux Falls
A rail line connected the now-defunct town of East Sioux Falls with Sioux Falls and points east.
Horse power, steam, and levers did much of the work during the 1880s and 1890s