Memorial Park quarry renovation also digs into pastThe story behind Memorial Park and Sorin’s Bluff is a testament to local residents’ involvement in the community throughout the years.
By: Danielle Killey, The Republican Eagle
The story behind Memorial Park and Sorin’s Bluff is a testament to local residents’ involvement in the community throughout the years.
“(Red Wing has) always had citizens who have really stepped up to the plate and contributed to the quality of life,” Red Wing native Mary Vogel said. “This is really a park that expresses the civic spirit that Red Wing has had for over a century.”
The park, created by local groups’ efforts decades ago, is being revitalized by the community once again.
Live Healthy Red Wing, the Red Wing Area Fund and dozens of other groups and individual volunteers said they are making the park safer and more enjoyable while highlighting the bluff’s past.
The city has helped with planning, coordinating and some of the work.
“It gets good use from people that just enjoy the overlooks and picnic and the trails, but we think it really could get much greater use,” Red Wing Planning Director Brian Peterson said of the park. “There is terrific potential to restore what was there and to make even better use of the park, especially for outdoor recreation.”
Live Healthy Red Wing approached the Red Wing Area Fund to see if it would be a partner in helping with trail maintenance and projects on Sorin’s Bluff, Area Fund chair Suzanne Blue said.
The lower quarry was planned to be one of the trailheads, and Blue said it had broken railings, tables and more. “So we thought that would be interesting to work on,” she said. Members also looked at the work needed in the upper quarry.
“We kind of took it on in terms of repairing and improving safety,” Blue said of the quarry projects. “We’re trying to improve the park without adding any maintenance.”
Fencing and railings will be replaced where necessary, new picnic tables will be put in, fire rings will be repaired and added, and new benches will be installed.
The picnic area in the upper quarry will be bigger and tables will be closer together so large groups can congregate there.
Safety measures are part of the work as well. The steps to the sugarloaf also have already been repaired, and a new railing soon will be up.
“The top of the sugarloaf should really be enjoyable once there’s a fence up there,” Blue said.
The Area Fund hopes to have the new picnic tables and fencing completed by September.
Other work has been ongoing on Sorin’s Bluff as well. LHRW has been working to clear overgrown brush, dead trees and invasive plants, and has organized groups to help with the work also. On Earth Day this year, about 80 students helped clear and haul buckthorn from the upper and lower quarries.
Clearing out the invasive species and dead trees has opened up the views around the bluff, said Vogel, part of the Center for Changing Landscapes at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s a whole different kind of experience,” she said.
There will be replacement planting where some of the plants were cleared, Live Healthy Red Wing members noted. And the natural state of the park will remain.
“We’re not changing the nature of the park,” Vogel said. “It’s different than Colvill Park or Levee Park. This is a wilder park. And we want to keep it that way.”
The city also is working with the groups to develop some long-term plans for the park, looking into grant applications, private sources and other funding opportunities for maintenance, improvements and projects. They’re also looking into increasing access to the park.
Improving the parks and outdoor spaces is harmonious with the city’s strategic plan and other goals, Peterson said.
“This whole idea of making improvements to a great outdoor recreational area that we have, getting that used more by residents and visitors, really fits with our current strategic plans and vision.”
The groups are also working to install kiosks highlighting both current recreational options and the history of the area.
“A lot of it is just people needed to know more of what’s there,” Peterson said. “I think it’s one of these hidden jewels in Red Wing.”
New signs will alert people to the trails, cross-country ski areas, overlooks, picnic areas and other available activities on the bluff. Signs also will help point people in the right directions. The signs are funded through a grant to Live Healthy Red Wing from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People would see the bluffs as a backdrop because anywhere in town you look up and we are surrounded by them,” Live Healthy Red Wing project coordinator Michelle Leise said. “But many people were not seeing the bluffs as places that we could use, as places that were our bluffs.”
The historic connection
The kiosks planned for the park will do more than show people to the current activities available, she said. They also will teach visitors and locals alike about the bluff’s past, geology and more.
“The kiosks will celebrate the history of the landscape,” Vogel said. “Both its park history and its industrial history as a limestone quarry.”
The groups working on the kiosks and project have done research at the Goodhue County History Center and other places to find out more about the area’s background.
Red Wing is often known for its wheat or pottery industries, but from 1870 to 1908 Red Wing also led the lime and limestone industries.
Limestone from the area is visible throughout the city, from home foundations to churches. It also helped construct the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis.
“It did help to build a lot of houses and buildings not only in Red Wing but throughout the state,” Diane Buganski of the Goodhue County Historical Society said.
G.A. Carlson was the most successful quarry owner with sites on both Barn and Sorin’s bluffs, but there were many other families that owned quarries in the area. It was a booming industry for years.
Outside of limestone, the bluffs also yielded another commodity. In 1853, Phineas Fish discovered that burning the limestone chunks found in the area would create the fine dust called lime or quicklime. When combined with water and sand, it becomes a type of mortar, and also could be used to make durable bricks. Farmers used the quicklime in their soil too.
The product became popular, and lime kilns began popping up in the 1870s in Red Wing. Experimenting with methods to burn the rock, perpetual kilns eventually were created. They were cone-shaped vessels that burned 24 hours a day to create the valuable dust. There were about 12 kilns in the area by 1879 creating about 500 barrels of quicklime daily.
That’s also when the rail line along the bluff was created, to carry stone from the quarries to the kilns. One traveled from the lower quarry under Seventh Street to a kiln near Barn Bluff.
The quarrying at first was done with chisels, hammers, pry bars and manual labor. But eventually the workers started using dynamite to speed up the process.
The quarrying started to take a toll on the community. Dynamite blasts were rattling the East End and reportedly could be heard and felt as far away as Ellsworth.
And accidents relatively common at the quarries caused concern, combined with worries about increased dangers from the dynamite, historical documents say.
Workers also were using the trees that covered the bluff for kiln fuel, and the bluffs were starting to look bare.
In the spring of 1907, citizens called for the closure of the quarrying operations. After extensive efforts, work ended around 1910.
Sorin’s Bluff was in limbo.
In 1923, Henrietta Pratt Taber, president of the Women’s Community association, had raised $3,500 for a new Central Park band shell. But those plans changed when the Goodhue County Soldiers’ Memorial Association was formed and charged with creating a memorial for area soldiers.
The Women’s Community donated its funds to the project, and together the two groups eventually raised $6,000. Then William Lawther, a former Red Wing citizen, donated $10,000 to purchase the land for the memorial.
The group bought 99 acres of Sorin’s Bluff for $5,000, built the road to the top and used the funds for a park and a grand gateway.
During the Great Depression, people were hired to help with the clearing work, such as making way for the road up the bluff.
“They were just so happy to be employed,” Buganski said.
The memorial was dedicated in September 1929, and the Goodhue County Soldiers’ Memorial Association sold the park to the city in 1930 for $1.
The park has plenty of other history and also offers insights into other pieces of the town. For example, views from the bluff include sights of Xcel Energy, a key player in the area.
“There’s a lot to see from that bluff that has to do with Red Wing’s past and present,” Vogel said.
It’s also a major flyway and has ties to ski-jumping in Red Wing, Vogel added.
The East End of town holds its own stories. The history of the area is somewhat evident but often goes untold or unnoticed, Buganski said.
“You could tell something had happened there, but you didn’t know what,” she said of Sorin’s Bluff. “Before, tourists were left wondering. … It’s important that the information is there for people.”
“I think it’s a great connection,” Peterson said of including historic information on the kiosks. “People enjoy hikes and getting outdoors by itself, but also really enjoy learning about nature and history along the way too.”
And for those interested in the park in the future, the Goodhue County Historical Society is documenting the current renovation project as well.
“So the next generation can see what we’re doing now,” Buganski said.
Involving the community
The project has been a chance to involve the community and learn more about the area, those involved said.
Project organizers have been talking to older residents in the area, especially the East End, because “we don’t want that history to be lost,” Vogel said.
Developing the renovation project also involved the community, organizers said.
The Red Wing Area Fund presented the renovation idea to the Planning Commission in the fall of 2011. Then it went to the City Council during two meetings in the winter of 2011-2012.
In January 2012, Live Healthy Red Wing held meetings to inform people of the renovation project and get feedback and ideas. And more public meetings were held to show the designs and get feedback, including a community meeting in the East End. Many people turned out to share stories and photos.
“Many of us that grew up in Red Wing have many fond memories of playing on Sorin’s Bluff as children,” Vogel said.
The project also builds on local groups’ previous work and devotion to the bluffs. Those include the Red Wing Area Mountain Bike Organization, volunteers, the newly forming Friends of the Bluffs and the Red Wing app group.
The Friends of the Bluffs is just starting out as a group to improve, maintain and promote the area bluffs. While individual groups were using patchwork efforts to work on the area in the past, the organization will bring that work together.
That also pairs well with the Red Wing app, a smartphone application being developed by a local group that will in part include information on area trails and outdoor recreation, organizers said.
Looking forward, locals will be depended upon to help keep the park — and Red Wing — going.
“The more we can get volunteers and citizens involved and caring for park areas like Memorial, the better for everybody,” Peterson said.
Share your story
Do you have stories, memories or photos to share of the East End or Sorin’s Bluff? Email Live Healthy Red Wing project coordinator Michelle Leise at email@example.com