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Letter: Take a history lesson on historic Barn Bluff

To the Editor:

As a Kiwanian, and based on the recent dialogue and events surrounding Barn Bluff, I think a little history might be in order.

Barn Bluff, a former island millions of years ago and an outstanding wonder of nature, is the city’s most famous landmark. In 1991 it became one of Red Wing’s 25 designations on the National Register of Historic Places.

Early French explorers named the bluff “La Grange,” which the English translated into “the Barn.” It is 3100 feet long, 800 feet wide, 334 feet above the river and 1,001 feet above sea level and made up on sandstone and limestone.

Lime center

For almost 40 years Red Wing’s bluffs were Minnesota’s lime center. More than 30 lime kilns operated in Red Wing from 1860 to 1908. With the use of dynamite to harvest the limestone the issues of noise, safety and the rights of landowners versus preservationists became a heated issue. Other factors entered into the fray as wood used for heating the kilns was becoming scarce and cement began replacing lime in brick and stone work.

With the local Commercial Club passing a controversial resolution to preserve the bluff and Red Wing Daily Republican’s editor championing the effort to save the bluff from the terrible defacement inflicted by the quarrying, public sentiment followed.

The quarry operations stopped in 1908. Red Wing’s days as Minnesota’s “lime center” were over.

The Bank of Pierce, Simmons and Co., together with C.A. Betcher and James Lawther, presented Barn Bluff and the surrounding acreage to the city to be used as a park in 1910.

Stepping up

Kiwanis Clubs have a rich history of leading projects that benefit the community. In 1928, Kiwanians spearheaded a drive to construct a concrete stairway and were the prime movers in raising almost all of the $9,478.90 for the construction of 474 precast concrete steps and platforms necessary to reach the summit up the western slope of Barn Bluff.

One of the Kiwanians’ clever ideas was selling concrete steps for $10. The donor’s name would be inscribed on the step. Club members also convinced local merchants to donate building materials. The location for a person’s step on the stairway was chosen by a lottery. Additional monies were raised by auctions, dances, plays and contributions from many public spirited citizens. The steps cost $3 more than planned.

The steps were a huge draw as they are today for tourist and a large source of civic pride allowing walkers/hikers a safe, comfortable and permanent access to the bluff’s summit. The steps were dedicated during the Kiwanis District Convention in 1929. The Elks state convention was also held in Red Wing that summer.

Previously there was a path known as Webster’s Way that led to the summit and was maintained every spring by repair crews of senior high school students on a day off school or on a community holiday by volunteers who showed up with picks and shovels.

What prompted the planning for the building of the permanent concrete steps were the intrusive traffic and the freezing and thawing impact on the bluffs vulnerable slope.

In 1958, 324 of the original steps and 18 platforms were removed for safety reasons in the construction of a new bridge to replace the former High Bridge. They were stored for future use in the city gravel pit. There are still 148 steps visible on the north western slope of the bluff that were deemed too high to be removed.

The state of Minnesota gave the city $45,000 as restitution for possible replacement!

New entrance

Kiwanis had been pushing for years for the restoration of the Citizens Memorial Walkway as there was no definite, permanent and safe way to reach the summit. Finally, after 18 years the dedicated and persistent leadership by Kiwanis a new entrance point was established at southeasterly section of the bluff. One hundred eight of the original pre-cast concrete steps were used. The stairway was constructed by the city’s public works department at a cost of $19,000.

The steps softened the steep climb at the beginning of the walkway. From this stairway a path continues along a former quarrying road to the point where a former limestone quarry was located.

The final step in the completion of the walkway involved a steep eroded elevation change to reach the summit comfortably. The site’s location and transportation of materials and step formation presented even more difficult issues. Ninety-four step would be necessary to complete this stage and in 1982 Kiwanis again raised the money by selling steps with the donor’s inscribe name in concrete for $50 apiece. There were still 35 of the original steps remaining and there were used as bench rests along the walkway.

Kiwanis again partnered with the city’s public works department and city officials who worked together on a difficult and rewarding task of installing the steps. The city designated $20,000 for its part to construct the upper flight of steps. Upon the completion of the final leg of the Kiwanis Citizens Memorial Walkway, a dedication ceremony was held in 1983.

There is a plaque at the foot of these steps telling the history of the steps and the contribution made by Kiwanis. There was also a plaque from the original dedication in 1929. There is now comfortable access to the viewing of the impressive Mississippi River Valley thanks to the effort of Kiwanis and the assistance of the Red Wing Public Works.

There is a sign at the entrance to the walkway that says: “This Park is for you. Take only memories. Leave only footprints.”

The dedication plaque from the original steps has been stolen. It would be great to have the plaque returned.

Ralph Ryan

Red Wing