Quarrying the Temple Granite
October 1975

“Quarrying the Temple Granite,” Ensign, Oct. 1975, 52–53

Quarrying the Temple Granite

In the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, twenty miles southeast of the Salt Lake Temple, lie scarred boulders left when granite was quarried for the walls of that sacred building.

Jagged edges lined with drill holes attest to the efforts of early temple quarrymen, who began to carve huge blocks from boulders on the canyon floor over one hundred years ago. From those stone blocks were hewn the smaller pieces that can be seen today, not only in the temple, but also in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Work in the quarry began in 1860 when pieces of the massive boulders were carried to the temple site by heavy wagons, sometimes pulled by as many as four yokes of oxen. The trip from the quarry to the building site and back took from three to four days. The builders also attempted to construct a canal to float the granite from the canyon to the building site. Though partially used, the canal was abandoned, still uncompleted, when the newly introduced railroad came to the Salt Lake Valley. By 1872, the workers were moving the stone by rail directly from the canyon to the building site.

Spurious stories of how the stone was cut from the boulders have been numerous: Some have said the quarrymen allowed water to freeze in cracks and the drill holes along the cutting grains, causing the rock to crack and split when the water froze and expanded. Others maintain that dry wood pegs were pounded into drill holes, then soaked with water, which caused them to expand and split the rock. But according to witnesses and evidence at the quarry site, the boulders were split by the more conventional quarrying methods of the time.

Granite may be split along one of three possible grains readily recognizable to experienced stonecutters. When cut correctly, a stone will break off on a straight line—much as if it had been sawed straight through. To cut the granite, the quarrymen used a rock drill, usually about one inch in diameter, which one man held while another hammered it with a single jack or sledgehammer. The drill was round like a rod and slightly flared and sharpened on the end. Using that method, the workers drilled holes from four to six inches deep along the line of the proposed cut—about eight inches apart.

After the holes were completed, the men put two slips into the hole and placed a wedge between them. (A slip was a rod of iron cut through its center or a half-round tapered iron rod.) The wedge was then tightened by hitting it with a mash hammer or mallet. As the wedges were continually and evenly tightened in the holes along the line of breakage, the resulting pressure split the stone. Stones weighing several tons were split in this manner.

One of the last living quarry workers, William D. Kuhre, explained before his death that he had never observed any freezing or wood-expanding processes and had no reason to believe that they were ever used. Bishop James A. Muir, another quarry worker, now deceased, told acquaintances that neither method was used. He also discounted the idea that any explosives were ever used to split the boulders in building the temple. Bishop Muir herded sheep for the quarrymen when he was eleven years old and later worked in the quarry after spending time as a “tool nipper” in the blacksmith shop. He and his son operated the quarry for commercial purposes after the temple was completed.

Both workers said that all the stone used to build the temple was taken from boulders and not from the canyon wall as some had imagined. After the temple was completed, stone was taken from the walls of the canyon to be used for other building projects, including the Church Administration Building and the Utah State Capitol.

Brother Kuhre recalled that usually twenty to fifty men were employed in the quarry project throughout the year and that they were paid with commodities rather than with currency. Though some men were paid at times by the local wards where they lived, the priesthood quorums in the temple district usually paid them with flour, molasses, potatoes, squash, and other foods. Later their wages came from the Church Tithing Office.

Remnants of boulders once divided by those same men with simple hand tools stand today as silent reminders of the dedication of the builders of the Salt Lake Temple.

  • Don F. Colvin, instructor at the Ogden Institute of Religion, serves as bishop of the North Ogden Sixth Ward, North Ogden Utah Stake.

Top: George R. Dunphy’s 1950 painting reconstructs quarrymen loading stone on ox-drawn wagons in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Part of the original equipment still stands.

Bottom: These drilled holes still remain from last century’s quarrying for temple granite.