Manitoba History: Site Review: The Quarry Park at Stonewall, Manitoba
by Robert Coutts
The recently opened Quarry Park site at Stonewall, Manitoba represents a refreshing interpretive balance of human, industrial and natural history themes. I say “refreshing” because too often historic sites in Canada simply focus upon the achievements of a dominant white culture and ignore such topics as early human occupation and the evolution of the natural environment. At the Stonewall Quarry these various themes have been effectively integrated and help provide the visitor with a comprehensive educational experience.
Initiated by the Stonewall town council in 1983, the project was developed with funds from the municipal government as well as monies from Destination Manitoba, Employment and Immigration, and the Jobs Fund. The formulation of planning alternatives, as well as the site’s interpretive focus, were developed with input from town residents through a series of public forums. This input has resulted in a high degree of local support and appreciation amongst local townspeople for the subsequent development at the Quarry.
Situated near the edge of town, the current site landscape reflects the effects of almost one hundred years of quarrying activity at that location. Today the visitor can view the remnants of exposed limestone ledges, butte formations, excavations and a quarry pond. Dominating the landscape are three massive “draw” kilns, as well as the ruins of early “pot” kilns used in the limestone burning process. Developers have facilitated interpretation at the quarry through the use of pathways, outdoor signage, and a small amphitheatre for the presentation of interpretive talks and shows. The large Visitor Centre, however, carries the bulk of the site’s interpretive message. Exhibits, models and dioramas provide the visitor with information regarding the history of limestone quarrying at Stonewall, the lifestyle of the early quarry workers, the history of the region’s prehistoric native peoples, as well as the geology and natural history of the area. Facilities have also been installed in the Visitor Centre for an eventual audio-visual production.
Illustrations and exhibits in the centre provide information about the unique limestone geology found in the Stonewall area. Limestone was originally formed in several of the major geological time periods, especially those in which wide shallow seas such as Lake Agassiz covered much of the earth’s surface. The stone itself was formed after millions of years of accumulation of the remains of small sea creatures and decomposed vegetable matter on the sea floor. During limestone formation, complete animal and plant remains of the period were sometimes covered and “fossilized.” Today, a great many fossil remains are visible in the layers of limestone at the site.
Formation of the limestone provided a habitat for many creatures, both large and small. Though the quarry today appears to present an inhospitable environment to wildlife, it is in fact home to a wide variety of animal species. Like man, these creatures arrived fairly recently, at least when compared to the great age of the limestone formations which define the local landscape.
The centre also provides the visitor with a brief survey of early human occupation in southern Manitoba, and the Stonewall area in particular. The retreat of the last ice age, while exposing the flat landscape of the prairies, also left behind escarpments such as Riding Mountain and more minor elevations such as Stony Mountain and Stonewall. Archaeologists have speculated that these escarpments were favoured as “lookouts” by early hunters searching for game. These early cultures were present in southern Manitoba between 3,000 and 1,000 B.C. during the Middle Pre-Historic Period. Later cultures also made use of the escarpments as buffalo jumps. In the Woodland Period, between 900 and 1,600 A.D., Black Duck peoples of the region developed a more advanced technology. Some of the plants which these groups knew and used are still common at the site today.
The larger part of the exhibits and signage at the site cover the development of the limestone quarry industry in the late 19th century. With the influx of settlement to the province after 1870 and the building boom of the 1880s, demand increased for the stone and lime necessary for the construction of buildings and houses throughout southern Manitoba. Entrepreneur S. J. “Stonewall” Jackson saw the potential for establishing a quarry at Stonewall and began enticing people and businesses to the area after 1880. In the early years “pot” kilns (the ruins of which are still visible at the site) were used to obtain quicklime. Six to ten days were needed to complete the burning process which involved filling the kiln (which was usually built into the side of a hill to facilitate loading), burning the rock, cooling the lime, and drawing out the quicklime and storing it. Later, larger “draw” kilns, such as the three located in the park, were constructed and were capable of producing from six to ten tonnes of quicklime per day. These draw kilns operated until the quarry closed in the 1960s.
In the actual quarrying of limestone many skilled and specific tasks were needed. After horse teams finished clearing and scraping the topsoil, dynamite was used to blast the rock from the limestone beds. To render the stone suitable for building purposes it then had to be worked by “stonebreakers” and afterward dressed by hand. The work was time consuming and often dangerous. Knowing how much dynamite to use was a skill that came only with experience and was entrusted only to specialists among the quarry workers. Work at the quarry was especially hard and backbreaking for those whose job it was to break the stone. Accidents ranged from “lime eczema,” caused by exposure to lime dust and heat, to bruises, broken bones and even death.
In the 1920s, $0.25 per hour was the standard rate for general quarry work — not much when one considers the frequency with which accidents occurred. Hours were long and the workers’ living conditions were far from comfortable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibits in the Visitor Centre show these conditions, and models depict the operation of the early “pot” kilns and the later “draw” kilns at the site.
Overall, the Stonewall Quarry Park provides an interesting and educational orientation to the early industrial history of the area, as well as a survey of the evolution of Manitoba’s natural and pre-historic heritage. With a minimum of intrusion developers have preserved the site’s visual and scenic integrity. Constructed at a relatively modest cost (relative, that is, to some larger government historic sites), the Stonewall Quarry Park represents a successful attempt by a small community to preserve and commemorate an important part of Manitoba’s history.