A History of the Lyons Sandstone Quarriesby Alfred C. Pace. Sherman Books, 171 pp. $14.95.
On its face, the history of sandstone quarrying in Boulder County and northern Colorado may sound like a boring tale, but Lyons-based author Alfred C. Pace makes it fascinating in his new book, "A History of the Lyons Sandstone Quarries." By telling the stories of the quarrymen who worked the rock — and detailing how that rock was used in the construction of the University of Colorado — Pace brings life and local interest to his well-researched science.
"A History of the Lyons Sandstone Quarries" is a narrative that reads almost as if it is being told firsthand by the quarrymen themselves. It travels along the timeline from Colorado's pioneers and homesteaders in the 1860s through the boomtown days, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, the '60s, '70s and '80s, and, finally, to the present day.
The chapter that details the unique and revolutionary ways Lyons sandstone was used by the Philadelphia-based Day and Klauder architectural firm to create the unique character of the CU campus is fascinating. The first uses of Lyons sandstone were for slab sidewalks, flagstones, curbing, sills, steps, lintels and wall coping in Denver and California. In those days, Lyons sandstone was rarely used as a building material because its pink- and red-lined face clashed with contemporary Gothic architectural conventions.
But in 1918, Frank Day and Charles Z. Klauder presented CU President George Norlin with a series of sketches that drew from the romantic dwellings and barns in the rustic hills outside of Florence, Italy. Norlin and the Board of Regents unhesitatingly chose the "new adventure," as they called it. The style, which was "in no way an imitation," soon became known as "Tuscan Vernacular" and "Italian Rural," though Norlin always called it the "University of Colorado style." The Hellems Arts and Sciences building, completed in 1921, became the first of this form, a style that still dominates one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation.
Pace also offers readers an approachable explanation of the geological histories of the Lyons Permian Formation and other Colorado sandstone formations. In very understandable language, Pace gives a brief but attention-grabbing account of how the Lyons and related rock formations came to be. Readers are compelled to visualize vast windblown wastelands, ancient, impervious quartz grains and slow but unrelenting mountain-building events. He explains how certain sandstone deposits, though only several miles apart, vary greatly in age, color, hardness and character due to differences in their parent processes involving wind, water, heat and pressure. The author includes some helpful basic maps to help the truly curious get to the bluffs and quarries he describes.
Pace discusses the tools, machines and processes used by the quarrymen, and uses historical and contemporary photographs to illustrate them. The photographs and excerpts from the workers' diaries reveal the brutality and hardship of their lives.
Sandstone slab extraction, done mostly by Finnish immigrants, was arduous, dangerous and time-consuming. Quarrying the extremely hard, sharp and brittle rock required one man to hold a thin metal bar in place while two other men took alternating whacks at it. Accuracy was essential.
In addition, accidents were common, rattlesnakes abounded, the climate was extreme, and untreated diseases and injuries degraded the quality of life. Another ubiquitous peril involved the process' dust byproduct, and many men died young from lung disease.
The social history of the Lyons sandstone quarries involves some colorful characters. There's the story of Ed Callahan, a disgruntled quarry leaser near the boomtown of Noland. Armed with a Winchester rifle and rations, Callahan holed up in a makeshift fort on the train tracks after the New Stone Mountain Rail Road Company declined to sign his contract. He refused to move until his grievances were addressed, and hundreds of quarrymen were idled for days.
Then there's the odd couple Dewey and Loella May Summers, who moved to Jamestown from California during lean years after World War II. Dewey — with cirrhosis of the liver, a heart condition and chronic alcoholism to his credit — and Loella May, 20 years Dewey's senior, had no substantial knowledge about quarrying sandstone and absolutely no practical experience in the business. "It would have been difficult to imagine a pair less likely to revive Lyons' sandstone industry," according to the author.
In general this historical account is well written, save its occasional editing errors, redundancies and poky vernacular. Notably absent are references to the settlers' contemporaries, the local Arapahoe Indians, except for a one-sentence depiction of them as thieving cowards.
That being said, however, this account of the area's sandstone quarries provides valuable insights into where we've been, and where we are going.
"A History of the Lyons Sandstone Quarries" is available at the Boulder Book Store at Borders bookstores in Boulder and Longmont.