B-Limey! Historic Kilns in the Foothills

Written by Christopher W. Merritt, Ph.D., State Historic Preservation Officer

You can see the knife-like scar in the foothills near the brightly shining white “U” near the University of Utah from Interstate 15, though few recognize what it is and that is not natural but 19th century limestone quarries! Others take leisurely hikes, emphatic trail runs, or mountain bike along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and its tributaries, all the while recreating in and around a legacy older than the University of Utah itself.  The aptly named Limekiln Gulch, located just north of the “U” and within a 1960s neighborhood, is home to Salt Lake County’s most preserved historic lime kiln, a quiet reminder of an industry that was once as important as sawmills or building stone quarries in the development of Utah’s post-1847 settlements.

Historic lime kiln on University of Utah Property, photo from 2017. Utah Division of State History.

Lime, comes from limestone rock containing deposits of calcium carbonate which is in abundance in the foothills above the University of Utah. Through crushing and then burning in a kiln for two to three days at 1650-1800 degrees Fahrenheit, the calcium carbonate turns into calcium oxide or quicklime (click here for more information on the process). From there the lime can be used for a variety of construction and agricultural purposes. For Utah’s early historic settlements, this limestone was quarried, crushed, burned, and then rehydrated for use in plaster, mortar, whitewash paint, and even after the 1880s into cement manufacture. Without this simple stone and its chemical properties, there would not be any way to hold stone walls together or to make the interior of rooms nicely plastered. Thus, by the 1850s, there were several lime kilns operating throughout the Salt Lake Valley.

Limekiln Gulch is home to two kilns, the massive reconstructed and repaired example on property owned by the University of Utah and under conservation easement from Utah Open Lands, and a second that is harder to see as it has been incorporated into a retaining wall for a private home on Tomahawk Drive (look carefully to the south at the trailhead and you can find it!).  It is not currently known when these structures were built, though the architectural style and design does suggest a mid-19th century origin. If you look closely at the largest of the kilns, you will notice that there are actually two parts, an original and an addition, clearly separated by the red sandstone quoins.   

Limestone quarry above the kiln, workers cut in at an angle to get the high quality stone, 2017. Utah Division of State History.

While we do not know the exact ‘when’ of the kiln’s construction, the length and intensity of work is scarred into the hillsides. When you look from an aerial image, you can see the quarrying activity following a jutting bed of limestone, and this quarry is what you can see all the way from I15. Quarrying was labor intensive, with men working with picks and shovels to break the rock into small enough pieces to be fed into the kiln’s loading chamber (top) to be burned. Horses and wagons used the steep hillside roads to haul the limestone from the quarry to the kilns, and then used the main gulch to haul the finished lime to market in Salt Lake City. As you hike up Limekiln Gulch imagine how different that area would have been during the peak of the quarries’ history, with dozens of men and horses busily working on the hillsides all around you. When you reach the base of the kiln you can still see the bright white lime dust and waste that created a platform for teams to load wagons for shipment to market.

When facing the kiln straight on, you can see that there are four openings. These openings, called “draw-holes” were where workers shoveled out the reduced lime, from the loading hoppers above. On top of the kiln you can see two large holes now covered by metal grates to protect visitors. These holes, called “charging bowls”, are where the crushed limestone and wood/coal would be loaded for burning. While you are on top of the kiln, you can look southwest and see an old wagon road cutting across the hillslope. If you follow that road it takes you to the center of the two largest limestone quarry cuts, and offers a spectacular panoramic view of the Salt Lake Valley. When archaeologists with the Utah Division of State History (State History) recorded this site in 2017, it was in hopes of better understanding the entire industrial landscape of the area, not just the lime kilns themselves. Archaeologists are trained to look at the whole picture, including the location and direction of roads, quarry cuts, and loading/unloading platforms, to fully understand how this enterprise worked.

The oldest identified historic photo of the Lime Kiln area, from downtown Salt Lake City, in 1893. Utah HIstorical Society.

You might ask, however, why does the University of Utah own this property? Well, fast-forward to America’s Bicentennial celebration efforts in the mid-1970s. The owner of the property at the time, Bernard P. Brockbank donated the property to the University of Utah for the purposes of being a Bi-Centennial Park with hiking and biking trails, with a restored lime kiln as its centerpiece.  Three years after Brockbank donated the kiln property (nearly 300 acres in total) to the University of Utah, Paulsen Engineering and Construction completed a significant restoration effort on the property. Using $56,000 from the Salt Lake Bicentennial Commission and the University of Utah Development Fund, Craig Paulsen oversaw the restoration work by stabilizing the rock-work, re-pointing brick and masonry, and completing a massive overhaul.

I personally think that one of the most important reasons that the University of Utah is a steward of this important site, is that at the time of the kiln’s final abandonment in 1906, four hundred University of Utah students hauled buckets of lime from this site to complete the first whitewash of the “U”. This tradition continued for many years before the University of Utah converted the “U” to concrete and switched to paint. According to the May 5, 1906 Salt Lake Tribune article, “The new ‘U’ is larger than the old, it is better shaped…and [can] be plainly seen from any part of the valley”. Since this point in history, the lime kilns and this area became part of the University’s heritage.

Unfortunately, since that time, the kiln has seen a lot of negative attention from visitors cutting the metal grates covering the chimneys and archways, spray painting graffiti on its carefully restored walls, the constant dumping of garbage into the loading bays, and various other illicit and illegal activities. Meanwhile hundreds, if not thousands of others, pass through this site while recreating without truly knowing the history of this important corner of Salt Lake Valley. State History has worked closely with the University of Utah’s Planning Department to think of creative ways to protect this piece of history, but it will take many hands and dollars to not only clean up the current trash and restore the site, but to actively manage visitor use for the next generation.