The sandstone quarries located in and around Lyons, Colorado, flourished in two different periods of the town’s history. Each of these “heydays” produced very different products for different kinds of markets.
The Boom Era began with the demand for paved streets and sidewalks beginning in the 1880s. Edward S. Lyon founded the town of Lyons as a base for his quarrying enterprise. With its strong, uniform slabs, Lyons sandstone seemed the ideal material to pave American cities. Unfortunately for Lyons and his partners, they faced stiff competition from the Union Pacific Railroad, which opened its own sandstone quarries west of Fort Collins. It took Hugh Murphy, an Omaha paving contractor, to bring rail transportation to Lyons and to ship Lyons paving stones to Omaha and the rest of urban America. In 1884, Murphy had bought Lyon’s quarry on the northwest fringe of Lyons and turned it into a viable commercial enterprise. Others jumped on the bandwagon and began quarrying in Noland, Beech Hill, and Steamboat Mountain. They brought in sturdy Finns and Swedes to quarry the stone and to populate the booming towns, among them the Loukonens and Ohlines, who were to play a major role throughout Lyons sandstone development.
The introduction of asphalt and concrete in the early decades of the new century brought the promising industry to an abrupt halt. In 1916, Murphy sold his quarries to his superintendant, John Campbell Brodie, who survived mostly through crushed sandstone for road bases.
Because of its thin layers, Lyons sandstone had never been a popular component for buildings. That began to change in the 1920s when the architects Day and Klauder created a new style for the University of Colorado’s expansion. They chose Lyons sandstone and emphasized its rugged Western character that lent itself well to functional, unaffected design. However, the University chose to open quarries in Boulder, all but excluding the Lyons quarries from participation.
After World War II, the Lyons quarries nearly died, but an eccentric couple, Dewey and May Summers, retired to Colorado from California and realized the commercial potential of Lyons sandstone. Elsewhere in the country, tastes had changed. Suburban lifestyles with its patios and family homes had emerged. Summers marketed the stone in California and re-opened quarries all around Lyons. Before long, the quarrymen could hardly keep up with the demand. The lure of work brought Mexicans to the quarries, including the Vasquez family.
Summers had heard of an inventor in the Missouri granite industry who had built a machine that could cut hard stone precisely and at an unprecedented rate. He invited Chris Jenkins to set up shop in Lyons. This changed everything. Both the demand and ensured supply sent Lyons sandstone surging throughout the world.
Written by Al Pace, author of "History of the Lyons Sandstone Quarries"
Photos courtesy of Lyons Redstone Museum