Cottage Grove's historic 1840s limestone kiln collapses after flooding

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2014 - 11:50 PM

The 1840s landmark came tumbling down along a channel of the Mississippi.

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Floodwaters appear to have eroded the foundation of this limestone kiln, an important remnant of early Minnesota industry.

Photo: Jim Anderson • jim.anderson@startribune.com,

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Smoke first billowed from the stone bulwark of Grey Cloud Lime Kiln at least a dozen years before there was a state called Minnesota, when the wail of steamboat whistles echoed off the nearby Mississippi River bluffs.

The kiln labored through the Civil War, burned on as the area was transformed from wilderness to farmland and kept on going right into the 20th century.

By 1902, the kiln — believed to have been built in 1846 to process limestone and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — closed and the fires stopped.

Yet it remained a landmark, weathering more than 160 years of blizzards, thunderstorms and floods.

Then came June 2014.

With near-record rainfall, and floodwaters from the Mississippi’s Grey Cloud Island channel lapping at its foundation, three walls of the kiln toppled in a heap of rubble and limestone powder that was still inside from 1902.

Now the future of the structure — believed to be the first of Minnesota’s National Register sites destroyed by nature — as a protected piece of history is in question.

‘Pride and joy’

“It’s a tragedy,” said Marge Schmaltz, 94, who has lived on the channel-front property where the kiln is located since 1961 and who plans to bequeath her entire property to the state. “I think it just came down to old age and all that water seeping in.”

For Schmaltz and her late husband, Otto, the kiln was an old friend, a big part of why they were drawn to build a house at the site in south Cottage Grove that is separated by the river channel from Grey Cloud Island.

Otto Schmaltz built walking paths around the kiln, along with a rock cairn for displaying the plaque describing its history. He also installed two spotlights to play on it at night.

“That was his pride and joy,” Marge Schmaltz said.

For Kyle Dippel, whose family had a house next door and who moved back to the area 20 years ago, the loss is also personal.

“You get these feelings for landmarks you grew up with as a child,” he said. “You just always want them to be around.”

Dippel said that he and his cousin loved to play at the kiln but that they weren’t allowed by their parents to go through one of the three arched portals for fear the kiln might collapse. The portals were capped by keystones, and the kiln was built of massive, square-hewn limestone boulders.

Dippel marvels at the 20-foot-square, 35-foot-tall structure, built by unknown pioneers without the aid of engineers or architects.

“How the heck did they do that?” Dippel said. “It’s almost like the way they built the pyramids — only a small one.”

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  • related content

  • Video: A look inside the Grey Cloud Lime Kiln

    Tuesday July 1, 2014

  • Grey Cloud Island in Cottage Grove has an early industrial site. Overlooking Grey Cloud Channel, the Grey Cloud Lime Kiln (on the National Register of Historic Places) dates back to at least 1846. It burned limestone rock to produce quicklime, used for mortar, plaster and fertilizer.

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