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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Priesthood goers begin lining up on Temple Square during the second session of the 181st Annual General Conference Saturday, April 2, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — If the walls of the Salt Lake Temple could talk, they'd likely tell fascinating stories of thousands of workers who brought tons of raw stone from nearby canyons and spent countless hours dressing and fitting it, fashioning it as part of the unique building the temple is.

Saturday, between the morning and afternoon sessions of general conference, LDS historian, educator and author Paul Thomas Smith visited the Church History Museum to recount how frontier workmen using frontier technology built an amazing edifice. He drew on expertise he gained lecturing on the subject for 17 years at the Temple Quarry Nature Trail, a BLM historic site in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

"Brigham Young always knew a temple would be built," said Smith.

One of the church leader's first actions, only days after arriving in Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, was to identify the location of the future temple. He planted his cane firmly into the ground at the foot of Ensign Peak and declared "here we will build a temple to the Lord."

President Young had seen the temple in vision and his hope was that it would be completed within four years. In reality, the task stretched to 40, with the dedication taking place on April 5, 1893, almost 16 years after his death.

The challenges were enormous. A population swelling by the thousands every year and isolated from the rest of the country needed basic necessities. A temple might have seemed only a nice future goal at the time. Nevertheless, in 1853, discussions began as to what materials they could use in the temple's construction. Adobe brick was the building block most used in pioneer edifices. Red sandstone was considered as well. But Brigham's counselor and ultimate successor, Wilford Woodruff, also had seen visions of the temple-to-be, and he would not give up the dream of a glorious building of "white and blue stones," Smith said.

The pioneers were blessed with resources natural to their new home. Nearby canyons of the Wasatch Mountains were rich in quartz monzonite, which closely resembles marble. So in 1860, when James Canfield Livingston, a British convert with some knowledge of quarries, was given the task, he turned to this natural trove. His workers were mainly Scots, English and Welshmen who were familiar with marble buildings or with mining practices.

Nature had given the workers another break. In the last Ice Age, large chunks of the material had broken from the canyon walls and was deposited on the canyon floors. But chopping these mammoth rocks into manageable pieces to cart to the city was a daunting challenge. Crews first made a straight chalk line on the rock, then began the tedious work of driving drills into the line at intervals. "One held the drill — and exercised his faith — while his partner struck the drill with a sledge hammer," Smith said. After each blow the drill was rotated a quarter turn. An instrument with a tiny bowl at the end was used to scoop debris out of the hole. Ultimately the rocks split along the drill line.

"We don't know how long it took" Smith said. But by such small increments, four-foot-square blocks weighing some 760 pounds each were teased out of the granite. Breaking the block into usable and finished 14-inch segments was the next step and could take up to a month.

The next challenge was how to get the weighty blocks back to the city. Initially, mule- or oxen-drawn wagons were used. Occasionally, a block was broken and the pieces discarded along the way, to be found by later settlers of the south valley area, he said.

In the South Visitor Center on Temple Square, a current display on the quarrying process features an 1893 quote from Annie Wells Cannon: "I remember the sight of the great stones, one at a time being hauled along the road by two yoke of oxen, and we would all stand for them to pass with a feeling of awe and reverence."

President Young believed a canal could be built to float blocks to the building site. But after spending 10 years building a canal from Big Cottonwood Canyon to City Creek, the pioneer builders were stymied by an alluvial fan at the base of Parley's Canyon that sucked up large amounts of water, interrupting the flow.

The next break came with the building of the Wasatch and Jordan Valley narrow gauge railroad, which eventually went seven miles up the canyon, Smith said. Built by non-church interests that were interested in bringing silver ore out of the mountains, it served the needs of temple-building nicely. It took just four hours to bring a block to the temple site, Smith said. Some 60,000 pounds of granite made the trip, and a photo from the era shows hundreds of white humps of stone and dozens of workers breaking it into usable building blocks.?

"The railroad changed everything," he said. The long delays in temple-building actually were blessings, Smith said, because of the technological advances of the late 19th century.

Besides the regular workers assigned to build the temple, hundreds of priesthood members were called on. Some were expected to "tithe" their time to help in the work.

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Another bit of good luck came from the much-despised U.S. Army fort in Cedar Valley. The arrival of the U.S. troops in the mid-1850s was one of the disturbing events in Utah Territory history. Fearing there could be an all-out confrontation, church leaders had the budding temple buried to protect it from the enemy. There was no direct confrontation, and the Saints ultimately benefited when the Army unit was pulled back east to fight in the Civil War. The church acquired a large number of wagons that were used to transport granite blocks.

A day before the 1893 temple dedication, church leaders invited some 5,000 non-LDS residents of the area to tour the building. Their reports were unanimously positive, Smith said, even though many had been vocal enemies of the church.

"Brigham Young wanted a temple that would stand until the millennium," said Smith. "He got one."