Etched in stone
For more than a century the Gillis family has quarried the stone used in the construction of iconic buildings in Manitoba and beyond
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/09/2017 (1963 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It is a building material unique to Manitoba and so prevalent in the province’s architectural landscape we often don’t give it a second thought.
Tyndall stone is a type of limestone that formed 450 million years ago along the sea floor of a prehistoric inland lake that once covered Manitoba.
Buff or grey coloured, depending how far down you quarry, it is instantly recognizable by its distinctive dark, mottled pattern caused by prehistoric creatures burrowing their way through the forming rock. If you look closely, your patience will be rewarded with the fossilized remnants of sea life.
Long before there were commercial quarries for the stone, settlers were already familiar with the material. Its earliest known application is at Lower Fort Garry in 1832, used in the construction of some of its buildings and its massive stone walls.
William Garson is credited with setting up the first large-scale commercial quarry for the stone in 1898 at what is now known as Garson, Man., about 40 km northeast of Winnipeg.
Abi Auld, an architectural researcher who has conducted Tyndall stone architecture walking tours in Winnipeg and is currently writing a book about the history of the building material, explains why Garson is “ground zero” for the product, even to this day: “The stone outcrop at Garson really is the local limestone most suited for dressed stone, (cladding), because of its aesthetic quality but also because it was deposited in deep beds that are easily extracted in large blocks.”
When asked why a stone that has always been quarried at Garson is named for Tyndall, a community seven kilometers away, Auld says it had to do with its transportation.
The nearest rail station from which the stone could be shipped, she says, was at Tyndall. “The bills of lading noted ‘limestone’ shipped from the Tyndall station. So, it became known as ‘limestone from Tyndall’ and eventually, Tyndall limestone or Tyndall stone.”
It took just a few years for Tyndall stone to become the must-have material used on significant buildings throughout the province.
Samuel Hooper, Manitoba’s first provincial architect, designed his first building in that role, the Winnipeg Land Titles Building of 1904, in Tyndall Stone and relied on it extensively in projects throughout the province during his tenure.
In the decade that followed, Winnipeg’s skyline filled with dozens of signature Tyndall stone buildings, including the city’s first library on William Avenue, Union Station, the Law Courts Building, the Hotel Fort Garry and, of course, the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Tyndall stone’s reach also went beyond Manitoba’s borders. The Saskatchewan Legislature, construction of which began in 1908, is built from the Tyndall stone and when the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa had to be rebuilt after the disastrous 1916 fire, it was chosen to adorn much of the building’s dramatic interior.
Due to its sudden popularity, a number of quarries appeared on the scene at Garson. From the 1910s through to the 1950s there were usually three or four in operation at any one time. One of them was Gillis Quarries, which still exists today and is the only large-scale commercial producer of the stone.
The roots of Gillis Quarries date back to the early 1900s when August Gillis and his family arrived in Winnipeg from their native Belgium, settling in what would have been a semi-rural part of Winnipeg’s West End. August got into the stonecutting trade and by 1910 opened his first shop.
Five years later, the Gillis family went from stone cutters to producers when they purchased the assets of an existing quarry at Garson and renamed it August Gillis and Sons. It became Gillis Quarries Ltd. after August’s death in 1922.
Through the 1920s, Tyndall stone expanded its national reach when large retailers took notice of it.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, chose it for its Winnipeg store in 1925. This led to its use on other HBC properties, mainly in Western Canada.
In 1928, Eaton’s announced Tyndall stone would be the primary stone used on its new Toronto flagship store. Fred Pugh, head of research for the company, was so impressed with the material, he made presentations in various cities extolling its virtues. “In every case where the stone had been subjected to frost, acid and other tests, it was demonstrated clearly the Manitoba product was superior in every way,” was his conclusion.
Pugh’s enthusiasm ensured Tyndall Stone was used on a number of other Eaton’s properties across the country.
Back at home, over the decades thousands of Tyndall stone buildings, residential and commercial, have been constructed, including our most iconic structures, from the Civic Centre to the Winnipeg Art Gallery and, most recently, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The Gillis Quarries story that began with August Gillis at Garson in 1915 is still being told more than a century later by the fourth generation of the family, which now runs the company.
As the decades went on, Gillis Quarries Ltd. purchased the assets of the other quarries around it as they came up for sale. By the mid-1970s, they were the only large-scale quarrier and fabricator of the material. In 1995, the company even trademarked the phrase “Tyndall Stone.”
For those who love Tyndall stone, or Tyndall Stone®, there is good news. Of the 1,600 acres of quarryable land that Gillis Quarries owns, only about 300 acres have been quarried to date. That means there’s enough Tyndall stone to continue to fill our skyline for generations to come.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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Updated on Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:33 AM CDT: Corrects reference to prehistoric lake.