I visited a rail trail recently that I hadn’t been on for many years. This is where we start; at the depot in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other notables passed this way on their way north out of Fitchburg, Massachusetts to the town of Troy, New Hampshire where they then hiked to Mount Monadnock to climb it.
This depot still has its colored glass signals on top of a high pole. The meaning of three of the colors is much the same today as it was then; green meant it was safe to proceed, yellow meant an impending stop or speed reduction, and red meant come to a full stop. Blue meant that another track met the track you were on. Purple was used for derails at one time, but became obsolete. Amber was used in foggy conditions and white or clear meant restricted conditions. These colors are also still used by railroads today. Since I’m color blind I’ll let you sort out which is which on this signal.
I was surprised-actually shocked is more accurate-to find pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule) still blooming out here, and they were everywhere. These plants have bloomed longer this year than I’ve ever seen. It could be because of the cool, damp weather we’ve had but I don’t really know.
Before you’ve walked too far you come to a pond, and as you look around you see that things aren’t quite right. Nowhere else in this part of the state that I know of will you see piles of granite lining the shore of a pond like they do here. I wonder what Thoreau thought of them.
Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) grows on the banks of the pond. As I walked toward it to get some photos I startled a young mallard. It couldn’t fly but it sure could swim in circles fast and made quite a racket. I felt bad about scaring it so I took a couple of quick shots of this beautiful laurel and left.
If you know the way to get to it, you can find an old abandoned granite quarry out in these woods. I always wondered what happened to the excess granite in a granite quarry, and now I know. When they weren’t dumping it on the shores of the pond they were stacking it up to make walls. This one was at least 10 feet high and 3 times as long.
Fitzwilliam granite is of very fine grain and has an even color and a very low iron content, which means it doesn’t stain and discolor over time. Some of the buildings that were built with Fitzwilliam granite are the State Capitol of Albany, N.Y., the Public Library at Natick, Mass., the Union Depot and Court House in Worcester, Mass., the Union Station, Washington, D.C., Marshall Field’s, Chicago, Ill., and the City Hall and Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ.
This bent iron rod in a block of granite was about an inch in diameter and my arm would have fit into the opening it made right up to the shoulder, with room to spare.
I was surprised to find beautifully carved granite out in these woods. In the 1800s this was done with hammers and chisels, but the really remarkable thing about the French cove carving shown here is how it was carved into a curved block of stone. It’s hard to see in the photo but as you look down the length of the carving the far end is lower than in the foreground, so the block was cut into a large radius with a molded edge added. It must have been meant for a building. Too bad to do all that work and then just leave it here.
The granite industry was very important to Fitzwilliam for more than 50 years and many of the stonecutters that settled here were from Scotland. At their peak about 400 men worked the quarries. Stonecutters were paid a minimum of $2.00 per day.
Beavers miscalculated and felled this tree in the wrong direction so it got hung up on others that were still standing.
If the beavers had made their cut on the other side of the tree it would have dropped right into this granite quarry, which is now filled with water. A quarry in an area with a shallow water table begins to fill with groundwater almost as soon as it is started and has to be continually pumped out while the stone is being quarried. In the early 1800s windmills or steam engines often powered the pumps but they could only do so much. As the quarry gets deeper more and more groundwater flows in and when it becomes too difficult or too expensive to pump it out it is abandoned and fills with water. You can see large blocks of granite and trees just under the surface a few feet out from shore. These hidden objects make this a very dangerous place to swim, but I and many others used to do so.
For some reason the workmen went to all the trouble of splitting this huge block of granite and then left it here. Lucky for us though, because it illustrates perfectly how feathers and wedges were used to split stone. First, 3-4 inch deep holes were drilled (by hand) in a line where the split was to take place. Then feathers and wedges were placed into each hole and tapped down with a hammer until the stone split.
This photo from Wikipedia shows various sizes of feathers and wedges. The curved pieces are the feathers and the wedge is driven in between them. As happens in splitting wood, the force from the wedges being driven ever deeper splits the stone.
This photo shows the half holes that remain after the stone is split. Most were about as long as, and the same diameter as my pointing finger. There was once a railroad spur that connected this quarry to the rail line that ran near here but its presence has all but disappeared. Quarries boomed by the mid-1800s, producing paving blocks for previously rutted and mucky city streets. Many millions of 4″ X 8″ X 11” cobblestones were produced in quarries all over New England.
During its operation a lot of granite was taken from this quarry. Some of the ledges in this photo are 100 or more feet from the water. To give you some sense of scale-that’s a full size white pine tree leaning against that far wall. Since I fell out of a tree and shattered my spine when young I wasn’t able to jump from anything much higher than the soles of my shoes, but I used to swim here nonetheless and I’ve seen many people jump from those ledges. I remember being told that the water was hundreds of feet deep and that there were cranes and steam shovels and even cars that you would get tangled up in if you swam in the wrong places, and I remember the feeling of apprehension that came over me whenever I swam here. If the truth were told I never really did enjoy it much, but being able to overcome your fears is powerful medicine for a teenage boy.
Recently some professional divers dove here to see what they could find and their report was what you’d expect; silt covered granite under water about 40 feet deep, with some pocket change glistening on the stones. There were no steam shovels, cranes or cars down there.
Today all of the old ghosts have evaporated from this place and it seems much like any other swimming hole, but no shouts bounced off the granite walls and nobody swam. As I sat on a sun warmed slab of granite I thought back to an old Twilight Zone episode in which the residents of an old folks’ home became children again by playing the games that they’d played in their youth. But even so, I didn’t swim either.
No matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. ~Haruki Murakami
Thanks for stopping in.