How a special rock became a landmark

Varick Chittenden

“North country on the Rocks!”

That sounds like a tabloid headline for some kind of disaster set to befall us. Or maybe it’s a fancy new cocktail, created by a local bartender with a sense of humor. Not this time. This time it’s really about rocks — outcroppings, road cuts, boulders — that are a significant part of the local landscape north of Albany.

Field guides tell us that the oldest bedrock formations in Upstate New York are from the Precambrian age — as old as 3,800 million years — but it may come as a relief to some that most of the state is blanketed with Ice Age sediments that are a mere few thousand years old.

For those who have inhabited the north country in the last two centuries, rocks and minerals have been valuable resources. Like the virgin timber that provided easily accessible building materials, native stone was here in rich variety, as well. At first, settlers used fieldstone gathered nearby to build simple cottages and sturdy gristmills or blacksmith shops. With the Industrial Age came heavy, specialized equipment, capable of digging, cutting and moving raw materials for a golden age of extractive industries in the Adirondacks and the  St. Lawrence Valley that lasted for nearly a century. There were quarries for sandstone in Potsdam and Burke, limestone in Jefferson County and the Champlain Valley, Lake Placid granite, Gouverneur marble and Granville slate. Men with experience in cutting and building with stone came from places like Scotland, Italy, Poland and Wales to live and work.

After the Civil War, grand buildings suddenly appeared in many of our small towns and villages — churches, town halls, factories, college dormitories and elegant mansions — in a plethora of Victorian architectural styles. Made of soft gray limestone, subtle yellow or pink or brilliant red sandstone, red or green slate, white or dark gray marble or creative combinations, they were built to last and to assert that the north country had arrived.  One of my graduate school professors, folklorist Bruce Buckley, once declared that there are a higher percentage of stone structures in upstate New York than anywhere else in America.

I’ve always been fascinated by another north country phenomenon — the roadside boulder. There are plenty of them and most, I’ve learned, are beloved and the subject of lots of local stories.

For a long time, the locals have ignored geologists’ nomenclature in favor of popular talk. Most are given names that simply describe — Battleship Rock, Elephant Rock, Pig Rock, Haystack Rock, Pulpit Rock — and all have colorful stories that make them special to the people who know them.

To continue reading, please subscribe or purchase a copy of NNY Living at your local Big M Supermarket.

Varick Chittenden is a folklorist, the founding director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. He lives in St. Lawrence County.