The Walls of New England: A Forgotten Wonder of the World

  Make a list of our monuments to the dead. Start small with the headstones in the village cemetery and move to statues in the public square and civic buildings with great names affixed above the door. Then add the obelisks and marble mausoleums and Rushmores and pyramids of presidents and kings.

It is an impressive list. Yet it is dwarfed by monuments we see every day that stand in testament to one of the most heroic and back-breaking construction efforts in history: New England’s stone walls.

In November, after the curtain of leaves has been drawn from the woodlands, we once again see the old stone walls tracing the boundaries of lives lived long ago when our forests were the pastures and fields of our ancestors. The walls stand pretty much as they stood 250 years ago when they were built to specifications defined by property rights and the wanderlust of livestock. And what a construction project it was.

No one has taken a recent inventory of these colonial stone walls, but in 1939 a mining engineer using historical data from the US Department of Agriculture estimated that there are 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, which would stretch nearly ten times around the earth’s equator or all the way to the moon at its closet approach — that is if the walls were all in a straight line. But as we know, there is no such thing as a straight line in New England.

In 1871, the US Department of Agriculture reported on the Statistics of Fences in the United States. Susan Allport’s classic history of stone walls in New England and New York, Sermons In Stone, notes that at the time of that federal fence survey, New England and New York State had more miles of stone wall than the United States has miles of railroad track today. Ms Allport also offers this incredible calculation: “The work that went into them, according to one estimate, would have built the pyramids of Egypt one hundred times over.”

You can often tell whether a particular wall was created to enclose pastureland or cropland by looking at the stones in it.

The walls that merely marked boundaries or enclosed livestock were often made of stones uniform in size, reflecting the selective preference of the person building the wall. Stones that did not satisfy that preference were left behind in the field.

The stone walls built at the edges of cultivated fields, however, often have a greater variety of stone sizes from full-fledged boulders to smaller stones dragged up from the soil indiscriminately by the plow; all the stones, regardless of size, were cleared from the field so the plow would not have to contend with them the following season.

New England’s soil is constantly in motion, however, and a new crop of stones is fetched up each spring thanks to the perpetual cycle of freeze and thaw at this latitude. The stones are the calling cards left behind 13,000 years ago by the mother of all thaws, the melting Laurentian Ice Sheet, which dropped a load of granite it scraped off the mountaintops in Vermont and New Hampshire that was headed for the terminal moraines of Cape Cod and Long Island.

Stone walls are now as much a part of New England’s identity as the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, or Cape Cod. They have settled into the landscape and seem as natural and organic a part of the scenery as the hills themselves. The walls are truly monuments to the grit and tenacity of their builders, long dead and now forgotten, who followed the simple formula of dry stone masonry day in, day out, year in, year out: one stone over two; two stones over one. Stone by stone, they built one of the great wonders of the world.

Centuries pass, generations pass, and most of the hubbub associated with human life rises up and falls down over and over again. Yet employing only gravity and friction, the stone walls of New England still stand as monuments to their builders.

About Curtiss Clark

Curtiss Clark lives in western Connecticut with his wife, Kate, at the intersection of two country roads where many living things cross paths. He is a retired newspaper editor.
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13 Responses to The Walls of New England: A Forgotten Wonder of the World

  1. Bill says:

    I’m fascinated with the stone walls in the northeast. I’ve spent countless hours wandering along their corridors through hardwood forests. The work that took to build them, especially without machinery, is mind boggling. Some walls are art forms, still perfectly in tact after a hundred and fifty years of nonuse. Other walls, hastily thrown together, are just as interesting as they wander along irregular planes in the woods.

    Nice article. Thanks.

  2. Elroy Timone says:

    I really cherish this blog. We wish we could come here everyday\all day.

  3. Timothy Gorman says:

    I live in Upstate NY,
    I never gave “New England stone walls” much thought until my father in-law (70 years old) started building some decorative stone walls for us. I love the way they look and the fact that they are a rural New England thing makes it even better.
    Thanks for the writeup.

  4. Larry says:

    I lived just a few minutes from the Appalachian Trail in Orange County NY. We constantly came across these stone walls while out hiking, and I was always curious about them. They seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but I now realize it wasn’t “nowhere” when they were built. It’s fascinating to think about the time and effort spent building them, and the people who undertook such a task. If only they could talk! Great article.

  5. Pingback: The World According To Suz » The Pact

  6. Alan says:

    I used to own land in Vermont. Looking at the stone walls built where no one now would have agriculture makes you respect the hard work of those people. Some of the stones in the walls weighed over a ton. The stones and the walls tell a story for those who have eyes to see. One wall went out and disappeared in the swamp. Back in the day that must have been drained and been a fertile pasture.

  7. kevin mack says:

    have you lost your mind. These stone walls are thousands of years old. They were not built by colonial americans. They were here long before the white settelers were here. and the indians did not build them either. I have lived in Vt. all my life, and have seen many ,many odd stone structures. These walls and other standing stones and stone buildings were built by some ancient race, for what purpose, I do not know.

  8. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’ve googled this subject arduously for the last couple of days, and cannot find a definitive and/or agreed upon explanation of how they were built. I can imagine how farmers 200-400 years ago cleared the land of stones with the help of oxen. But how did they place the stone on the walls? In particular, huge stones the size of a large, rubber, bouncy ball… how, without machinery, could a rock that size be lifted up on top of other stones already placed on the wall? We’ve conjectured block and tackle, tripods, even such a tool as a Tre Bou ais in modified form, which are all plausible. But does anybody know how they were actually built? There has to be lore passed down from those times.

  9. Sarah,

    A book on Early American Tools by Eric Sloane has an entry on the stone and fence levers jacks farmers used to remove stones from their fields and to construct stone fences. The tools were rudmentary, but effective and would allow a single person to move and position some very heavy stones.
    I am sending you a photo of two pertinent pages from Sloane’s book in a separate email.

  10. Dan says:

    These stone walls were built by the farmers back when there wasn’t any trees in the area, like there is now. The stones were laid down by the great flood on Noah’s day. They would gather the stones into piles then move them to their boundaries by horse and wagon.

  11. Peter Jörgensen says:

    If you calculate the number of hours it would take to build all of the stone structures, walls, cairns, etc. in New England by hand and draught animal power alone you so realize that these stone structures were not all or even mostly built be Western European settlers. In addition, there is little or no record in journals, or other records of that period describing the building of stone walls.

  12. Aj says:

    At least 90 % of these are pre Columbian and NOT built by native American….if built in colonial times,they would need to average 2ft per second for 250+ yrs….these are thousands of years old !

  13. Ken says:

    People dream up some fanciful stuff. As noted these walls were simply thrown up as the fields were cleared of stones. There were enough of them to use as material for walls and fences so they used them. Simple as that. It’s easy to support this common sense answer by rooting around one. Most all you find is of European origin.

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