New England stone walls are as distinctive a feature of the landscape as bayous in Louisiana or redwoods in California. Hundreds of thousands of miles of them criss-cross the region like so much grillwork.
They marked boundaries, protected crops from livestock and inspired poems about mending them. Who doesn’t know the opening line to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
And the last line:
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Here are some more facts about the iconic New England land form.
1. Narragansetts built stone walls in Rhode Island.
The early colonists hired Narragansett people to build them before King Philip’s War. After the war, the colonists just enslaved them and forced them to do it.
Colonist Daniel Gookin wrote two books about New England’s native people in the 17th century. Of the Narragansetts, he wrote,: “they are an active, laborious, and ingenious people; which is demonstrated in their labours they do for the English; of whom more are employed, especially in making stone fences, and many other hard labours, than of any other Indian people or neighbours.
They had a long history of building with stone, having created structures in Rhode Island that mystify people today. The Queen’s Fort in Exeter, for example, perhaps sheltered King Philip during the war named after him, Or maybe it was built for the Narragansett queen Quaiapen.
Tarzan Brown, the legendary Narragansett Boston Marathon winner, worked as a stone mason.
2. New England’s stone walls could reach to the moon.
A mining engineer named Oliver Bowles in 1939 figured there are about 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England. That’s twice as long as the U.S. coastline – including Alaska and Hawaii.
The densest concentration of New England stone walls goes along the Connecticut coast to Portland, Maine, and then inland about 100 miles.
3. Stamford, CT, crushed stone walls for roads.
Streets in Stamford, Conn., are made of old stone walls. Road crews crushed old stone walls to make them into roads. The city bought a rock crusher in 1909 for $2,011 to save money on road building.
The Guide to Nature magazine explained the rationale in 1914.
Everywhere in New England there are plenty of stone walls but in many places there are not good roads. So, as the old-fashioned saying goes, why not let one hand wash the other; that is grind up a few of the stone walls and improve some of the roads? Far be it from us to advocate banishing all the picturesque stone walls, but there is no danger of doing that, for a few stone walls go a long way in making enduring roads.
At the time of the article, Stamford road crews had built eight miles of roads. The Stamford Historical Society reports the following streets were made from stonewalls: Hope Street, from North Springdale to the Glenbrook trolley junction, and Crescent Street and Courtland Avenue, Glenbrook, Newfield Avenue, Belltown Road and Oaklawn Road.
4. The Crude Wall in Concord started Transcendentalism.
According to Robert Thorson, the world’s leading expert on New England stone walls, says the Crude Wall at the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., ranks as the most important.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and his forbears – Puritan ministers and their families – lived in the old house for centuries. William Emerson watched the Battle of Concord from his field, the rest of his family from an upstairs window. When the British retreated, patriots shot at them from behind the wall. A stone marks the spot where the regulars perished.
His grandson, the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, also lived there until he rented it to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride in 1842. Thorson maintains the wall is important because it inspired Emerson – Ralph Waldo – to write the essay Nature in 1836. Nature set the stage for the Transcendentalist movement that followed.
5. The Cliff Walk in Newport RI has the tallest stone wall.
The Cliff Walk is a 3.5-mile public right-of-way over private lands — including properties developed by Gilded Age millionaires. It offers stunning views of Narragansett Bay, which some Gilded Age millionaires wanted to keep for themselves.
King Charles II granted “Fishermen’s Rights” in a colonial charter. The Rhode Island Constitution also give the public “rights of fishery and the privileges of the shore to which they have heertofore been entitled.”
Originally it was just a path along the shore. Then people started rearranging stones, while some owners made their walls neater. Some even made tunnels and bridges along the path.
Serious work on the Cliff Walk started around 1880, when owners of the adjoining estates improved the path piecemeal.
The Depression put a stop to further development of the Cliff Walk. Then hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 damaged the wall. In 1975, a committee headed by socialite Klaus von Bulow and Mayor Humphrey Donnelly got money from the city, state and federal governments to restore the walk. A few years later von Bulow was convicted of murdering his wife, but exonerated on appeal.
In 2022, a 20-foot section of the wall collapsed after battering from winter storms.
6. The Golden Age of stone wall building was 1775-1825.
Thorson explains that wall building didn’t really get going until the Revolutionary Era. He cites a couple of reasons. First, the earliest settlers had farmed communally, sharing pasturelands (think Boston Common). That meant they had no need for boundary markers. Secondly, the earth hadn’t thrown up that many stones until then.
Stones move to the surface because the earth freezes and then the soil swells upward. We call those bumps (often in the road) frost heaves. Forested land doesn’t freeze as deeply as meadows or pastures.
New England farmers began to clearcut a lot of land. They needed fields for their crops and livestock, and they needed wood to build their houses and barns. Then they had to heat them. It was, after all, the Little Ice Age.
Once the land was clearcut, frost heaves pushed up rocks through the soil. So the farmers, maybe with the help of a couple of oxen, hauled the stones from the field and dumped them in piles on the edge of their pastures and fields. Thorson calls them linear landfills. Later, some of them went back and relaid them more carefully.
7. The first recorded stone wall in New England was built in 1607.
The Popham colonists in Maine. The Popham Colony was a year-long effort to establish a British colony in Phippsburg at the mouth of the Kennebec River. It began in the summer of 1607 and ended a year later in 1608. For one harsh winter a group of English settlers tried to stick it out at a small fort they built.
They did manage to build the first ocean-going vessel in North America, the pinnace Virginia. The colonists also celebrated the first European-style Thanksgiving in America. And they built the first known stone wall. A visitor to the old site in the 1620s reported “Rootes and Garden Hearbes and some old Walls” left behind.
Images: Frost homestead By Sedrik Spaulding – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95657256. Cliff Walk steps by Ben + Sam via Flickr, CC By-SA 2.0. Exeter, R.I. stone wall By JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ, M.D. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49496088. Claus von Bulow By Open Media Ltd. – Open Media Ltd., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75646153. Eastern Connecticut stone fences, Stone fences, Delano: Delano, Jack, photographer. Eastern Connecticut landscape showing stone fences. Near Baltic, Connecticut. United States Baltic Connecticut New London County, 1940. Nov. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017792626/. Aerial view of Cliff Walk Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of Newport on Aquidneck Island in the U.S. state of Rhode Island, with a focus on some of the elegant properties along the famous Cliff Walk. United States Newport Newport County Rhode Island, 2018. -07-29. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018700542/. Haley’s farm stone wall Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Stone walls on Haley’s farm in Connecticut. United States Connecticut, 2011. September. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012630478/.