Sunday, December 24, 2023

Santa Knox

     What's on your Christmas wish list?

     59 pieces of artillery?

     I hope not. 

     But in the early winter of 1775, cannons were exactly what General George Washington was longing for. The British were occupying Boston, and the American colonists wanted them out of there. While our army held the higher ground above the city, they didn't have the firepower to take advantage of their position. What they needed weighted 60 tons and was 300 rugged miles away: heavy weaponry captured by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and Seth Warner from the forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point earlier in the year.

The Americans capturing Fort Ti
web image

     Fortunately for General Washington (and for America's independence), a 25 year old Boston bookseller had the Christmas spirit. He said, "No problem George. I'll get them for you." His name was Henry Knox and what he accomplished over the next two months has been hailed "one of the most stupendous feats of logistics" of the entire war. Knox's "noble train of artillery" went thru our area (Lake George and the upper Hudson Valley) about this time of year and it's a good time to remember (and honor) the heroism of our ancestors.


     First let me recommend two websites I consulted, then we'll take a closer look at the Washington County segment of Knox's expedition. Here you will find a good overview of the event and here is a guide to the monuments that mark the route. There are 30 (32?) of these monuments in New York and another 27 in Massachusetts. They were originally placed in 1926-27. I've found three in Washington County with several more nearby in Glens Falls and Schuylerville.

Cannons at reconstructed Fort Ti
web image

     Knox arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 6, 1775 and immediately began moving cannons using boats on the La Chute River, then ox carts to Lake George before transferring to boats again for the trip down the lake to where Lake George Village is now. This was a trying ordeal with cold and headwinds, boats running aground and boats sinking, all with the looming specter of the lake freezing over and trapping them. Finally, by mid-December all the cannon made it to the south end of the lake and then the problem became waiting for enough snow to use sleds to move the heavy cargo over nearly non-existent roads.

A long, long way to go - northern Lake George

     80 yoke of oxen and 42 rugged sleds were needed so Knox went alone on foot and horseback towards Albany to procure them. He got more snow than he bargained for with a huge storm as he passed thru present day Schuylerville on his way south. Here is the Christmas Day excerpt from his journal: "...only got about 2 miles when our horses tir'd and refus'd to go any farter. I was then obliged to undertake a fatiguing march of about 4 miles in snow three feet deep thro' the woods there being no beaten path...I had almost perished with the cold." 

The Hudson River - Knox crossed here via ferry on Christmas Eve

      Lack of roads and bridges required several crossings of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. This was treacherous because they were iced over but hardly thick enough to support the weight of ox, sled and cannon. After several harrowing incidents all were finally beyond Albany on the east side of the river with 'only' the mountainous Taconics and Berkshires left to surmount. Surmounted they were and by late January Washington had his Christmas cannon. Once the artillery was set up the British got the message that they had wore out their welcome and quickly left the city, an event celebrated as Evacuation Day. The rest, as they say, is history.

web image


     It would be quite an adventure to follow the entire trail from Crown Point to Boston but you can easily trace the local section in less than an hour (although that feels like cheating compared to what Knox and his men endured). Here are a few of the local monuments: 

In front of the Hudson Falls Library
By the Fort Edward School

Along Rt. 4 at the turn-off to Fort Miller

At the pocket park in Northumberland, Saratoga County

Michelle Vara's whimsical sculpture celebrating the heroic event

Schuylerville at the south end of town

     In this gift giving season it's well to remember that the gift of liberty did not come easily. Wishing everyone a cozy, serene holiday.


     If you're in Northumberland to follow the Knox Trail you might want to check out the pocket park by the falls and possibly climb Starks Knob (short but steep). From the top you have a birdseye view of Knox's route from Lake George. I remember when the limestone slab on top of the Knob had a bronze plaque attached detailing the site's significance. Years ago miscreants decided to chisel it off and cart it away. I wonder what pleasure they got out of their strenuous (the thing had to be heavy) act of vandalism? It's not easy to preserve history. All the more reason to value the many monuments to the past found thru out our area. 

At the Northumberland pocket park

Starks Knob view

The pilfered bronze plaque has been replaced
with this less impressive one

Monday, December 18, 2023

Skipped Stones

     "You've got rocks in your head!"

     Not exactly a compliment, but in my case it's true. Ever since my last post about stone walls I've had a head full of rocks. They are items that were inadvertently omitted and have been rattling around my noggin ever since. Time to get them out of there and make room for other silly stuff. 


Content Farm entrance near Coila

     The Stone Trust in Dummerston, Vermont is a great resource. You can take workshops or connect with skilled craftsmen thru them. Browsing their photo galleries is inspiration and delight. 

A Stone Trust workshop

     I know there are local stone masons but unfortunately don't have any contact info. If you see a recently constructed wall or feature that you like, maybe try asking the homeowner who built it. Lot's of varieties of quarried stone available locally: of course there is slate around Granville, marble in western Vermont, gneiss and other hard rocks often marketed as granite along Rt. 4 between Fort Ann and Whitehall as well as sandstone and limestone. Gravel pits also separate out larger rocks for sale. These are often a mix of types that have been rounded by action of ice and water. I'm sure the Slate Valley Museum in Granville can help you find stone and people to work it. The Rt. 4 commercial stone yards will also know who to get in touch with. Here's a link to Champlain Stone's site to get you started.

From the Champlain Stone website


     For a quiet walk in woods laced with old stone walls there's no better place than New Skete in White Creek. At the Monastery find the trails on the right in back of the kennels. Wander and enjoy. And thank the Brothers who created and generously share these enchanting paths.

     If you have time to go further afield a visit to Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York can be a revelation. Here you can wander 6.5 acres of stone sculpted landscape created by Harvey Fite over the course of a lifetime. I believe they've closed for the season but the stone will be there waiting for you next spring.

     Finally, I want to share a photo of a rather nondescript wall that nonetheless is near and dear to my heart. This is one Gwenne and I built many years ago when we were young and foolish (now I'm just foolish). It framed the entrance to our first house in Bacon Hill. A simple structure but what a lot of work. Building it has given me tremendous respect and appreciation for everything created from stone that I've come across since.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023


     A long time ago there was a little boy who slept under a much loved quilt. It was his 'blankie'. That little boy was me and the quilt was nothing like the intricate works of art more at home hanging on a museum wall than covering a kid's bed. My quilt was a hand-me-down of random fabric scraps sewed to a sheet in a simple grid of squares with some kind of felt in between.


Beautiful but not mine

     I'm not really sure why I remember that quilt all these many years later. Maybe it was a connection to an all but forgotten ancestor (perhaps a great, great grandmother) so frugal that every bit of worn cloth was put to use. I can imagine her sitting by a kerosene lamp on long winter nights, cutting and stitching, slowly creating something that would be treasured for generations to come. Maybe it was the calming orderliness of the pattern, turning a hodge-podge of colorful cloth pieces into a coherent whole. Maybe it was just the way it made me, protected, cozy. Neither the cold nor the boogie man could get me when I snuggled under my quilt.

     Washington County's landscape is sometimes described as a patchwork quilt. Small fields and woodlots (the swatches of fabric) sewn together by stone walls and hedgerows (the stitching). It's a picturesque image best captured in the paintings of Grandma Moses.

Grandma Moses painting
From the web

     It's a landscape that proffers the same emotional comfort as my childhood blankie. Our forefathers carved out the fields, built the stone walls, brought a human scale to what once seemed like a vast, forbidding wilderness. They created a place that still feels protective and nurturing. To many, it just feels 'right'.

     While going thru my Washington County photos recently I was struck by how many of them included things built from bedrock. It as though those who came before us left their signature in stone. Lots of walls, of course, but other structures as well. In this post I want to take a look at this legacy. Let's call it a celebration of stone.


     You've probably heard the origin story of stone walls told something like this: the glaciers came, ripping and tearing at the earth beneath them as they plowed their way south. It was a cold crush until something, a warming climate most likely, stopped their march and began melting them back. Some of the stuff they had sheared off was smeared beneath the ice and the rest was dumped out as solid water turned to liquid. Gradually vegetation reclaimed the land and animals wandered in, including the first humans. 

     But it wasn't until thousands of years later that a new people from Europe arrived, people whose background and culture involved land ownership, clearing, tillage and animal husbandry. Soon their newly opened fields were producing both crops of grain and of stone as the stirred and disturbed soil belched out the debris the glacier had left behind. With a need for fences to mark boundaries and to keep animals out of crops it made sense to move the rocks to the edge of the fields, killing two birds with one stone if you will.

     At least that's the kindergarten version of how our stone walls came to be. For a deeper dive there are several books you might enjoy:

     * Susan Allport's Sermons in Stone is a good primer. Illustrated with line drawing by David Howell, it's a fun read touching on many different aspects of stone walls: their natural and cultural history, various types and uses, stories and characters associated with them.

     * Robert Thorson takes you a little further in Stone by Stone and Exploring Stone Walls. He is a geologist giving his books a scientific tone but an easily accessible one. Read these and you'll see much more than a pile of stones trailing off thru the woods.

     * Finally, there is Kevin Gardner's The Granite Kiss. The author comes from a family of active wall builders and this is something of a 'how-to' focused as much on the aesthetics and soul of the wall as on practical technique.

     Here follows a somewhat random sampling of 'stoney' images. You can see many more wandering the back roads of Washington County. Happy hunting...



     This retaining wall is a familiar sight to those driving on Rt. 29 in East Greenwich. It's a mosaic of marble and limestone blocks creating the distinctive white/gray checkerboard effect. Reminds me of some modern art. One of the marble pieces has the enigmatic lettering seen above. The picturesque District School No. 12 sits above the wall. You can find interesting fossils in the limestone. Best to park on McDougal Road which Y's above the Rt. 29 wall. There is more wall on both branches of the Y and some of it makes for fun bouldering (but don't say I sent you when the cops show up). Also check out the low wall of local field stone surrounding the East Greenwich Cemetery on McDougal Road, comparing it to that of the retaining wall which came from distant quarries. Note that there's a similar though smaller wall a few miles west in front of the Susan Anthony House in Battenville. 

The East Greenwich Cemetery wall

Also along Rt. 29 just outside of Greenwich you'll see these carefully crafted piers
They support a deck overlooking the Battenkill which is on the other side of the road 


     The three photos above are from a wall along Rt. 22 north of Cambridge. Sort of looks like a medieval fortress. They are called copestones when set vertically on top. You also see this on a series of mysterious pillars along Chestnut Hill Road near the lane leading to New Skete in the Town of White Creek. 

     Nearly every house in the hamlet of Eagleville has some kind of stone landscaping. You can see them in a short walk uphill from the covered bridge. Here's just one:

     A little further up in the hills off Steele Road someone's (perhaps overly) ambitious project is listed for sale. It's a local version of Stonehenge.

Web image from real estate ad

     Along Rt. 372 approaching Cambridge you'll see several interesting structures. 

Artfully crafted entrance to a driveway

A stone dam and sluiceway with Frosty the Snowman standing guard

Abutments where the road crosses a small tributary of Cambridge Creek


A slate wall with steps built into it surrounds the old burying ground in Salem
Who would want to climb out of a cemetery?

This collection of small stones at Wiawaka serves as a memorial

     I believe the images above are from Dean Road in the Town of Kingsbury. On one side of the road rocks were simply dumped to get them out of the field while across the street is a more careful constructed wall. Just to the north there is a moraine where the glacier stalled in its melt back. As torrents of water flowed away from the ice front a large swath of rounded rocks of Adirondack origin were left behind. It's why local farmers are known to use foul language at times.
     Many of the Kingsbury walls may have been built by Reverend George S. Brown, a free African-American who lived and worked in the area in the 1800's. You can read more about this interesting guy here.

Quarried limestone formed the building blocks of the original
Champlain Canals many locks and aqueducts

     I've got many more photos of stone walls (probably too many) but while each is in some way unique all the images can start to look the same after awhile. Let's wrap up for now. I've also neglected the many beautiful stone houses found thru out Washington County. Perhaps there needs to be another post in the future. For those who want to dig deeper here and here are some links to interesting stuff. But maybe it's time to get away from screens and go look for stones...