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Rollstone Boulder: The Rock That Was Exploded in Order to Preserve

On a traffic island in downtown Fitchburg, Massachusetts, stands a 110-ton granite boulder, known to locals as “the Rollstone Boulder”. The boulder is a glacial erratic, which means that it’s not native to the area where it rests, but was carried by glaciers from far away land and deposited there when the ice melted away. But the glaciers didn’t move the boulder to where it currently stands. Men did it.

The Rollstone Boulder was originally located at the summit of Rollstone Hill, about a mile away. The boulder was deposited there during the last ice age about 10,000 years ago by glaciers that covered North America. It is believed that the boulder came from around central New Hampshire, perhaps Bedford or Concord, a hundred miles away, because of the similarity in composition of Rollstone Boulder and the stones in that area.

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Over time this boulder became a national landmark where people would hike to and picnic. But the elements had began wearing at the boulder, and by the end of the 19th century there was already large cracks on it which were filled with cement. Later, an iron band was added circling the stone, to keep it from crumbling.

Quarrying on Rollstone Hill had also started to encroach upon the landmark boulder and there were concerns from Fitchburg’s citizens. In 1896, at a meeting of the Fitchburg Historical Society, the subject was brought up and subsequently a committee was formed and then another whose task were to speak with the owners of the quarries and find a way to preserve the boulder. A decision was taken to move the boulder from its commanding position into the valley, but not until it was absolutely necessary.

The time came in 1929. The two quarries on Rollstone Hill had got dangerously close to where the Rollstone boulder was perched. The plans for moving the boulder were fairly simple as all that seemed to be holding the stone together was the iron band encircling it. The plan was to remove this band and when the boulder crumbled, the pieces were to be picked up and moved to a small triangular traffic island in downtown Fitchburg to be reassembled.

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Color postcard of the Rollstone Boulder, Fitchburg Massachusetts in 1909. Photo credit

Lines and numbers were painted on the Rollstone Boulder and it was meticulously photographed and drawn so that it could be reassembled exactly the same as it was before the move. But the deep fissures in the rock proved to be deceptive. When the iron band was removed, the boulder did not fall apart.

Eventually, the city had a take a painful decision — blow up the rock. But even that scheme was not easily realized. The rock withstood multiple blasts with black powder before toppling from the ledge and breaking up into multiple pieces.

For a while, people worried that the rock could never be put together again. Local stonemason J. Marc Leblanc found it difficult to assemble the pieces. His job was made tougher by streetcars going by the work site jarring loose stones after they had already been placed. After months of work, all the money the city had put aside for the project was exhausted, and rock lay unassembled. Finally, Leblanc and the state representative Des Chenes decided the best way to go forward with restoring the boulder would be to discard the inside and only reassemble the exterior portion of the stone. Des Chenes explains, "We just used the outside and tied the parts together with iron rods ... We drilled holes and hooked the rods to the insides of the rock. After the shell of the boulder was fixed in place, Leblanc poured in concrete and filled it up."

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Children playing on top of Rollstone Boulder, circa 1905 to 1918. Photo credit

Sometime after the boulder was restored in 1930, a plaque bearing the name of Fitchburg Historical Society was placed near it. Strangely, the inscription on the plaque is entirely misleading. It said:

This boulder, carried by the last glacier from Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire to the summit of the hill whose name commemorates it, was for centuries a land mark to Indian and Settler. Threatened with destruction by quarrying operations, it was saved by popular subscription and reassembled here. 1920–1930

First, the Rollstone Boulder was not brought from Mt. Monadnock, but somewhere in central New Hampshire. Second, there was no “popular subscription” to save it, and no citizens of Fitchburg were asked to raise money for its move. And according to at least one source, Leblanc was never paid for his efforts.

Today it lies in the traffic triangle, barely noticed by motorists.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Geocache / Lewiston Evening Journal - May 31, 1951

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