Bedrock NH

In the country: granite mountaintops, cliffs and ledges; tumbledown stone walls; random rocks and boulders scattered everywhere. In towns and cities: graveyards, public monuments and buildings great and small. Do some yard work or plant a garden; hunks of granite peek through the surface or lurk underground. Get in your car, and granite goes along for the ride — well, a granite image, anyway: the Old Man of the Mountain, whose five granite slabs were some of the best-loved rocks in all the world.

No, it’s not just a nickname; in many different ways, New Hampshire richly deserves the name “Granite State.”

But how did we get the name? It may seem ironic, in this day of Freedom Fries and slurs on the courage of the Gallic people, that we got it from a Frenchman. According to the “Encyclopedia of New England,” it was the Marquis de Lafayette who first called New Hampshire “The Granite State,” during an 1825 visit to the quarries of Concord.
Well, it didn’t take a genius. There’s so much of the stuff, and at the time it was a driving force in our economy. It certainly fits the New Hampshire image: flinty, independent, and resistant to the passage of time. If the Marquis hadn’t coined the phrase, somebody else surely would have.

The Geology of Granite

“… the fires glow, the flames come up as if from the inexhaustible burning heart of the earth, the primal fires break through the granite dust in which our souls are set.”

— Sarah Orne Jewett, “The Country of the Pointed Firs”

In case you were wondering, it is literally true: there’s a lot of granite in the Granite State. “Approximately 50 percent of New Hampshire is underlain by granitic rocks,” says David Wunsch, the New Hampshire state geologist. “That’s probably higher than any other state.”

Where did all this granite come from? Imagine an eons-long demolition derby. “New Hampshire is in an area where continents have collided at least twice,” says Wunsch. “It’s kind of like a front-end collision: the cars get crushed in front, and you get steam shooting out of the radiators.” The steam, in this case, is volcanic activity escaping through the cracks. The combination of heat and impact produces granite, which is basically a lot of crystals and minerals mashed together. (The different colors of granite — gray, pink, white — are due to different kinds of minerals embedded in the rock.) Because the forces that create it are so intense, granite is an extremely hard, durable substance.

Once the granite was formed, says Wunsch, “the glaciers came and started pushing the rocks around.” So we have granite, not only in large deposits, but scattered all over the place.

We can also thank this continental demolition derby for the many mountains in New Hampshire — although our current peaks are only faint shadows of their former selves. “We’ve lost an awful lot of rock,” says Lee Wilder, outreach coordinator for the state geologist’s office. “Our mountains used to be Himalaya-like.” At least 80 percent of their bulk was worn away over hundreds of millions of years. The remaining peaks contain a lot of granite — the hardest material, most resistant to erosion.


“New Hampshire is, after all, the Granite State. (Our license plates should be flecked with greys, blacks, and bits of mica shine.) But we don’t stand around talking about granite much. It would be like discussing the air.” — Howard Mansfield, “The Bones of the Earth”

There’s a hole at the top of Rattlesnake Hill. It’s a big hole, at least three acres across and 200 feet down, with a greenish pond at the bottom. The walls are vertical and made of solid granite. This is the quarry pit of the Swenson Granite Company, which has mined this Concord hill for more than 120 years. The company is run by Kevin and Kurt Swenson, the fourth generation in this family enterprise.

The quarry is an impressive operation. Granite slabs are cut from the rock face by a “channel burner” — an industrial cutter powered by liquid oxygen. Huge cranes hoist the massive slabs out of the pit. Oversized trucks, their tires partly flattened by their heavy loads, transport the slabs to metal sheds nearby. Inside the sheds are gigantic rotary saws, their blades more than eleven feet across. They cut the slabs into a more manageable size. The granite is then cut into final form with smaller saws or by hand.

Swenson’s Concord location has a workforce of about 50. (Swenson owns many other quarries, including one in Conway.) What used to be a labor-intensive industry is now driven by technology; a few dozen workers can produce more than 25,000 tons of granite products a year.

Before the industrial age, harvesting granite was much harder. Imagine being a stonecutter using the “plug and feather” method: Etch a line across the stone. With a sledge hammer and a drill bit, pound a series of holes along the line. Insert shims (“feathers”) into the holes. Pound wedges (“plugs”) between the holes. Once you get a crack started, pry the rock apart with a crowbar. Repeat until the rock is split. Then start all over again.

Until the early 19th Century, the granite industry was limited to harvesting surface boulders for local use. The business grew — just in time to inspire the Marquis de Lafayette — thanks to new methods of blasting, cutting and transportation. Between the Civil War and World War I, granite was the building material of choice. Rattlesnake Hill was home to 44 granite companies; only Swenson remains today. Statewide, there are less than a half dozen active quarries; the evidence of a much larger industry can be seen in the countless abandoned quarry pits dotting the countryside.

What happened? Steel and concrete supplanted granite. Swenson eventually abandoned the building-materials business. Today, it produces curbstones for roads and highways and a variety of landscaping products — posts, benches, birdbaths, fountains, steps and custom work. Many homeowners find it comforting to have a piece of timelessness on their property.

Granite also supported a now-lost mining industry that took advantage of New Hampshire’s rich deposits of pegmatite — a type of granite laden with precious stones and useful minerals. One remnant of this era is the Ruggles Mine in Grafton, now a tourist attraction where visitors can hammer and dig for treasures of their own.

Our Rocky Environment

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite, I laugh at what you call dissolution, And I know the amplitude of time.”
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Even in the absence of the Old Man, the New Hampshire landscape is littered with granite — some of it dramatic, some mundane. On a grand scale, there are the distinctive summits of Chocorua, Kearsarge, Monadnock and many others; unique features like The Flume (its walls are granite; the missing material within was softer basalt, worn away by water); even tourist attractions like Indian Head (the Old Man’s surviving cousin), America’s Stonehenge and the Ruggles Mine. But perhaps even more important are the seemingly ubiquitous ruins of everyday life.

About a mile east of the town common in Cornish, a nondescript dirt road passes through the woods and over a small brook. The crossing is a dry stone bridge — its underside a graceful arch made entirely, and only, of stone. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering artistry from a bygone era. And it still works, reliably bearing the weight of newfangled vehicles.

Downstream just a bit, there lie the ruins of a very early sawmill: stone walls built alongside the brook, with a watercourse running between them. Ponder the struggles of the early settler, building his livelihood one stone at a time with no John Deere or Diesel Cat to assist.

One of the great blessings of living in New Hampshire is the abundance of slow-decaying granite remnants of earlier times — quarry pits, graveyards, mills, bridges and stone walls. It gives our state a timeless quality that’s rare in the New World.

Stone walls are the most ubiquitous of these granite ghosts. If we should ever abandon the Old Man as a symbol of New Hampshire, a tumbledown stone wall could do as a substitute. In his book “The Granite Kiss,” Kevin Gardner observes that stone walls “have become the beneficiaries of a kind of longing for a simpler time.” So much so that he and his fellow wall builders are frequently “asked to duplicate the tumbled wreckage of unmaintained antique walls … because the imagery of ruined walls is more familiar and therefore more ‘authentic’ than the tighter, taller look of something new.”

Battling the March of Time

“Stone is of the earth, like us, but it is lasting. We want to marry our short days to stone. Seeking permanence, we mark our land, our graves with stone.”

— Howard Mansfield, “The Bones of the Earth”

There is something alluring about granite, this very plain but highly durable material. It exudes a sense of an entirely different, and longer, scale of time — measured in millennia instead of years.

When people want to build something that will impart this touch of eternity — headstones, memorials, public sculptures, landmark buildings — they often choose granite. “It’s been said that granite is forever,” says Kevin Swenson. “Nothing is forever, but I don’t think there are many things that will outlive granite.”

It has a special resonance in the Granite State. “For me, granite has a particular charm and sense of place,” says Emile Birch, a sculptor from Canaan. He has used New Hampshire granite in at least four public sculptures, including “Eternal Shield,” the memorial to law-enforcement personnel who died in the line of duty. “Eternal Shield” is made of Swenson granite, chosen for its “solidity and permanence, which is especially important to a memorial like this.”

Plus, it matches the nearby Statehouse and Legislative Office Building, also made of Swenson granite. Indeed, as Kevin Swenson says, “If you look around downtown Concord, just about all the granite buildings came from this hill.”

The “Encyclopedia of New England” says the region’s quarries “changed the built environment of the United States. Courthouses, banks, streets, monuments, and gravestones in nearly every city and town were made of New England granite.” The Swenson quarry supplied granite for an impressive list of structures, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the “Mother Church” of the Christian Scientists in Boston, the rare book library at Yale University and the CBS Building in New York City.

The People of the Rock

The geologist lays bare the strata, and can tell them all on his fingers; but does he know what effect passes into the man who builds his house on them? What effect on the race that inhabits a granite shelf?”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Essay on Beauty”

We like to call ourselves Granite Staters. We like to think of ourselves as tough, enduring, unaffected by the ravages of time, embodying certain immutable values. It’s a handy political symbol, especially for conservatives, of a place resistant to passing fads and fancies. Which may explain why the falling of the Old Man affected so many people so deeply: If we anchor our identity in granite, what do we do when it crumbles?

Granite may have even shaped our politics in a very direct sense. Kevin Gardner points out that “stone walls acquired immediate symbolism as representatives of the English system of private, enclosed land ownership. This system opposed older European models … in which grazing and other lands were held and worked in common.” Many early settlers built stone walls out of sheer necessity — just to get the cussed things out of their fields. But the unending supply of granite made it simple to delineate boundaries and might have encouraged a deep respect for private property.

To be more fanciful, one could argue that granite performed a Darwinian function: forcing the weak to flee this stone-infused land for the tamer pastures of the midwest, leaving a hardy band of Granite Staters whose character was a match for the omnipresent stone.

Yes, that’s more than a bit fanciful. But it would certainly be difficult to imagine New Hampshire, its landscape or its people without its abundance of granite. NH