KST Cover

The Ascutney Boulder
Makes Its Final Move

It moved at literally glacial speed from Mount Ascutney to Keene over thousands of years. Now the peripatetic rock has found a home beside the David F. Putnam Science Center.

by Susan Peery

Mt. Ascutney photo courtesy Wikipedia contributor

In the 19th century, Keene naturalist George Wheelock recognized that glaciers had rolled the boulder all the way from the top of Mount Ascutney in Vermont to Keene thousands of years ago.

On a map, draw a straight line from Mount Ascutney in Vermont down to Keene. It's about 37 miles, as the crow flies. A thousand centuries ago, a vast glacier covered this land as it expanded toward the Atlantic Ocean. On its way south, the glacier (or glaciers, for New England experienced repeated glacial advances and retreats over hundreds of thousands of years) scraped over the top of Mount Ascutney, smoothing it and breaking off massive boulders and incorporating them into its mass.

As the glacier ran into obstructions, such as Mount Monadnock, or perhaps as it began to melt and retreat northward, it dropped some of its load of ancient rocks in what is now southern New Hampshire.

Fast-forward to the 19th century. George A. Wheelock (1816-1906), Harvard graduate and indifferent partner in his brother-in-law's law firm in Keene, spent most of his time doing what he really loved – exploring and observing the natural world of Keene and the Monadnock region.

He was a lifelong student of natural history, and though his years at Harvard preceded those of the eminent Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, Wheelock was no doubt aware of Agassiz's research into glaciers and their impact on landforms. Agassiz mapped the distribution of distinctive boulders from Mount Ascutney and used the information to support his hypothesis about glacial action.

Ascutney Boulder photo by Susan Peery Wheelock's ramblings around Keene and his special interest in geology led him to identify many Ascutney boulders in this area. These rocks, of volcanic origin and thought to be upwards of 120 million years old, date back to the Jurassic Period and are distinguished by dark specks of gabbro and often by striations in the rock or polishing caused by the intense scraping action of the glacier. (Mount Ascutney is actually an outlier of the White Mountains and not geologically related to the even older bedrock that formed the Green Mountains of Vermont.)

When State Geologist C. H. Hitchcock published The Geology of New Hampshire in 1878, he described the boulders that radiated from Mount Ascutney to the south-southeast, noting that "their mineral character is peculiar, and not likely to be mistaken." Hitchcock credited George Wheelock with finding examples "at the west base of Monadnock; also one in Mr. Newton's garden in West Swanzey; 20 in Keene, the largest on Samuel Towns's farm; three in Surry; several in Alstead."

Just a few years before the publication of the book, Wheelock identified a prime example of Ascutney boulder on Beech Hill, behind the Lincoln Street School, and had it moved to the grounds of the Keene Academy on Winter Street as a geological exhibit. When a student fell off the rock and broke his arm, alarmed parents insisted that the boulder be buried, but it was soon exhumed and eventually moved to the site of the new high school on Washington Street, today Keene Middle School. At some point a pothole stone, another glacial relic, was brought to rest beside it.

John Summers photo by Chris Justice

John Summers '56 leans on his favorite boulder, now installed beside the David F. Putnam Science Center.

Fast-forward again, this time to the 21st century. John Summers '56 of Keene, a science education major, has fond memories of geology field trips to the KMS Ascutney boulder with Professor H. Dwight Carle.

Concerned about the future of the boulder after the Middle School moves to its new facility on Maple Avenue in 2011, Summers urged KSC Dean of Sciences and Social Sciences Gordon Leversee to ask the Keene school board if the boulder could be moved to Keene State. On February 2, 2010, the Keene school board approved the relocation.

On May 13, the Ascutney boulder made what we can assume is its final move (barring another glacial advance), this time to a grassy area on the west side of the David F. Putnam Science Center.

It took thousands of years for the boulder to travel from Mount Ascutney to Keene; perhaps a day or two to be pulled by horse or ox teams from Beech Hill to the center of town; and about 11 minutes to make the journey down Main Street to the Science Center, courtesy of contractors Frank and Tim Lucius of Keene.

Dr. Steve Bill, associate professor of geology, who used to bring his classes to the Middle School to inspect the distinctive nature of the rock, says now they can simply step outside the Science Center for an instant field trip.

Editor's note
Special thanks to Dr. Steve Bill, Tom Haynes at the Historical Society of Cheshire County, Dr. Gordon Leversee, John Summers '56, and Fred Parsells for help with this story.