A loss of balance leads from fame to forgotten.
Behind the Hospice St. Antoine, 400 Mendon Road, North Smithfield
The story of Cobble (or "Coblin") Rock is a somewhat mysterious one. Once much visited and photographed, it now lies neglected and forgotten in the woods atop an unnamed hill on the North Smithfield/Woonsocket border.
Glacial erratics and balancing rocks
Cobble Rock is a glacial erratic, and was once one of the many balancing rocks that can be found in New England. An erratic is a rock that was transported from its place of origin by a glacier; it is "erratic" in the sense that it doesn't fit in with its surroundings. For instance, a granite boulder found sitting on a ledge of quartz obviously came from somewhere else. Often, geologists can identify the area from which the boulder came by analyzing its composition, and by studying hundreds of such rocks, (along with other evidence), scientists can trace the paths of ancient glaciers.
The last glaciation in Rhode Island ended 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, leaving in its wake many landscape changes that we can see today. Block Island, for instance, owes its existence to a glacier. It's composed of material transported from the north, then dumped, at a point known as an "end moraine," where melting equaled forward motion. Many of Rhode Island's swamps, lakes, and ponds; its deposits of sand, gravel, and clay; the shapes of its hills and valleys; and the paths of some of its rivers, are the result of moving or melting ice.
Occasionally, melting glacial ice would place a boulder so that it balanced just so, producing a natural wonder known as a balanced or perched rock. Some, deposited atop other, larger boulders, can be rocked by hand to produce a deep, sonorous thumping sound. Two examples of this kind in Rhode Island are Drum Rock in Appanoag, Warwick, and the Cup and Saucer rocks on Narragansett Indian land in Charlestown. We're told the latter can still be rocked, but we know from our own experience that the former cannot.
Other boulders came to rest in such a way that observers thought they must have been placed by the hand of man. One, imagined by some to be a dolmen created by ancient Celts, can be found on the W. Alton Jones campus of the University of Rhode Island in West Greenwich. It's a thick triangular slab of stone resting perfectly on three smaller rocks, looking for all the world like an enormous butcher block table.
And then there's the kind of perched rock we're talking about here—a megalith that seems to defy gravity, balanced on a point or an edge, with the bulk of its mass up top. Some look as though a good wind would knock them over, yet they continue to stand as they have for thousands of years, withstanding wild weather and adventurous humans who like to climb on them.
It wasn't always taken for granted that such wonders of nature were created by glaciers. Prior to 1840, when Swiss-born zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz published his two-volume Etude sur les glaciers (Study on Glaciers), their creation was ascribed variously to giants, angels, demons, wizards, fairies, or divine sport. As late as 1841, some scientists saw erratics as evidence of a prehistoric flood, possibly the Noachian flood of the Bible, as they believed that only a huge volume of water could have moved such large objects. In his Reports on the Geology of Massachusetts (1833-'41), geologist Edward Hitchcock noted that, "bowlders are by far the most instructive index of diluvial agency in Massachusetts." By 1854, in The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, he had modified his opinion to allow that water alone could not have done the job, but that ice also had to have been involved.
Back to the matter at hand
Published references to Cobble Rock are few. The earliest we've found is a caption for an engraving on page 131 of Charles T. Jackson's Report on the Geological and Agricultural Survey of the State of Rhode Island (1839), in which he describes a rock found on the Smithfield estate of A. Arnold as a "Diluvial Boulder of Granite resting on Gneiss."
Although Jackson doesn't identify the landmark by name, there's a good chance he was talking about Cobble Rock. North Smithfield, where the boulder is located today, was still part of Smithfield in 1840, and wasn't incorporated as a separate town until 1871. The Arnold Estate later came to be known as "Old Maids' Farm," because the last members of the Arnold family to own the property, Abagail and Lydia Arnold, never married. The land was sold in 1866 to the Fairmount Farm Company and the Enterprise Company. The ledge on which the boulder sat, called "gneiss" by Jackson, is more specifically slate or mica-slate, both of which are sedimentary rocks; gneiss is a general term for an igneous or sedimentary rock that has been subjected to metamorphic processes.
The rock is mentioned more extensively, and given a name, in a March 4, 1870, Woonsocket Patriot article on "Ancient Land Marks" of Smithfield's Union Village.
Another very important land mark, is what is called the "Coblin Rock." It is located about a half a mile North of the village, is of uniform diameter, standing on a large flat rock, and weighs probably 200 tons. It was formerly the "observed of all observers," on account of its being near the "Great Path" which led from Union Village to Blackstone. But little has been said about it of late years, and probably hundreds of people in this region are not aware of being near such a curiosity.
As we'll see, the 200-ton estimate of the boulder's weight will follow it to the present day. We're in no position to discredit it, but we have to wonder how close this nineteenth-century estimate is. The article continues:
Within about half a mile of the "Coblin Rock" were formerly the quarries from which the "Smithfield Scythe Stones" were manufactured. Many large excavations are now to be seen, where the rock was obtained from which the scythe stones were made. A large amount of business was done in this line for many years by Marcus Arnold, George Aldrich, Thos. A. Paine, and Hanson Arnold, and it is owing principally to the scarcity of the rock that, of late, the business has entirely ceased. Probably not less than 500,000 dozen of these stones were made from these quarries in the space of twenty years. The best scythe stones that were ever made were manufactured from rock which was found in what is now the barn-yard belonging to Arnold Wakefield, and which was formerly owned by Arnold Steere. Such was the celebrity of these stones that long after this kind of rock was exhausted, orders frequently came through the mail from distant States, to the manufacturers, for some more of those celebrated "Cow-Yard Stones."
These days we're most familiar with the scythe as the deadly looking device carried by the Grim Reaper, but originally it was an indispensable tool for harvesting grain. The manufacture of scythes was a big industry in northern Smithfield dating back to before 1800, when, according to The History of North Smithfield by Walter A. Nebiker (1976), a fellow named Elisha Bartlett opened the first local scythe works. An important part of the manufacturing process was adding a sharp edge, for which fine-grained whet-stones were needed. Apparently the slate quarried near Union Village was ideal for this purpose. While we haven't located the "large excavations" mentioned above, it's hard to miss the many unnatural-looking depressions scattered all over the hill around Cobble Rock. They may be evidence of random and informal quarrying.
The Patriot expanded on the subject of Coblin Rock less than a year later, in its December 2, 1870, issue. This time the theory of glacial deposition is offered as an explanation of the rock's origin, although the writer, apparently envisioning huge icebergs floating down from the north with their burdens of boulders, doesn't seem to quite understand it:
A GEOLOGICAL WONDER.—There are few Woonsocketers who have visited the most remarkable geological curiosity in the State, and which is but one mile (in a direct line) from our office. We refer to the immense granite bowlder in the woods to the west of the "Old Maids' Farm," on the Smithfield side of the river, on a direct line from Union Village to Blackstone. This bowlder is a colossean affair, will weigh about two hundred tons, is of dark colored granite, and rests on a ledge of whet-stone rock. It is so delicately balanced that it looks as though half a dozen men could push it from its base; yet all the cattle in Smithfield would have a "hard pull" to move it. This great bowlder may possibly claim a diluvian origin, but more probably belongs to the glacial period, and was brought down from the far northern regions, centuries ago, by the agency of drifting ice. Its lower or underside is quite smooth, showing the action of water or abrasion while drifting with the icebergs from the polar regions of our continent.—This immense stone giant was undoubtedly left in its present locality during the formation of the materials which now cover this portion of the earth's surface. We are not as familiar with the "glacial period" as Prof. Agassiz, else we would tell "all about" this wonderful geological monster.—It is worthy of a visit from our citizens.
A friend who knows all the traditional lore of this section says this bowlder was reverently worshipped by the Narragansett Indians, who held an annual council around it. They also sharpened their arrow-heads upon its flinty sides and howled their war songs from its commanding peak. The red men had no "fire-water" to drink in those days, hence we have no record or legend of the bacchanalian feasts which the aborigines might have enjoyed there. Modern "pale faces," however, have drunk generous quantities of "Old Jamaica" around the bowlder. When the Blackstone factory was built (1808), the workmen had a footpath through the woods directly past this rock, leading to the "tavern" at the Old Bank Village [now Union Village]; and no full jug was allowed to pass this bowlder without being subjected to a critical test. Two gentlemen who were with us, when we visited this curiosity a few days ago, affirm that they smelt West India rum even then—so pungent is the aroma of honest rum of three score years ago!
Most of the "traditional lore" sounds like stereotyping based on white misconceptions of native culture, but the writer's incongruous ideas of Indian culture notwithstanding, his account may contain a grain of truth. Cobble Rock is as likely a meeting place as any, and perhaps more so because of its unusual size and situation. The spot probably presented a pretty good view, to boot.
According to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission's 1976 survey on Woonsocket, Native Americans began practicing agriculture and living in seasonal settlements in northern Rhode Island around 300 AD. The report goes on to note that "Present-day Woonsocket encompasses an area where the territorial claims of the Nipmuck, Wampanoag, and Narragansett tribes overlapped," but that "Indians were never very numerous in the Woonsocket area…"
Because it was located at the crossroads of a pair of major stagecoach routes (one from Providence to Worcester, the other from Boston to Connecticut), there were quite a number of taverns in Union (or "Old Bank") Village in 1808. Included among them was the Peleg Arnold Tavern, built in 1690, opened as a tavern in 1739, and expanded in 1790. Located at 4 Woonsocket Hill Road, it now contains apartments. The walk from the Blackstone "factory," (probably the Blackstone Manufacturing Company, located over the Massachusetts border to the north of Cobble Rock), would have been about a mile and a half. Mill owners in those days provided everything their workers needed, from housing, to food and dry goods, to churches and schools. One thing they rarely provided, however, was liquor. Hence the need to go outside the mill village to booze it up. By the way, in our visits to Cobble Rock we've not noticed any discernible lingering scent of rum—"honest" or otherwise.
In the 1870s a new working class residential subdivision was planned on Fairmount Farm Company land, down the hill to the east of Cobble Rock. The Fairmount neighborhood was laid out in a grid pattern, with Fairmount Street as its spine. When the Woonsocket Machine and Press Company was built in 1879, the subdivision filled up with workers and their families. The area around Cobble Rock remained undeveloped, though, probably because of the steep slopes and rocky outcrops just above the Fairmount neighborhood.
The boulder rates a brief mention in Thomas Steere's History of the Town of Smithfield, published in 1881. Obviously based on the Woonsocket Patriot articles, Steere adds nothing new, but does his part to perpetuate the name and estimated weight.
About half a mile north of the village [Union Village] is one of those natural curiosities occasionally found, of interest to the idlest observer, as well as to the geologist. "Coblin Rock" is of uniform diameter, standing on a large flat rock, and weighs probably about 200 tons.
The growth in popularity of postcards in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought us our first photographs of the boulder, along with a slightly different name—Cobble, instead of Coblin. The boulder was apparently a very popular photographic subject as we've seen no fewer than eight different views, all dating from approximately 1902 to 1911. It's also obvious that it was a well-visited spot, because all of the images show the surface of the rock covered with the carvings and painted names and initials of visitors. Some of the views show men in period dress sitting on top of, or standing beside, the boulder for scale.
Cobble vs Coblin
The name change was sudden, unexplained, and complete. Every postcard we've seen uses the Cobble spelling, and from that point on, the name Coblin seems to have faded from popular consciousness.
So where did the original name come from? Honestly, we have no idea. Coblin is not a word that can be found in the dictionary, and the natural conclusion, that it was named for someone with that last name, is not born out by available cemetery records. According to the Rhode Island Historic Cemeteries Commission's database, there is only one known person named Coblin buried within the borders of Rhode Island. Sarah M. Coblin, who died on an unknown date, is buried in Grace Church Cemetery in Providence. While it's not unheard of for a landmark to be named for a woman, it would have been very unusual to use only that woman's last name. Last names used for places or landmarks are almost always those of men, while places and landmarks named for women almost always use the full name or first name only. Betty Pucky Pond on Block Island, the village of Hope in Scituate, and Sally Rock Point in Warwick are examples.
As for the switch from Coblin to Cobble in the postcard era, lacking any other information, we have to assume it was a printing or transcription error. Postcards are far more accessible than old newspaper articles, and more widely disseminated than dusty old history books, so the new spelling would have easily supplanted the old.
Cobble Rock continued to be a popular excursion spot even beyond the first decade of the twentieth century. In late July 2005, Phyllis Thomas, president of the Woonsocket Historical Society, told us that when she was a girl in the early 1930s, her Girl Scout troop often went to Cobble Rock for picnics. At that time the area around the boulder was still pretty remote and the girls had to walk from Union Village, though backyards, fields, and woods to reach it. The easiest access to the boulder site today (see Directions below), is from the Hospice of St. Antoine. Located off Mendon Road to the north of Cobble Rock, the hospice was dedicated in 1941, as a home for the aged, by the Providence Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.
Despite the flood of Cobble Rock postcards in the early twentieth century, the print media was oddly silent on the subject for quite a while. Finally a photo of the boulder appeared in the November 21, 1954, issue of the Providence Journal. Credited to Susan L. Finklestein of 478 Woodland Road, Woonsocket, the brief caption merely noted that the "DELICATE BALANCE of huge 'Cobble Rock' in Fairmount Woods, Woonsocket, has always fascinated visitors to the spot."
Editor and publisher A.P. Palmer wrote a short article titled "Coblin or Cobble Rock?" for the "As It Looked to Grandfather" column in the September 13, 1969, edition of the Woonsocket Call:
Time has changed its shape but Cobble Rock still stands waiting for some Green Acres enthusiast to develop it into an historic landmark. Little has been written about the boulder and little has been done to glorify it. Back at the turn of the century it was a spot to find during a hike and the place to inscribe, usually with paint, one's initials or name. Today, new initials replace those of the 1800s. The top photo [first photo below] shows the rock as it was pictured on a scenic "penny postal" from Woonsocket in 1902. Below [second photo below] is the rock today, somewhat chipped away. The man in the picture is Woonsocket's best known "rock hound," Clarence Newlander.
It is believed that the rock was left in its present, unusual position from glacial days. It has great potential for a small scenic park development on the North Smithfield-Woonsocket line.
Despite the article's title, Palmer didn't tackle the question of the rock's correct name. The remainder of the article simply quoted from the 1881 History of Smithfield.
George Harvey, in the book North Smithfield Centennial, published in 1971, resurrected the old name and reiterated the call for the establishment of some kind of park with Cobble Rock as its main attraction:
On the top of Mendon Road Hill above Waterford [in North Smithfield] is a curious stone named Coblin Rock. Just why it stands so precariously positioned, as if on tip-toe, without falling is a matter for the geologist or physicist to explain.
The whole wooded area around Coblin Rock is so pleasant and attractive today that it could be a most worthy town park. The rock itself is generously covered with names of young people, but this only continues an old tradition.
But perhaps it's just as well that no such park was ever put together. On the evening of Monday, September 26, 1977, severe thunderstorms lashed the northern part of the state, knocking down trees and telephone poles. The next day's Providence Evening Bulletin noted that 4,800 Blackstone Valley Electric customers in Lincoln and Cumberland, and an unknown number of Narragansett Electric customers in Foster, were left without power for from one-and-a-half to eleven hours.
Incredibly, the high winds and rain evidently had their effect on long-standing Cobble Rock as well, as reported by the Woonsocket Call on the twenty-eighth:
An historic oddity—the 200 ton precariously perched Cobble Rock—was somehow dislodged and overturned during Monday's savage thunderstorm, it was learned yesterday. The huge granite boulder was found in its ungraceful new condition by Donald L. Lanctot, Jr., of 76 Fountain St., in photo at right, as he hiked through the wooded area at the North Smithfield-Woonsocket line.
Pictured on a penny postcard—circa 1902—the glacial deposit has baffled amateur geologists for more than two centuries. And its dislodging appears to be as strange as its initial appearance. The massive chunk of granite wears a coat of graffiti applied by lovers, hikers, humorists, and others who have trekked to the site. The problem now, of course, is that all of the lettering is "upside down."
Lanctot said Cobble Rock was "okay" prior to Monday's viscious [sic] storm. Whether the 200 ton rock was moved by lightning or torrential rain is a matter of speculation—and will probably never be known...
Clarence Newlander, in bottom photo, one of Greater Woonsocket's most ardent "rock buffs" had once spearheaded a drive to name the area "Cobble Rock State Park." But the balancing boulder apparently didn't budge officials.
So, another area landmark has been severely altered. Whether Cobble Rock will remain "historic" is unknown. It could soon become just another stone in the woods where you stand on your head to read the lettering.
The rock is accessible via a number of social trails (see Directions for the easiest access). Although most of the carved inscriptions are forever hidden from view, a few are still visible, as are several examples of painted graffiti from before the rock tipped—identifiable because they are upside down. The oldest we saw was dated 1969. There are several spots where it looks like the paint dripped upward.
A few smallish chunks can be seen on the other side of the ledge that was the boulder's original resting spot. On one the inverted carved initials "JLR" can still be made out. Our theory is that, over many years, the continuous freeze-thaw cycle of the seasons caused cracks to form in the boulder. On the night of the thunderstorm, one or two pieces of the boulder finally fell off, and that, perhaps combined with the weight of the water and the push of the wind of the furious thunderstorm, unbalanced the boulder, tumbling it into a hollow next to the ledge upon which it had rested for thousands of years.
A shallow, impromptu dig in a spot near the rock in August 2005 turned up broken beer bottles, deteriorated bits of old beer cans, the lid from a small paint can (color: black), and the shards of what appears to be a white "World's Greatest Lover" mug. These items probably date from the 1960s and '70s, immediately prior to Cobble Rock's Humpty Dumpty act, when the site would have been a natural place for teenagers to do what teenagers do. If anyone ever decides to undertake a formal archaeological dig at Cobble Rock, it will be interesting to see if the stories of arrow-sharpening Indians and tipsy workers can be proved with the discovery of flint chips and bits of broken jugs.
We had a lot of fun researching and making sense of the Cobble Rock story, and we hope the telling of our findings has been interesting and informative. We only ask that, if you decide to visit Cobble Rock, please be respectful of both the property owners and the hospice residents.
From Route 295 take exit 9B and follow Route 146 north toward Woonsocket. After about 5.5 miles take the Route 5/102 ramp, bear right onto School Street, then immediately turn right onto Great Road (Route 146A). Go about 0.7 miles, then take a hairpin left onto Mendon Road. The St. Antoine campus is located about a half mile down on the right. Enter the second, longer driveway and park in the parking lot. From the lot, follow a service road around the building to the right. When you reach the woods, look for an old woods road or path (there is a short piece of cut granite in the center of the head of the path). Follow this path straight for about ten minutes. Cobble Rock is on the right.