In addition to the stately trees in the Blackstone Boulevard Park, you can’t miss the wall of gigantic boulders bordering Swan Point Cemetery across the street. But it may take a while to notice the way it sets off the Park with a natural edge that suits this ancient, if greatly altered, landscape. How diminished the park would be without that intriguing wall and the contrast it provides to the flat edges of city life!
Where did those boulders come from? Built between 1892 and 1903, the wall obviously precedes modern machinery. Some of the heaviest boulders, weighing as much as 30 tons, punctuate the top of the four-to-five-foot high wall. How did these mammoth rocks get up there?
Annual reports and meeting notes of the Board of Directors of Swan Point in the late 19th and early 20th centuries track the progress of work on Blackstone Boulevard and the wall as well. Landscape architect Horace Cleveland and the Olmsted Brothers contributed to plans for the boulevard. But it was Swan Point Superintendent Timothy McCarthy who conceived of a wall and an entrance created to reflect both the terrain and the labor required to clear it of boulders. It was his idea to use the boulders the workmen excavated to build the desired wall along the cemetery’s northern and western boundaries.
Captivated by the 19th-century aesthetic that espoused following the inspiration of nature, McCarthy quoted a poem that began, “Insult not Nature with absurd expense, nor spoil her simple charms by vain pretense.” He urged his directors to let him build the entrance with boulders rather than marble.
It was a solution at once practical and beautiful–though perhaps not appealing to all at first, for some might have preferred a grand marble entrance. Very likely, McCarthy, “blessed with the sunny disposition of the true Irishman” (according to an article in an American Cemetery Association [ACA] publication), was skilled in the art of persuasion. And, among other arguments, he had the cheaper cost of the rocks on his side. Not to mention the relative ease of getting them to the site of the wall. After all, where would they have put them otherwise?
McCarthy won the directors’ support, and he may have needed it once excavation began. It was rumored that some members of the public complained about the dirty boulders piled up in front of Swan Point. But rain eventually washed away the mud. And planting above and behind the boulder wall must have helped soften criticism. In the directors’ report of 1934, reference was made to “universal admiration” of the wall.
According to the ACM article, McCarthy also argued for retaining the boulders “on the site as evidence of the labor man had expended in clearing the grounds.” And the Swan Point Report of 1895 mentions wanting “to help relieve as much as possible the great distress among the laboring people” during “the continued depression of the times and the reduced receipts from the sale of burial lots.”
As for the mystery of how the boulders got to the top of the wall, first a berm was built and filled in with debris from the boulevard construction. Then the biggest boulders were rolled up—also not an easy task, but surely easier than the alternative.
Employing workers through the winters of the early 20th Century appears to be have been an innovation that enabled the project to move forward faster. One can only imagine the hardships endured, the accidents that may have occurred during this Herculean construction job–and, one hopes, the pride the workmen felt in their achievement. It remains for labor historians to tell us more about their side of the story.
Working quickly in anticipation of the January thaw, Parks Department foresters cut down small Norway maples in the south section of Blackstone Park Conservation District on Paterson Street. City Forester Doug Still plans to replace the invasive maples with small saplings of native species such as red oak.
In the popular center section of the Park, foresters cut a few more Norway maples and pruned dead branches at the edge of the woodland at Parkside. The branches were ground up into chips to be used on trails. Most of the maples were cut into eight-foot lengths that will come in handy for lining paths on the next spring trail day.
This park belongs to all the citizens of Providence and is cared for the Parks Department and volunteers.
In order to protect vital undergrowth and the trees themselves, volunteers supported by the department and aided by the Appalachian Mountain Club and the RI Department of Environmental Management have been working together for years to line trails with logs and protecting bluffs with fences.
We encourage visitors to stay on the trails and keep out of the woods so that all may enjoy walking here. Please control your children and pets. Vandalism in the woods hurts the entire community. In recent months, one or more individuals have been breaking the stakes that hold the logs in place and moving the logs.
At the same time, untended dogs running free have damaged many mountain laurel trees, some of which were planted by the city over 100 years ago. Chewed off branches and dug up roots signify the failure of a few owners to take responsibility for animals in their charge.
Anyone who disrupts trail work or who causes or allows damage to plants is breaking the law. If you care about this park, please do your part. Let others know that destructive behavior is unacceptable.
And report vandalism to the Parks Department at 785-9450, x 201 or to Lt. John Ryan at 243-6990. If we act together as a community can we preserve this precious woodland for ourselves and our children.