The Ruins of Grafton
By John Bulmer, John Bulmer Photography
It’s easy to forget what our modern landscapes looked like before us, before they became what we know them as today. Autumn is the perfect time to think about the contours of the landscape, as the leaves age beautifully and fall to the ground, revealing the natural features of the landscape that allow us to visualize what the land was like before we knew it.
Some of the land that Grafton Lakes State Park sits on was originally owned by the city of Troy and used for the city's water supply, but there are layers of history to be found in the park that predates its public land status. It was established as a park in 1963 and opened to the public in 1971. But the long history of indigenous populations, primarily Algonquian and Iroquoian-speaking nations, and European settlers, adds depth to the park's story.
During the American Revolution, Grafton residents actively participated in the fight for independence. The town, like many others in the area, witnessed military activities and strategic movements of troops. In the 19th century, the town's economy diversified, with the development of mills, sawmills, and other small industries, taking advantage of the water power from the many streams in the area. Today, most of the relics of the time before it became a park have vanished under decades of decomposing leaf litter and the natural processes that will eventually reclaim all that has been built.
In the corners of the park today, relics from the past can still be found if you know where to look.
In the 18th century, Grafton's early economy was primarily agricultural, with settlers engaging in farming and small-scale industry. Evidence of this lost industry runs through the park like lines on a long-lost map in the form of stone walls. These weathered stone walls silently tell tales of the past, remnants often moss-covered and partially hidden beneath layers of leaves, standing as enduring markers of the state's agricultural history. Constructed by early European settlers, these stone walls served as boundaries, enclosures, and property lines for farms and homesteads. Each stone, meticulously placed by hand, reflects the labor and dedication of the settlers who cleared the land, one stone at a time, to make way for fields and pastures. Witnessing them today, it’s hard not to speculate about the massive amount of labor required to construct them. Over the years, as agriculture shifted and forests reclaimed the land, these walls endured, becoming integral parts of the natural landscape.
If you look the next time you are in the park, they are everywhere, and once you notice them, you will never look at the landscape the same way again.
Not far off some of the dirt roads that serve as the major thoroughfares of the park, evidence of the people who lived here before can be found at the intersection of some of the many stone walls. In numerous locations, hand-built stone foundations remain visible. They are containers open to the sky, holding the artifacts of someone’s life: apothecary bottles, plates, rusted cars, the wheels of a child’s wagon, and old telephone wires. Moss-covered concrete blocks remain in the forest, their regular, straight lines standing out in stark contrast to the organic lines of the forest. Each find is a tangible connection to the past. The infrastructure of old telephones and power boxes also remains; if you follow their breadcrumb trail of artifacts through the forest, you can get a sense of what this little corner of Rensselaer County must have looked like before the park was established.
© 2023 John Bulmer Media, John Bulmer Photography.