Sunday, March 27, 2011

Architectural Geology of Boston: The Roxbury Conglomerate (Puddingstone) Part II - Quarries and Building Stone

                                                         What are those lone ones doing now,
                                                         The wife and the children sad?
                                                         Oh, they are in a terrible rout,
                                                         Screaming, and throwing their pudding about,
                                                         Acting as they were mad.

                                                         They flung it over to Roxbury hills,
                                                         They flung it over the plain,
                                                          And all over Milton and Dorchester too
                                                          Great lumps of pudding the giants threw;
                                                          They tumbled as thick as rain.

The Dorchester Giant (Stanzas 8 & 9), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., 1830

One of the numerous ledges of Roxbury Conglomerate found throughout the western and southern extent
of the Boston Basin. This one is located at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, a few miles west of Boston.

In my previous post entitled Roxbury Conglomerate Part I, I discussed the tectonics that brought the volcanic island-chain of Avalonia to present-day New England from its austral location. Avalonia rifted from the ancient African coast of northern Gondwana, when the rocks of the Boston Basin and the Roxbury Conglomerate were formed. Avalonia then drifted across the Iapetus Ocean with its closure, docked with Laurentia, and was incorporated within Pangaea, the Permian supercontinent. When Pangaea finally rifted apart, Avalonia assumed a coastal, Atlantic-configuration in New England, referred to as the terrane of the Southeastern New England Avalon Zone. The Avalonian lithotectonic belt and adjacent peri-Gondwanan terranes contributed to the landmasses of neighboring regions of Laurentia, and western Europe and Africa across the Atlantic.

The bedrock formation of the Boston Basin extends well beyond the limits of Boston, underlying part or all of Roxbury, Quincy, Canton, Milton, Dorchester, Dedham, Jamaica Plain, Brighton, Brookline, Newton, Needham, and Dover. The Boston Bay Group is preserved within the Boston Basin. It consists of clastic sediments and interbedded, mafic volcanics which record a Late Proterozoic rifting or back-arc spreading event related to its formation during its departure from Gondwana. The Boston Bay Group’s sedimentary rocks were derived from high in the volcanic highlands of Avalonia and deposited by rivers including those from a glacial source. These highly eroded sedimentary and volcanic remnants can be found in and around the basin, but a challenge to identify in the heavily populated, paved-over, densely vegetated, and glacially scoured landscape of Greater Boston.

This map depicts the bedrock of the Boston Basin
and that of the neighboring volcanic and metamorphic zones of Avalonia.
Abbreviations for the Roxbury Conglomerate (Proterozoic Z to earliest Paleozoic) are colored tan:
PzZc, Cambridge Argillite; PzZrb, Melaphyre in Roxbury Conglomerate. 
Modified from the Bedrock Geologic Map of Massachusetts, Department of the Interior,
United States Geological Survey, Goldsmith et al, 1983.

This schematic map illustrates the cross-sectional relationship of the Boston Basin (tan) 
to the adjacent volcanic and metamorphic zones of Avalonia.
Modified from the Bedrock Geologic Map of Massachusetts, Department of the Interior,
United States Geological Survey, Goldsmith et al, 1983.

The Southeastern New England Avalon Zone’s magmatic rocks record plutonism and volcanism (ca. 625-590 Ma) and intrusive activity with the Dedham granite (ca. 610 Ma) and the Westwood Granite (ca. 599 Ma). These plutonic and volcanic rocks are overlain in the Boston Basin by sedimentary rocks of the Boston Bay Group, namely the Roxbury Conglomerate, which dominates the southern part of the basin, and above it, the shale or mudstone of the Cambridge Argillite (or Cambridge Slate), which dominates the northern part of the basin.  Late Neoproterozoic volcanoclastic sediments (ca. 596 Ma) include the Lynn Volcanic Complex to the north of Boston and the Mattapan Volcanic Complex to the south. They record arc magmatism in the Avalonian terrane of southeastern New England (Avalonian dates and information from M.D. Thompson et al, Neoproterozoic Paleography of the Southeastern New England Avalon Zone, 2007).

Schematic map of the Southeastern New England Avalon Zone around Boston.
From Thompson et al (Neoproterozoic Paleography…, 2007).

This diagram is an interpretive Neoproterozoic-Early Paleozoic tectonostratigraphic column of Avalonian rocks in southeastern New England. Note the “Volcanic Arc Basin” phase illustrating the deposition of the Boston Bay Group’s Roxbury Conglomerate and the Cambridge Argillite, and its overlying association with the Brighton volcanics. Modified from Nance et al, 1991.

The final brush strokes were painted onto the ancient landscape of the basin by glacial erosion which conferred to the region the characteristic topography of an outwash plain. Those strokes served to over-print the subdued paleotopography of the existing rift basin. During the Pleistocene Epoch, the Laurentide ice sheet was the last continental glacier to advance across New England. The erosional and depositional processes of this ice sheet formed most of the present day surficial geology of the region including the basin.

When pebbles, cobbles, and boulders accumulate and are cemented within a finer-grained matrix, the resultant rock is called conglomerate or puddingstone, and the rock fragments are called clasts. The term puddingstone appears to be a more frequent terminology in both England and New England. Conglomerates accumulate in a variety of environments and usually indicate the existence of steep slopes or very turbulent currents. These environments may include energetic mountain streams, strong wave activity along a rapidly eroding coast, and even glacial and landslide deposits. The clasts are valuable in identifying the source areas of the sediments, and therein provide clues to their history. Clasts that travel a considerable distance tend to become rounded. U-Pb detrital zircon geochronology can be used to date the formation of the clasts and delineate the source rock based upon its geochemical signature.

The type locality for the Roxbury Conglomerate is the town of Roxbury, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston situated to the southwest. Roxbury was founded by English colonists in 1630 as an independent community before its annexation to Boston. The town had many resources for the early colonists amongst which were stone for building. In fact the town was originally called “Rocksbury” because of the many outcrops of native Roxbury puddingstone. Its puddingstone was described by the Boston physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (his Jr. son was the Supreme Court justice) in The Dorchester Giant as “plums in a pudding.”

Traditionally, Roxbury Conglomerate is divided in ascending order into the Brookline, Dorchester and Squantum Members (geochronologically constrained as younger than ca. 593 Ma). Although lithologically variable, the conglomerate can be summarized as having sediment that is poorly sorted and ranging in size from fine sand to coarse cobbles. The matrix variably consists of grayish-pink, feldspar-rich, arkosic sandstone. Clast types generally include a mix of igneous and metamorphic rock such as granite, rhyolite, quartzite and felsic rock derived from the surrounding volcanic highlands. Each rock type has its own distinctive history such as speckled granite formed by the underground cooling of magma, and maroon and pink rhyolite formed during volcanic eruptions. The clasts range in color from light blue-gray to dark gray, and pale pink to maroon.

Clasts vary in size from small pebbles to boulders almost a foot in diameter such as this one.

This small puddingstone ledge in Brookline possesses a WNW-trending dip.
The implication of bedding is suggested in this exposure but may represent cleavage dipping.
In front of the Museum of Science in Boston is a large display of rocks from all over the world, including New England. On display is a massive boulder of Roxbury Conglomerate with one side beautifully polished. Here one can see the density of the clasts as well as their varied composition. I was able to differentiate four or five clast-types embedded in the matrix. It's worth a trip to the museum to check it out.

There remains some controversy surrounding the precise origins of the Roxbury Conglomerate and its members, and the Boston Bay Group as a whole, many of which are attributable to facies interpretations, dating, and deciphering the intricacies of tectonic origins. For example, the message that has been evolving over the years is that not all the conglomerate within the Boston Basin can be lumped together, as has been traditionally done, into a single “Roxbury” Conglomerate. The conglomerate in the “Brookline-Roxbury” belt is probably younger, but has not been dated. In addition, the Squantum Member was originally interpreted as a glacial till, but now is generally viewed as a submarine debris flow deposit with a probable glacial influence. Some researchers have linked the diamictites and mudstones of the Squantum succession with a “Snowball Earth” event rather than a meltwater-dominated alpine glaciation or small local ice caps (M.D. Thompson et al, A Roxbury Review).

Typically, conglomerate is a rather coarse, irregular and somewhat friable material as a building stone, especially in comparison to granite, which later gained prominence in its use in Boston. This can make conglomerate unsuitable for architectural use. However, the firmly-cemented and relatively high compressive strength of the local puddingstone in Boston was the exception. In addition, the stone is impervious to moisture and resistant to New England’s frost and harsh winters. Over time, the rock has not been observed to crack, scale, crush or disintegrate, and the color of the seam-faces remains stable. Its coarse and pebbly texture, however, makes it difficult to satisfactorily “dress” the exposed surfaces of the stones. Subsequently, the puddingstone was sculpted into blocks (called ashlar masonry) with the exposed facade-surfaces left somewhat coarse. Field walls, however, were often constructed by stone masons from irregularly shaped stones (called rubble masonry).

Joint faces of structures built with puddingstone are generally well-oxidized or iron-stained, and develop a warm and permanent brown color richly mottled in many tints. This encouraged the usage of the material with a natural, rough-hewn finish, but limited its use to facade-surfaces rather than on difficult-to-finish corners. Consequently, stone such as granite was employed for the corners (called quoins after the French word for corners), and the dressing of apertures and trimmings. Granite also contributed a load-bearing advantage to structures.

Gasson Hall of Boston College is typically constructed of granite on the corners
and Roxbury Conglomerate on the facade.

Between the Boston Basin and the Blue Hills south of Boston lies the conglomerate-zone, extending from Newton, through Brighton and Brookline to Dedham and Dorchester, generally to the west and south of Boston. The conglomerate forms the bedrock in the region, save glacial outwash and till that overprints the region. Roxbury Conglomerate can be seen outcropping in countless ledges and small cliffs, a few of which were developed into quarries. A principal quarry was developed on the north side of Parker Hill in Roxbury, while other exposed ledges were used in a belt that extended to the southeast. Smaller quarries also existed in Brighton and Newton, towns to the west of Boston, which supplied puddingstone locally. Boston’s puddingstone quarries were all conveniently located to building sites, considering that proximity was an important factor in transporting the stone by horse, oxen and wagon.

This is a map of the bedrock geology of the city of Boston. Note the distribution of the Roxbury Conglomerate within the basin especially in the towns of Boston, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester. Large exposures also exist in Newton and Brookline. Modified from

Initially, puddingstone found its way into numerous house foundations in the vicinity of the quarries. Eventually, over 35 Victorian Gothic churches were built with it in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, making it the de facto “church-stone” of Boston. The black and tan colors of the conglomerate seemed appropriate for the Gothic style in the ecclesiastic architecture of the time. It was also used in public structures, lodges, bell towers, stables, walls and landscape architecture (e.g. arches, bridges, steps, retaining walls, etc.), in Boston, Roxbury, Brighton, Brookline and Newton.

A major puddingstone contributor was Timothy McCarthy’s seven-acre quarry on the slopes of Parker Hill in Roxbury (now Boston) in the neighborhood of Mission Hill. An Irish stonemason, McCarthy operated the quarry for building stone from around 1864 to 1910. Stone masons found the rock relatively easy to cut, extract and shape, compared to granite. The demise of the quarry began at the turn of the century, when housing construction encroached upon the quarry. In addition, concrete was increasingly replacing stone foundations, while churches of the Classical Revival Period preferred lighter-colored limestone and marble rather than gloomy conglomerate, which was being used more for crushed stone on roads and street car beds. McCarthy’s Parker Hill quarry was backfilled in 1960.

The city of Boston has been built up all around the remaining ledgy remnants
of McCarthy’s Parker Hill quarry, which can be seen today adjacent to a parking lot behind One Brigham Circle, a shopping complex in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston. The area above the quarry has been preserved as Puddingstone Park for community recreation.          

Puddingstone Park is dotted with instructive signs describing the geologic origins of the puddingstone. Professor Emerita Margaret Thompson of Welleseley College, a professor, geologist and researcher in the tectonics and dating of Avalonia, contributed the text for the signs.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1878) towers above McCarthy’s quarry and Puddingstone
Park in the foreground. The church rose from the very rocks it contained. Looking east and also within the Boston Basin but nearly at sea level, the Back Bay region of Boston can be seen in the distance to the left of the basilica.

This view of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1878), referred to as “The Mission Church”,
is across the street from McCarthy’s quarry.

Here is another relict puddingstone quarry at the base of Peters Hill, a tall drumlin at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The outcrops are generally diamictite, assigned to the Squantum Member at the top of the Roxbury Conglomerate, based on its clast-angularity, poor sorting and matrix-supported character.

This is the Dudley Cliffs in Roxbury directly across from Madison Park High School,
another ledge that was used to supply puddingstone for construction

Tremont Street Methodist Church in Roxbury was the first church built of puddingstone in 1862.

The Church of the Covenant (1865) in fashionable Back Bay was originally the Central Congregational Church in Boston. It was redecorated with Tiffany stained-glass windows and mosaics. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: "We have one steeple in Boston that to my eyes seems absolutely perfect, that of the Central Church on the corner of Newbury and Berkeley Streets."

A closer look at the ornate steeple referred to by Holmes

The Old South Church in the Back Bay of Boston was built in the style
of Northern Italian Gothic Architecture, replete with campanile (1865).
It’s also known as the “Church of the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon”

Roxbury Presbyterian Church (1891)

The bell tower and spires of Gasson Hall, Boston College in Newton (Chestnut Hill) were designed
by the architect Charles Donagh Maginnis in 1913. He is considered the Father of American Gothic Architecture with many other colleges drawing from his design. Typically, the construction
illustrates the use of local conglomerate on the facade and granite on the corners.

The Church of the Redeemer in Newton (1915) was designed by Henry Vaughan,
architect of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

A fine example of a lovely young lady, and an arch and wall
composed of puddingstone on the Boston College campus.

With its coarsely-ornamental appearance, high availability, suitable working characteristics, favorable physical properties and convenience of location, Roxbury Conglomerate found its way into usage in early house-foundations, Gothic churches, and landscape architecture in Boston and its immediate environs to the west and south. Those structures are unmistakable and can be seen today preserved in their stately splendor.

In talking to local Bostonians, it's surprising how many are familiar with the term puddingstone, but relatively few are aware of its architectural heritage, let alone its astounding geological provenance. Hopefully, this post will help shed more light onto the Roxbury Conglomerate, the state rock of Massachusetts.

Also, check out David Williams' blog and book for all the great geology you can discover on the urban landscape in Boston and other cities at


  1. THank you Thank you this is incredible work!!!!
    and so interesting and comprehesive!!!

  2. Wonderful work. I am from Spain, and a geology lover, and I had the chance to visit Boston two weeks ago. I was wondering continuously about the origin of so many conglomerates in the churches of Boston, and finding some stones on the roads that could be volcanic. These are small events that makes you to search in internet for more and more information. Now I have all that I need to satisfy my curiosity... Thanks a lot for this wonderful work, so complete, rich and clear (even for a Spanish).

    1. Angelillo - Thanks for the generous comment and welcome to my blog as a Follower! Indeed, one of the first things that I observe when in a new region, city or country - especially the older construction - is the composition of the roads, walls, foundations and supra-structures. The rocks always have a great story to tell about society and civilization that transends geology but is so deprendent upon it! Thanks again!

  3. Thank you so much! I will be using this blog for a middle school science class in teaching about where they live and the history it tells!!!

    1. Stephanie - Thanks for the comment! I'd like to welcome you and your class to my blog! Let me know if there are any questions. Doctor Jack

  4. Dear Dr. jack, Thank you for your terrific web site, "Written in Stone." It is beautifully presented, reliable, informative, and easy-to-read - what could be better? Specifically, I am interested in your articles on Roxbury Puddingstone. Recently, I have been working to tell people about Roxbury Puddingstone, especially as that story is framed in the above quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The story of Roxbury Puddingstone is something that we all share in, and coming together around that story it is a good opportunity to generate positive social interaction. Would you please allow a link to these articles to be added on a new web site devoted to local geology called roxxbost.? Roxxbost is a grass-roots campaign to raise awareness of our unique geological heritage.

    ( )

    Thank you again for your excellent work and thanks in advance for considering of roxxbost.
    Best regards, James H.

  5. Dear Dr. Jack,
    I am doing an online MOOC with the American Museum of Natural History ("Dynamic Earth") and using my local Newton Highlands T-stop puddingstone as my local feature to describe. Your site has been very helpful in that regard, with the bonus that I see so many familiar churches made from similar material. The sheer numbers are astounding.

    I wonder, since you have supplied several old quarry locations right in the city, if you know anything about some of the other quarries that supplied granite for the building of the older side of the Boston Public Library and the divisions of the Boston Common? My elderly aunt told me that her great-grandfather Ladd (a stonecutter with roots in Maine and New Hampshire) ran or owned a quarry or quarries in (take your pick): Roxbury or Quincy. Is there any old directory that you consulted when you found out about the places you listed? This activity would have begun before the Civil War and continued afterwards. His wife came from Nova Scotia so maybe her family had something to do with what must have been a very big granite business in the area at one time.

    Thanks so much for all your charming pictures of sunny Boston.
    Best regards,

    1. Dianne, Thank you for your comment! Indeed, I am quite familiar with the Roxbury exposure at the T-stop. I find it impossible to not stop even for a moment in order to ponder its inescapable presence in Newton. I can help you with your request. Email me at

  6. Wow,great article ! Im tosding a link to it onto my rockhunting group since we're doing state rocks and im a MA girl :-) thank you for the great info

  7. This is a very interesting and informative article. I was led here because I was looking up information about a type of rock that I saw when I was hiking today at the Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary in Attleboro, MA (about 50 miles south of Roxbury, MA.). I'm wondering if it could be the same puddingstone mentioned in your article. The trail was called the Puddingstone Loop trail. I also found reference to puddingstone in a nearby hiking area called Attleboro Spring Trails behind a local landmark known as LaSalette Shrine, also in Attleboro, MA. Any information you could share regarding the origin of the Attleboro puddingstone and it's connection to the Roxbury stone would be greatly appreciated. -Nora Jestus

  8. Such an amazing history and story, thank you so much for being so thorough!

    One small quibble: Chestnut Hill Reservoir isn't a few miles west of Boston, it's actually *in* Boston as it's in Brighton : ) .

    1. Amanda, thank you for your kind words! Sorry to disagree with you. The reservoir is not in Boston, but encompasses three towns and is indeed west of Boston. It not only abuts Brighton (a neighborhood of Boston), but the town of Brookline and the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Newton. Check out a map with political boundaries. Thanks again for visiting!

  9. Thanks so much for your fascinating website. I live in Dorchester, on the side of Savin Hill, and perched on top of the ledge of puddingstone that makes up the hill. Every time I dig a hole in my garden, I get more puddingstone. I love it. It's the most beautiful stone, and I enjoy learning about it. I wonder if you might have any opinions to offer on something: I have found what appears to be a fossil here, right on the shoreline at Savin Hill, among the broken fragments on the beach of Cambridge argillite, which I have not been able to identify. At least I think it's a fossil. It's perhaps an inch and a quarter long, perfectly egg shaped and split in half lengthwise. The outer "shell" is grey and fine grained, quite opaque. It's filled with a translucent, dark brown to amber material that resembles flint or glass in its shiny hardness. There is a narrow band of cream color between the shell and the filling, all the way around about 1/16" thick. It looks like an egg to me. It's one of my most treasured possessions now.

    1. Hello Hatootie! Thanks for visiting! Perhaps you can take a photo of your "fossil" and send it to me. Let's see what it is. Use my email contact in the "Stuff About Me" section.

  10. Such an amazing history and story, thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Are there any operating quarries that produce Roxbury Puddingstone: I have an Alden & Harlow home in Pittsburgh(1889) that imported the stone and I would like to use some for an addition.

    1. Clark, That's a good question for which I don't know the answer. As a guess, I would say no. Certainly, the old urban quarries in Boston are inactive, many of which are parks. In addition, I don't think there's much (if any) demand for the stone, which is plentiful regionally but not commercially. Possibly call the long-standing granite quarry in Chelmsford. I don't think they'd have the stone but might give you a more definitive answer.

  12. Could you please give me your reference source(s) for the info on Avalonia? Other Roxbury Puddingstone sites give the theory that there were volcanoes in this area millions of years ago and that accounts for the volcanic ash in the conglomerate. I find your info fascinating and would like to research the Gondwana/Avalon connection more thoroughly. Thank you in advance.

    1. I would be happy to. There are numerous references. Please forward an email to me:

  13. Wow, nice article and beautiful photos!

    Would you allow me to use a couple of your photos in a book about state symbols I'm working on (Geobop's State Symbols)? It's sort of an encyclopedia of state symbols (more than 1,500 of them), and I'm trying to find nice pictures to illustrate at least most of them.

    The first image I'm interested in is about the ninth image from the top. The caption begins "In front of the Museum of Science in Boston..."

    The other image I'd like to use is the next to last image, the photo of the Church of the Redeemer.

    You can learn more about my project at

    Thank you.

    David Blomstrom

  14. Hi Dr. Jack, great blog and thanks for the detailed history of rocks in the Boston area. Would you be willing to present some information to a middle school classroom via video conference? I teach in BPS in the Dorchester/Roxbury area.