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    Thursday, March 23, 2023

    Don’t take Westerly’s Wahaneeta and Woody Hill preserves for granite

    Sheila Beattie and her three standard poodles cross a bridge at the Wahaneeta Preserve in Westerly. (Steve Fagin) 

    Chances are that any place you tread on Earth — with the possible exception of such remote whereabouts as Gangkhar Puensum, a forbidding, forbidden and unscaled 24,840-foot peak on the Bhutan-China border; or a freshly cooled lava field on Russia’s barren Kamchatka Peninsula — you’re following in someone else’s footsteps.

    Hikers in our much more accessible neck of the woods are made aware of their Johnny-come-lately status when they come across old stone walls, crumbling foundations, historic cemeteries, rusted farm equipment, abandoned wells, moss-covered cairns and other vestiges of past human activity.

    This was the case the other day when friends and I tramped through Westerly’s Wahaneeta Preserve and the adjoining Woody Hill Management Area.

    Shortly after setting out from a trailhead at the end of Moorehouse Road, we approached a towering heap of boulders.

    “This was part of an old quarry,” explained Sheila Beattie, an avid runner, hiker and former president of the Westerly Land Trust, which purchased the Wahaneeta Preserve in 2012.

    Even though we were relatively close to I-95, shopping centers and the Westerly Airport, the surprisingly quiet woods reinforced a welcome sense of remoteness.

    More than 175 years ago, though, the clangor of hammers, drills, picks and shovels echoed through the woods in an around Westerly. This proliferation of quarries can be traced to 1845, when Orlando Smith, a stonemason who lived across the state border in Ledyard, noticed an outcropping of high-quality granite near an old farm atop Rhodes Hill.

    Anticipating a potential bonanza, Smith purchased the property from farmer Joshua Babcock, Westerly’s first doctor and postmaster, and established the town’s first quarry. By the end of the century, workers were excavating granite from more than 100 quarries spread out across the region.

    In their 2011 book, “Built from Stone: The Westerly Granite Story,” authors Ellen L. Madison, Linda Smith Chaffee and John B. Coduri note that Westerly granite, with its fine, even grain and distinctive, pink hue, became a prized material for constructing landmark buildings throughout the East Coast, as well as for fabricating numerous war monuments. These include The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Travelers Tower in Hartford, as well as statues at the Gettysburg battlefield and in New York’s Central Park.

    Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, noted that the old quarries are not just reminders of a one-flourishing industry; they also have become habitat for a variety of plants and animals.

    Piles of talus chunks surrounding the old mines are now homes for snakes, bobcat and other den animals, while the quarry ponds offer habitat for a variety of wetland vegetation and wildlife, including nesting wood ducks, she said.

    Maggie also pointed out delicate ebony spleenwort growing in rock crevices, along with ruffle lichens scattered over the forest floor by recent winds.

    The 73.7-acre Wahaneeta Preserve, formerly the Girl Scouts’ Camp Wahaneeta, contains not just abandoned quarries, but traces of the old camp, including a former lodge, recently renovated cabin, pavilion and outhouses. Now a popular hiking and mountain biking destination, the preserve expanded in 2018, when Peter and Andrea Verbos of Westerly donated an adjoining 11-acre parcel.

    Our group, which included Sheila’s husband, Tom, and Mary Sommer, followed a blazed trail from the Wahaneeta preserve into the adjoining 723-acre Woody Hill Management Area. Purchased in 1936 as part of a government forestry program, this heavily wooded, state-owned parcel contains a sprawling network of dirt roads and paths that can be confusing to navigate without GPS, but Sheila and Tom kept us on track.

    Much credit belongs to the Westerly Land Trust for protecting Wahaneeta and other preserves.

    The private, non-profit organization incorporated in 1987 and acquired its first property in 1998, a 50-acre tract that became the Avondale Farm Preserve. The trust now holds 31 properties totaling nearly 1,700 acres, including eight preserves with frontage along the Pawcatuck River.

    The trust has raised money from citizens, government agencies and foundations to purchase property, as well as received generous land donations.

    “People donate their property to the trust because they know we’ll take good care of it,” Sheila said.

    For more information, visit the website westerlylandtrust.org.

    The entrance to Wahaneeta Preserve, with trails that also lead to the Woody Hill State Management Area, is located 118 Moorehouse Road, Westerly.

    Moorehouse Road, accessible from Dunns Corners Road, is just past the Paul E. Trombino Memorial Little League Complex. A sign marking the Wahaneeta Preserve appears on the left side of a dirt road.

    Reminder: Seasonal hunting is allowed at both the Wahaneeta Preserve and Woody Hill Management Area, so all visitors, including hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, must wear 200 square inches of fluorescent orange from the second Saturday in September to the last day of February, as well as from the third Saturday in April to the last day in May.

    Ebony spleenwort, a common native fern, grows on a stone wall at the Woody Hill Management Area. (Steve Fagin)
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