Among the unusual landmarks in the Adirondacks is a massive roadside boulder in central St. Lawrence County, just three tenths of a mile west of the South Colton post office. Widely known as Sunday Rock, it is part of the legend and lore of the northwestern Adirondacks. My first visit to South Colton came several decades ago during a long road trip aimed at scouting out new places to hike and canoe. I was led there by a passage in a book titled, “Rocks and Routes of the North Country, New York,” by Dr. Bradford B. VanDiver, Professor of Geology at SUNY Potsdam when the book was released in 1976. (His story was featured in this space a few weeks ago.)
Dr. VanDiver’s reference to a location on Route 56, about six miles northwest of South Colton, was enticing: “The view back to the north is one of the best panoramas in the entire North Country of the St. Lawrence County lowlands. When approached by car from the south, the sudden apparition of this magnificent vista is almost breathtaking. It is here that your descent from the mountains becomes a vivid reality. You are at this point almost directly over the Highlands-Lowlands Adirondack boundary.”
After reading that alluring description, I had no choice but to drive the route myself. There were no regrets, and as a bonus, just a few miles down the road was that famous boulder with a wonderful background story. Sunday Rock, so the legend goes, marked the separation between civilization and the wilderness, which happens to perfectly fit VanDiver’s description of the nearby vista representing the dividing line between the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the big woods of the Adirondacks.
There are different stories behind the name Sunday Rock and what the boulder represents, or represented. Beyond Sunday Rock, where guides led city “sports” on hunting and fishing expeditions, and lumberjacks lived in rustic conditions while harvesting timber, men were unencumbered by the laws of man or religion. There were no Sundays—in fact, it mattered not what day it was in the outside world, for if you were hunting or fishing, every day was heavenly, and if you were lumbering, every day was a workday.
That’s the general gist of the legend as described in 1925 by several local individuals who were born around the mid-1800s. Some dated their recollections of it being called Sunday Rock as far back as 1864, and others cited older family members as having related the same story. It was sometimes said that the nearby village of South Colton itself was a wild, lawless playground for the men of the woods, who went there to squander their pay and let off steam, much like miners did in the American West.
Others offered a different version focused on religion, perhaps because they took offense at being characterized as the neighborhood of wild, rough-and-tough, less-than-god-fearing loggers. South Colton, they said, with three churches, was as holy a place as there was in the entire region. Sunday Rock, therefore, marked the line where peaceful Colton existed apart from the wild men of the woods.
A much-repeated tale involved a preacher who sought to bring god’s word to the lumber camps, whose occupants dumped him near South Colton and informed him that no such proselytizing would be carried on in the south woods beyond Sunday Rock.
There are claims that Sunday Rock once stood upon an Indian trail that was later used by visitors to the area and by settlers as a common road, which split so that a lane passed on each side of the rock. As is true of the many legends surrounding the rock’s past, none of the stories are supported beyond anecdotal evidence — which isn’t to say they aren’t true. It’s just that there’s no actual proof in the form of local or state government documents, or some other recording of events at the time.
Still, the letters (in newspapers) from old-timers, especially people who were old-timers nearly a century ago, certainly carry some weight, along with stories passed down from generation to generation. (Many of them, by the way, claim that the boulder was known to locals simply as “the big rock,” which isn’t unusual. After all, it is a very big rock.)
The importance of Sunday Rock is exemplified in the efforts of locals to preserve it. A crisis of sorts arose in 1925, when the growing presence of automobiles in the Adirondacks spurred a spate of road-improvement projects. Among them was Route 56, which was scheduled for straightening and widening into a 16-foot cement path, a process that required re-routing of the road or moving of the big rock. The cheaper option was to get rid of the rock, not a difficult task for the commonly used tool: dynamite.
The loss of Sunday Rock, a glacial erratic in geological terms, was unacceptable to many locals, who voiced their objections against the state’s highway project. The loudest and most recognized voice was naturally the most public forum at the time, newspapers. With the project imminent, Dr. Charles H. Leete of Potsdam, a prominent name in the community, published articles decrying the plan and proposing that the rock be preserved. His plea made it as far as the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which ran the following piece:
A glacial boulder of towering form standing high alongside the road to the Adirondack wilderness near South Colton, N. Y., was called Sunday Rock. When Northern New York was a frontier and there was no law for deer or trout, and all the woods were one grand hunting ground, it was said that beyond this rock there was no Sunday. Camp life was one glorious holiday. There were no days by any names. It was the campers’ land and there was no Sunday.
To each newcomer who ventured into this wildwood sanctuary, the huge rock was pointed out and its name explained. Noah Gale was there, and Mart Moody, Captain Peter and Joe Indian. W. H. H. Murray got his glory and his name “Adirondack Murray” there, and Ralph Waldo Emerson ever yearned to kill a deer.
To all who entered this great sanatorium, Sunday Rock marked the gateway. The motorcar has come, and will have its way to the woods along the Racket [River]. The road is to be made hard and smooth and straight—and Sunday Rock is in the way.
Mr. C. H. Leete of Potsdam has written the story of that period, and demands that Sunday Rock should be saved. To destroy it would be almost an impious act. He says it could be moved to one side and preserved, but the State made a contract for a road, and the contractor has a contract. The contractor feels that Sunday Rock is entitled to consideration.
A fundraising program was begun, with locals and former residents donating to the Sunday Rock Association through the newspaper (in care of Dr. Leete) to pay the cost of moving the rock, estimated to weigh between 36 and 42 tons. A local man, Joseph Grew, was hired to do the job for $215. Donations of $1 per person poured in from New York locations (more than 60 initially from Potsdam), plus dozens from other states, including California, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
By year’s end, the rock was moved and $216 had been received, enough to cover the cost. Additional donations were dedicated to creating a plaque to memorialize the rock and print a booklet with its history, along with a list of contributors. The story had even caught the eye of Frank Cooper, the federal court judge in Albany who was busy handling hundreds of Prohibition cases. Cooper took the time to send a contribution and a letter, wishing the association success in their endeavor.
In March 1926, an anonymous poem appeared in the Potsdam Herald Recorder with the following closing lines:
But our Sunday Rock’s still standing by the Racket’s winding shore,
As we near South Colton’s friendly little street,
And the mighty giant boulder marks the wide, wide open door
To the Land that’s God’s Own Country, pure and sweet.
In summer 1929, the plaque reading, “Sunday Rock, Preserved by the Sunday Rock Association, 1925,” was installed. The total cost thus far had reached $300, well beyond the $260 that had been raised, so soliciting continued. Copies of the Sunday Rock booklet were sent to all donating subscribers.
Next week, the conclusion: Sunday Rock’s fame goes international.
Photos: Headline (1925); Sunday Rock (1925)
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.