The Lime Kilns of Lyme

lime kilns old & new
Two generations of lime kilns

A good way to start a discussion of the lime kilns in Lyme would be to travel to Haverhill NH to visit the much bigger and better preserved examples there.

The purpose of a lime kiln was to burn limestone.  Burning the limestone produces lime, which is used in making plaster, mortar, cement, etc. and to reduce the acidity of soils.  Lime was a valuable commodity, and if you had limestone on your land you were very lucky indeed.  The kilns would be filled with alternating layers of wood and limestone, set ablaze, and after about a week of slow, continuous burning, the lime would be drawn out the front of the kiln.

The 1842 lime kiln

This one was built in 1842 and was state of the art at the time.  The Governor of New Hampshire, John Page, who lived in Haverhill, financed it.  Naturally he wanted the best.Just 4 years earlier, a pair of lime kilns was built in a manner more typical of the Connecticut Valley.  Although this photo is actually showing both kilns, most of the left-hand kiln is obscured by a stone buttress built between the two to provide additional support.

Lime kiln frontal view
One of the pair of 1838 lime kilns

So let’s focus on the right-hand kiln, which is in a little better shape anyway.  The opening you see is where the lime was pulled out of the kiln.  It is also the draft hole for air to get into the kiln to feed the fire.  The kiln itself is behind that wall.What you are seeing here are the two kilns, basically two stone-lined holes, located immediately behind the stone facing of the previous photos.  You’ll notice that the kilns have been built into the hillside, so that the top of the kiln is at ground level, as in this photo, and the opening in front to extract the lime was also at ground level, only 5-6 feet lower.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most people think of New Hampshire as The Granite State, and for the most part, that is true, especially when one thinks of the White Mountains.  But the reality of New England is that there are multiple mountain ranges, all formed at different times and all with very different characteristics.  The bedrock of Haverhill, Lyme, and other towns of the Connecticut Valley was formed about 450 million years ago when a mini-continent called the Bronsonian Plate collided with and was mashed into the rest of the North American continent.  Just like our own continental shelf, the eastern part of the Bronsonian Plate was underwater, and this seafloor, when crushed between these colliding tectonic plates, became thin bands of limestone extending through Lyme, Orford, Piermont, Haverhill and points north.

These bands of limestone (actually a low-grade marble, which is what limestone turns into when it is crunched together by colliding continents) are what the settlers of all these towns learned to exploit by building lime kilns.

So let’s get back to our kilns.  Like the pictures above show, they are built into the hillside.  That’s so you can easily put your limestone and wood, in alternating sequence, down into the kiln.  So much the better if your supplies of limestone and wood are uphill from the kiln.  They are stone-lined and have an exterior stone facing at the bottom of which is the draft and lime withdrawal opening.  But Haverhill’s kilns had been restored by the CCC in the 1930’s.  What would I find in Lyme?

Lyme’s best lime kiln

Actually I knew of one lime kiln in town.  You can see it here.  My friend Bob is looking into the draft hole.  The kiln itself is on the other side of the wall.

Inside the kiln

Here’s a look at the inside of the kiln.  The draft hole is hard to see here because it’s mostly filled with leaves.

But what drew me to this area again was a line in a 1838 deed I happened upon:
…also one undivided half of all the Lime Stone on said lot 40 and the privilege of digging and drawing away of said stone on a road in the most convenient place on said lots, also 2 Lime Kilns standing in the road passing said lot…

Lot 40 referred to the 40th lot in the 4th division of Lyme.  When Lyme was first laid out, the land needed to be divided among its Proprietors, namely the 67 men who had originally invested in the town.  This was done in 5 stages or Divisions.  (The Proprietors then “drew lots” to determine which plot of land they would own.)  So all I needed to do was to find the lot in question.

Lyme’s Proprietors map with Lot 40 Division 4 circled

This is somewhat tricky but not too difficult, once you have a Proprietor’s map.

Approximate location on 1860 map

In 1860 it would have been about here, near the J. Smith cellar hole.

Lot 40 Division 4 1931 topo map

The oldest topo map (1931) wasn’t much use, so I turned to the lidar for help.

Lot 40 Division 4 lidar image

With lidar, everything suddenly becomes clearer.  Here is the approximate area with the J. Smith cellar hole circled in red.  You can also see a stone wall extending towards the east (uphill) from the home.  But far uphill are the limestone quarries (green arrow).  They show up as unnatural gouges in the landscape.

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But let me take a step back once again.  To get to this area it was necessary to follow Smith Mountain Road, a class VI road (meaning it was a public way but not maintained by the town) from Orford in the north.  From the public parking spaces for the Daniel Doan Trail, it’s about a 4 mile hike with a 500 foot net elevation gain just to get to the J. Smith cellar hole.  And this hike would take me past the lime kiln I knew of and probably a dozen quarries the lidar promised.  So I made it a quest to visit these quarries and see what else I could see.  The quarries varied in size, some quickly petering out, while others must have followed a very productive vein of limestone.  This being late March, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, especially as I got higher in elevation.

Lime kiln #2

Sure enough, downhill from a good-sized quarry stood this stone structure.  A few years ago I would have called this a very small cellar hole.  But now I recognized the distinctive features of a lime kiln: front-facing stone wall (this one’s draft hole buried or fallen in) with stone-lined kiln behind.  The kiln was between the quarry and the road and just downhill from the quarry.  It wasn’t as well preserved as the others I had seen but its purpose was now unmistakable.  And now I had a better idea of what I would be looking for with the “2 lime kilns standing in the road” that the old deed promised.

J. Smith cellar

Eventually I made my way to the old cellar hole and had a look around.

Lime kiln #3

And there, next to the road and not far from the cellar was the pair of lime kilns.  Neither of them were in good shape and the second one was even less photogenic than the first.  But knowing the clues, it quickly became clear that this was what I had been searching for.

Lime kiln #4

These two photos are not very convincing I know, so you’ll have to believe me when I say they had the right characteristics: the stone facing, the right size, the kilns themselves (now mostly tumbled in and filled with leaf litter) and the match to the old deed.

The kilns revealed

But taking a closer look at the lidar, you can see the two kilns, built right next to each other like the first ones we saw in Haverhill and right next to the road.

Quarry for the J. Smith lime kilns

For the fun of it, I decided to hike uphill to find the quarries.  After a steep uphill climb, the land got surprisingly level and, as the photo reveals, there was the quarry.

So Lyme had a significant lime industry, not as large or long-lived as in Haverhill, but significant nonetheless.  As a final image, I’ll leave you with this map.  Using the National Geographic map as a base (all the others had drawbacks), and showing the northeast corner of Lyme, I filled in the limestone quarries in green and marked the known lime kilns (there are 5 of them) with red triangles.

Map showing limestone quarries and lime kilns in Lyme NH
Map of Lyme’s lime Industry

My anthropologist brother JR offered the following addition, which adds more perspective:

“There are two features visible on the lidar image in the area between the quarry holes and the kilns alongside the road.  The upper one is a straight line, which I’m assuming is an old stone wall.  The lower one wiggles around a bit as it runs between the quarries and the kilns.  I’d guess this was the path or road that the miners used to get their limestone from the quarries to the kilns.

“Now limestone weighs more than lime, so as far as weight goes, it would be more work to move the limestone (CaCO4) than to move the lime (CaO).  So from that point of view, it would have made sense to burn the limestone at the quarry and move the lime from there to the market.  But the burned lime is friable and caustic and susceptible to water damage (the word is ‘slaking,’ which turns lime, CaO, into calcium hydroxide Ca(OH)2), so moving the lime would be much touchier than moving the limestone.  The lime would need to be moved in a wagon (with sides) and covered, or in barrels, and moved soon after it was fired.  The limestone, however, could be moved willy-nilly, whenever there was a little time available, and just dumped by the kiln until it was ready to be burned.  And it would most likely have been moved by sledge, which is a far better way to move heavy loads across rough ground than to use a wheeled vehicle.

“So I’d guess the wiggly line in the lidar image is a sledge track, which would have been narrower and rougher than a wagon road.  The kilns were built down the hill from the quarries and next to the road, where wagons could be used to cart away the lime.
And the work schedule would have been: quarry any time.  Sledge in the winter, when the ground is frozen.  Burn whenever, but probably in the fall or early winter when the wood has had time to dry.  Cart in the winter, when the roads are frozen.  And it would all be done when there was no need to be plowing or planting or harvesting or sugaring.”

2 thoughts on “The Lime Kilns of Lyme

  1. I also see a faint track leading northwest from the quarry area that might have been for dragging timber out of the woods. The ground is smoothed, not excavated, and it slopes downhill into the stream valley. Perhaps two different generations of landowners made the tracks in that image.

    I wish I had lidar coverage like this for my city.

    1. The area has probably been logged at least twice since the lime kiln days, once around 1910 or so and again in the 1970’s, so you’re probably right about those tracks being for logging.

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