The Cryptic Castle

My home state of Vermont has much in the way of oddities, but abandoned castles don’t make the list. So when I heard of one in downstate New York, I had a road trip planned in a few weeks to see it.

My friend and I drove through the often long haul destitution of the Catskill Park, an area I’ve already become familiar with. You know you’re in the Catskills when all of the green road signs that label whatever river your crossing over marks them as “kills”, (the other detail is when you figure out none of the towns have gas stations). It might seem strangely morbid, but it’s actually the old Dutch word for creek or river, as opposed to the English equivalent. It’s a cool regional quirk. (Vermont has the fly fishing famed Batten Kill, which is redundantly labeled on state atlases as the ‘Batten Kill River’).

Atop a dim ledged hill above a picturesque river, I would get my first glimpse of this incredible ruin through thick woods that would ultimately conceal it from view, if you weren’t only on that particular back road looking for a castle like we were. This place was something else. The sight of it made me drop my jaw – it was both eerie and serene.

I think it’s in our profiling nature to assume fanciful remains like these accrete some sort of spooky lore or gothic mystic, especially when you add several decades of forsakenness letting weather and moss transmuting what was once a soaring vanity project into a projection of arcane frenzy. Even the history is enigmatic, which has given birth to quite a few myths and whispers of curses that bounce off its turrets and stone walls.

The castle was the idea of gilded aged businessman Ralph Werts Dundas. And this is where the research gets a bit convoluted. In my inquiry, a few blogs have paid some interest to this place, and the general agreement is that the history here is a bit nebulous – each page describes a slightly different storyline.

Not much is known about Mr. Dundas, other than he was born in 1871 and would eventually become a wealthy man. He wound up marrying, had a daughter, and was known to be a bit of a recluse. He also carried a penchant of becoming a Scotish Laird, in America. Because Laird’s had to have a castle to push their legitimacy card, he wound up buying about 1,000 acres in the Catskills to build one on.

Before Mr. Dundas installed his enigmatic castle, a chunk of the land was owned by Joseph Cammer, a farmer and enthusiastic fisherman who earned a reputation by letting other outdoorsmen from New York City and surrounding Catskill towns board on his land. This eventually attracted the venerable architect, Bradford Lee Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert liked the area so much, that himself and another boarder, Frank Livingston, got to talking and concluded they wanted to buy some of the Cammer property and build a hunting lodge there. They struck up a deal, were joined by three other interested men, and began construction on what would be called the Beaverkill Lodge towards the late 1880s.

A couple of years passed, and Mr. Gilbert wanted the property for himself, so he bought out Mr. Livingston and the other members. He worked on enlarging the lodge from a modest log cabin and purchased more land to buffer it with. His wife, an Irish immigrant, named the area “Craig-E-Claire” – a Gaelic toponym for “beautiful mountain” that reminded her of her native Ireland and is still adhered to the area on both a street sign and a place name label on Google maps. But they only wound up spending a few weekends out of the year at the lodge, and eventually lost interest and decided to sell. Sometime before the 1920s (sources vary with either 1907 or 1915), Ralph Dundas would acquire the plot.

Some accounts say that Bradford Lee Gilbert was the one who architected Dundas’s castle, and that’s sort of true. He at least provided some of the framework. Instead of tearing down the Beaverkill Lodge and building over it, Dundas decided to build around and consume the lodge, and then keep expanding.

Around World War 1, the castle began to take shape looming above the river. 30 Finnish masons assembled it with leaded windows and hand laid stone walls, stone by stone, which legend holds that in some parts of the castle are 3 feet thick. Conical towers with gothic windows and steep parapeted roofs added great architectural flourishes and made this abandonment so much cooler to find out in the woods.

The insides were said to be just as generous, with steam radiators and electricity being added, which were amazing luxuries at the time. The floors and countertops were done with marble which was possibly imported from Italy, and legend has it that a few of the fireplaces were accentuated with gold leafing. Mr. Dundas even had exquisite furnishings and dexterously woven tapestries crated and shipped to the castle to decorate it with.

Ralph Dundas and his family at their castle, around its completion.

But Dundas wasn’t the least stressful of employers. He was a very particular visionary, who had a habit of adding lots of spontaneous changes to the blueprints, often making the laborers tear down entire finished sections of the castle to rebuild it again to his partialities. But regardless, we can at least agree that his fussiness created an astounding home. A home that he would never get to see.

Dundas dies in 1921, but work continued until the castle was completed in 1924 – the final structure was “L” shaped, with 2 curtain walls completing a rectangle and creating a Scottish style bailey in the middle.

His wife Josephine, who was known for being emotionally unstable, suffered from some sort of undocumented malady, which may have been a form of dementia. She was eventually committed to a sanitarium. A creepy legend that seems to be widely trafficked about this place, is that Dundas actually locked his wife away in one of the upper bedrooms without an interior doorknob to keep her worsening disposition out of public scandal.

While those details are a bit hard to parse, what we do know is that their daughter Muriel suddenly came into a lot of money.

She was either completely swindled by the man she married (which may have been a hired caretaker of the castle) or made the decision herself to travel to England to find King James’ lost gold, using her substantial fortune to pick up the bill. She recruited the best scientists, historians and even a dowser and mystic who used a willow wand, but all efforts proved fruitless. By then, those around her considered her insane, and she was committed to an asylum for the remainder of her days.

The keep and its interior riches gathered dust and remained abandoned until it was sold to more thematically fitting owners in the 1940s; the Freemasons. But they never wound up doing anything with the great building, and instead, for reasons unknown, let the place enter multiple decade stasis. Today, the property is off limits, and it’s said that a groundskeeper may live in one of the former castle outbuildings just down the road.

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I only knew of the castle’s vague location, without knowing much else about it – driving down back roads that traversed through a serpentine river glen until I eventually spotted one of its towers through the trees wearing their seasonal verdures.

We found a level-ish shoulder to pull off onto, gathered our gear, and hurried over into the forest cover and up the rocky slope – which at times was surprisingly steep – until we could reach out and touch the stone bulwarks. An up-close look revealed that saplings and sneaking moss were growing freely around the thoughtful stonework and beginning to take root inside the gutters. If the beleaguered prowess of nature isn’t decreased, this place will really look like an ancient ruin in a decade or so. The visual made all the adulated baggage this hunk of rock and slate carries pretty believable.

That was further reinforced by a thunderstorm that began to rage overhead when I was inside, making my explore so much more surreal as shadowed light fell in all directions. The only mood killer was an Ace Of Base song climbing around in my head from my friend’s Best of The 90s playlist on Spotify.

Passing through the climactic barbican into the bailey, we found our way inside and made for a set of spiraled marble stairs climbing up one of the turrets – when my friend noticed “To The Kill Room!” scrawled in red spray paint on the wall with an arrow pointing crookedly towards the ascent upstairs.  I heard a resolute “nope” uttered behind me, and I turned around to see her heading back towards where we climbed in. “I’ll just wait for you outside”.

Now on my lonesome, I moved silently through this literal monument to the epoch of American industrialism and prosperity. A walk through the anachronistic property today is a weird one. Though the lower floors were blackened due to boarded windows, its incredible attention to detail and marvelous stonework could be detected and appreciated through the shine of my flashlight. Upstairs, gray light came through and cast the hallways and the bones of ornate chambers into a dull pallor. Old push button light switches and 4 prong electrical sockets on the walls sort of break the otherwise ‘fairy tale’ illusion here, bringing a castle that remarkably looks ancient into 20th century America. There was even a functional dumbwaiter, (or ‘baby shoot’, as someone re-invented it in black sharpie) where meals from the kitchen could be ferried upstairs to the bed chambers. The castle was sending me the weight of its silence, with the only pause being summer breezes pushing around all the dead leaves that had long collected inside the vacant rooms.

I’m a little late on exploring out of state locations, so a great deal of what I see through the photography of others isn’t what I’m greeted with in real time. Dundas’s castle had lots more vandalism, and the few surviving glass window panes on the third story had by then, all been shattered. This is why I’m obscure about many places I write about. But despite that, the castle was in really good shape – most likely because of its robust construction and not being near much of a population. I wonder if anyone will ever revive it? Or will this go the way of many fascinating sites in America and become something only recalled in wistful stories?

Before departing, we headed down the road a ways to get a look at the defunct iron front gates that once opened up to a gravel carriage road that gradually climbed the ridge crest, went underneath a castle arch and inserted you in the central courtyard. Today, the intricately rusted doors and nudging stone abutments are all that remain – the path has since transitioned into a mowed lawn and make the former grand entry way even more conspicuous in its location at a 3-way intersection.

Being Memorial Day weekend, the huge regional park I happened to be near was crawling with people in trucks and camping gear on almost all the back roads. After I pulled over to shoot this cool entryway, I had multiple strangers in trucks pull over and have rolled down window conversations with me as if I was an old friend, including an awesome middle aged couple who enthusiastically talked about the castle and other Catskillian esoterica.

Being Memorial Day weekend, it also brought out the foolhardy. As we turned around and drove back down the road, we noticed that 3 state police cruisers, 3 officers, a Ford Focus, and 5 bummed looking teenagers appeared outside the castle.

I think local historian Dr. Joyce Conroy reckoned best when she mused that the strangest thing to her about the castle, was how no one has ever been able to live on that land.

More on Vermont castles 

As I said above, Vermont doesn’t exactly have castles, but we do have some creations that come close. There’s the so-called Wilson Castle in Proctor, which is really a castle in name only, and there’s the inspired Gregoire castle up in the kingdom town of Irasburg that’s become a local curiosity and for a brief period was a cafe and later, for sale.

What to do with a defunct quarry and lots of rocks? You could build something like this medieval looking cylindrical watchtower tower in Woodbury, located off a thin back road in a quarried depression. It even has gargoyles perched sentinel around the top rim with faces rictus with gloom.

Property owner Scott McCullough, who also fittingly owns a rock crushing business, decided to begin building the inconspicuous 24-foot cylindrical quasi-mythical structure in 2009, partially in an effort to clean up the eyesore patch of land which locals began to use as a garbage dump, and partially for something to do on weekends. But be warned – trespassers aren’t welcome. And there are several signs to make the point. But I’m told he’s a friendly fellow who is pretty enthusiastic in striking up a conversation about it. Just as long as he’s around and you have permission to be there.

I became aware of this place when I was already en route on another oddity hunt; to find a pair of Indian footprints petrified in stone. This was a cool bonus.

In the past few decades, the Champlain Islands have transitioned from hard to reach farming towns to a tourist destination. Their topography definitely explains the interest – because they’re different than the rest of Vermont. The surrounding water influences the growing season, making it the longest in the state, and it also created a desirable real estate market, to the point where property values are offensively sky rocketing in lake shore areas. More importantly, it’s an area rich in history. French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw the islands when he sailed down the Richelieu River into the large lake that he named after himself. In 1666, Isle La Motte became the first settlement in what became Vermont, where 60 Frenchmen built a palisaded outpost known as Sainte Anne on the northwestern tip, now the site of Sainte Ann’s Shrine. Only 20 of them would make it through the first winter, the rest dying of scurvy.

One particular attribute is also a wonderfully obscure one; South Hero is home to miniature stone castles, some the size of a doll house, scattered around island lawns, gardens or wood patches. Finding them is an intriguingly cool experience on its own, especially if you’re like me and really dig craftsmanship, DIYs, and Yankee ingenuity. Laid down by a Swiss immigrant in the early 1900s, the story is both fanciful and mysteriously poignant.

Some Vermonters just want to live in a castle, like a local pyrotechnics expert and stonemason Jim Bayne. This contemporary broke down palace is located in Georgia – has 12 bedrooms, two full bathrooms and one-half bath, a kitchen, six fireplaces and 19,000 square feet of space, all of it mostly unfinished. It’s also for sale for a 6 figure price.

Being near my childhood hometown of Milton, I discovered this intriguing construction in my late teens, when me and my friends used to pass the time by hopping in someones’ car and driving around as many back roads as we could find with the radio cranked. I recall us slowing down and/or pulling into the tall grasses to get a better look at this place, and surmise the general questions you wonder about someone else’s property.

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Since 2012, I’ve been seeking out venerable examples of Vermont weirdness, whether that be traveling around the state or taking to my internet connection and digging up forsaken places, oddities, esoterica, and unique natural features. And along the way, I’ve been sharing it with you on my website, Obscure Vermont. This is what keeps my spirit inspired.

I never expected Obscure Vermont to get as much appreciation and fanfare as it’s getting, and I’m truly grateful and humbled. Especially in recent years, where I’ve gained the opportunity to interact with and befriend more oddity lovers and outside the box thinkers around Vermont and New England. As Obscure Vermont has grown, I’ve been growing with it, and the developing attention is keeping me earnest and pushing me harder to be more introspective and going further into seeking out the strange.

I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to keep this blog going. Obscure Vermont is funded almost entirely by generous donations. Expenses range from hosting fees to keep the blog live, investing in research materials, travel expenses and the required planning, and updating/maintaining vital tools such as my camera and my computer. I really pride and push myself to try to put out the best of what I’m able to create, and I gauge it by only posting stuff that I personally would want to see on the glow of my computer screen.

I want to continuously diversify how I write and the odd things I write about. Your patronage would greatly help me continue bringing you cool and unusual content and keep me doing what I love!

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Richford’s Mystery Spot

The hill country up near hardscrabble East Richford is an older, left behind Vermont of farmhouses with sagging rooflines, boarded up country stores, rivers, rusted iron railroad bridges over narrow underpasses, and toothpick rows of harvested corn stocks left in bleak fields.

It was up in this part of the state under 6 inches of snow and roads that made me thankful for snow tires that I was going oddity hunting.

We were the only car on state route 105A, a pretty desolate spur road connecting route 105 to a sparsely used border crossing at Sutton, Quebec. The bad tarmac ran alongside the hypothermic waters of the Mississqoui as the snow began to tumble down to the ground in an amiable silence. “Man, I love roads that follow rivers” my friend enthused. “Yeah, roads that follow rivers are some of humankind’s’ best achievements” I returned, and we both cracked a grin.

We continued to be the only traffic as we turned onto the dirt main drag of East Richford, which was only a few older wooden homes in various states of decrepitude. Past the abandoned Gulf station, the road sharply right angles at Quebec before beginning its ascent up into the border hills. We passed an old graveyard where the invisible line between the two nations slashed through the middle of, before my friend suddenly stomped on his breaks, our car skidding for a few seconds on the slush and ice. “Oh……” he breathed, looking at the granite boundary marker to our right. “Shit, are we breaking the law? We’re in Canada! Don’t we have to check in?”

“The only law we’re breaking is the law of gravity!” I quipped.

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According to Sir Isaac Newton, objects fall. No exceptions. But if Franklin County lore has a flicker of truth to it, perhaps not.

This remote border road that made it’s way through some of Vermont’s most stark and impoverished back country near East Richford is known as “Richford’s Mystery Spot,” according to Joseph E. Citro and Diane E. Foulds in their 2004 book Curious New England: The Unconventional Traveler’s Guide to Eccentric Destinations. The “mystery” is that gravity in this spot reputedly likes to behave unorthodoxly. For example, cars are said to roll uphill! WTF?

These oddities aren’t unique to the Green Mountain State. Various places around the U.S. manifest the same puzzling phenomenon. Nearest to Vermont, there are two “mystery spots” in the Massachusetts towns of Greenfield and Harvard, and one in Middlesex, N.Y., on the awesomely named Spook Hill Road.

Citro and Foulds reported that they weren’t able to locate Richford’s mystery spot. Years ago, in a brown and bleak November, I made my own attempt. Being an avid Vermont enthusiast and local weird worker, I couldn’t pass this one up. I enlisted a friend, who couldn’t contain his mirth when I explained we were aiming to defy gravity, and quickly signed on for the road trip. I guess breaking the laws of physics is a good way to make plans.

The mystery spot is aptly named, I discovered when we turned east out of Richford village toward the looming form of Jay Peak, because it’s no easy place to find. The night before, I had consulted the state atlas and decided that the most likely location was the curiously named East Richford Slide Road, a hilly dirt byway that rolls over the foothills of Jay Peak with a few trailers and abandoned farmhouses along its length, before depositing you back on Route 105 in Jay town. It serpentines over the border a few times, but because you can’t get anywhere in Canada unless you hike through miles of mountain wilderness, the crossings aren’t guarded.

So how do you discover such an area? There had to be a first person to be bewildered here. My research had identified the late Dolph Dewing of Franklin as the first person to report experiencing the mystery spot’s effects in 1978. According to Citro in Weird New England: Your Travel Guide to New England’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, Dewing started by sharing the discovery with his friends, then brought a busload from the Franklin Senior Center to witness the phenomenon.

In October 1985, County Courier reporter Nat Worman accompanied Dewing to the spot and watched as he stopped his 1979 Dodge there and revved it to prove it was in neutral. After about 60 seconds passed, the car began rolling uphill, accelerating gradually from 10 to 15 mph.

My friend and I weren’t so lucky on that windy November day. We parked our car in several places along the rural road and waited. Despite our relocations, nothing happened.

We pulled over again and mulled things over. Did we have to be in Canada for the “mystery” to work, or on the Vermont side? Maybe we just hadn’t found the right spot.

Sitting beneath border skies as the sun shone off the hood of my friend’s Chevy, I wondered if Dewing had been fooled by some sort of optical illusion. Was it really antigravity? Or magnetism? Or a hoax?

Researching later on, I found that the answers may be closer than I expected and rooted in the rational. There are a bunch of “mystery spots” around the globe, some with equally evocative names such as “gravity hills” and “gravity roads.” So, do the laws of physics simply stop applying there?

Nope. What baffles tons of spectators is actually an optical illusion, one that’s been debunked by physicists. Or, at least, that’s the prevailing theory.

“Gravity hills” and the like are places where the geography of the surrounding land produces an illusion, making a downhill slope appear to go uphill. Obstructions on the horizon can be a key factor in creating this illusion, because they rob us of the reliable reference points we use to determine which way is up. The mind, in short, is tricked.

In a 2006 Science Daily article, Brock Weiss, a physics professor at Penn State Altoona, investigates a gravity hill in Bucks County, Penn., and concludes that this local oddity isn’t that odd. “You are, indeed, going downhill even though your brain gives you the impression that you’re going uphill,” Weiss explains. Using GPS, the investigators demonstrated that the hill’s starting point had a greater elevation than its ending point, despite appearances to the contrary. And, if these mystery spots really were gravitational anomalies, wouldn’t your sense of balance and the objects around you be affected, instead of just your vehicle?

Just as I was pretty much convinced that I could put this into my “mystery solved” pile, Linda Collins of the Richford Historical Society brought me back into a sentiment of uncertainty. I phoned the town offices looking for answers, and instead had an awkward silence sent my way. I had almost thought they hung up on me, before the town clerk spoke up and said she had no idea what I was talking about. So she directed my call to Linda, who had a lot to say about Richford’s weird side.

“Oh yeah, I know about the hill. I think it’s called a ‘gravity hill’. I learned about it when I was researching the UFO sightings in town” said an amused Collins.

Back in the 1970s, she related, a few Richford residents reported seeing strange moving lights over town. Wanting to chronicle the frenzy for the Burlington Free Press, Collins made phone calls, which led her to a government facility in Boulder, Colo. She refers to it as “the strange things facility,” because “I don’t remember what they were called — it’s been so long since I’ve talked about this!”

According to Collins, the feds told her that a singular magnetic pull or gravitational force in the Richford area had the potential to “attract things.” They didn’t specify what things, and she surmised there was probably more that they weren’t telling her. “You know, government secrecy? They were probably doing some testing or something and didn’t want that getting out to the public,” Collins said. Later on, Collins learned of the “mystery spot” phenomenon.

“Does the historical society get many inquiries about it?” I asked. “No one up here really knows that much about it,” she said with a laugh. “It was such a small deal when it happened. Lots of folks in town now don’t really know a lot about our history anymore.”

“So what’s your opinion on it? Do you think it’s an illusion, or is there something actually weird with gravity in Richford?”

“Well….I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. Richford is a weird town. If all this business about the UFOs and gravitational pulls are true, then who knows.”

Border towns are weird in general, in both their local lore and for political complications and the infrastructure meant to delineate a sense of placement. Richford’s mythology resume is a bulky one of giant birds that have swooped down and snatched babies, UFOs, giant wolves that may live around the border, a possible “window area” near Jay Peak, and a former rendezvous for rumrunners and smugglers.

But Richford has it easy, compared to what may be New England’s strangest border community, which I hope to check out one day.

If the Richford, VT/Sutton, QC area really does have some sort of unique magnetic force, that would set Vermont’s mystery spot apart from the scores of others around the globe that can be debunked by aesthetic tomfoolery.

One of my favorite Richford landmarks, as seen downtown.
One of my favorite Richford landmarks, as seen downtown.

Because I was trying to write about this for Seven Days, I decided that was a great excuse to take another trip up to border country with another friend, and give it another go, this time in a Ford (if that makes any sort of difference)

Back up the East Richford Slide Road, we drove around looking for answers and an outlandishly cool experience, stopping and going almost the entire length of the slick road, with some situationally motivating Jazz coming quietly through the radio.

We think there was one spot where the car rolled in a direction that wasn’t backward, but after getting out of the car and scrutinizing the area, the very very gradual incline of the road may have actually been inconspicuously dipping downhill, but the eye is fooled from a larger uphill lip of an intersection beyond it which forms the horizon line. Was this the spot? If so, Dewing’s car was recorded going at least 15mph, while we were going 5.

I’m not sure if I left empty handed or not to be honest, but it was an enjoyable way to spend my morning.

Whatever the explanation for the mystique, the Richford Mystery Spot is still one of my favorite examples of Vermont obscura, because it’s accessible and fun. If only it were a little easier to locate the exact spot where the optical illusion — if that’s what it is — kicks in.

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One of our many stops up the East Richford Slide Road, where we were definitely sliding all over the place.
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The mowed down strip of forest cutting over those snowy mountains is an aesthetic reminder of where the U.S./Canada border is that’s called “The Slash”, created by homeland security when they deemed all of the 150 plus year old granite obelisk markers formerly doing the job as obsolete. So far, the clear cut runs from Maine to Minnesota, with the eventual finish line being Alaska. I read in a newspaper write up years ago that they defended their forestry project by arguing that a lot of Americans would be confused and wind up in Canada accidentally if they didn’t. I’m not sure if I buy that. I mean, I’ve never bumbled my way into Quebec before. But who are we to question the government?

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Off The Beaten Path in Southern Vermont

I woke up at 5 AM, was reminded that I wasn’t a morning person, and stumbled out my back door at 6. My friend was waiting for me in his parked car as the headlights cast a dull amber pallor onto quiet streets that were under the cold gray dawn. It was 41 degrees and I was all shiver bones in the new coming chill.

I stopped for a few gas station coffees and was rewarded with my early rise by wicked fog that obscured the landscape off route 7 in a glorious visceral veil that turned everything into mutated shadows. I caught some of it on my cell phone hanging around Dorset Peak, before it burned off. 

The weather lately has been prime for adventuring, and I’ve been aching to get out. This trip would give me that spark in my brains I was looking for. Feeding off my desire to visit as many obscure places as I can, I figured that two ghost towns in southern Vermont would be a great way to spend my day. These vanished places are probably some of the most obscure in the state. But everyone pays the price to feed, and I arrived back home exhausted and practically limping, so I suppose that can be gauged as one hell of an adventure. But I’m also someone who’d willingly drive 8 hours just to find an oddity, so a follow-up day of sluggish exhaustion was easily worth it for me.

Somerset

I’m willing to assume that plenty of Vermonters haven’t heard of Somerset. If you take a gander at a state atlas, it’s a narrow rectangle at the western edge of Windham County that nudges into eastern Bennington County – giving the latter county its block lettered “C” shape.

The entire burg is filled by the Green Mountain National Forest. It has a year-round population of 2 people and is only accessible by a forest service road that is all too easy to miss because of it’s small, squint-to-read street sign. But out of the two destinations I was planning on scouting, Somerset was the only one that was somewhat accessible by vehicle, so we started out with that one. I was still sipping my coffee which was getting unsatisfyingly cold, trying to shake off a road trip thematic Tom Waits song beating around in my head.

Somerset Road sort of plunges immediately down an embankment right off The Molly Stark Byway in woodsy Searsburg, and almost as quickly, turns to washboarded gravel after passing a few houses with scores of signs telling you that they’re not into people trespassing on their land. The increasingly destitute road now follows the Deerfield River and is thick with trees. We noticed that some older power lines had still been strung up along the road, and ran the length of the Searsburg portion. But it was evident these lines were archaic predecessors of modern day utility infrastructure. Some of the poles were leaning pretty horizontally as we got further down the road, and that’s when we noticed that they had glass insulators still on their lower rungs, now defunct as the power company had long clipped those wires and modernized things a bit a few feet higher up. Glass insulators were developed in the 1850s originally for telegraph wires, but were later utilized for initiative telephone wires and electric power lines, until the 1960s when they began to be phased out and simultaneously became a feature of interest.

I thought it was pretty cool to see them, and that there are still more or less untouched Vermont back roads that still exist. Older relics like these are becoming increasingly hard to find nowadays. And, apparently, there is a collectors market, clubs and even shows dedicated to them. Anything can have fanfare it seems.

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The Somerset Road as it winds through Searsburg.
The blue glass insulators are on the bottom rung, while the modernized installation sits on top.

As soon as we hit the Somerset town line, which was marked by an omnipresently strange country icon of a bullet-perforated speed limit sign and an abrupt transition of bad gravel road to worse gravel road. The power lines stopped, and for the next several miles, we were deep in the type of woods where you really couldn’t see the forest through the trees, and they were all in the throes of their glorious descent into their perennial death.

There are really no places in Vermont like Somerset. Though there are 2 census documented year-round denizens, the amount of people gets to about 24-ish during the summer months – they’re all people who have camps there. In a 2011 interview done by WCAX, one of two Somersetians, Don Gero, explained that people don’t stick around here. Both residents are bachelors, and he quipped that because Somerset has no electricity or phones, women don’t want to live there. “They can’t use their hair dryers or wash their clothes” he said. He’s also not happy about the summer camping population, who are “two dozen too many” for his tastes, and paeaned for the good ol’ days when I guess none of them were there. Often, the current culture of these odd places is more interesting than the past events that created them.

Charted by Benning Wentworth back when Vermont wasn’t Vermont and its land was quarreled over by New York and New Hampshire, the New Hampshire governor and businessman (in no particular order) just drew a whole bunch of lines on a map and granted towns without knowing anything of the area’s geography. The most important thing was that New York couldn’t get their hands on any of the land, so he didn’t concern himself with pesky things like that. Vermonters decided they preferred anarchy, and would later orgonize an independent republic in 1777 with our own currency and postal service, and then, the 14th state in 1791 when we tried on our current name. 

Somerset is all mountains, far away from anything and hard to get to. Despite that it wasn’t great real estate to early settlers, 321 people tried to live here in the town’s 1880s apex. Logging was the only way to make a few bucks, so they deforested all of the area mountains. They attempted to have log drives down the Deerfield River, except for when it was low, which it was, a lot. 

The demand for timber was ravenous, and that convinced a railroad line to lay tracks up to the mills, which were a huge boon to the town, but also helped speed up its death. A town depending on a finite resource comes and goes like fads always do, and most of the trees in the area were hacked down, the inevitable consequence was that both the logging industry and the town became a literal washout. 

The town’s last hurrah was when the Deerfield River valley was eyed for a future facing wonder like hydropower and the cash it could bring. In 1911, the Somerset Dam began to take form. The dam was built by massive work crews of about 100 men in shifts, doing everything by hand and took about 3 years to complete. The reservoir did what reservoirs do best and collected the desired water, which submerged what was left of town and the railroad and the mills. 

At some point, there was an airfield in Somerset, which has also vanished. Today it’s a free and minimal amenitied national forest campground under the same name. According to campers who post reviews online, it’s either wonderfully remote or a place where amateur outdoors folk or “Massholes” go to belt loud music and litter. Given my experience at campgrounds, I’d say it’s probably both.

I also found out, which isn’t detrimental to your life if you don’t know, that you can take class D forest roads from Somerset all the way north to the Kelly Stand Road – a west-east oriented forest road that’s also one of Southern Vermont’s most scenic. If you enjoy shunpiking, finding more of these back road byways to explore is usually not a bad thing.

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The Somerset Road in Somerset.
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A small and mowed cemetery surprisingly pops out of miles of wilderness as you travel up the forest road. Many of the weathered and matching headstones were kids. One sad entombment was uniquely chiseled with a sheep on top, and quickly caught my wondering eyes. Lancelot was 3 years old. Life up here was tough, especially for kids.

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The further away from civilization we drove, the more apple trees started to distinguish appear from the northern forests. These apples trees appeared somewhat old, some of them were haunted by the thick woods and lack of sunlight needed to grow. Others still carried apple crops of various qualities, apple strands that are heirloom seeds, and are not commercially available anymore in an increasingly controlled GMO market, leaving these trees to one by one drift away or die off.
The further away from civilization we drove, the more apple trees started to distinguishly appear from the northern forests. I’m not sure how old some of these trees were, and if they were original to former Somerset residents, or planted after the national forest took over. These apple trees appeared somewhat haunted by the thick woods and lack of sunlight needed to grow. Others still carried apple crops which varied in how rotten they were. These apple strands that are heirloom seeds, and are not commercially available anymore in an increasingly lack of choice based GMO market, leaving these trees to one by one die off.
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A brown and white national forest sign explained at the trees that were still able to produce apples were part of an “apples for wildlife program”,which is pretty self-explanatory.
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I could have hung out in Somerset all day, it was just so beautiful and almost intimidatingly wild. All I’d need is a few Vermont microbrews to accompany me. This little brook paralleled the forest road, but I wouldn’t have found it if I didn’t stop to spark my interest in an old apple orchard.
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Only 3 things remain of Somerset’s days as a town – one of them being its restored but locked one-room schoolhouse, also found a ways up the forest road. I heard it was a private camp, but not positive about those details. I’d love to see the inside. Or to live in a restored one-room schoolhouse.
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The forests of Somerset. Are any of my blog followers into Geocaching like me? Somerset may be remote, but the area is loaded with caches!

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The Somerset Reservoir is where the Somerset Road comes to an end, and in my humble opinion, one of the more stunning places in Vermont. The sinuous and currently blustery cold water body is about 5-6 miles long and undeveloped. The dam's roadside appearance is really just a high grassy wall with a nearby unmanned rickety tin shack that has a TransCanada logo sign plate on it. But atop the dam is this awesome view of one of Vermont's largest wilderness areas. I really wish I had brought a kayak or something. Seriously, places like this are therapy to me. I couldn't contain my approval and swore a few times to prove it.
The Somerset Reservoir is where the Somerset Road comes to an end, and in my humble opinion, one of the more stunning places in Vermont. The sinuous and currently blustery cold water body is about 5-6 miles long and undeveloped. The long form of Stratton’s rounded mountain top could be seen in the distance . The dam’s roadside appearance is really just a high grassy wall with a nearby unmanned rickety tin shack that has a TransCanada logo sign plate on it. But atop the dam is this awesome view of one of Vermont’s largest wilderness areas. I really wish I had brought a kayak or something. Seriously, places like this are therapy to me. I couldn’t contain my approval and swore a few times to prove it.

Glastenbury

Vermont author Joseph Citro introduced Connecticut’s faded hamlet of Duddleytown (which was really only a place name in the town of Cornwall named after the trio of brothers who bought land there) as “the granddaddy of all New England window areas” in his book Passing Strange, which to me made a pretty good lead-in to that chapter (it was actually the last sentence in his chapter on Glastenbury). I’d like to term swipe that to introduce Glastenbury on a more localized level, as the granddaddy of Vermont’s lost areas, for multifarious justifications.

Getting to the ill-fated town is nothing short of a challenge today, and was for the people who tried to make a life for themselves up there over a century ago. It’s isolation, stubbornly built up in an area of 12 peaks over 3,000 feet with no convenient access, makes it one of the most unique places in the Green Mountain State, then and now.

If you’ve been following my blog, you might know that I’ve been very interested in Glastenbury since I was a kid, and wrote about it extensively, my long winded self trying to pack as much detail as I could into a blog post. This entry expands on that.

To summarize things; the vanished town of Glastenbury was charted in 1761, and reflected the circumstances of its neighbor Somerset when it was naively plotted over some of the worst topography in the state. As a consequence, it wasn’t really until the 1850s when anyone paid interest to the town, when people figured out they had an entire mountain of wood to deforest for profit, and a logging/charcoal duality became Glastenbury’s only industry.

About 12 brick kilns for charcoal production were built in southern Glastenbury at an area known as “the forks”, because it was a distinguishable location where Bolles Brook split in two in a V-shaped parting of ways. A small and rough, lawless village designated as South Glastenbury grew up around these kilns, including a one-room schoolhouse, loggers boardinghouse and company store.

The steepest railroad ever built in the U.S. was developed to get up into South Glastenbury. The electric trolly line was the only element that made the town a pragmatic place; bringing down money making lumber and charcoal, and later, bringing up tourists. Many have no idea that aforementioned rail bed still exists, and if you follow it, will bring you deep into indistinguishable wilderness to the grave of the old town. Our adventure started well before we got out of the car when we navigated our way to the portal into the forest. 

Funny enough, Glastenbury is still technically a town, at least in the haze of Vermont law. A gaze at a state atlas, or a Google map search, will show you a dotted lined square that represents a town boundary, only, there is nothing within the square. It’s considered an unincorporated town – or, one of 5 Vermont communities with a population so low, that instead of a town government handling its affairs, those things are managed by a county or the state. Or the national forest service I guess. There are a few people who still do live in Glastenbury – populated by just 6 people ( their properties are pretty much clustered near the borders of either Shaftsbury or Woodford), who also have achieved somewhat of a level of intrigue beyond the strange phenomena that describes the town.

I’m going to stay quiet on the access road we took, because it’s pretty evident that the people who have their addresses there don’t want the crowds. (Like the folks in Somerset, they live in the boonies for a reason, only, these folks express their discontent via threatening scrawl) When we drove up the gravel roadway, we immediately began to pass some shabby looking properties, all of them with handwritten and somewhat threatening signs warning nonlocals not to park their cars there, or else.

Fearing our car would be cannibalized for its wheels in an uncomfortable back woods “we warned you!” sort of situation, we decided to find what we designated as the safest parking space on the road, far away from any discernable houses and no parking signs. Hoping that we didn’t make a stupid mistake, we trekked up the road on foot, found the forest road, and began our hike into one of the most fabled places in state mythology.

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This is a shot of the trail slash old rail bed, miles into our hike. Unexpectedly to me, this might be the most grueling of Vermont hikes I’ve endured. The amount of rocks ravished my feet to a point where I was literally limping down the trail, silently no longer caring if I was there and begging to rest my weary bones in the car.
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Further up the trail, we started to find original rail spikes from when the railroad was built over a century ago!
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This was a sign that got me revved up. We began to notice chunks of Slag along the trail. Slag is a stony waste matter separated from metals during the smelting or refining of ore, and since Glastenbury was built around charcoal furnaces, there is plenty of the stuff in the woods today. We were even to find some rare green and blue slag. I’m not very savvy about the jewelry culture, but I guess you can polish and buffer up slag chunks pretty attractively and make accented miscellany from them. I dig them in their natural form, and grabbed a few chunks of the green for my collection of oddities.

We hushed our sound as we heard another one that was all too familiar to me. We heard an approaching 4 wheeler. Because of my suspicious nature and not knowing what sort of people were this deep up in the woods, I decided to relocate myself as far to the side of the trail as I could, give a friendly nod and let them pass. As they got closer, I saw it was a younger couple, a man and a woman, and they slowed down as they saw us. I decided to take the mutual encounter and get past my social anxiety and spark up a conversation with them.

Actually, I wanted directions, because we were beginning to second guess ourselves as to where we were, and if we could find any of the ruins, and I really didn’t want to leave disappointed.

The front handbrakes were pulled and their 4 wheeler slowed down to a stop. The gentleman, who was wearing a camo baseball cap and sunglasses smiled at us and wished us a good afternoon, his wife sat behind him silently observing us with a friendly expression. I returned the greeting and asked him if he could direct us to South Glastenbury.

“Oh, the forks?” he asked. That casual nickname drop meant that they were aware of it, and I nodded my head, my excitement immediately betrayed my casual expression I was trying to keep. I also thought it was pretty rad that locals today still use the place’s old handle.

“Yes, the forks. Are we close? Would it even be traceable in all this?” I gestured to the thick woods around me to make a point. “Well, yeah you can find it. But this is sort of the wrong time of year to be looking for that sort of stuff. Also, it’s bear season up here you know. Uhh, how’d you guys know about Glastenbury, just curious?” he asked us with a backdrop set to his tone.

I wasn’t quite sure if my candor had triggered a nerve, or how to give him a cropped statement of how Glastenbury found itself sticking to the flypaper of New England mythology, but I had a feeling he already knew that. “So, you know about Middie Rivers?” his wife spoke up. “Yeah, I do” I stated. There was no need to be superfluous there. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with Glastenbury and it’s monsters;

Local lore includes a froth of big hairy monsters, a cursed Indian stone that swallows humans, UFOs, mysterious lights, sounds and odors detected by colonial settlers, and numerous hikers walking off the face of the earth here between 1945 to 1950 – earning it the nickname; “The Bennington Triangle” in 1992, which has adhered itself to the flypaper of popular culture.

Fortean researchers like John A. Keel conjured up the term “Window Area”, which I had referenced at the beginning of this section, as a place where some sort of interdimensional trapdoor can be found. Well, that’s one theory anyways. New England is loaded with so-called “Window Areas”. Cryptozoologist and researcher Loren Coleman identified Massachusetts’ “Bridgewater Triangle”, using the term “triangle” to designate any odd geographical area. Joseph Citro followed up by coining “The Bennington Triangle” – both are said to be “window areas” It’s also one of my favorite terms to use when talking about this caliber of local weirdness.

Who knows where the flickers of truth are in all this. And that’s what makes everything so damn fascinating, because there is truth in these tales tall and true.

It’s also the mountain’s paranormal and controversial tales that attract modern day professed ghost hunting clubs and social media sensationalists, whose meddling are an affront to both locals and reasonable judgment, which really seemed to have damned the wilderness area.

Don’t get me wrong, these haunting stories are partially why I found myself hiking up the mountain, because of how impressionable they were and still are to me, but I find that there is also a line between being a civilized researcher, and becoming one of the monsters you’re chasing and exploiting it on a tawdry clickbait website with a headline that reads something like “{insert subject} will give you NIGHTMARES!”

Middie Rivers

The elderly Middie Rivers was the first of a handful of people who reputedly disappeared in the mountains in or near Glastenbury. Anyone who tells the story of southern Vermont’s Shangri-La recants that Rivers was an experienced woodsman who, while leading other hunters on the mountain, got a bit ahead on the trail, and was never seen again.

“None of that is true”, his wife said declaredly. “Rivers wasn’t a hunter or an experienced woodsman at all! He was actually from Massachusetts, and he had borrowed a rifle from his brother-in-law, who he was hunting with. He’d probably never even hunted before, and certainly never guided other hunters up here. The only thing that’s true about that story, is that he did disappear.”

“One theory is that he might have fallen down an old well. That seems pretty plausible to me”, I added. She nodded her head. “Yup, that’s what we think too. I mean, there are plenty of them up in the hills. But vanishing without a trace…people love to say that, because it backs up the mystic or, I don’t know, the ghostly impression about this place. They’d rather believe that than the facts, because it’s more interesting” she furrowed her brows and cut herself off in annoyed contemplation – like she knew what she wanted to say but couldn’t get it out. I was loving this conversation. “I know a bit about Middie Rivers” she continued after a moment. “I know a lot of stories and legends, passed down by relations to him. The Loziers – that’s the family who is related to him – we knew/know them, they passed down all sorts of stuff to us growing up. They have a camp up in Glastenbury still, like us. I even have a picture of Middie Rivers”.

“Ah, that explains the 4 wheeler then. I was a little surprised to see you folks! I assumed this was just a hiking trail or forest road”.

“Yup, we’re one of two camps in Glastenbury on this trail. My wife’s father built it years ago. We were grandfathered in. After the national forest took over, no one else was allowed to build up here or drive up this trail anymore. As it is, we need a special permit to have 4 wheelers so we can ride up here” – the husband cut in. “Did you see all of the gates?” I nodded in confirmation. We had to crawl underneath a few of them just to advance our hike. He continued; “We used to have friends up all the time, they used to come up in huge parties on ATVs up the trail. Now you can’t do that. It’s ridiculous, but hell, we’re not going to fucking lug all of our shit up to the camp on foot” – he then gestured to a cooler on the back rack of his 4 wheeler to emphasize his point. I got it. My friend and I had been walking for over an hour now, and I was already exhausted. “Our camps have been here for a long time – they started out as plywood cabins with dirt floors, and over the years as they were passed down, we’ve improved them a bit. No one else can build up here now.”

“I mean, it’s really probable that Middie could have fallen down a sink hole”, his wife interjected herself back into the already broadening conversation. “Sinkholes?” I asked, hoping I delivered a cue to get any sort of further information. “Ayuh, it happens more often than you think. Sinkholes swallow hunters all the time! There’s tons of them up here. People have hunted this mountain all their lives and still report getting turned around in the woods and intimidated here.”

“Because of the cross winds that meet on Glastenbury Mountain?” I prodded, a showing a little pride in my research. She nodded her head.

“I’d love to hear more about Middie Rivers, or any stories you guys have, if you’d be interested in chatting? I can give you my email or something?” I attempted. I couldn’t help it, I live for stuff like this. There is just something underneath my skin, a desire to make sense of everything. I’m definitely the type to overload myself with information.

At this point, his wife broke out in a lopsided grin and told me that she wasn’t interested in speaking any further about Glastenbury, without actually telling me she didn’t want to speak anymore about Glastenbury. “Well, we’ll be on our way now” said her husband, his thumb pushing the ignition and the engine promptly firing up. He gave us directions that were incredibly vague, but given the lack of wayfinding points, were the best he could do with people who’ve never been in those woods before. I thanked the both of them, tipped my hat in gesture, and both groups parted our opposite ways down the trail.

The Forks

It didn’t take long before we were unclear of the given directions and insecure about how much we remembered. It didn’t help that there were plenty of brook forks along the trail, tripping my thoughts up to think that any of them could be the forks.

As we continued our trek up the trail, we sighted something that sort of sketched us out. I’m laughing to myself as I type this sentence, but it was a cozy looking, nicely upkept log cabin which was probably one of the camps the baseball capped guy was talking about. There was an open lawn area out front that was mindfully mowed and solar panels on the roof, with an outhouse in back.  It’s hard to explain what it is about off grid living, or seeing a home way out in the boonies, that sends odd reactions that crawl up your spine. I suppose that so many of us are just accustomed to being hooked up to utility poles (in some more repressive states, it’s actually against the law to be off the grid), that this sort of makes us subconsciously weary, like there is something “weird” about the arrangement, and easy to stereotype the people that chose to live like that and how they’re of their own sort. But then I remember that I’d live like that too if I could.

But still, I picked up my pace a bit, wanting to get out of sight of the cabin and back into the woods. Then, we ran into another fellow on a 4 wheeler. This time, our approaching character was an older gentleman. We side-stepped off the trail again, nodded our heads, and went through the same rounds of introductions as last time.

“The forks, huh? Well, I mean….you can’t make out much of the old hotel foundation anymore, but it’s right off this trail. Nothing much left of the kilns. Might be some iron bands, maybe bricks.” Then he pointed to an offshoot 4 wheeler trail that ran through an area thick with prickers and berry bushes. “There’s more kilns up that knoll there” he said, his wisdom rolled confidently off his tongue wrapped up in his heavy Vermont accent. “Oh, uh, that trail looks like it goes behind the camp we just passed,” I said uncomfortably. Though my hobby of exploration often involves trespassing, I wasn’t about to skulk around someone’s land up in those hills, especially inhabited land. People in the boondocks have guns. “They aren’t home are they?!” He said, a little wonderment in his inotation.

“No, we didn’t see anyone when we walked by”, I returned, grinning at his unexpected humorous reaction.

“Oh, good!” he said, his enthusiasm almost made me crack up. I wondered if they got along or not. “But yeah – there’s more of em’ down that trail. Well, I’ve never seen them, but I know they’re there!” This time, I didn’t contain my mirth. I liked this guy. I asked him to clarify our misdirections a bit, and he gave us some of the most Vermont directions I’ve ever gotten – far superior to the ones I got when searching for some of our state’s mysterious stone chambers.

“Well, when you get to the forks, take a right instead of the left crossing over the brook, then go up the mountain a ways but still make sure to parallel the river – look down and you’ll eventually see the kilns. Or what’s left of ’em anyways. ” Just then, a Glastenbury traffic jam formed behind the old timer on his 4 wheeler, as three teenage rednecks on dirtbikes pulled up and sort of just looked at my friend and I stoically, the last one in line revved his engine impatiently while refusing to make eye contact and tried to flaunt his, I don’t know, machismo? Or maybe he was just impatient. I shook his hand and wished him a good afternoon, and we were on our way.

More walking down the trail later, and we approached a very standout fork in Bolles Brook and the rail bed portion of the trail we were on ended and transitioned into a slender path beyond a wooden bridge that crossed the brook. We had found the forks.

The village of South Glastenbury circa 1897. Bolles Brook is in the middle of the photo. The hotel (former logger's boardinghouse) is to the left, with the double story porch, and the casino (former company store), is up the hill a ways to the right. You can also see the electric trolly on the lower right hand corner of the photo - the same tracks we hiked to get up into town.
The village of South Glastenbury circa 1897. Bolles Brook is in the middle of the photo. The hotel is to the left, with the double story porch, and the casino is up the hill a ways to the right. You can also see the electric trolly on the lower right corner of the photo – the same tracks we hiked to get up into town. This is my favorite picture of Glastenbury.
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This is “the forks” or Bolles Brook today. The village of South Glastenbury is practically intractable.
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Taken on the forest road bridge that crosses Bolles Brook. Someone cryptically carved either “The Kilns” or “The Kill” on the railings.
The Glastenbury casino, 1897. I really like the architecture on this old building, like the multi-story porches and the clocktower. You still get a good sense of how isolated it was.
The Glastenbury casino, 1897. I really like the architecture on this old building, like the multi-story porches and the clocktower. You still get a good sense of how isolated it was.
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You can’t really tell, but this landslide filled in pitted portion of hillside is a foundation. This is where Glastenbury’s casino used to be. The logging and charcoal industry decimated the forests of Glastenbury, so the townsfolk, with a lot of urging from the railroad who didn’t want to go broke, developed South Glastenbury into a mountain tourism getaway. The loggers’ boardinghouse became a hotel and the company store became a casino. It was open for business by 1897 after much painstaking work was put into sprucing up the area, and visitors loved it. Glastenbury must have been pretty cool in its day, way up in the mountains over 2,000 feet. And during the time of inconvenient travel, it must have been a novelty. But a year later, a flood destroyed the tracks to a quality beyond repair, and it successfully killed the town. Most of the buildings just rotted away and fell into their cellar holes, and the national forest took control of the area in the 1930s.

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“Well….” I dragged out the word, in a reverie of run down indecisiveness. “Should we try to scout the hillside a bit? See if we can find anything?” I asked. My friend enthusiastically agreed, not being constantly annoyed by an abused foot throbbing in pain. So, off the trail we went, regardless of the reminders that we were in “The Bennington Triangle” and “this is how people disappear” that my brain was trying to communicate with me. To my relief, which quickly muted by lethargy, my friend ecstatically yelled; “I found bricks!”
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I clambered over to where his form was through the foliage and found myself stumbling over piles and piles of bricks that practically made up the slope we were on. Further up the hill, we began finding some old stone foundations filled in by a century of erosion.

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I read that there were very few photos of any of the charcoal kilns in Glastenbury. Here's one of the few I was able to find.
I read that there were very few photos of any of the charcoal kilns in Glastenbury – and the few that do exist are only after the kilns went defunct. Here’s one of the few I was able to find, with two men standing nearby.
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The further up the slopes we ventured, our efforts paid off. I began finding tons of moss covered bricks and bent up iron bands from the old charcoal kilns! I was so excited to find artifacts that have survived the ravages of time – things that help us reconstruct our past culture.
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A contorted iron band from one of the old kilns.

Visiting the peaceful and secluded location of Glastenbury town was a strange experience. Knowing the lore and the history there sort of make you look at this otherwise banal stream crossing in the woods through a different set of lenses, ones that makes professed monsters a bit more discernable. Unless there is just something in Bolles Brook that made/makes the locals morbidly imaginative.

On our way down the mountain, we saw a couple fellas standing barefoot in the chilly waters of the brook smoking pot – a scent that followed us halfway through the rest of our hike. One gave us a toothless smile and a wave, and kept on giggling at whatever it was they were talking about. I won’t deny that they picked a nice afternoon for woodsy shenanigans.

Thankfully, our car was as we left it when we got back, and we sluggishly made our way back down to Bennington to grab a burger.

My friend and fellow explorer Josh is into video editing and decided to film our oddysey. Cinematography is something I keep saying I’m going to get into more, but my laziness and reserved nature always seem to prevent that from getting a checkmark on my list. If videos are your thing, and you want to see my friend and this blogger being sort of goofy/awkward while tromping through the woods, I’ll link you below.

Things worth mentioning:

If any of you are interested further in Glastenbury, I’d highly recommend author Tyler Resch’s venerable book about the history of the town. I have a copy of it in my library.

I’d also like to suggest Joseph Citro’s Passing Strange, a detailed compendium of New England folklore and weirdness. It was one of the first books I bought as a kid, and my worn out copy is still with me. Both of these books helped further my research and curiosity.

If you missed it, here is my first post on Glastenbury, if you want more on the town’s history and ghastliness.

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The Franklin County Wolf Monument

“Wait – there it is!” I shouted, pointing to the top of a long rock emergence that confined a rootsy trail between a steep descent down to more rocks and dead leaves. I hastily bushwacked off from the path, clambered up the small incline thick with lots of scratchy underbrush and got to a plateaued area at the top, and found what I had been searching for – the very camouflaged Franklin County wolf monument.

This boulder clumped pitch on Saint Albans’ Aldis Hill was apparently where the last gray wolf in Franklin County was seen in 1839. But instead of memorializing the wolf, it memorialized how it ended up. Dead. As my confused friend shuffled up after me, I let out a fulfilling “yes!” like I wasn’t still in ear shot of residential neighborhoods.

According to the inscribed story on the supine slab; the beast, 6 feet in length, had been ravaging in unidentified ways, the country around northeastern Franklin County until local businessman and politician Lawrence Brainerd had some sort of run-in with it, pursued it up the hill, and shot it, which inspired someone to then erect a pretty modest, somewhat macabre commemoration of the event. That person remains a mystery. People react to these sort of situations in different ways. Then, shooting a wolf was probably seen as a good riddance worthy of recognition, where currently, I’m sure the reactions would be social media spitfire. Still, the monument serves as a mark of distinction of the area, and makes me wonder what other secrets or conditions have long been buried?

The area around the monument is some of the hill’s wildest topography. It would be easy to envision having a run-in with a wolf up there, or maybe some other wild beast. Though I’m not sure how many Brainerd’s are left in the maple city, there is still a Brainerd Street today that runs upwards from North Main Street in the direction of the hill, commemorating the obviously influential family. Although, it’s disappointingly not marked with the city’s signature white street signs emblazoned with green maple leaf silhouettes.

The monument is a local legend and cool piece of Franklin County obscura. Many don’t know about it – which doesn’t surprise me. And if you do, you fall into two camps; you know where it is, or don’t. And if you do, it’s a pretty hard thing to give directions to. On my second time hiking up the hill, it was July and come down humidity, I was trampling through the heat and trying to discern my friend’s text message directions, only to walk back down the hill no longer caring if I found it or not and just wanting to sit in some air conditioning for a while.

Plenty of others have tried to find it – but it’s a challenge. Trust me, this was my third time on the hill, which is surprisingly steep and tredded with a network of overlapping trails that can screw up a mental compass. Generally, if you use the hum of the interstate nearby, you can get a good orientation of where you are. But the monument is small, doesn’t distinguish itself from the woods, and isn’t really on the trailside.

I knew the Hard’ack ski area existed, a local rope tow operation on the east slope of the hill with both a devoted fan base and volunteer crew, because I grew up in Milton and used to go there as a kid, like lots of area kids did. But I wasn’t aware that there were trails beyond Hard’ack, that lead up and all over Aldis Hill. And that’s a shame, because once I found out just how to get up to the un-signed recreation area, I really liked it. Its terrain was rugged and wild, not what I was expecting for a little green rise that separates Saint Albans city from interstate 89.

Aldis Hill, or, the area that’s not Hard’ack, was gifted to the city of Saint Albans in 1892 by the family that owned it, the Aldis’s. The idea was to turn the rocky eminent into a recreation area for Saint Albans-ites. Somewhere on the 849-foot hill is a lookout, framed by old-growth trees that rewards the finder a pretty awesome view of the architecture of the city, and beyond looking out towards Saint Albans Bay. However, this was one of those Aldis Hill points of interest that I haven’t been able to find yet. Seriously, there are a lot of trails here, and none of them are marked. But the very noticeable lack of signage is, in my opinion, another thing that makes this woodsy area so satisfying.

I was reading some great nostalgia from an article the Saint Albans Messanger wrote up, as one Franklin County resident recalled building forts, wrecking other kids forts, building dams in spring runoff streams, playing games, and having rock fights. That really brought back great memories of me, my brother and friends growing up and doing all of those things in the woods behind our suburban house in Milton, which are some of my fondest memories. It’s great that Aldis Hill exists. If I was a kid, I’d definitely be playing in these woods.

I won’t give out the location of the monument, because honestly, 3/4th of the fun was actually trying to find the damn thing myself. The wanting brought me exploring all over Aldis Hill, which in my opinion, is worth it. Who knows, you might find the cool stone cut staircase, the lookout, the monument, remnants of barbed wire fencing being consumed by trees, and rusting artifacts that somehow ended up in the woods on the hill.

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If you have found it - you might have scratched your name into the large boulder nearby with smaller rocks.
If you have found it – you might have scratched your name into the large boulder nearby with smaller rocks.
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Or on this tree, which someone decided should have a content face.

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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Hogback Mountain and A 100 Mile View

Queen Connie

Vermont’s roads are pretty regulated, so there isn’t much here in terms of weird or kitschy personalized properties that people like to put into the broad category of roadside Americana – which includes a perpetually growing compilation of the same genre (nonstandardized) but vary widely in sentiment and imagery.

But, that doesn’t mean obscurities can’t be found along Vermont’s byways. Take the tiny farm town of Leicester, whose most famous denizen can be seen lumbering over the small oval-shaped lawn of Pioneer Auto Sales, right along the side of Route 7 either before or after you approach the tiny village center – which is pretty much an intersection with a few houses and a newly reopened gas station that now has a growler filling station.

“Queen Connie”, which it’s sometimes referred as when it’s not called “that big gorilla holding the VW bug”, is a huge 20-ft. tall, 16 ton, concrete ape, holding up a progressively rotting Volkswagon Beetle in one of her upraised arms, while the other arm is stretched out, palm upward, acting as a place where someone could grab an uncomfortable seat and a gimmicky photo opportunity.

But how did something like Queen Connie end up in aesthetic conscious Vermont? And what’s the story behind it? Actually, the answer is pretty straight forward – according to what I was told anyways. The owner of the car dealership had commissioned local artist T.J. Neil to do some concrete work around his pool at home. He was impressed with Neil’s work, and casually suggested another project; to do something cool to spruce up his business. Neil surprised him by suggesting a hyperbolized gorilla – his only reason was because he wanted to see it holding up a car. In 1987, Queen Connie was constructed using steel reinforced concrete, and she’s been observing activity on Route 7 with a disgruntled facial expression ever since, and for Vermonters who are into the weird, might be one of their first forays into oddity hunting.

Though I’m glad Vermont isn’t carelessly overdeveloped like other states, emblems like this are a pejorative thing to build here in the present tense, so it makes it all the more enjoyable.

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Your blogger and local weird worker, posing for a photo.

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Up The Molly Stark Trail

I was heading down to explore parts of southern Vermont with a friend. My summer turned into a lot of stress and setbacks, and I felt like my life was becoming as standard as my white apartment walls. My prescription was a long drive, and the lure of autumn’s sway just makes road trips better. Passing through my favorite town of Wallingford always cures a frown on my face, and as we got farther south and the trees began to turn gold in the hills around Mount Tabor and Dorset, I enthusiastically recalled a defunct marble quarry I hiked to last summer.

Route 7 turns into a limited access highway through most of Bennington County, until it reverts back to full access in Bennington and brings you right into its historic downtown district, the center of town being where it intersects with state route 9. I took a quick jaunt up the hill to the Old Bennington neighborhood to take a few photos of one of my favorite buildings in Vermont, The Walloomsac Inn, then ventured up route 9 eastwards into the mountains.

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The Walloomsac Inn, my favorite haunt in Bennington.

Route 9, also known as The Molly Stark Trail or The Molly Stark Byway as the state issued scenic byway signs tell you –  is one of my favorite drives in Vermont, and the same sentiment could probably be said for quite a few other people. It’s an extraordinary road to gawk at through the windshield of your car, and even better when you’re stopping to get out and look around. The mountain road twists and turns through the innards of the national forest and gains elevation and grade pretty much as soon as you get beyond Bennington’s limits as it starts to climb the first of many hills and parallels the boulder filled Walloomsac River. To be honest, lots of things on this road vie for your attention.

A sense of awe and anticipation builds in me when I see a trademark brown and white national forest sign, telling drivers that there are various access spaces to Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest for the next 15 miles or so. That includes the massive Glastenbury wilderness, one of Vermont’s largest undeveloped areas, but more known for the titular defunct town and about 2 centuries worth of weirdness that culminated on its many slopes and took off like a contagion shotgun blast into paranormal sensationalism. But it”s hard not to be fascinated by the large expanse of wilderness. The huge area holds ghost towns, a slew of trails and forest roads, man-made feats of engineering, and plenty of mysteries. Just ask the Geocaching community.

We passed through forested Woodford, the highest town in elevation in Vermont at around 2,215 feet, then descended into Wilmington. Which is where I unintentionally found some local curio. A green 1915 iron truss bridge first caught my eye, because it was obviously abandoned, as indicated by all the trees growing through it. The underwhelming replacement was a simple concrete and steel span that bridged the river inches away. As I was gazing at the bridge, I noticed a strange white sign across the bridge that was put up on a small weedy embankment that welcomed me to “Medburyville”, and gave me a precise census of 31 people and 26 pets who I guess lived somewhere nearby in the rural area.

I was at a loss here. The area around the sign was pretty much an undeveloped light wilderness area, and I knew that we had already crossed the Woodford/Wilmington town line. I’m a pundit on Vermont geography and had never heard of Medburyville before, so I was pretty curious. What was/is Medburyville? A local parody or some kind of irony? A name of an obscure back road Wilmington neighborhood?

My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.
My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.

I was curious if there was a mystery or story here, so I sent an email to the Wilmington Historical Society. In their reply, Julie Moore explained that Medburyville was a village in Wilmington, but was erased when the Harriman Reservoir was constructed for the purpose of flood control. There was a mill, several houses and a railroad line that ran through the area at one point.

Today there is only a small aluminum sign that raises more questions than answers. Just a few feet from what was/is the Medburyville area is a narrow arm of the aforementioned reservoir, which is experiencing pretty low water levels lately so it was more sandbars than water when I drove by. Local lore has it that when the reservoir is low, a slimy church steeple from the former village is exposed, but I didn’t see anything that day that looked out of place in a reservoir.

Another obscure footnote is that there once was a placename along the reservoir that had the post office address of “Surge Tank” – a name of a temporary settlement that sheltered the men who built the Harriman Reservoir dam that had it’s own recognized post office. The post office also moved around between Readsboro and Whittingham – depending on wherever construction was happening. I still see Surge Tank sometimes on obscure place name lists. Like Medburyville, Surge Tank is long gone, and without a sign to commemorate it.

Back on the road, the forests occasionally break up a little and you got a positioning glimpse that you were right in the middle of the green mountain chain. Unlike some parts of Vermont where a high elevation isn’t surrounded by other mountains and instead reduces off into valleys, the mountains around Wilmington and Marlboro stretched as far as the vistas, with various 440 million-year eroded summits slanting into other rounded domes. A few “runaway truck ramps” with large yellow signs and rhythmic blinking lights were a reminder that the undulating byway had the potential to be more dangerous than scenic for other drivers, and judging by the scars and pit marks in one of them, it had been used recently.

The “100-Mile View”

But it was the so-called “100-mile view” in Marlboro that was the most impressive. I’m not sure if that name is superlative or not, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter because the view is awesome. From a large wooden deck with coin functioning viewing apparatuses for the tourist crowd, you can see what’s left of southern Vermont before it transitions into the Berkshire Hills, and the bumps of southern New Hampshire, including Mount Monadnock.

One of the ramshackle old lodging cabins from a deceased ski resort, which I was about to hike to, sits on the edge of a drop off below the overlook, and might be one of the most photographed site among the sights. I took a walk down, and there was a laminated sign taped to the twisting floorboards telling people like myself to keep out – it’s not actively maintained (as evident by the peeling paint) and can be dangerous if the building decides to tumble down the hill. But I was able to get a shot through a dusty old window along the side and gaze curiously at a few items of older furniture left inside.

I live in Vermont’s largest city, and dig the scene there, but sometimes my hometown is just too oversaturated with people for my taste. I really ache for having access to land like I did when I was younger, where I could go 4 wheeling and hiking and just let out the things storming in my mind. So my predilection was that I could sit on that porch all day or night and gaze off into the distance in my own reverie, listening to Gregory Alan Isakov albums. 

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It seems like I was racing storms all day as I traveled around the state yesterday. They finally caught up with me at the top of the Molly Stark Trail, one of Vermont’s most scenic byways. Someone once told me how the few street signs (mostly stop signs) in Greenland’s research bases and camp cities are completely coated with stickers. It’s a way to get the story of its visitors or inhabitants. Where you’re from, what you like, what you stand for, etc. I thought that was pretty cool, and remembered that when I saw the guardrail that hemmed in the road atop Hogback Mountain. Though that’s not quite the case in Vermont, I’ve seen a few guardrails covered in visitor mementos, many just confessing fannish love for various companies or organizations, alongside sharpied graffiti, names and dates. Appalachian Gap on state route 17 has a similar theme.

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The cluster of tourist buildings that sort of delineate the maximum height of land between Bennington and Brattleboro were all once a part of Hogback Mountain, a defunct ski area cut out of the slopes of Mount Olga which has mostly been recovered by nature.

Hiking Around Hogback Mountain

Hogback was one of the longest lasting family owned traditional ski resorts in the state, and arguably is one of the best lost ski areas in Vermont to explore, though you’d probably guess either of these things while driving by the few diminutive red buildings sitting in tangled underbrush along a slight rise above the wide shoulder of route 9. You’d probably never guess the property was even a ski hill unless you were able to catch the white lettering affixed to the former first aid building that reads “Hog ark Ski Area”, which in all honestly would be a memorable name for a functioning ski hill.

I decided to walk down from the overlook and have a look around at the property. Good thing I wore jeans – the land was wild with tangled undergrowth, and most likely, ticks. Having been bitten by one a month ago, I didn’t want to go through that debacle again. A few old buildings, the rusted bones of an old lift line and a squint-to-make-out overgrown ski trail could still be traced.

Vermont is the land of skiing (and snowboarding) and our pioneering ski hills ranged from extremely plain rope tow affairs to more detailed mom and pop establishments.

If you’re a New Englander, I’d say we’re pretty lucky to have a great site like the New England Lost Ski Area Project. Between that and the book Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont by Jeremy K. Davis, I got a startling impression of how many ski areas we once had just in the lower part of Vermont, and how many of them have been, well, lost.

Hogback Mountain itself seemed to be something special. The ski area warranted a pretty long chapter in Davis’s book and a long entry on NELSAP – considering other areas had merely a few sentences. It has a lot of history, so much I had to condense it a bit for the sake of keeping people reading this blog post.

The truth seemed to be that Hogback was envisioned by a community of people who loved skiing, and the consequences were real. Hogback opened for the 1946-47 ski season on prime real estate owned by Harold White, and was operated by the Hogback Mountain Ski Lift Company out of Brattleboro, as well as several of the families who owned the various businesses along route 9, like the White’s who owned the gift shop, the rental shop, the Marlboro Inn and other rental properties. The Douglass’s who were involved with the ski shop, and the Hamelton’s who were involved with the skyline restaurant.

It featured a Constam T-Bar which could move 900 skiers an hour and was the highest capacity lift in the country at the time. Old brochures and trail maps promote the ski hill’s location in Vermont’s “snow belt”, a high annual snowfall area of the Green Mountains which at the time, received an average of 120 inches. The Vermont winters of today are a bit more disparate.

Hogback’s highest elevation was about 2,400 feet (the base area being at around 1,900), which helped preserve the natural snowfall much better than lower area ski hills, which made it so beloved. I observed some older trail maps, and discovered that Hogback had a unique layout. You’d begin your day along route 9 where a hotel, gift shop and Skyline Restaurant were, and ride a rope tow to the practice slope, but intermediate or expert level skiers would have to transport over to a different face of the mountain to access the main T-Bar and more advanced trails.

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A trail map from the 1970s -Hogback Mountain had 12 trails to ride on. To give you an idea of the weird layout and a wayfinding point: number 21 is the first aid building, and below it is Route 9. The first aid building is abandoned and still visible from the road today. That is also where the practice slopes/beginners area was. The more advanced trails were over on another side of the mountain, where numbers 3, 4 and 6 are.

Over the years, the laid back ski hill caught enough popularity from a top notch ski school, excellent snowfall and a gorgeous mountain where skiers would admire spruce trees crusted in snow. In the 50s, it started to expand, and would continue that momentum through the 70s. More trails were cut down the slopes and made easier accessible by a Pomalift and the addition of 4 more Doppelmayr T-bars. There was also a Quonset Hut brought to the property that served as a ski-in snack hut.

Seriously, this place was a big deal. A lot of the history or accounts I read about the mountain was that plenty of southern Vermont kids learned to ski here. It also helped develop a local interest in ski races and became home to the Southern Vermont Racing Team. If a nearby community, like Brattleboro, had an outing club, they probably went to Hogback. The mountain developed a pretty enthusiastically devoted fanbase. The ski school changed instructors a few times over the decades, each new presence contributing to it in their own way.

One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The hill was literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The trails were literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs nearby warning skiers not to get too close. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs posted nearby warning skiers not to get too close because of the heat. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.
Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.
Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

But towards the 1980s, snowfall began to change to a lack of snowfall. Between not enough natural snow to ski on, rising costs of operation and increasing competition from bigger resorts that were becoming more common on the scene in Vermont mountains, the small mom and pop ski hill eventually couldn’t compete. Hogback’s story is similar to most of Vermont’s lost ski areas. Not being able to compete or stay consistent, most of them became fading ghosts.

Abandoned ski hills are interesting real estate. What do you do with them? Some have subsumed away in the caprices of nature and others re-opened or became private operations. In Hogback’s case, the Vermont Land Trust and a group of adamant people worked pretty tirelessly over the years to secure the funds to purchase and secure the land to save it from becoming a condominium development with a marketed quintessential nature-esque type of name. The purchased acreage was then transferred over to the town of Marlboro, and the cool Hogback Mountain Conservation Area was the result. It’s now glorious protected land, with an abandoned ski hill in the middle that Vermonters can enjoy.

Some of the old ski trails are still maintained and pruned, so hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can still enjoy them. Though, for me anyways, I found that finding those trails was a bit of a challenge.

To my delight and surprise combination, if you bushwhack through some waist-high tangle weeds and growth, you can still find some of the old ski trails, which were still hikable! Well, it’s subjective I guess, but I thought it was achievable. Using the linear rusted cables of the former chairlift as wayfinding points, I decided a short early autumn hike was a good idea. The trail oddly cleared out the farther up I climbed, until both the trail and the lift sort of ended in a blissful and fragrant silence. I was a little bummed I didn’t find an old chairlift or more paraphernalia. If I had gone up farther, I would have eventually stumbled upon the Mount Olga fire tower, which I’m told had splendid far reaching views. You can get there far easier than scrambling up Hogback Mountain, by hiking over via Molly Stark State Park. 

My list of places to visit in Vermont alone is so long, it’s hard to cross stuff off of. I’ll get up there one day.

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There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building
There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

 

Telescopes & Tunnels.

Men and women generally make their mark in life through their achievements, earning fame from them and a place in popular culture, especially if the individual dares to toil in the unknown of a less categorizable pursuit, figuring out the hazier parts of our existence.

Though I can’t claim that Vermont breeds this type of person, our small state definitely draws them, and has been home to quite a few extraordinary people and legends who lived here, worked here, were honored here or cursed here.

James Hartness was one of those personalities who dallied with new frontiers of science and invention in such ways that he would eventually catch the imagination of the public. And as I figured out, his life is far more interesting than even I expected when I set out to visit his former estate and prepare to research for this blog entry.

Springfield is one of those Vermont towns that doesn’t cross my mind all that much, that is until I was told that one of the oldest telescopes in the country is hidden away in an underground observatory connected to an old mansion by secret passageways. That interested me enough to start asking questions.

Inquiring further, I found out that the telescope’s existence in Springfield is because of James Hartness, a former state governor, inventor and astronomy savant, who happened to build his own underneath his home. If you’re vaguely familiar with the name, that may be because you’re aware of the Hartness State Airport in Springfield, which wears his name. Or perhaps if you’re a pundit on state governors, you know that he once filled that spot with his single term from 1921 to 1923, his mission statement being to persuade Vermonters to stay and seek employment in Vermont as opposed to elsewhere, but was incompatible with the economy at the time.

A Google search revealed that today, it’s a bed and breakfast called The Hartness House, named after it’s dead builder and because it’s a business in, well, The Hartness House.

My next conundrum was how would I see such a thing. I had called the bed and breakfast in February of 2014 to see about checking it out for myself, but I found out that not only was it their off season and they weren’t opening the place up to visitors, the business had also been sold and the new owners were at the beginning of the seemingly arduous task of figuring out their game plan. So, I stayed persistent and called back again a year later at the end of May 2015, and after a few somewhat miscommunicated phone calls, I had excitedly scheduled myself an appointment to see it and found myself road tripping down to southern Vermont on a humid June morning where the steam was sliding off the slopes of Mount Ascutney.

Hartness’s mansion is a bit to the right of the center of town, inconspicuous in a spaced out neighborhood that was built up a hillside over the decades, with sinuous stripped asphalt streets and patches of woods between residential lots that gave the area a more detached, quiet feeling from town.

Pulling into the driveway that leads guests in front of the street obscured estate, I immediately saw the unique jelly bean looking white concrete shape of the telescope protruding from their nicely groomed front lawn, which lead my eyes to an architecturally impressive Newport style mansion that looks like it would fit in more on it’s namesake coastline in Rhode Island than the Green Mountain State.

I felt a little out of place being there – and I’m really good at feeling like I’m out of place. It was tacit upscale, I wasn’t a paying guest, and was tromping around in shorts, bowler cap, Keep Vermont Weird T shirt and camera bag slung over my shoulder, ready to grab a greasy breakfast and a few cups of coffee at a low key diner afterwards, before going to find some petroglyphs.

I decided to deal with my anxieties later and just make a casual walk through the dark stained front door. The interior exuded a sort of tamed glamor that you’d expect from such a house, and I followed a trail of intricately woven carpets and polished plank floors to the front desk. To my relief, I was pointed towards a nondescript door towards the public bathrooms. Clutching the old knob that wobbled a bit in my hand, I opened it slowly, and a narrow staircase came into my view that descended downwards, inhabited by cobwebs and your expected subterranean dampness. I took a few steps down hesitantly when I saw a light switch now at elbow level. I flicked it on and the tunnel lit up and filled with the hum of older yellow hued light bulbs that would lead me down to whatever I would find at the end.

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My friend had speculated in conversation that at one point, Hartness has built a multitude of secret tunnels that radiated out from his house, towards downtown Springfield, but the hotel denied it when he inquired. However, when he received a tour years ago, he recalled finding a wooden door down in the main tunnel way, and because he was already underground, that door either met an underground room or another tunnel. He opened it when he had a moment alone, and indeed, there was another passageway that extended back into the dark, but he never got to explore it further than it’s door frame. I did see another door down on my walk, but it was locked, and whatever was behind it was off limits due to some sort of “accident” I found out later. Maybe that was the same door he was talking about. But I guess I’d never find out.

Further down the tunnel was another door which wasn’t locked, and that led into an open concrete space that used to be Hartness’s private laboratory, now a museum filled with older telescope prototypes, newspaper clippings, artifacts and hand drawn sketches of the arctic. It was dedicated to Hartness and James Russel Porter, but mostly James Russel Porter, a name I hadn’t heard of until then.

Back out in the tunnel, I opened another set of doors, which lead me to a narrow neck craning spiral concrete staircase that deposited me inside the post 100 year old Hartness Equatorial Turret Telescope, designed and manufactured entirely by Hartness himself, the turret dome being the only thing manufactured in Massachusetts. I began to eagerly scrutinize its design, trying to get a better idea of how it worked. The rotating turret was the green portion of the strange structure with it’s rounded, port hole-esque looking windows, and it rides on rollers supported by the rounded white, concrete structure. The telescope tube is a replacement made of more modern stainless steel and accommodates a ten-inch achromatic objective. Even the fact that the telescope is sheltered is unique – a feature Hartness incorporated because stargazing during a Vermont winter is rottenly cold.

The telescope also incorporates a sophisticated motor-drive, transmission system and clock drive to replicate the earth’s rotation. Using the equatorial drive system makes it possible to view solar residing objects over extended periods of time notwithstanding the rotation of the earth.

Everything here was fascinating to think about for your blogger. I love stuff like this. But disappointingly, the telescope was missing a part (I forget which), so it was only 97% functional, and not enough functionality was present to actually try it out for myself. That was in 2015 though, I’m not sure if they have replaced the part yet or not. I haven’t been back.

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Sitting back at home drinking amounts of coffee that my doctor would be upset about, I was in research mode. Even though first-hand experience here is cool enough, my curious nature wasn’t satisfied. Why is any of this here? Well, I suppose that anyone who can afford to build an astronomical wonder and tunnel system on their property can build it anywhere they want, but still. What’s the story here?

Springfield

Springfield was once a place of civic pride and a personification of industrial advancement. But turning off Interstate 91 and driving past the Holiday Inn Express and down it’s not so aesthetically pleasing main drag today, is a windshield scene of sad looking old buildings with a bland retail district that doesn’t pry for your attention. But the corpses of its aging legacy has simultaneously inspired a swelling steampunk scene from what I’m told.

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A small pocket park off Main Street revealed a glorious view of some broad cascades on the Black River with a photographic tumbledown old factory built into the river banks. This is one of my favorite views in Springfield.

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What is such a grand historical artifact and adjoining elaborate DIY entrance point doing here in Springfield? To understand that, I needed a better understanding of the man who built it, which was connected with the history of the town itself.

The valley locality that wears an omnipresent name for American communities was known in the nomenclature as Vermont’s original “tech hub”. Thanks to the Black River, which rolls and tumbles through the center of the area’s defining long dip in topography, Springfield became a practical place for machine tool industrial operations and the dreamers who made them happen. This small town became so eminent that it adopted the nickname “Precision Valley”, and became Vermont’s highest per capita income generating community – with around 3,000 people employed in the nuances of the activity.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and apparently, Springfield was also allegedly on Hitler’s list of places to bomb if the Nazi’s ever made it over this way – making number two on his list, just after New York City. Or, at least as local lore fills us in with.

So, what happened? Economic death and postmortem go down best a chaser of assigned blame, and according to who you ask, there is a multitude of theories to tell the story of why Springfield was pretty much defenestrated. Unions are one scapegoat, who helped ensure a few strikes in the 1970s which lead to higher wages. Others speculate that newer Springfield generations had no interest in taking over the family businesses, so many were eventually purchased by outside firms, which employers argued gave them a lot less control. But maybe it was the fact that Springfield factories were still making old school products, and overseas companies were innovating both their products and how they were manufactured. Either way, the final result was a community that fell victim to depression and some bitter hindsight and a new footnote on the town’s Wikipedia page.

James Hartness and Russel Porter

Before Springfield imprinted itself with its economic momentum and national popularity, Vermonters were leaving Vermont in droves, with their compasses pointed west. Local industrialist Adna Brown was forced to look for creatively pragmatic solutions to keep Vermonters working in Vermont. He discovered that Jones & Lamson, a machine tool company in nearby Windsor was for sale. So, Brown got together a group of investors and Springfield put together and instigated a new Vermont law where towns would make new industry exempt from taxation for their first 10 years – hoping to give new business some incentive to stick around in the green mountains. The deal went through, and Jones and Lamson moved to Springfield. To run it, Brown hired a young James Hartness in 1889, who was already proving to be a precocious machinist and earnest inventor, because he looked at things at different angles.

I don’t know much about Hartness’s milieu. He was born near Schenectady, New York in 1861, and would become a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur in his life, becoming a working stiff shortly after completing grammar school and steered away from the insecurity dance many of us learn, and began to build and flex his foundation to enable him to bridge beyond orthodox culture. That phrase sounds sort of like a biographical platitude but really fits him like a hard earned degree considering his truly impressive list of accolades that is something that makes me feel a little down about my own accomplishments.

On his first day on the job, he announced that J&L would no longer be making their wide array of products – which consisted of machines to drill gun barrels, stone channelers and engine lathes. Instead, he conceptualized the company only producing one thing: the Hartness Flatbed Turret Lathe, his own invention, named for himself. According to the folks at the Hartness House, it’s considered “one of the most important machine tools ever made.” – because his was arguably the most efficient at milling and shaping all lengths of metal, despite there being plenty of other lathes already existing.

In 1900, Hartness would become manager of J&L, and 3 years later, president. Hartness’s business practices came down to one thing; that a company should only make one product, and it was that idea that built Springfield and secured his success. He was a mentor to other inventors in his employ, and some of them who became incredibly proficient or innovative in their traits or skill sets branched off and started their own businesses which grew the town’s prowess as a manufacturing power. During this time, he would create over 100 patents for improved machine tools and measuring techniques, and get royalties for them.

Being as ambitious as Hartness was, I reckon it rubs off on you in other aspects of your life, including in your hobbies. The sky seemed to be one of Hartness’s fondest devotions; whether it was flying in its atmosphere, or gazing up at it, and he let that seep into other endeavors.

Hartness had a penchant for aviation. He progressed with a Wright Biplane, got his pilot’s license in 1914, and became one of the first 100 pilots in America. In 1919, he would donate land and help construct the first airport in the state of Vermont which not coincidentally was in Springfield, and is now called the Hartness State Airport. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was coaxed into landing there after his transatlantic flight and hang out with Hartness at his mansion. But it was his love of astronomy that really stole the show, and secured his place in the public sphere.

In 1903, he was doing so well for himself that he decided to upgrade his digs, and began construction on a mansion atop a slight rise in elevation known as Cherry Hill. The mansion was completed a year later, but he didn’t stop there, and began to customize the place by building a turret telescope in his front yard (finished in 1910), connected it to the house by a tunnel system, and added more subterranean real estate for his study and laboratory. He may have added more tunnels, but that part is still a Vermont myth. Though it’s not exactly known what Hartness did with his telescope, he was so fond of it that he had it painted into his governor’s portrait in the state house, which has confused quite a few visitors who mistook the weirdly shaped object as a UFO.

The Hartness Mansion after completion. Via stellafane.org
Hartness standing in front of his turret telescope. Via stellafane.org

From his knowledge of optics gained from his interest in astronomy, Hartness invented an optical method of projecting an incredibly magnified image of a screw thread onto a drawing. He had the concept, but he needed it developed into a marketable machine – and engineer, former Arctic explorer and inventor Russel Porter was just the guy for the job. Porter was hired at J&L in 1919, and between the two of them, they would invent the optical comparator.

Porter seemed to be an amiable companion for Hartness, and their skill sets and ambitions were mutually beneficial. Eventually, the two formed a friendship and created the Springfield Telescope Makers club in 1920, where they would give classes on how to make telescopes -later renamed the Stellafane Society, which has a name that sounds like something you’d find on the shelf near saran wrap or tinfoil, but is actually Latin for “shrine to the stars”, a club that is still active and still meets in Springfield in a pink clubhouse on Breezy Hill – facing the isolated form of mount Ascutney, a monadnock that has been revered for centuries as an important wayfinding point in celestial calendars used by the original native Vermonters.

According to further research, it seems like it was really Porter that got hands on guiding the club and acted as an instructor and mentor. The original 15 club members were machinists tool makers or pattern makers at Jones and Lamson, who signed up to learn how to grind their own mirrors and make powerful reflecting telescopes – something which Porter was a genius at. He had spent years on Maine’s weathered coast years prior teaching himself as much as he could about building telescopes. He would eventually be recruited by George Ellery Hale and moved to California where he would help design the Palomar Observatory telescope. Now the astronomical presence that seemed to seep down all of Springfield’s walls was making sense to me. Even today, it’s still affixed in. Springfield-based J&L Metrology remains the only company making optical comparators today in the United States.

Hartness and Porter would continue to practice their craft until their deaths in mutual Februaries of 1934 and 1949. Luckily, Hartness left behind a tactile wonder and physical trace for future Vermonters to marvel at.

The thing about these sort of sites is that everyone has their own experiences and observations. The sights I saw that day and their creating personalities came with their gravity and left an impression on me. As I was ravenously waiting at a Bellows Falls diner for my stack of diner pancakes to arrive and sipping disappointing coffee, I was in a contemplative mood. I try to stay hungry, stay free and stay inspired, and recognize when fear begins to call the shots. I know from experience, resistance to personal growth only leads to becoming a figure of misery. Maybe I could learn something from Hartness and Porter.

As Slug said; You can’t escape regret but you might regret escape.

Hartness’s turret telescope on Breezy Hill. Back then, it looks like the views were a little more far flung than today’s property which is cozily hemmed in by woods that block out the distant hills. Via stellafane.org

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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The Hungry Gorge

The deadliest place in Vermont is simultaneously one of it’s least dead places. The head of the state’s public safety commission once dubbed the Huntington Gorge as “the deadliest place in the state”, and according to those who make it their business to track this sort of stuff, this is considered the most dangerous swimming hole in all of New England. But despite that macabre distinction, in the summer the chasm is absolutely crawling with bodies, energy, and canned beer, all which dive impetuously off of the dangerous cliffs.

It’s not hard to see the appeal to this spectacular rocky crevice carved deep into the Richmond hills. Vertical undulating cliffs rise intimidatingly around a twisting boulder deposited river that corkscrews through several waterfalls, ranging from 6 to 12 feet in height, underneath a ceiling of evergreen trees. But this stunning crevice successfully conceals real dangers, masking strong currents that can easily whisk an unsuspecting person away. With high levels of water rushing rapidly down a steep rise constricted in a narrow spot, it’s an easy place to be greeted by the grim reaper.

Some refer to the spot by its unofficial nickname; “The Hungry Gorge”, probably because of the place’s appetite for human beings. Since 1950, a great number of people have lost their lives here, but just how many people is up for debate apparently. A few books, newspaper articles and the Richmond town records list the number at 25, but other accounts say the number is probably high as 40. The victims’ ages so far range from between 15 and 30, and all lost their lives by drowning. This information may even be out of date by the time I actually get around to publishing this entry. The casualties even include heroic would be rescuers, including a state police officer who attempted to retrieve a body and drowned in the process. And the numbers continue to grow, despite numerous attempts to stem the death tolls.

The most tactile approach happened in 1976 when a band of locals got together and blasted away a dangerous underwater chute where several swimmers had gotten swept into and trapped by strong currents. But the gorge continues to take lives.

In 2005, a 19-year-old UVM student became another statistic when he slipped on some rocks and plummeted fatally into the gorge. Frazzled people wanted a solution. There were demands to make the gorge off limits entirely, with heavy trespassing fines as intimidation to visitors. Some even wanted to build a giant wall around the gorge. That same year, Gary Bressor would purchase the property for $20,000 to preserve it and keep it open to the public, so future generations can continue to enjoy the unique area – or as others would argue, so future generations can die here. It’s a matter of perspective I guess.

The purchase made other gorge goers happy, unequivocally saying that anyone can enjoy themselves here, you just need some common sense and some information – something I’d agree with. Bressor was one of those people as well, so he bought the land to stop the quarreling over what to do with it and formed the Huntington River Gorge LLC, who wish to protect and preserve the natural area. Because it’s now under private ownership, an official ban isn’t possible.

But why do so many seem to die here? Apart from entrapping geography, the answer may lie within its tourist population. Many people who drown here are out of towners, who aren’t aware of the gorge’s concealed dangers, seeing things through youthful impunity. The surprising and frustrating thing about Huntington Gorge is that some of the deaths here could have been easily avoided. According to my research, a few deaths were related to drug or alcohol use before diving in. And sometimes, well, accidents just happen.

The locals know when to avoid the gorge, especially when the river is swollen with high runoffs from snow melt or rainwater, and they know where the safe parts are to swim. Some people have lived near the gorge all their lives and have never set foot down there.

A drive up Dugway Road, the dirt thoroughfare that runs along the rim of the gorge, reveals a plentiful amount of parking ban notices and warning signs nailed to any available tree or fence post that would be visible through a windshield. At the top of the gorge sits an official dark green state historic marker chronologically listing deaths here over the years. But the dates end ominously in 1994 which was probably around the time the sign was erected, and an updated replacement hasn’t been commissioned yet – if it ever will. There is talk of even more signs are planned to be erected when the project gets official zoning approval. But, knowing how human nature works, those signs won’t be of much help unless the visitor actually chooses to heed their warnings. Despite the dangers, this swimming hole remains widely popular, partially because of it’s harrowing reputation, or maybe some just have a perverse interest in tragedy. Humans have always had a fascination with death after all. That’s partially the reason why I visited. Also because I run a blog on Vermont weirdness, and love being outdoors.

Regardless, it’s easy to fall for this site’s charm and majestic splendor. Even in the dead cold of winter when I first visited, it was impressive. Icy waters churned over the surfaces of halfway frozen waterfalls and the cacophony of solid vs. liquid echoed up over the gorge walls. But I stayed well away from the edges, because a very slick layer of ice had glazed over the rocks, and I definitely didn’t want my name emblazoned on a tragedy induced warning sign.

Having a blog has offered quite a crash course on social culture. One of the benefits is befriending cool people through it. My friend Timothy is one such person. We hit it off last fall and even went on a few adventures together. He grew up down the road from the gorge as a kid and agreed to show me around on a sultry summer day.

After a morning of metal detecting at a ghost town and being pestered by mosquitoes, a dip in the Huntington River sounded fantastic, and visiting with someone who was intimate with the place excited me. I wanted to know it’s secrets and it’s stories. But within minutes of arriving, I wanted to go home. The gorge was thick with people in sports jerseys and cheap beer. Timothy groaned and said he missed the days when the gorge something that really only the locals knew about. Today, it’s all overran with bros and frat boys he complained, who, at least on that particular day, were making quite the ruckus as a crew who set up camp on a rock below were challenging someone’s manhood as they waited to see if the guy would jump off the cliffs as a group of distantly perched girls laughed snootily at them. There’s nothing wrong with people flocking to a great spot on a hot summers afternoon, it just wasn’t my particular scene.

Subsequently, the growth of the college kid crowd pushed out a lot of the locals from the gorge said my friend. When he was younger in the 90s, he loved spending his summer days there as he developed a fascination with diving off of the cliffs. Doing this, he got to know several of the old timers who were very familiar with it and knew all of its secrets and idiosyncrasies, like the best places to jump, when to go, and places to avoid. During this time, he explored every nook he could and got very familiar with it. During one of his dives, he found a wheel from a car that was from the early 20th century. On his other expeditions, he told stories of caves he found, and how if you were patient enough after diving into a pool near the falls, minnows would swim into you, hundreds if you had the patience. There are even certain rocks that have seen so many people sunning themselves or used as a launching point to jump off of that they have grooves in their surfaces now. “I remember always trying to make it down there before ten in the morning when I was a kid – that was always before the crowds would come down – and you’d always see the usual people, all jumping off the ledges and trying to out-do one another in the flamboyance of their dives. But it was all in good fun, and some of those guys were really good. Others looked up to them. Everyone knew each other, it was sort of like a club”. Today, those characters may have more or less, vanished from its boulder strewn walls. To my surprise, one of the last vestiges of older crowds to still hang out here, are nudists. We saw a few on our trek down the ledges to the river.

But the gorge is so popular, its entangled its way inside the frothy forefront of local legends. Some put enough emphasis on the gorge in conversation as if it’s the only swimming hole in the area, sort of like how Vermonters refer to Lake Champlain as “the lake”, even though Vermont has numerous other bodies of water.

As we were cringing at the site of a 20 something-year-old girl try to park an orange VW Bus, which was continuously ending in a position where two of the four wheels would be lifted off the road, my friend postulated that he thinks some of the locals might be hanging out at the upper gorge again. The upper portion of the gorge was the original gathering spot for visitors, and the locals hung out at the lower portion away from the crowds, until bad press moved most of the frenzy down to the lower gorge. But here’s the thing; both parts of the gorge are just as dangerous as one another. The only difference is that one area has been stained by hysteria and numerous signs about death, and one hasn’t.

Not surprisingly, a location with such grim stories attached to it has also spawned a few ghost stories. The only one I heard was years ago, where an unsuspecting swimmer was resting on some rocks and got a creeping feeling that someone was watching them. When they gazed around, they noticed a fully clothed teenage boy staring at them, standing on top of a large boulder down river a bit. But they noticed he was sopping wet, and he was standing there still as a stone. Concerned, the swimmer went to stand up, thinking that the boy may have needed help, but when they turned back around, he was gone. It was an open area, so he couldn’t have managed to clamber back up the gorge walls without being detected. But somehow, he had completely vanished. Whether these grim cautionary stories are preternatural occurrences or a local method of driving people away is anyone’s guess.

But the Huntington Gorge’s grim veneer isn’t exclusive. All swimming holes have the potential to be monstrous places if the right circumstances are applied. And seemingly, it seems to be a certain shade of visitors who ruin these sort of places, as opposed to the places themselves. A bit north, the landmark Bolton Potholes are a good example.

Bolton town is an often interstate passed Chittenden County fringe town where it’s old designation as “the land of boulders and bears” is undiluted verisimilitude. It’s charted land acreage is mostly taken up by steep rises in elevation, which suck for farming, but are great for outdoor recreational pursuits like a ski area and part of the 250 mile Long Trail.

A go-to summer relief for many area Vermonters, the potholes are where 3 impressive glacial waterfalls that pour into emerald-tinted holes are formed where Joiner Brook plunges about 45 feet down the Bolton slopes. It’s a cool area, but now days, the site also draws other sights in the form of large herds and obnoxious visitors, who litter, crowd the road and party there which bothers both long time visitors and denizens of the road that runs alongside of it. I used to go there as a teenager, but not so much anymore, opting for quieter locales.

Every action has a reaction, and now, there is talk of possibly closing it or restricting access to the public. Maybe. There is also a fight against that, wanting to keep these special places accessible for present and future Vermonters, which blew up on the Vermont subreddit page. Only time will tell, I guess. I’m more on the side of using common sense, and that it would be a shame to loose our state swimming holes – a deep-rooted tradition up here which is something that we tend to dig a lot. They’re free, all inclusive, and often outlandishly beautiful. The type of thing that summer memories up here are made of. But if you trash the place, well, your part of the problem.

If you visit, just be careful.

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This summer, my camera has developed some technical problems that are above my ability to fix them, and I’m trying to save up some money to have it diagnosed by a professional, and then for subsequent repairs. Because my camera is self designated as the most important item I own, this is a real bummer for me. Any donations would be hugely appreciated.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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Wizard’s Glen

Ever since we started narrating our folklore collectively as a species, we’ve always marked the wildest places of our topography as incubators of contagion shotgun blasts for the darkest, grimmest things our human minds can create, existing in a variety of forms. These tales often like to hang around well into the intervening years where they should become obsolete, and yet, they don’t. We all deal with the dangers of the world in different ways. Sometimes, carrying on the traditions of talking about these kind of fabled places is a way of dealing with these dangers. And sometimes, these monsters reveal the most about humanity.

Wizard’s Glen in the Berkshires is a wild, picturesque depression between two steep-sided hills. Intersected by a lone, narrow and often washed out dirt road with it’s to-the-point name of Gulf Road, you are welcomed into this attention-grabbing area by tons of boulders that are stacked up the hillsides, some covered with some impressive and patriotic graffitic murals instead of the flippant teenage rabble I expected to find in such an area.

The name “Gulf” interested me before I even began to think about Wizard’s Glen.  The noun is a distinctive part of the obscure Vermont vernacular. Gulfs are known to the rest of the world as a large area of the sea or ocean that’s almost entirely surrounded by land, expect for its mouth. A Vermont gulf is a landlocked one – found in our mountains. We know them as deep ravines (or more dramatically, an “abyss”) that run between two parallel mountains or rises. To my knowledge, us Vermonters were/are the only ones to use the word in that sense. Vermont actually goes as far as to erect road signs to let travelers know that you’re passing through one. Granville, Proctorsville and Williamstown Gulfs come to mind, all of which are great drives. But finding a gulf outside of Vermont, even only in the form of a street name, was sort of cool to me. There is also a Gulf Road in New Hampshire near Brattleboro.

This particular Gulf Road runs east to west over the bumps that are the Berkshires. Both entry points are unobtrusive and start out as an unremarkable suburban street with storm drains, crumbling curbs and cobra head street light fixtures that run to the very point when suddenly, the pavement ends, and the obsessively trimmed lawns cease to exist, and you’re in a surprisingly sizable wilderness area that runs for about 1.8 miles between Lanesborough and Dalton. But at the slow speeds you are forced to crawl on this winding roadway, it feels much longer.

Wizard’s Glen

The area known as Wizard’s Glen, vs. the rest of the area that’s not known as Wizard’s Glen, co-exist very inconspicuously with each other. If it wasn’t for the wayfinding graffiti marked boulders, I would have driven right by it.

I got out of the car and noticed the temperature was a pleasant few degrees cooler, and the forest was soluble underneath a still silence. I immediately began to get interactive with my environment and started clambering on top of the boulders and under Hemlock boughs and inside the caves and crevices of undetermined pasts.

Godfrey Greylock described the diminutive gorge in 1879 as being “as though and angry Jove had here thrown down some impious wall of Heaven-defying Titans. Block lies heaped upon block; squared and bedeviled, as if by more than mortal art…”

I have to say, the stories about this place were far more waggish than it’s real life locality would suggest, which only intrigued me more. This place has spawned plenty of strange tales of the supernatural and the dreadful, and many of them are almost as old as New England is.

Someone had told me that the hollow is known for its strange sounds and echo-related properties, and claimed that if you banged on one of the rocks with a hammer, it would make a noise sounding like you were smashing the keys of a xylophone, while inexplicably, the surrounding boulders wouldn’t. However, that enticing theory was disappointingly proven false. Well, at least it didn’t work for me.

It was here that Indian priests and shaman centuries ago performed rituals, ceremonies and incantations amongst the rocks in the ravine known for its echoes. Because they revered this area to have special properties, it was said they even offered human sacrifices here to Hobomocko, the spirit of evil. There is a flat, broad square-ish rock known as “Devils’ Alter” where these cryptic sacrifices were said to be imposed. The rock today has faint traces of red stains on it, which some say is the remaining blood from the aforementioned occurrences – but the reality is the stains just come from iron in the rocks.  The unique name Wizard’s Glen was actually derived from these legends. And it makes sense – it’s aesthetically the type of place where strange happenings can’t be easily dismissed.

The best known story of the glen is of John Chamberlain, a hunter from Dalton about two hundred years ago whose whopper of a story was passed on in Godfrey Greylock’s book Taghconic: The Romance and Beauty of The Hills in 1852, when he interviewed Joseph Edward Adams, a ninety-year-old man who had heard it from the hunter eyewitness himself.

Chamberlain had killed a deer and was carrying it home on his shoulders, when he was overtaken in the hills by a storm. The tired man decided to take shelter in a cavernous recess in Wizard’s Glen. But despite his fatigue, he was unable to sleep and wound up laying awake, lying on the earth with his wide open in the dark. He was suddenly amazed when, according to him, he saw the woods bend apart, disclosing a long aisle that was mysteriously lighted and contained “hundreds of capering forms”. As his eyes grew accustomed to the new faint light, he made out tails and cloven feet on the dancing figures. One very tall form had wings, who the hunter thought to be the devil himself.

As Chamberlain lay watching the through the spiteful deluge from his cave shelter, a tall and painted Indian leaped on Devil’s Alter, fresh scalps dangling around his body and his eyes blazing with fierce require. He muttered a brief incantation and summoned the shadows around him. They came with torches that burned blue, and began to move around the rock singing some sort of harsh chant, until a sign was given, and a nude Indian girl, shrieking, and fighting, was dragged and flung viciously onto the rock.

The figures now rushed towards her brandishing sharpened weapons in their outstretched arms, and the terrified girl let out a shrill cry that the hunter said haunted him for the rest of his life. The “wizard”, (who I’m assuming is the prominent figure with the wings), raised an ax, as the rest of the group waited apprehensively for the oncoming carnalish blood bath. Lightning flashed and quickly illuminated the dark pocket of woods, and Chamberlain noticed the the girl’s face quickly fell on his. The look she gave him tore at his heartstrings. He gathered as much courage as he could, and decided to act. Grabbing his bible he traveled with, he ran towards the debauchery in self-righteous fashion, clutching it in front of him and hollering the name of his god. There was a crash of thunder. The light faded, the demons vanished and the hunter was left sopping wet in the middle of the woods in silence. When morning came, he had almost convinced himself that it was all a dream, until he realized his deer had vanished.

Though not much is really known about Chamberlain, it was apparently well documented at the time that he was “no lover of the Indian race,” which may explain more about the content or the intent of this fanciful legend than anything. In my humble opinion, this eyebrow furrowing story probably shouldn’t be taken as verbatim of a real event. Even as mythology or folklore, it lacks essentially what most of these tales are built on; meaning.

There is no good evidence that any Native American group up in our part of the country even conducted human sacrifices, but I do believe that Wizard’s Glen held some sort of ritualistic importance to the area’s original natives.

Hobbomocco is a real Algonquin deity, though, and was more so associated with darkness and the night. His name is related to all Algonquin words for death and the dead, and has no relation to the Christian idea of Satan, unless misinterpreted by, well, a Christian. In the Algonquin viewpoint, Hobbomocco is actually a side or nuance of the natural world, a potential source of dangerous visions and power, which can be obtained through communication, sort of similar to Voodoo deities, and how it’s said that with enough persuasion, you can persuade them to either carry out good or evil intentions.  I think the rather dramatic story of Wizard’s Glen may be more of a manifestation of the friction between two clashing cultures and their ideas, where everything else is sort of devalued, open for interpretation, or simply cast away.

There is also said to be a talus “cave” known cryptically as Lucky Seven Cave somewhere in the glen. However, after some time clambering around and almost rolling my ankle, I couldn’t find any opening that could shelter a human who wasn’t a small child, so either it’s long toppled, or I just didn’t have good directions. Some speak of covens, convergences and rituals still being practiced in the cave and around the site, given the various paraphernalia and shitty beer cans that you can find there. I find it interesting that this site may still be attracting modern day wizards, witches or spiritualists, or people that think they are these things, but when I visited, I had the beautiful place all to myself under the heat of the day, despite the fact that it’s a geocache location and the famous Appalachian Scenic Trail crosses Gulf Road near the glen, just east of there.

Historic post card image of Wizards Glen, via cardcow.com. Date unknown.

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More Wild Places

While I’m on the topic of gulfs, I’d highly recommend checking out what may be Vermont’s most beautiful; Granville Gulf, a rugged and impressive wilderness area of moss laden cliffs, ferns and waterfalls.

If you’re curious about more of our regional wild places with extraordinary folklore attached to them, my blog entry on Glastenbury and the popularly dubbed “Bennington Triangle” may be worth a read. It’s certainly one of my favorite Vermont tales to tell.

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Cemetery Safaris and Green Mountain Memento Mori.

Legacy is one of those nouns that we as humans are all united by. While all of us will leave some sort of mark behind, many of us mull over just what that will be. How will you be remembered?

Some of us make our mark in life through death, and on rare occasions, certain people achieve beyond that and find themselves exhibitioners of the long sought after status of immortality. Humans have collectively been searching for ways to cheat our other unity as a species since we first came into existence; death. And I have to say, we’re a pretty creative bunch, and have gone about it in a variety of forms that are sure to keep anthropologists and storytellers like myself pretty busy with the secrets that they keep. More interestingly – it’s actually been achieved before, but not quite in the way that we might have expected it, that is, it was successful after the postmortem.

Sometimes these surviving inclusions of this manifesto can be found in your local cemetery, memorialized in crafted monuments and in the psyche of regional denizens until enough time has passed for history to forget – if it ever does. Often, someone’s final resting place is our immortal legacy, and what has been left behind is what lives on for generations after our physical bodies return to the earth we’re buried in. The same concept can be said for the forsaken places I explore.

Vermont isn’t short of memorable memorialsm, a few of which I’ve highlighted in this blog post. Ethan Allen’s landmark grave in Burlington is a soaring vanity project of the state’s most pronounced hero, commemorated with a giant spindly pedestal topped by a rather valiant looking life sake statue of Allen himself, standing his limited ground mute and stubbornly. But the real mind boggle is that no one is sure if Ethan Allen is actually buried underneath his own monument, and if he’s not, where did he wind up?

Thanks to a 19th century Middlebury millionaire who was striving to start a cabinet of curiosities to aww his wealthy friends with, there is now a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy buried in Middlebury’s west cemetery. And, there is rumored to be a forgotten cemetery near Fays’ Corners where all of its inhabitants unintentionally became members of the exclusive club of dead remembered as they wound up as opposed to who they were, at the end of their line. The cemetery was long ago removed by a local farmer who wanted to expand his haying field. The graves were later returned, or at least re-propped back up, but the farmer had forgotten their original orientation, so he lined them up alphabetically. Today the tiny bone yard is shrouded in shadow light cast in all directions by the woods that have reclaimed the surrounding land.

In Middlebury's West Cemetery, a innocuous headstone has some rather strange markings. For example, the date of death is 1883, B.C! An error on the stonecutter's part, right? Nope. This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont's only royal figure, the 2 year old son on an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum's board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont’s only royal figure, the 2-year-old son of an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum’s board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
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Fays’ Corners Cemetery, photograph by Kali Yuga. Used with permission.

“Black Agnes”

But perhaps one of the most infamous grave sites in Vermont is the monument of John E. Hubbard in Montpelier’s Green Mount Cemetery. But it’s the curse that is attached to his monument that has earned its reputation with paranormal aficionados who chase such tales, and gave me a reason to visit it’s whereabout graveyard. As a matter of fact, my own interest in the idea and mystic of curses began when I heard the story of Montpelier’s “Black Agnes” when I was a child.

Green Mount is located on the outskirts of Montpelier. The cemetery crawls 35 acres up the side of a rolling hillside that runs parallel to the Winooski River just outside the nation’s smallest capital city. You’ll know you’ll there when you see the rather large Gothic stone freestanding arch that marks the entrance.

Green Mount began as a bequest of a local benefactor, who purchased 35 acres in 1854 so the city could bury it’s dead on a nice piece of land, at a time when many existing New England cemeteries were reaching capacity and communities were looking for alternatives outside the city limits. The cemetery is on a gentle slope that rises above Route 2/State Street and overlooks the meandering Winooski River and it’s fluctuating moods; it’s monuments and entombments underneath the shade of old hardwood trees. I couldn’t help thinking of this song when I strolled through trying to find my oddity.

The affor-referenced Hubbard was a local philanthropist and celebrity, and his ideas saw that he spent much of his life in controversy, before dying in 1899. Hubbard’s aunt who died a decade before him, wanted to leave her sizable fortune of $350,000 to the city of Montpelier – about 9 million in today’s money – asking it go towards financing a new library and part of the construction of the front gates and a chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. But Hubbard decided to contest her will and squandered her fortune all for himself. In addition to arguing that his aunt wasn’t “of sound mind” when she wrote up her will, he also allegedly bribed city counselor members not to fight him in court. The whole fiasco struck Montpelier-ites as strange. Hubbard wasn’t exactly short on cash, and that move easily made him a detested citizen of Vermont’s capital city.

But after his death, the Montpelier Argus and Patriot reported the contents of his will, and were surprised to learn that Hubbard generously gave the city $125,000 for a new library, $25,000 for a chapel and gates at Green Mount Cemetery, and $85,000 to establish Hubbard Park, the tree clustered hillside that rises above the state house. Hubbard seemed to be a misunderstood gentleman of some perplexities, that were only beginning to unravel after his death. And those include his death itself. Local lore still permeates today that Hubbard jumped off the stone lookout tower in the titular named park and committed suicide, regardless that the tower wasn’t completed until well after his departure.

Austrian sculpture Karl Bitter was commissioned to cast this rather fraught looking bronze statue for his grave site – a shrouded figure that seems to be in a perpetual state of sorrow. Though over the years it has weathered and turned a greenish hue, it is still just as captivating in its transformation. While some say that the monument was supposed to be the Virgin Mary, the anatomy was actually intended to be male. After it’s installment, the memorial almost immediately became a local curiosity. In an interesting account I was able to find; Mrs. Sumner Kimball wanted to buy an even-tempered horse in 1902, and she thought a good test of its calmness would be to bring it to Green Mount Cemetery and take the horse to Hubbard’s grave. As she told the seller; “if she don’t shy at that, I’ll take her.”

But perhaps it’s what we don’t know about this solemn grave site that is the most baffling. The grave is more known by its official yet inexplicable nickname; “Black Agnes”, but no one is quite sure who coined the nickname, or why. And perhaps more puzzling is the frightening curse attached to it.

However this grave site became the instrument to a curse is most baffling. There is no information on the origins of the curse and when its nasty thorns began growing in urban mythology. Legend has it that if you sit on the statue’s lap, (some say it has to be at night, while others argue at all), you will suffer terrible misfortunes, and possibly even death. 

The most popular accompanying urban legend tells the story of three local teens from an area high school who all decided to put the curse to the test and visit Black Agnes one night. Illuminated by the light of the full moon, all three of them sat on the statue’s lap as the witching hour approached. After nothing happened, they all piled back into the car, feeling bravado in their curse debunking accomplishment. But within one week, one fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. One was hit by a car and the other drowned when his canoe capsized in the Winooski River. Maybe it was just a coincidence that all three incidents were apparently less than two miles away from the statue at the time. Or at least that’s what the story says.

Needless to say, this narrative has made the statue a local landmark, and a hot spot for curious teenagers either looking for a thrill or asking for trouble.

After doing a little further investigating into this curse, I found that Hubbard’s monument isn’t unique. Karl Bitter had sculpted a few similar prototypes, and exhibited one at the 1904 World’s Fair. He called his creation Thanatos, which was inspired by the Greek personification of death. There are also a few surviving examples of Thanatos still existing in other cemeteries nationwide. So I guess the metaphor here is that sitting on Hubbard’s monument is the equivalent of sitting on the lap of death. Sure, that’s creepy and emblematic, but not enough people are aware of that information, making the curse a lingering mystery still.

Whether you believe in curses or superstitions or not, a lot of people aren’t taking chances. I’ve spoken to a few people about the statue, and there have been those who outright scoffed at the curse. But when I asked if they would sit on the statue’s lap, they hesitated and eventually admitted they wouldn’t. Is there something to this curse business? I suppose one may never know, unless you’re brazen enough to plop down on Black Agnes’s lap yourself.

Youtuber Ian Burnette made a short video for the Green Mountain Film Festival’s 48 Hour Film Slam in March 2013 which partially features a cameo of Black Agnes, and my good friend and frequent accomplice to my adventures, Eric Downing. Curse or no curse, the story is compelling enough to continuously inspire people and create other monsters.

Whether you believe in the business of curses or not, it is true that the dead can kill you, and they don’t need a creepy story or supernatural mojo to do it. Old civil war era cemeteries like this one have a secret that is literally just raising to the surface. These old graveyards may be leaking toxins, or, the arsenic used in old embalming fluids, into local groundwater. Two centuries ago, it was customary to have a wake for the deceased which could last several days to a week, depending on who you were, and the family didn’t want the body decomposing while it was laid it out in their parlor, so they were pumped full of arsenic to preserve them until the visitors stopped coming and they could be put six feet under. Arsenic was eventually banned in the early 1900s because of its toxicity, but enough corpses were pumped full of the stuff to leave a lasting effect, the real dangers being that today, many of us – especially who dwell near cemeteries, know little about arsenic or it’s dangers.

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I visited in 2011, heading back up to college after spring break. I declined sitting on his lap.

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The Bowman Mausoleum 

If you wish to visit with Cuttingsville’s most famous denizen, you can find the stoic man of mystery in the village’s only cemetery that is directly across Route 103 from an attractively restored Queen-Anne style Victorian mansion that he once referred to humbly as his summer home. 

I’m talking about John P. Bowman. The real Mr. Bowman is long deceased, but a poignant, life-sized monster of masonry is an exact effigy of the intriguing gentleman, and can be found lurching along a hillside cemetery that rises slightly above Route 103.

I first became antiquated with Mr. Bowman as a child. I saw him whenever we would venture down to my deer camp in East Wallingford for a weekend. His mansion was a rather faded, spooky old place which was then an establishment called “The Haunted Mansion Bookshop”. I had no idea that the name wasn’t just a gimmick, the mansion was, and maybe still is presently, purported to be haunted.

But it was what was across from the old mansion that really drew my attention as a young boy; the somber granite mausoleum with a grief-stricken, proportionally accurate statue of Mr. Bowman frozen in mid kneel along the steps that leads to it’s gated front entrance, depicted wearing a 19th century mourning cloak as well as clutching a key and a wreath in his hands – his blues reflected in the grays of his marble eyes that purposely gaze at the family tomb. Even as a kid, I knew there was something, well, a bit different about the Bowman mausoleum. And as I grew older, I realized that quite a few other people seemed to share my sentiment towards Bowman and his estate.

John Porter Bowman was born in neighboring Clarendon in 1816 in an area of town referred to as Pierces Corner, which today is practically little more than the intersection of state routes 103 and 7B. Educational opportunities were limited for Bowman, but his ambitions landed him employment at a Rutland tannery at the age of 15, where he spent five years learning the art of turning animal hides into fine leather, before leaving to start his own tanning business near Cuttingsville. In the early 1850s, he became so well-liked in the local community that he was either coaxed or self-inspired to run for a seat on the Vermont legislature. He won.

But he much preferred  business over politics, and in 1852, moved to Stony Creek, New York in search of opportunity. And he found it, in the form of a 6,000-acre plot of Hemlock forest, where he started a far more ambitious tannery business. The civil war brought great fortune to Bowman, as there was a huge demand for boots, saddles and other leather made wartime paraphernalia. He hired dozens of people, became a venerable figure of the region, and eventually fell in love and married Jennie Gates from Warren, New York. They ambitioned to building a grand summer home in his home state of Vermont where they could raise a family.

While he prospered financially, his personal life didn’t fare as generously. The couple’s first child, their daughter Addie, died as an infant in 1854. Their second daughter Ella survived much longer, but perished in 1879 at the age of 22, when she eventually succumbed to an illness she was fighting. Not long after, in 1800, Mrs. Bowman followed their daughters to the grave.

The agonized Mr. Bowman sought to find some relief. Shortly afterward, he hired labor crews and sent them to Cuttingsville, Vermont to begin construction on that aforementioned lavish Victorian summer home that his family would now never get to see.

During this time, he became obsessed with death; perhaps as a way to cope with his loss, or maybe influenced by the rise of spiritualism. He drew up additional blueprints to his Cuttingsville compound. Now, they would include a grand Neo-Egyptian mausoleum which would become a monument to his departed, and a local tourist attraction.

The colossal project took over a year to complete, and was the creation of 125 sculptures, stone cutters and laborers, the final cost exceeding $75,000. Construction of its facade ordered 750 tons of Vermont granite, 50 tons of Vermont marble, over 20,000 bricks and over 100 loads of sand. And they did a great job; the robust structure still stands proudly along the roadside, almost looking as if it was brand new construction given the great shape it’s in. But it may be the ghostly statue of Mr. Bowman that is the crypt’s most startling piece of artistry. His cloaked figure, clutching that wreath and key, kneels down on the front steps, peering at the front gates.

In 1887, he sold everything in New York and moved to his new digs in Cuttingsville, broken and alone. According to a few accounts, he would make it a point to look out the window each morning and gaze at the family crypt, a ritual he would keep until 1891, when he finally died, alone and sad, forever becoming a figure of misery.

He had no heirs, and no one to leave the house too. He was wealthy enough where he was able to start a trust to take care of his property long after his death. And this is where things get weirdly fascinating.

Though no actual documentation offers proof of this, the story goes that Mr. Bowman left some peculiar details in his will, where he willed his servants to prepare a freshly cooked dinner every night, turn on the gas lamps and turn down the bed-clothes, as if they were expecting Mr. Bowman to return from the dead and walk through his front door. The strangeness continues to morph. Somehow, the mansion began to inspire myths of phantom crying babies, wispy and frail phantoms moving silently down the halls, and even a secret spot where a vast amount of money was hidden by Mr. Bowman himself, still unfound and within the walls, or under a floorboard, or something…

The hidden treasure is more easily debunked. Though Mr. Bowman instructed that none of his property or belongings should ever be sold, by 1950, the deceased millionaire’s extensive fortune finally was depleted, and the trust went bankrupt when the coast of up-keeping the large property became too much – so all of his paintings and furnishings were auctioned off. If there was any amount of cash left behind, it was probably spent well before that time. The claim of a crying baby is curious to me, as no children ever lived in the house.

Some even claimed that Bowman’s large statue inexplicably came to life, and could be seen slowly walking around the cemetery at night or gazing at his mansion across Route 103. Other stories I heard in passing was that local kids claimed that if you visited the statue at night, his eyes would move and follow you, or even blink. A July 27th, 1950 article printed in the Rutland Herald offers some amusing incite. the wife of a long time caretaker admitted to the interviewer that people kept pressuring them for spook stories about the place, until her husband who had had enough, said: “if they wanted a story, I’d give them one”. While that isn’t necessarily condemning evidence of all of this being nothing more than yarns well spun, it certainly makes me wonder.

If these claims are true, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness any of the bizarre phenomena while I visited on a beautiful Spring afternoon. But the Bowman statue and tomb are both incredible works of art and craftsmanship.

I can see why his statue would make someone uncomfortable, though. The well-captured expression of his eternal grief is pretty evocative.

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The handsome Bowman mansion, restored and called “Laurel Hall” – as seen from the front steps of his across the street mausoleum. I would have snapped a better picture, but all of my weird detours had made me late and I needed to rush back to Burlington.

Grave With A Window

New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery is more or less unremarkable, as far as cemeteries go I suppose. That is, apart from one entombment. Among the faded and weathered headstones that are eternal witnesses to the passing generations and the turning of the seasons, is the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith.

Walking through the cemetery, you’ll notice a mound of earth roughly 4 feet in height. On the top is an unremarkable looking square slab of Granite, which really doesn’t allude to the fact it’s supposed to mark a corpse’s final resting place. But upon closer investigation, you’ll realize that there is something more to this seemingly innocuous block. In the dead center of the granite slab is a Plexiglas window. Stained with years of condensation and scratches from the sputtering seasons and many other curious visitors, you find yourself peering down into an eerie undertone blackness underneath the ground your standing on. What is this?

During the 17th century, there were a number of premature burials, enough to make the general public a bit uncomfortable. Medicine was still in it’s momentum of advancement, and as a result, an unfortunate number of patients had a sleeping sickness, or a state of illness that could make the victim appear to be dead, but later to awaken in a cold, dark grave, very much alive. Medicine has thankfully came a long way since those days, and today, we know this strange state of sleep as Narcolepsy.

The horror stories continue. There have an unfortunate number of terrifying accounts in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death, and a few cases in which embalming was started on the not-yet-dead. Not surprisingly, urban legends of people being accidentally buried alive began to surface and spread. Legends tell of coffins opened to find a corpse with a long beard or corpses with the hands raised and palms turned upward, their fingers worn down to the bone as they literally tried to claw their way of their tombs, scratch marks being found on the wooden lid of their coffins.

To stretch the imagination further, Some superstitious old New Englanders didn’t blame these horrifying accounts on premature burial. Instead, they blamed the most logical answer they could muster, the victim had to be a Vampire. Evidence of unfortunate souls being found in a different position after unearthing their graves, with bloody stumps for fingers scared people, and the evidence was used to inspire famous tales as Rhode Island’s Mercy Brown, who innocently became the most infamous Vampire in New England history.

A well-respected man, Timothy Clarke Smith, born 1821, could boast a rather long list of accomplishments in his life. Among many things, he was a schoolteacher, a merchant, a clerk for the Treasury Dept. and obtained his degree as an MD in 1855, which led to his position as a staff surgeon in the Russian Army. But the good doctor also ruminated over those postmortem horror stories and developed a fear – not of dying, but of not being dead. He was terrified at the possibility of being buried alive.

That sentiment wasn’t unique. It was happening so often, that some swindlers decided to cash in on it, and create a market for “safety coffins”

These new models of coffin included glass lids for observation, so people could see in, or out. Ropes from the inside of the coffin were attached to bells fastened on the surface, so that if the poor soul were to wake up six feet under, they could ring it in a panic and hope someone is nearby enough to hear it – which is said to be where the popular sayings “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” originated from. Breathing pipes were also constructed to run air into the coffin, to sustain the misdiagnosed corpses until they could be rescued.

Dr. Smith was going to make sure this wouldn’t happen to him, and gladly paid up for such an arrangement, which he was buried in at the time of his death in 1893 and has no doubt overshadowed any of his other noble life pursuits. Beneath a grassy mound of earth in New Haven, a tomb was constructed with a six-foot cement tube that protruded the surface into a 14×14 inch piece of Plexiglas. This was to allow groundskeepers or visiting family members to check in on him, just in case they saw his disgruntled face staring up at them through the window…

For extra protection, a bell was supposedly placed in his hands that he could ring in case he woke up. But who could hear a bell under 6 feet of earth? And If he were alive, how long would the oxygen really last?

According to old records from the cemetery sexton, the burial vault has two rooms. One for Dr. Smith (with the window) and the other for his wife. The burial vault is arched with stairs (capped by the stone in the lower front of the mound) and leads to the two rooms, with the viewing window at the top of the shaft.

People from years ago claim to have peered down the window and stared directly at the skeletal face of Dr. Smith, along with a hammer and chisel placed on his chest. But today, you can barely see anything through the condensation that has occupied most of the glass surface, which may make the trip slightly disappointing for some visitors.

If you wish to see this literal monument to a man’s insecurities turned extraordinary tourist attraction for yourself, take Route 7 to the small farming community of New Haven, and make a turn on Town Hill Road. The cemetery will be about a mile or two down the road on your right, just look for the rather large mound of Earth right by the entrance and the square slab dead on top. You can’t miss it.

Here is a neat visual of what your money might have gotten you – should you have decided to purchase one of these special graves. It seems that this model comes with what looks like a periscope, but in actuality, the person buried could spin the handles and it would turn above, letting who ever came and checked on the cemetery that the person moved.

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“A dreamless sleep, emblem of eternal rest”

I once heard a theory that it’s better to have an interesting headstone than to have been an interesting person, because the headstone will be around for much longer.

While I think that theory is open to interpretation, in the case of Lyndon Center’s G.P. Spencer, he certainly left his mark, where even after his passing, he remains a well-remembered figure with his grave pointing an accusatory finger at Lyndon denizens, long after the others that weren’t so kind to him have turned to dust and vanished into fading records.

The story as I know it goes that Spencer, born 1825, was a proudly stubborn atheist in Lyndonville, a suspiciously treated minority absorbed into a larger population of hardscrabble northeast kingdomers that identified as being religious in one way or another. Unlike today’s more tolerant attitudes and Vermont’s time-tested reputation for being far less religious than the rest of the country, the folks of town shunned Spencer.

A stone cutter, he decided to fashion himself a grave that would spitefully give himself the last word in the form of a wrap around epitaph which has weathered to points of illegibility. So I had to look it up.

His epitaph reads; “science has never killed or persecuted a single person for doubting or denying its teaching, and most of these teachings have been true; but religion has murdered millions for doubting or denying her dogmas and most of these dogmas have been false.

All stories about gods and Devils, of heavens and hells, as they do not conform to nature, and are not apparent to sense, should be rejected without consideration. Beyond the universe there is nothing and within the universe, the supernatural does not and cannot exist.

Of all deceivers who have plagued mankind, none are so deeply ruinous to human happiness as those impostors who pretend to be lead by a light above.

The lips of the dead are closed forever. There comes no voice from the tomb.
Christianity is responsible for having cast the fable of eternal fire over almost every tomb”

G.P. Spencer died in 1908, and Lyndon locals immediately began fighting his headstone’s placement in the cemetery which today can be found at the end of a dirt driveway that the village boldly named “Heaven Lane”. They lost, and you can still observe it today. A monument to a man who stood up for his beliefs, and maybe a good example of an archetypal Vermonter; stubborn, not spiritually inclined, and having a sense of humor – depending on who you ask I guess.

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The interesting grave topped with a curious sleeping baby, which may be a metaphor, is located in the only cemetery in tiny Lyndon Center. It was just a short yet freezing walk down College Hill from my dorm at Lyndon State College to snap a few photos of it, then retreat back to my room in search of coffee.

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Vermont’s Immortal Man and Frozen Hill Folk?

There is an old Vermont anecdote that pertains to cemeteries. When passing a graveyard, the joke is to ask “how many dead are in this cemetery?”, with the correct answer of course being, “all of them”. But this “dad joke” of a punchline recently took on a new weight with me.

Not long ago, someone told me offhandedly that they found a peculiar grave in a cemetery near Montpelier – which according to this gravestone and a viral post in the Vermont subreddit page, there is a 157-year-old man (and counting) living somewhere in Vermont. What?

The Montpelier and Barre region seems to be a bulls-eye for some of the state’s most interesting memento mori, which may be one of the many reasons why some Vermonters refer to their capital as “Montpeculiar”. Included in this interesting region’s points of interest is Barre’s celebrity Hope Cemetery. Barre-ites discovered over a century ago that the city was literally built on top of a mother lode of a valuable granite vein that was so robust and unique, it’s incredibly resistant to deterioration, discoloration and great for construction projects. That stone made the town so famous that it drew sculptures and stone cutters from around the globe – a good chunk from Italy due to sour economics back home. As the city’s residents died, the locals did what they did best and sculpted some very interesting monuments in their honor that now proudly decorate the cemetery off Maple Avenue – the commemorations ranging from incredible works of funerary art to the kitschy.

Regardless, the thought of an “immortal” man in the capital region only amused me more, as this wouldn’t be the first time that this trope has played out in this part of the state. Over a century ago, it was sensationalized in the Washington County region in 1887 when an article was published in the defunct newspaper, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, in which was a compelling and startling tale of poor Vermont hill farmers keeping their loved ones alive through the grueling winters by inducing forced hibernation, via some strange Yankee magic, which emanated like a contagion shotgun blast from the hills.

In the strange account told by a mysterious first and one-time only contributor known as A.M., he dug up the story in the pages of his uncle William’s journal that told a rather gothic and macabre series of events said to be practiced deep in the Vermont hills north of Montpelier. Wretchedly poor Vermont hill farmers had contrived a solution ensuring that the weakest and most vulnerable members of their family could survive the state’s grueling winters without straining the already meager food rations. Life in Vermont’s mountains was hard, and often death came early.

The chosen participants would drink a special potion – the ingredients a closely guarded secret – and would then be placed inside a large pine box that would be lined with straw, before a wooden lid was placed over it and weighed down by rocks to keep predators out. Once the winter freeze came, the buried family members would literally sleep out the winter in a frozen state. When the Spring thaw softened up the ground, they would be dug up, placed in a steaming bath lined with Hemlock bows, and as their muscles twitched and color came back to their pallor, they would be ready to face the summer with vigor. In theory anyways. And according to A.M., his uncle not only knew about it, he was invited to watch the process, and he transcribed all that he saw in his journal, documenting the bizarre.

At the time, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot had the most circulation of any of the state’s newspapers, meaning that plenty of Vermonters must have been horrified by it, but even more tantalizingly, no follow ups about the weird story were ever printed, nor were any letters to the editor. The strange tale probably would have vanished into obscurity if it wasn’t for a Bridgewater gentleman accidentally finding the newspaper article clipping tucked away in the scrapbook of Hannah F. Stevens,his mother, 52 years later.

On May 24, 1939, the Rutland Herald revived the old yarn and printed A.M.’s story word for word, and explained that no one knew it’s source. Interest immediately picked up. The Boston Globe published something on it 4 days later, and it was forever stuck to the flypaper of New England folklore. Yankee Magazine, The Farmers Almanac,  and Vermont Life soon followed, attempting to cash in on the public’s desire to satiate their thirst for this baffling story.

Eventually, writer and lecturer Roland W. Robbins had managed to track the story’s origins in the winter of 1949-1950, and was finally able to give A.M. an identity; Allen Morse, an untypical dairy farmer from Calais who was born in 1835 and died in 1917. Morse’s granddaughter, a Mrs. Mabel E. Hynes of Agawam, Massachusetts was able to reveal more of the mystery. She recalled him telling her that story several times growing up, perhaps influenced by his interest in spiritualism like many Vermonters of the time. Before the distractions of technology, Vermont farmers entertained themselves by “yarnin”, or, seeing who could tell the best lurid tall tale. Allen Morse had considerable talent, and his brother in law William Noyes, aka Uncle William, would often have rounds against one another and test run their tales at family picnics. Morse’s account of the frozen hill folk was his matchless achievement.

But it wasn’t him that submitted the tale to paper, he never even wrote it down. It was Mrs. Hynes’s mother, who in 1887 was working for the The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, and secretly arranged to have “grandpa’s yarn” published on Morse’s next birthday, December 21, 1887. Morse was delighted, and was glad that they had kept his identity a mystery, for anyone that knew him would have labeled it as a hoax immediately, which may have very well put a moratorium on this great regional folk tale. It became so compelling that even the highly respected journal Scientific American picked up on it around 1900. Other scientists were interested into researching just how peoples’ bodies would respond and survive to lower temperatures, and eventually, Cryonic Societies began forming around the country, all interested in the feasibility of resurrecting frozen humans entombed in capsules chilled to -321 degrees via liquid nitrogen.

Regardless of its faux origins, this cryptic fable left an enduring footprint on local culture that is still spoken about today, especially after being revived again when author Joseph Citro retold the great tale in his book, Green Mountains Dark Tales, and later in Weird New England, which was where I discovered it. But as for the grave of Mr. Edward McNalty, Could some Yankee mountain magic actually be at work here?

Taking a drive through the bustling crowds of Downtown Montpelier and up a pothole chocked road into the hills to the cemetery in question, I found the telltale gravestone. Edward McNalty. Born 1857. Died…

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There it was. So, what’s the story here?

As much fun as it might be to romanticize about an immortal being existing in the mortal grind somewhere in Vermont (after all, New England isn’t a stranger to disturbing tales of immortal men and their misdeeds – like New Hampshire’s dreadful Dr. Benton, one of my favorite regional narratives),  the actual story is planted firmly in logistics. As it turns out, according to the limited information I was able to dig up, the mysterious Edward McNalty was born in Moretown, Vermont in November of 1861, not 1857 – they made a mistake on the headstone but it was never corrected. He would eventually enter the workforce as a railroad section man. Edward would marry Illinois born Rosetta Smith on January 7, 1896 at the age of 44, and settled in Washington, Vermont, according to the census of 1930. For both, it was their second marriage, and this marriage produced no children.

Edward died of pneumonia in Montpelier on December 28, 1935. Because his second marriage never bore any kids, his children from his first marriage decided to bury him next to their mom as opposed to his second wife, which explains the missing date of death on the headstone.

And at the end of the day, this amusing gravestone at least offers a good story, and maybe will spark the most curious of imaginations.

A vignette into early Vermont life.

Sometimes, cemeteries can give us clues into our past. Three barely discernible graves deep within the national forest of Chittenden greet you by surprise within the weeds, and are the only things left to tell whoever is passing by that there was once a town here over a hundred years ago.

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This impressionistic headstone found in the vanished town of West Bolton tells the observer how dangerous childbirth, or being a young child could be in Vermont over a century ago, and how much death early Vermonters were actually accustomed to. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, people are living longer lives nowdays.

To finish this entry off, I wanted to include one of my favorite cemetery tombstones I’ve came across so far. Embarking on a random road trip with friend and talented local artist Sam Balling, we traveled the beautiful state route 125 up over Vermont’s green mountain spine which brought us through tiny Ripton, which local lore says its name comes from its land being “ripped” from other Addison County towns to form the new town, but it’s name less interestingly comes from Connecticut, relating to the first named grantee. The town averages an elevation of near 3,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains. Heading towards Middlebury Gap, a pass between the mountains that allows motorists to drop down the other side into Hancock, there is an old cemetery near the Robert Frost Wayside Wilderness of the Green Mountain National Forest. The small burial ground is interspersed with old gnarled trees and centuries-old gravestones that jut from the pine needle fallen earth like broken teeth wearing the different hues of aging. In the background, stark gray ridge lines barren and almost foreboding in their late autumn death, hemmed in the cemetery in isolation.  I loved it.

This simplistic headstone illustrates the tragic demise of two brothers and strangers in detailed brevity. Winfield H. was killed by an overturned load of lumber, and Perley H. was killed by the explosion of a cannon, a vignette into how different, and deadly life was for Vermonters settling up in the mountains over a century ago.

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Ripton, VT

Sometimes having a peaceful, out of the way location can also be a place’s undoing, especially when for whatever reason, it inspires spectral fodder and monstrous legends. But I’m always very interested in these tales that surpass strange. If you’re curious about more local lore involving cemeteries (or indirectly involving cemeteries), check out an older blog post I wrote up years ago, featuring two stories that saw the glow of a computer screen for the first time when I wrote them down.

While we’re on the topic of cemeteries, here’s a link that I thought was very cool; Atlas Obscura’s Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

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Underneath The Ground

Vermont’s visage is one of scenic mountains and an eye magnetic lack of industry, which makes the state a notable contrast from its neighbors. But a few decades ago, our Green Mountains were combed with industry that depended on the state’s naturally occurring topography and it’s profitable innards. Many of the state’s rural areas have once been cannibalized for their precious commodities that lay underneath the ground, and if you look below the surface, many small communities still bear the scars from irresponsible practices and their related pollution.

No one is quite sure how copper was discovered in Vermont, but according to hazy hearsay, it’s inception to the state economy was pretty much circumstantial. Legend says that farmers and landowners in what’s now Orange County began noticing the indicatory rusty discoloration in snow drifts on their properties while out tapping Maple trees or out while fox hunting towards the late 1700s. That discovery ensured that a few decades later, businessmen were compelled to begin mining for copper in Vermont’s newly emerging copper “belt”.

Though the boom was contained in a pretty small area limited to southern Orange County, its mines became fabled for a brief time for their voluminous outputs that took insufferable work to tease out, one of them becoming the largest copper producing mine in America for a brief time.

Vermont’s copper belt, in Orange County | USGS

The northernmost was the Pike Hill mine in biblically named Corinth – the old name said to be chosen because of its establishment and reputation, so any new settlers would get the idea that the wilds up that way would be accommodating and amiable to them. Another guess is that it came from a village in old England, only, no settlers were ever recorded to have connections to that one, and the UK’s Corrinth is so small that even modern atlases don’t always pick up on it. As for Vermont’s Corinth, though, a lot of other United States’ Corinths were said to come from this one!

Not much remains of Pike Hill’s mine, except for a few scattered stone foundations and a very orange hillside scarred up by 4 wheeler trails off a tight dirt road.

Corinth town clerk Nancy J. Ertle answered my email to her ebulliently.

“I live up by the mines and actually have been in them. Which is really cool! We go in in the winter when the water is frozen and you can walk on ice since the shafts are full of water.” I’ll have to stop in and chat with her in person next time I’m in the area.

Vershire’s Ely Mine was said to have a more intriguing discovery. It was said that as early as the late 1700s, inconspicuous trails of sulphury smoke and fireballs were seen over the forests of John Richardson’s farm on Dwight Hill in Vershire. But it wasn’t until after a rainstorm in 1812 that would clear up any speculation, when his daughter Becky stepped on and sunk up to her knee in a mound that looked like a “burnt outcropping” while walking the property. Realizing she was stuck fast, she began to holler for help. When she was pulled out, her leg was found coated with an orange mud and the hole filled with an odorous sulphury mess.

Encouraged by this colorful evidence, in 1820, a group of local farmers got together and formed The Farmers Company and began purchasing mineral rights in the area in order to produce copperas. By 1833, the aforementioned Richardson farm was surveyed by an Issac Tyson, described as “probably the leading industrial chemist of the day”. Tyson was the first to attempt drilling at what would be known as the Ely mine. Around 1833, he started boring an adit (a horizontal tunnel) to intersect the vein from the southern side of the hill, but two years later and ninety-four feet without striking ore, Tyson’s partners lost faith in the project (possibly influenced by the financial panic of 1834) and pulled out despite Tyson’s protests.

But by now, the tantalizing word that copper was underneath Vermont’s hills was out, and more people wanted in. In 1854, The Vermont Copper Mining Company was created and immediately picked up where Tyson left off. They purchased the property for $1,000 and ironically, they only needed to dig an additional four feet in Tyson’s discontinued adit to strike the vein he was looking for.

One of the original investors in the mine was a New Yorker named Smith Ely, who would eventually take control over the mine and company after the civil war, which produced a huge demand for copper. With a new national ban on foreign copper, the need for domestic production stirred an uproar. Under Ely’s leadership, the mine that now wore his last name became a significant operation and would grow to become the largest copper mine in the United States for a time, reaching a peak employment by November 1881 – of 851 curious and voracious miners.

Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. | UVM Landscape Change Program
Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. Cornish miners specifically had a reputation for being rough, rowdy and reckless, which made them sought-after employees for many American construction feats. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. I especially enjoy the miners hanging out the second story windows. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men wearing long pants and shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men wearing long pants and long shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. Conditions were dangerous. Old records tell of miners packing their ears with cotton to prevent themselves from going death from the loud noises of the drilling. There was no workplace safety protocols and no protection, so miners often had to think creatively when they were concerned with prognostics. The men who were employed in the industry were often just as tough as the harsh environment they worked in. Some old timers who actually recall the copper mines stoically allude to just how obscene they were, described as the sort of place where a man did what he had to do.| UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men deep down in what they called "The Back Stopes", or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This compelling photo shows a group of men deep down in what they called “The Back Stopes”, or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. It definitely takes someone with a particular cast of mind to labor in conditions like this | UVM Landscape Change Program
This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which is most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which was most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides dumped with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation.
A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one that would eventually be made of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides melding with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation. |UVM Landscape Change Program
The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it's name to Ely in 1878, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine fell on financial troubles it would never recover from.
The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it’s name to Ely in 1878 because of the huge financial success of the mine, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine began to spiral into bankruptcy. Not to be confused with the village of Ely, where the copper was loaded into trains and shipped to Boston. It still retains it’s name today and can be found at the junction of VT 244 at Route 5 in Fairlee, though now days it’s little more than a few old farmhouses near some railroad tracks. | UVM Landscape Change Program

In 1876, Smith Ely’s grandson Ely Goddard would take over the mine. His first act of business was to change his last name to Ely-Goddard in honor of his grandfather. His next act would be to  make himself more at home, by constructing himself a lavish vanity project in the middle of the village; a mansion which he named Elysium (pictured in the photo above, the white building with the central copula), a reference to the ancient Greek concept of the afterlife, and perhaps demonstrating some of his exaggerated swagger with a play on his last name. The mansion was regarded as one of the finest feats of architecture in otherwise hardscrabble orange county, and soon became a place where grand parties would be held where Ely-Goddard’s rich friends from New York, Newport RI and as far away as Paris would come and have nights of debauchery while the miners whose dwellings encircled the mansion enclave were close to starving.

The Ely’s entrepreneurial spirit earned them some lauded accolades in the Green Mountains, including Ely-Goddard being elected to the house of representatives in 1878, and the company lawyer Roswell Farnum being elected governor in 1880, which was no doubt a period that was very kind to the mining industry. Or maybe I’m just being cynical.

The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds, giving off sulfur fumes, and was then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick. A chimney flue ran up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far away. A contemporary description says that "the country around the village is ... completely destitute of vegetation....For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds." (To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.)| UVM Landscape Change Program
The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds that gave off vile sulfur fumes and then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick (the long rectangular building pictured above). Tall brick chimneys were built up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far enough, as most of the smoke pretty much permeated around the slopes and the village, creating acid rain which decimated the landscape around the mine. A written historical account of the pollution I was able to dig up says that “the country around the village is … completely destitute of vegetation….For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds.” To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.| UVM Landscape Change Program
This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a wasteland of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a fetid place of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900, after the mine's abandonment. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900. Eventually, they built buildings on top of the huge tailings piles because they grew so large. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program

But having an upper hand in politics couldn’t save the mines against more profitable opportunities out west. As a result, the price of copper began to fall as domestic supplies increased. Mining in Vermont was hard. The deposit veins produced little copper that required more work than payoff to access, and most mines were far away from convenient transportation corridors. In 1881, Smith Ely sold his shares in the mind to Ely-Goddard and the newly in the picture Francis Cazin, a German engineer who planned on saving the mine by profusely dumping money into it. But it didn’t work, and Ely-Goddard blamed and fired Cazin, who sued the company in retribution.

On June 29th, 1883, all the bad financial investments and a newly emerging series of lawsuits caught up with the company. By now, the Ely mine boasted the largest copper mining shaft dug in Vermont, unconfidently considered to be anywhere between 3,400 feet, to 4,000 feet deep. For a comparison, our largest mountain, Mount Mansfield, is 4,395 feet. But despite the efforts, only about 3% of what miners were carving out was actually marketable copper, and the cost of operations, such as hoisting apparatuses, pumps that kept the shafts from flooding and the tons of wood needed to burn to keep the smelting processes going, had drained their bank account.

Their solution was posting a sign telling miners that the mines would be closed until they agreed to take a pay cut, which of course didn’t go over so well. The miners who had already gone two months without pay, revolted in what is sometimes called The Ely War, which is both considered the most important instance of labor unrest in Vermont and to my surprise, almost never talked about. Having already worked for months without paychecks, the miners had reached their limits of toleration and went on strike. They raided the company store, started destroying company buildings in the village, acted without foresight and broke the pumps that kept the shafts from flooding to make the mines unprofitable for the owners, and stole all the gunpowder and threatened to do further extensive damage with it if they didn’t get their pay.

To add insurance, they all marched to Smith Ely’s house in West Fairlee chanting “bread or blood!” The startled Ely, who was desperate to get the angry mob off his lawn, assured them that they would all get paid. But instead, he sent out a distressful telegram to governor Barstow and the national guard was deployed to arrest the rioters.

The militia marched into Copperfield underneath the stars, found the strike leaders and arrested them in their beds. As the sun rose above the martian landscape around the mines and the other miners awoke from their beds, they saw their strike leaders indignantly being marched down the main drag in irons. The so-called Ely War was over. Another interesting account I found online told of a different, more earnest story.

On the morning of July 6th, 184 members of the national guard marched into Copperfield expecting to find an unruly mob of miners waiting for them but instead found eerily quite buildings built upon slag pile debris. The miners, who were waking up by then, noticed the national guard soldiers walking around town, and went out to converse with them. After telling them their grievances, the national guard sympathized instead of incarcerated and gave the miners all their food rations before getting back on the train.

As these stories often end, the miners were never compensated, and the company went bankrupt by 1888 because ironically, they weren’t able to meet their obligations because of all the damning facts pointing to the company’s inevitable death. And, the mines were now underwater.

Because the mine was now virtually useless, it changed ownership a few times with hopes of re-opening before becoming permanently defunct by 1920. Elysium was sold for $155 and moved to Lake Fairlee, which can still be seen today off state route 244, and the Copperfield Methodist church can now be seen in tiny Vershire village off state route 113, while the rest of the buildings became forsaken and slowly disintegrated to dust.

This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it's abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands. | UVM Landscape Change Program.
Some urban exploring far before my time! This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it’s abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands, regardless of glassless windows, slumping roof and walls that were more hole than wall. | UVM Landscape Change Program.
An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program
An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program

My friend Eric, a close friend from my college days, grew up in West Fairlee down the road from the Ely mine, which is how I found out about the place to begin with. So in the dying days of 2015, as the temperature dropped precipitously, we set out in his Subaru to go walk around his old high school stomping grounds.

Driving down state route 113 with Montreal’s Stars playing softly from his iPod, we entered tiny Vershire, a name that’s an agglomeration of Vermont and New Hampshire, and is either pronounced “Ver-shur” or “Ver-sheer”, depending on who you are. It seems like it’s a trivial bone of contention between Vershire-ites. After the closer of the Ely mines, Vershire lost scores of its population until it dwindled to just 236 inhabitants in 1960, making it the smallest town in already low populated Orange County. According to the 2010 census, the population has since grown to 730.

Off the town’s main drag, which is the destitute state route 113, there is an easy to miss intersection with an evocatively incongruous name; Brimestone Corner. While I’m not sure of the story behind this curious name, I have my own theory. There are plenty of locales in Vermont named after the Christian personification of evil, such as Satan’s Kingdom on Lake Dunsmore, and Devil’s Den in Mount Tabor, to name a few. Superstitious settlers gave the suggestive geography their names years ago, when remote and rough patches of wilderness were foreboding, shadowy and full of rocks which made farming almost impossible. It seemed to make sense to them that the Devil himself called these places home. However Brimstone Corner got its name, I love the fact that it still appears on modern day map engines like Google.

Brimstone Corner
Google Maps.
I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont's copper belt is little more than a ghost, it's residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like "Copperas Brook" and "Copper Flats" near South Strafford are a testament to what created the region.
I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont’s copper belt is little more than a ghost, it’s residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like “Copperas Brook” and “Copper Flats” near the Elizabeth Mine Superfund Site in South Strafford are a testament to what created and later haunted the region. | Google Maps.

Death often ends a story, but in the cases of some forsaken places, they can also extend a bit in their celebrity. I’ve covered a few of them in this blog, and the Ely mine would fit right in I’d say. Exploring the historical oddity with Eric also meant that I got some of the inside details of it’s strange and seemingly nefarious local lore that has more or less simultaneously garnered such a reputation and earned it some infamy with area youth, curious visitors and allegedly bad dudes that aren’t necessarily connected to the mafia.

There’s a corollary in the world of abandoned mines that the empty real estate is a great place for humanity’s more ghastly truths. Apparently sometime in the early 2000s, vicinity pets began to go missing, mostly dogs. Eventually, curious visitors to the mine found several decomposing dog corpses stashed within Ely’s dank mine tunnels. Later, the pieces would be put together and it appeared that local boys had been kidnapping and killing their canine victims. I also heard that human remains have been found underneath Dwight Hill as well, but I’m not completely sure of the veracity of both these tales.

In keeping with both traditions of mine shafts being a desirable place to dump unwanted variables or pesky things that could be considered evidence and sometimes buried secrets are difficult to keep buried, there was a local man who made good profit a decade or so ago, by kindly offering to dispose of rural Vermont’s endless junked tire population. Only, he was just dumping them at Ely, which was already considered a Superfund site that the time, and was somehow caught and penalized. A huge mound of tires still sits towards the upper part of the property that ring a beaver dam below a steep birch tree clumped ridgeline. That part of the mine was eerily quiet, the only sound was our boots clomping through deceptive ground that was more mud than ground, the unmistakable odor of sulphury perfume inhaled by my nose that doesn’t belie the truth of the matter here.

Eric also recalls the plight of schoolhouse brook which formed the line diminishing edge of his backyard, and how he recalls fish swimming in its shallow waters as a kid, but as he grew and the river grew shades murkier, lifeforms were reduced significantly.

There was a strange beauty to the landscape though that also helped to establish the aura of mystery that tends to surround these sites. The ruins at Ely are a simple yet compelling depiction of our collective history here, a testimony to both prowess and irresponsibility. Not much remains at all of its legacy here because of a massive cleanup initiated in 2011, which I couldn’t help be a bit disappointed by, but in the end, there is something about these old mines and their stories that yield an irresistible intrigue to me. Oddly enough, I read that the property is also eligible to be inducted on the national register of historic places, but I’m a little lost as to what that distinction would actually do for the property.

Observing the beaver dam, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was around when the mines were active, or more of a recent addition after the chaotic operations became ghosts. Beaver dams are built to last by design, which makes them historical landmarks, and there are plenty of still existing ones that have actually predated many of our settlements.

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The mine’s presence in the area was immediate from the road. The former smelter area is a stained, stony wasteland of yellow colored gravel and stone foundations encroached by brush.
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With the November winds battering us in a spiteful fashion, we set out onto the huge property. A packed class D forest road lead us from the roadside up the hill towards the mine, passing a literal garbage dump along the way, containing everything from an old stove, literal hills of glass bottles, an old truck, and a gamut of relics from twinkie wrappers to empty boxes of bullets.
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This sludgy waterway of rust is called Ely Brook, which runs through the property and brings all of the waste into other area rivers. The EPA proclaims that acid mine drainage is the primary cause of pollution here, or, the outflow of acidic water laced with high metal concentrations from both within the mines and the large waste dump piles. The tailings on the property are rich in metals and sulfides. As water passes over and through the tailings, sulfuric acid is produced and the metals within the tailings are dissolved and mobilized.  In 2001, the Vershire wasteland got it’s designation as a Superfund site, which meant federal dollars went into cleaning it up. Or, more realistically, attempting to keep the place in a state of arrested progression, making sure it can’t pollute the area environment anymore than it already has. Cleanups began in September of 2011.
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The brawny stone walls of the former ore roast bed site still stand, despite the intrusion of new growth trees through it.
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According to the EPA, there was about 100,000 tons of tailings and slag piles left on the property. Though cleanup has gotten rid of the stuff nearest the road, towards the back of the property is still filled with gigantic dunes covered with mangy looking birch trees, the only arboreal growth that will take root here.
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According to a battered tin sign spayed with bullet holes near the road, The Ely Gun Club calls the shots for the huge property today, which allows hunters and gun enthusiasts to enjoy the property, which is practically the only thing you can do on it. We found much evidence of this on top of one of the tailings piles.
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From the top of one of the domineering tailings piles, we were treated to some great views of Vermont’s low profile hills, and in the distance, the gray saw tooth edged forms of New Hampshire’s brawny White Mountains.
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Some old foundations could still be detected amongst the birch trees and tall weeds.
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At first, we thought this stone-lined hole in the ground was an old well, but now I’m not so sure once I discovered that below the water’s surface, there were dark subterranean passageways that lead back beyond a discernible line of sight.
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The Ely mine shafts are dangerous and unpredictable. With so little experience, I opted against going that far inside. At least until I can head back with an experienced tour guide.

The Elizabeth Mine

Though I didn’t largely cover the Elizabeth Mine in this blog entry because it’s already lengthy enough, Its very much worth noting. You can’t mention copper in Vermont without an acknowledgment of this place.

It holds the distinction of being the oldest running copper mine in Vermont, running for 150 years before following the trend of Vermont’s other mines and closing for good in 1958. The property was also inaugurated into the Superfund family of sites and underwent a massive clean up in 2010, which also cleared out an awesome collection of buildings that looked like a Klondike ghost town.

But because of the mine’s unique historical status, parts of it have been left alone. Such as the mineshafts. Why? Because according to someone who wrote to me, this is the mine that supplied the northern/union army with copper during the civil war, which in itself is very cool.

Over my Instagram account, I spoke with my friend Mark Byland, who was part of the crew who installed solar panels over the now partially cleaned up mine site – and both of us were fascinated by the fact that Vermont had such a large production mine.

In Mark’s email to me, he said that the mine today is full of ticks, rats, and ‘other creatures’ that now occupy the nearly 6 miles of underground workings.

They set up their materials near one of the old dynamite shacks but were requested not to go snooping around the existing building, and there was a guy from the miners union posted on site as they worked to make sure there was no tomfoolery. But he does remember taking a glance at the completely exposed second floor and seeing a set of plans hanging around on a dilapidated desk in plain sight.

“There were a plethora of core sample boxes stacked up with more samples than you could imagine. Some really fascinating cross sections of what lies beneath” Mark enthusiastically wrote.

They were also told that the numerous shafts are all in danger of collapse, and were directed to stay out.  Some of the shaft rooves had already collapsed, tearing open new holes in the ground. One of the project leads told a story about how he dropped a few rocks down one of the air shafts and never heard it hit the ground.

“I managed to find an old map of the shafts and it shows where they had
worked the interior, from the top down. Basically, that whole hillside, where the exposed pit is, where people go swimming in naturally exfoliating Ph 5+ water, is completely hollow underneath.”

Mark elaborated. “It seems like everything there is sort of protected by the most awful dread one could imagine. There’s an endless sense of spiritual presence, as the place is kind of one big gravesite for all the lives lost during its 200-year history.” Though Byland did note that it seemed that conditions at Elizabeth treated the miners far more humanely than what workers over at the Ely mine had to endure.

There was also a railroad that continuously ran from the top of the mine to the bottom, delivering ore to the processing facility. Some parts of the train cars and the engines are still junked somewhere on the mine property to this day.

Not much of anything remains of the Elizabeth, apart from a uniform green state historic marker on aptly named mine road in tiny South Strafford and a few uninteresting but politely demolished foundations.

But it’s the colossal open cut mines, dubbed to the point as the north and south cuts, that still remain on the property that are worth the surprisingly steep and deceptive hike up scrapped rock faces where former tailings piles were left, to the edge to gaze down at these huge and dangerous big digs of showmanship. Before the ruins were essentially dismantled, some lucky folks admitted to finding good-sized chunks of pure copper ore there were still there.

The south cut is known by cavers as quite the challenging adrenaline rush, and the north cut which is a more eroded copy of the south cut, is flooded and draws cliff jumpers and people looking for a place to cool off during the summer.

To get an astonishing idea of just how much waste this mine generated, subsequently left behind and then was cleaned up – check out this photo of these mine tailing waste dunes left on the nearby hillsides that come in a crayon box of colors.

linked from Panoramio – taken by photographer Dave Gilles from Laval, Quebec. Click on the photo to be taken into his account.

On the backroads that serpentine the hills and hollows around Vermont’s first big dig are the remnants of ramshackle old row houses for employee lodging and assembled tar paper shacks where former miners and present old-timers refused to up and leave after the mines closed in the 50s – vowing a cryptic Yankee stoicism about exactly what kind of things went on up there…

My ending spiel on all this is, well, I just thought the place was fascinating. 1000 feet deep and 6 miles of tunnel workings. That’s some shit. Right under my boots.

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The south cut and it’s adits in the winter of 2016, covered with layers of dangerous ice.

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Sources/For More Information

Lots of research materials went into writing this piece, including:

EPA Superfund Ely Mine Site | EPA PDF booklet on the Ely Mine, which features both a handy map of the site as well as a map that illustrates how the acid drainage runoff effects the area watersheds.

http://www.usgennet.org/usa/vt/county/orange/vershire/

A short history of the Ely Mine by Paul Donavan

The Ely War, VPR | The Ely War, Virtual Vermont Internet Magazine

The blog, Vermont Deadline, which I just pleasantly discovered.

Paul Donavan, a Vermont mine enthusiast,  has a very cool website that includes his photographs of his ventures into the mines, as well as a great drawn map of Ely mine’s subterranean passageways. This gave me a good idea of the lay of the land. **I’d especially recommend my favorite of his photos, a set of slimy and disused rails still can be found underground in the Ely mines.

UVM Landscape Change Program, which is becoming one of my go-to sites for historical photographs and Vermont history.

I was very interested in exactly how copper was made, and got a good amount of information from this site

For other copper or Vermont enthusiasts like myself, you might enjoy this good documentary on copper mining in Vermont:

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