Abandoned Dairy Farms

For a blog about obscure Vermont, I’m a little surprised that an abandoned farm hasn’t made the rounds in my posts yet.

Every state has stereotypes that give an oversimplified image of what it’s supposedly all about. Massachusetts is all paved suburbia and Dunkin Donuts, Maine has the ocean and fanfare for an acquired taste called Moxie, and Vermont is a bunch of farms and home to Ben and Jerry’s.

Well, in Vermont’s case, that’s not that far from the truth. Vermont is the most rural state in the nation and to prove it, we have a bunch of statistics with the word “small” in them. We have the second smallest population, the smallest largest city, the smallest tallest building, the smallest state capital, and are the 45th smallest of the states.

Growing up in Vermont, your friends most likely fall into two categories. You love it here, or you think it’s wicked boring. Personally, it’s what we don’t have that I think makes Vermont so great. There are no casinos here, no billboards, few malls and chain stores, and no amusement parks (unless you count the Pump House at Jay Peak?). And in all that space in-between our 9 cities are a lot of farms and their variations.

Agriculture has strong roots up here. Generations of Vermonters have been farmers because you did what you had to do to get by. In such a detached state, other jobs often weren’t here so you had to be self-reliant, until very recently with the emergence of the internet and a growing commuter culture. This hardscrabble lifestyle may be why Vermonters have that reputation for being notoriously stubborn and stoic.

Many surmise that this was the reasoning behind all the Poor Farm Roads that can be found across the state, because so many Vermonters were farmers who lived around the poverty line, but the actuality is more depressing. Poor Farms were institutional farm complexes that were sort of an early form of welfare, created and supported by public taxes, where anyone who couldn’t support themselves would wind up and were made to labor their days away on by doing farm work. In return, they had food, a bed, and clothes. But from what I heard about them – they were often gloomy places, and many unfortunates spent their lives there and went to the grave there. There’s a Poor Farm Road in the town I grew up in, but by the time I was aware of its namesake, most of the place had long been developed by cookie cutter rural suburbia and erased, minus one old barn which the local kids would tell me used to be part of it, and according to them, had bars on the windows and shackles still on the wall. But a trip down to the end of the road as a late teenager revealed it was just a dilapidated barn without the lingering despair.

A thematic name that I found interesting can be found in Jericho called “Raceway”, (today, replacement signs have added the “rd” suffix on the end) and despite both the road’s encouraging name and being pretty linear, the other definition of a “raceway” is a wooden ramp, sometimes with slats for traction, that would allow stuff like horses and tractors to get into the upper levels of a barn. I’m pretty sure that the dirt, lightly suburbanized road was named after the latter of the two definitions, but I could be wrong.

In the 1800s, historical records say that the state was 3/4 deforested with most of the land used for sheep grazing, and later, dairy – which gave us a more cows than people ratio. Over the last century, that proportion has directly reversed, and now 3/4 of the state is back to being forested, and we now have more humans than cows – though I’m still heckled about that by flatlanders. The trend reversal started to develop during the last century when aggravated Vermonters moved westward for literal greener pastures with less rocks. We lost about half our population then, and a sizable number of towns around the state still haven’t recovered the lost numbers of their 1800 population peaks. A good example would be the out of the way southern Vermont town of Windham, which has sort of an infrastructural oddity – where state route 121 is also a dirt road, and is one of the few graveled state routes in Vermont that I’ve traveled on (the other being route 58 west of Lowel and through Hazen’s Notch). The town sharing a name with its positional county had over 1,000 bodies, a half dozen villages and 2 post offices in 1820, but by 1970, had a headcount of just 150.

There is a place name on state maps in the town of Sunderland curiously labeled”Kansas” (there’s also a tinier “East Kansas” a mile or so east), and the odd name is said to have came from a curmudgeonly old farmer who in the 1800s, kept making empty threats to his family, other Sunderlandians, and anyone else who’d listen, that he was so fed up with his rocky fields that he was going to sell his farm and move to Kansas. Only, he never did, and died right there in Bennington County. That part of town became known as Kansas by the locals and soon became a wayfinding moniker.

Today’s Vermont still has plenty of agricultural affairs left though, and unlike many other states with yearly dwindles in numbers, more seem to be popping up here in modern day horticulture fads, which also partner with tons of local restaurants and craft breweries, which means we have an awesomely creative culinary scene up here blazing through wearing the future on its sleeve.

As a kid, I grew up playing in the woods of an old farm behind my house. Most of the land wasn’t tended and had grown up into a mature forest by then. We used to cut 4 wheeler trails through the growth and explore the old farm roads and examine artifacts from yesteryear we’d come across, like old barbed wire fences, a neon green AMC Hornet pushed into a ravine, and the prime find – the grimy miscellany of the old farmers’ junkyard. We used to salvage stuff from the heaps of junked appliances, tires, and barn mementos and use it to build forts with. Old tin, a couch, the front seats from an old Ford Mustang, even an old woodstove. We made some cool hangouts from the refuse we excitedly recycled.

Milton – this fading green AMC Hornet lies on a steep bank behind a rural stretch of railroad tracks, on the edge of a patch of thick swampland. it looks as if someone pushed (or quite possibly drove) the car down the hill, where it lays to rest.
Milton – this fading green AMC Hornet lies on a steep bank behind a rural stretch of railroad tracks, on the edge of a patch of thick swampland. it looks as if someone pushed (or quite possibly drove) the car down the hill, where it lays to rest.

A friend of mine got in touch with me and said she had a new location up her sleeves, an abandoned farm up in the north part of the state, the dumping ground part of it was on her property and she hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it yet. I thought it was weird that I live in Vermont and haven’t explored a farm yet. So on a beautiful autumn day, I met up with her and she led me through some overgrown tangle woods of nettles, dead apple trees and mangey looking cedar trees that turned the area into a dark entry. A few minutes into our walk and the already fallow landscape began to change, and I began to notice mounds of discarded anything covered in moss and fallen leaves that had been dumped underneath the dead canopy.

A walk through the Vermont woods can often be revealing. It’s not uncommon to find relics from a different Vermont left to disintegrate below the trees. And in my opinion – our ruins are often one of the coolest things about the human race. We create amazing structures and accomplishments or inhabit these laborious lifestyles and let the aftereffects rot without much of a thought, leaving people like me to eagerly trace their occurrences that blur the line between litter and urban archeology. And out of any time of the year, you can be most appreciative of our habit to ruin than the fall, when visibility is best.

There was a time not that long ago, when Vermonters didn’t dig today’s Green culture. Back then, the most efficient and convenient way to get rid of anything you deemed as garbage, was to make the disposal quick and uncomplicated. This was often accomplished by dumping those items on a far corner of the farm, or let gravity take it down a river bank. Over time, these items accumulated, festering in the woods long after the farm went defunct, or their traces bleeding into our waterways or soil.

How times have changed. Today, a growing chunk of Vermonters are building a culture that feels how we coexist with our environment is a virtue, and villainize those things that don’t fall into place. And if you’re not one of those people, well, it’s also the law. But as is the trend, the movement also shakes things up, especially farmers who find it expensive and laborious to abide by new regulations, or the costs of implementing new laws or infrastructure by a government that many are losing faith in.

A lot less of Vermont is farmed now days, and much of the land has returned to forest, but these rusted and forgotten vestiges of the past still remain, now moldering in the silence of the wilderness. This particular junkyard had an eyebrow-raising amount of stuff brought there. Old tractors, snowmobiles, knob televisions, a Ford truck, religious paraphernalia, antique glass bottles, creepy childrens toys decaying in the weather, a small mound of old appliances, and so much more in depths farther down than I felt good about digging to reach. There is even rumored to be some traces of an old prohibition era still coffined back here, but there was so much to sift through, I probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize it if I was standing on it.

“I thought you’d like this, seeing how you’re into old stuff” said my friend as she went to unscrew the top from her iced tea, humorously not following me further into the collection of trash. “I figured I’d show you before I clean this all up”

“Oh, when is that happening?” I called out as I wobbled and stumbled my way over a mound of shifting garbage that squeaked and rustled underneath my crooked feet.

“Welllll…….one day.” she assured me, a tone of defeat in her voice.
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Further down the road, there was the most important cog in the farm machine, the dairy barn, which excited me lots because you never know what you’ll come across in an old Vermonter’s barn. Barns are vital storage spaces, workshops and in some cases, awesomely bizarre museums.

Traditionally, a Vermont farmer would put more money and effort into keeping up the barn than anything else they owned. So much, that many of them would let their houses fall into ruin if they had to make that hard choice of where to divvy up their cash. That even goes as far as the demolition process if the construction gets too far gone. As an old timer up in the Northeast Kingdom once explained to me; “Why tear down a perfectly good barn when it’ll just fall down when it’s ready?”

According to my friend and tour guide, the old barn was close to 100 years old, filled with accumulations of its years. As a side hobby, I’m a picker when my finances allow it, and I used to love shunpiking around rural Vermont and checking out barn finds, yard sales or whatever treasures or weirdness I could spot on our backroads, so I was already wondering what I’d find inside this old barn.

The fading red structure didn’t appear to be in bad shape, or really even abandoned. If I had just passed by, I’d probably thought it was just another working farm. We pulled over in some tall grass and began to tromp our way through the threshold.

I think barns and farms play some role in lots of Vermonters lives, even if you don’t have one of your own, chances are, you know someone who does. I remember my childhood of playing in my paternal grandparents’ dusty old barns on their farm up near East Montpelier, finding ones near Chittenden County to store our 78 Toyota Landcruiser in for the winter, and spending some of the best days of my youth riding my 4 wheeler through sugarbushes and meadows on a 250 acre farm and some of the most beautiful land I’ve had the privilege of having access to in East Wallingford. Now days, I’ve been apartment jumping around the Burlington area, but man, I wish I had a barn of my own where I could set up a workshop and have a place to do projects and space to store the 4 wheeler I would most definitely buy.

While I’m on the subject – do you folks know why red happens to be the ubiquitous choice of barn attire? Simply put – red paint is cheap. But the why behind that answer actually has to do with dying stars. Pretty much; red paint is made from Iron. Iron is created when a star eventually collapses. The ground is loaded with iron, or, an iron-oxide compound called red ochre that makes a good pigment. The ground is loaded with red ochre because when stars die, they explode, and physics decrees they generate a bunch of iron as the result, which is pretty cool.

The dusty whitewashed interior of the barn was pretty cool as well. In typical Vermont tradition, the old farmhands never threw anything away, so the spaces were stuffed with antique furniture, busted farm equipment, and some unexpecteds like a collection of bowling pins. I know barns usually lived double lives thanks to Yankee ingenuity, like this great story on State 14, of an old one in tiny East Granville that formerly was the town’s dance hall that the current owners wish to restore. Maybe these guys used their barn as a makeshift bowling alley to pass the doldrums?

Walking around through hay that stuck to my boots, I realized the barn was a little worse for wear than I had thought. Structurally, it’s wooden floors and walls were beginning their slow descent into wasting away, and some of the older items stored inside were rotting to a point beyond saving.

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While I was writing up this post, I remembered another old barn I had checked out many years ago, and decided to dig up the old photos. I want to say these were taken by an insecure me with my Nikon point and shoot, around the spring of 2010. I figured I’d include them in this post as well. It’s sort of funny how years ago, I thought the only way I would be any good at photography was to get myself a top-grade camera, but looking back, I think that heading out with my old point and shoot actually forced me to become more creative and observant with a limited focal distance and zoom range. Man, young Chad had so much to learn. The equipment sure helps, but it’s really the photographer behind the gadgets that makes the difference.

During that spring, I needed to get out of the house to clear my head, and one of the best ways for me to do that was to go shunpiking – one of my favorite activities still.

I found myself on some swampy backroads up in Franklin County. With the windows down and the wet Spring perfume coming through, I found myself passing by an abandoned farm, and next door, a rundown ranch house where the owning family still dwelled.

They agreed to let me skulk around their abandoned farm, but their elderly teenage son thought I was a weirdo for being interested in their place. Well, I am a weirdo, but I’ll never forget his furrowed eyebrow look and accompanying chuckle. According to him, the town actually condemned their old farmhouse when it began to violate building codes as it aged. So they moved into the ranch next door, which honestly didn’t look much better.

The best feature of the property was a tumbledown dairy barn covered in gray decay. The ramshackle structure was worth the potential threat of tetanus. The interior was filled with the debris of century old farm equipment, hidden doors and other relics. Like a beautiful antique sleigh.

I even found a century plus old book underneath some floorboards in an abandoned barn, which raised a few questions. Why was this book concealed under the floor? What else was below my boots?

I’m not into theology, but it was pretty cool. As a graphic design major, I really appreciated the headlining typography. Finding old religious paraphernalia hidden in Vermont buildings isn’t rare it seems. Around the same time, an acquaintance I knew found someone’s leather bound, ornate family bible from 1848 under his floorboards, along with a handgun and the skeleton key to his basement door, which they had never been able to access until then. The decaying book was scrawled with various notes and births/deaths of a family who used to live in his old house in Milton. The place was built in the 1840s as a hotel, and also functioned as a bar, vaudeville theater and silent movie house and an odd fellows hall, before being converted into shoddy apartments.

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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!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

 

Time Will Tell

Everything changes, a truth that I’ve always fought a stubborn battle with. This town, once rolled over and turned into a sought after destination built around its exploitable mineral springs, has since witnessed its appeal, it’s many hotels, and it’s identity all become ghosts.

In the 19th century, natural springs were discovered in a hollow near town that had high levels of sulfur, magnesium, and iron in them – which were thought to have medicinal properties if mixed just right – that exact recipe changing quite a bit over the intervening mineral springs craze period, depending on what serial publication you subscribed to. Some even professed that these waters were the equivalent to the fountain of youth. The village capitalized on that, and its efforts were successfully rifled.

In a time period in America where a sizable roster of traditions and foundational history were sparked and now only largely recalled – it’s main drag eventually became dressed up with handsome grand hotels that you’d expect to see from that era, many rising above 4 stories and wearing broad porches and clapboard facades as its reputation swelled to an estimated 10,000 visitors coming in every summer, including the likes of the Vanderbilt’s, which is a name everyone loves to tote about if they had any relation to their area.

Business and tourism stopped coming around during the roaring 20s and the depressed 30s, but after World War 2, the diminutive village was rolled over again by the Jewish community of New York City, who brazenly decided that if they were going to face discrimination in the area’s existing vacation towns, than they’d make a place of their own – and with the natural springs and a bunch of existing hotels and infrastructure, the village was opportune for investment.

But the area and its springs were recanted by the 1980s, and it’s increasingly run down appearance as well as the construction of an interstate highway miles north that moved traffic away from the village, only helped to make it forsaken. What hasn’t been torn down today of those aforementioned hotels were left to transition into decrepitude, and strangely memorialize a haunting tradition of wreck that has plagued more than this town. The village today is pretty archetypal small-town America, it’s just littered with a surprising number of abandoned hotels that mark time and make us pause. Unlike many small towns out east – it was built using the grid system like you’d find a city or planned development to be oriented like. That arrangement accounts for the number of bathhouses and hotels that were once packed in the ravine the community sits in. But today – many of these bygone structures have been torn down because of how dangerous they got, leaving many of the “blocks” as wood lots occasionally interrupted by a stop sign. I liked all the patches of forest in between some pleasantly up-kept old houses, it gave the area lots of character.

I had traveled a few hours out of Vermont to explore one of the remaining ruins, a forsaken property ensnared by sickly looking pines that were once intended to landscape, now left to their own devices and slowly intend on consuming the unattended street the large structure molders on.

From what I was able to dig up, it was built around 1927 as a sister hotel to a much more opulent establishment behind it, now also in ruins. But, this was intended more as a long stay property. Guests here would rent rooms by the week or month. When you checked in, you were given two sets of keys. One for your room, and another to a kitchen unit across the hall. It seems most floors, apart from the fourth floor had them. This may have also been an afterthought – as a desperate attempt at a creative solution when business began its slow descent and they found themselves with a surplus of hotel rooms that weren’t generating profit. It seems that the business kind of limped along towards its later years, in a weird fluctuating state of wondering if it was alive or dead, just barely making it into the 21st century before closing in 2004.

Having a bummer of an experience a few years ago at another abandoned hotel in this town when I was chased away by a very disgruntled woman who power walked out her front door with four dogs on a leash and howled at us a reminder of how we were trespassing, I was really hoping for a good experience this time around.

Meeting up with a good compadre from my college days, whose meetups always seems to happen inside a smelly abandoned building of some sort, we set off for an adventure.

It started off awkward, which turned my nerves up a bit loud. This is the kind of burb that everyone takes the time to look at you suspiciously or slow down their car when you walk by if you’re not a local. But after getting off the main drag, things got pretty quiet, and though it was already a hot and sultry evening, there was a slight breeze that brought the perfume of wildflowers. I read somewhere that the springs still made the town smell like “rotten eggs”, but I didn’t detect that at all. I’m a little sorry I missed the springs themselves because I was later told that there is a dipper handy at the sulfur springs near one of the old bath houses, and you can still sample them today.

Getting in proved to be a bit more challenging than anticipated. But then again, I did say I wanted an adventure. After climbing up a wobbly and very evidently out of code fire escape while doing some acrobatic maneuvers that might have vaguely impressed a free climber, we found ourselves stepping carefully over the threshold into a completely different atmosphere.

The silent interior immediately began to smother us with its festering rot, exhaust from its past and advancing water damage. The floors ebbed and groaned beneath our feet as our boots sank into the stretched, threadbare carpets. We actually spent a good 5 minutes or so debating whether we actually wanted to enter or not, because the floors were so deceptively sketchy. This was not the kind of place you wanted to find yourself injured and incapacitated inside of. But, because you’re reading this blog post, that means we decided the reward was greater than the risk.

Once we got away from the northern section of the building, conditions were surprisingly disparate. Rooms were strange time capsules, in decent states of preservation. It was fun scrutinizing over mid-century furniture, beds, rotary phones and even nob television sets that could still be observed, and better yet, mildly free of vandalism. Clothes, blankets, bars of soap, and other miscellany had been left behind. Most of the doorways had transoms, another feature which you don’t see in modern construction. Many of the bathrooms didn’t have bathing facilities though, and the ones that did were only stand up showers. I read that patrons would do that at the springs, I guess.

There was a heaviness to the place that I just couldn’t describe. Me and my friend both exclaimed that our good moods grew cold and were replaced by a feeling of depression. The narrow hallways, cramped rooms and perpetual shadow that fell on the building built a rather grim atmosphere that looked so gone and hollow, only reinforced by its ugly outdated decor that seemed to bring a big broken heart of an existence.

I had heard from a few other friends and explorers that his hotel was shockingly preserved, thanks to it being very unknown in the emergent “urbex” frenzy of the internet. I even saw striking pictures online of a clean front desk with house plants still sitting on its countertop – it made the hotel look like it was simply closed for the weekend as opposed to years. But when I tromped around, it seems that this place too eventually fell victim to the less respectable aspects of human nature. Entire stretches of authentic tin ceiling, a feature of old buildings which I really love, had been pulled down. We didn’t see it on the floors, so I assume it was scrapped and sold for cash. Decor like light fixtures, an ugly yet obligatorily photographable landmark piano and the front desk had been clobbered. Some features, like an original old fashioned elevator with grate doors and a brawny yet ornate safe was still more or less in great condition and tucked away in the dark innards of the hotel.

But it was the relics from the place’s operational days that gave us a weird impression. Though we were only amateur archaeologists, we had noticed there were several signs that had been taped to walls around the hotel, all handwritten by the same person. The signs, now water stained and curling at their corners, were either yelling at guests or yelling at employees, with words like “no” capitalized and triple underlined, which added a bit of discomfort to the place. I have no idea what sort of place this was in its heyday, but finding all these signs made me assume that in its last days, it seemed like a drab, down on your luck sort of experience. I bet Anthony Melchiorri would have made a disapproving beeline towards the general manager’s office if he read one of those signs.

Every level up the grand staircase was a bit more to bear. The fourth floor was nauseating. It was 92 degrees outside, but upstairs the mercury was boiling towards 100, and the air was stale and fetid, making our breaths labored and my eyes water. Hornets seemed to have colonized the upper levels, coming through structural instability and it’s broken wooden windows. Plenty of them were swarming around us as we attempted to explore the upper corridors.

We wound up putting some arm muscle into opening one of the old wooden windows, which hideously groaned in their frames and sent a dusting of grit and lead paint down on our shoulders, but the fresh air coming in from outside was wonderfully refreshing. Far more than it’s view. We appeared to be looking at the inside of the “U” shape of the building, and from that perspective, we could see just how bad the exterior damage was. To my disorientation, it was still pretty bright outside. The inside gave no impression of that due to just how dark it was already getting. As we descended back down the stairwell, I could see the crumbling form of another abandoned hotel from the dirty windowpanes, just over the treeline. This may be one of the only places I’ve visited where you can see more than one abandoned property from another abandoned property.

We left when the shine of the sun wasn’t reaching its way in anymore, and the black vibes came. The talked about restoration of a grander hotel just north of it suggested completely razing this property in its new set of plans, for a parking lot. Structurally, I think the only sensible move would be to demolish it. Though I’m all for preservation, this building is now far too gone. But these rumors have been circulating for years, and the hotel still stands.

I really needed this explore. I needed to get revved up about something and be underneath a spell that only the intoxication of an adventure can bring my way. If you’ve seen my Stuck in Vermont video interview, I talked about how and why this activity, this hobby, is meaningful to me. And this road trip really served as a valuable reminder. I had been losing my wits underneath suffering some terrible anxiety the past weeks, and this was such a relief.

Exploring educates me about several things, and often the stories and nuances of the places featured in my blog parallel the human experience. At least I find. Like the atmosphere of a place you explore affecting you, we are imbibed by our weather, as are the people around us. I flourish in the presence of passion and love, and when I’m doing my thing, I wear that grin and those cherry bombs on my sleeve for all to see. I’ve learned that anxiety doesn’t get me anywhere, but I feel it anyway. Sometimes, like this hotel or other places finding themselves inducted into the fables of the fallen, you can’t be entirely responsible for your own fate. And maybe most prevalent, life always moves on and our stories are always more connected than distance implies. There’s a story to every corner of these places.

Post card prime, date unknown. via cardcow.com

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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!

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!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

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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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!

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!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

Ephemera

“Wow, how does a place like this even exist?” mulled my friend aloud, lost in her own luminous reverie. I had seen photos of this beautiful dereliction online, but I was just as awed, as the stagnant cold inside stung my hands.

The early morning wintry cold was still hanging over the misty hills of Bolton flats in a hundred shades of blue as we departed for southern New England. While we drove we sat in silence, with heated seats, coffee and the wonderful sounds of Caspian coming through my iPod. After a few hours, Vermont’s brown frozen hills gave way to eight lanes of interstate traffic and lots of Dunkin Donuts signs.

Thirty-two years of fluctuating New England weather and zero upkeep had rotted out the drafty interior. The metal stairwells became stretches of rusty spiderwebs, some were completely untrustworthy. The snow that fell through between broken roof was so loud that you would have thought it was thundering outside. The thick brick walls oozing with slime and glazed by ice blocked cell phone reception pretty well. I received a few texts sent by my friend asking me where I was, hours after she had sent them and on the road back to Vermont, which I guess meant that contact in case of emergencies would have been pretty unaccommodating.

The complex appeared to be a utilitarian and symmetrical layout of two large spaces adjoined by a central row of offices, bathrooms, and mechanical areas. But upon closer and intimate inspection, I was actually more and more surprised at just how many rooms and levels there were, packed in by a labyrinth of confusing staircases and elevated runways. Some spaces were more or less original to their inaugural construction at the turn of the last century, and in the throes of the shifty ways of time, more were accommodated. There were quite a few dank 1970s office spaces put up hastily in areas that contained the infamous giveaway vinyl wall paneling and drop down ceilings, all which were accordion-ing now thanks to precipitous moisture. Some spaces were utterly unidentifiable under the entropy, with collapsing floors and sketchy staircases that lead into ambiguous soggy blackness above. But it was the two main rectangular chambers and their brawniness of broken glass and steel that I was interested in. These cavernous spaces had quite the compendium of artifacts left behind; from magnificent and remarkably intact machinery, actual steel rails still embedded in the floors, to just about anything you can fathom that had somehow found it’s way inside and subsequently left there to waste away. There’s a lot for a person to think about as they walk along the crumbling floors inside this illusion of another world. Just watch out for nails. There are plenty to step on.

The most interesting of things left to rediscover was the extraordinary amounts of sordid books, paperwork and filing cabinet miscellany (and their accompanying filing cabinets) that had been left behind. I’m talking entire floors filled with wall to collapsing wall of old records mummified in decay. Most of the paperwork was illegible, but the oldest date I was able to find was 1931. Another friend and explorer had joked that a photo of mine was the literal embodiment of “squishy”, but as of now, no destination has been able to surpass The Pines Hotel as my “squishy-est” explore, though this place is definitely a contender.

Though we live in a world that has largely been explored, mapped and reclaimed, these human-made spaces become utterly fascinating after their functionality ceases to exist. The mystery continuum of their inner spaces become sort of last frontiers, as nature begins to reclaim everything that has been forsaken by us, transforming these spaces into something incredible. It’s on these explores that I like to attempt a little amateur forensic archaeology, and try to pick at the bones.

The suburban New England town I traveled too became the chosen plot of land for the formerly prestigious Boston & Maine Railroad to build their rail yards and repair/manufacture shops in 1913. What is considered to be one of American’s oldest suburbs was built up in the adjacent area to accommodate the growing need for laborers, many of the garden enhanced neighborhoods eventually were built up over old track beds that were once spur lines leading back towards the roundhouse, depot and loading docks. The continuously shape-shifting property grew to massive scales as the railroad industry became a future facing wonder, as growing mill towns and their populations created a ravenous market. That is, until the automobile became de rigueur.

The popularization of the automobile and the trucking industry seems to be the harbinger of death for a good amount of the ruins I visit, and this seemed to follow the same storyline, as both the automobile and leveling of the same manufacturing that created the demands for the railroad, murdered it. The railroad had grown so much during its boom years, that it went into unpayable debt for the miles of tracks they laid and smaller companies they acquired in the throes of good-natured greedy competition. Towards the latter half of the 20th century, the railroad industry indignantly stepped back into a darker corner of civic and popular culture, and the massive campus was now useless.

The B&M went bankrupt in 1970 and despite efforts to reorganize and restrategize, became a ghost by 1983, when it was bought by another regional rail company. By 1984, the complex was abandoned altogether because all that space simply wasn’t needed by the diminishing industry. But, not before they left a naively irresponsible legacy of destruction and negligence behind them, as the massive yards were also used for toxic waste dumps and a place to haul train wreck shrapnel over the years, which earned the place an official designation on the Superfund site list, a bone of contention that isn’t even expected to be taken seriously until 2031-ish because like everything else, the EPA doesn’t have the money. To the locals understandable displeasure, there was quite a bit of opacity about their houses abutting a literal toxic waste dump – information which wasn’t even made widely public until some neighbors did a little digging in the late 80s when a pervasive chemically smell began to waft through side streets near the industrial park, and became an uncelebrated normal.

I was able to find a few articles on the local public radio website that explained that the entire 553 acres are so swamped with pollution – ranging from asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, petrochemicals and wastewater lagoons that it not only earned a spot on the national Superfund database list, but it’s one of the worst in America. “You couldn’t leave your house to go out and even have a nice barbecue because the odor was so bad”, said an interviewed resident recalling how bad it was a few decades ago. To makes things more apprehensive, The EPA says human exposure risk is still “not under control”, though it seems far more controlled today than when the report was written. I guess I can cross off walking around a toxic waste site off my bucket list, regardless of the fact it wasn’t on my list.

Today, most of the former property has been reincarnated as a shabby looking industrial park. The largest railway in New England has it’s main headquarters here still, that sits directly in the decrepit shadow of the abandoned shop buildings I was walking around, among a few other places with no-frills signage and creepy vacant looking front entrances. That being said, this is still an active industrial park, with employees, cops, and on my visit, guys who operate plows, that are present on a daily basis. Unlike me, who technically has no reason to be here other than curiosity. The rail lines that hem in the property are also still in use, and some of the industrial businesses in the park receive rail traffic.

There is always a certain reward to risk ratio that I use as the dichotomy or gauge of how I treat my explores. On this trip, my friend and I and my friend decided to simply walk towards the buildings with our cameras, as there was no way we could get inside without someone seeing us, and I didn’t drive through three states just to turn around. The man in the plow noticed us as he was relocating a snow drift. We all mutually nodded our heads in affirmation and confidentially walked inside. We were exploring for four hours or so, and the cops never came, which was great, because this fascinating locale has easily turned into one of my fondest explores. This is one of those places I could return to multiple times and have a different experience at.

But I wouldn’t take that one fortunate opportunity for granted. I know a few people who have been dragged out by the powers that be before, which is why brushing up on trespassing laws in other states isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Until some serious clean up and the accompanying scrutiny happens, these hulking and fetid ruins and all their soggy decay are more or less, in limbo.

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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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Milton Mysteries: The Tunnel Underneath Main Street

This old postcard may be one of my favorite finds from the Milton archives. Published by Raymond A. Coburn, who owned the pictured general store in Milton from 1908 until the flood of 1927. This image of “downtown Milton” depicted a cartoonish almost satirical image of what town had the possibility to be like in the future. That vision included blimp taxi service to South Hero, which I still think would be sort of cool. Today’s Milton of the future has a CCTA bus line. | photo: Milton Historical Society.  

My thoughts on Vermont weirdness often drift back to Milton, my former hometown. I suppose this is where I would further enhance that sentence with an explanation, but to be honest, I’m having trouble coming up with an angle on this. It’s where I grew up, and something about spending a third of my life there has just tattooed it into my framework. It’s where my love of the weird and the offbeat began from inside a quiet suburban bedroom, and began to proliferate outwards – which would become one of my most distinguished aspects of my personality, and why this blog now exists.

I often tote the Milton Creamery as the first abandoned building I've ever explored and became fond of, but more accurately, it was this ramshackle barn on the North Road I used to pass when I'd ride the school bus home. As a kid, I awarded it the moniker;
I often tout the Milton Creamery as the first abandoned building I’ve ever explored and became fond of, but more accurately, the first forsaken place I would ever lay eyes on was this ramshackle barn on the North Road I used to pass when I’d ride the school bus home. As a kid, I awarded it the moniker; “the broken barn”, which wasn’t all that creative but oh well, at least it was memorable. My mom was even cool enough to drive a little 6 year old me there a few times so I could explore it. Today, the faded relic is barely recognizable as the forest has almost consumed it. This was taken circa 1994, and is a scanned photograph.

As I grew older, I let my burning curiosity get the best of me, and began writing down all the urban legends and stories from my childhood, and all the accounts told to me over the years. This was a ritual I began to love, because I was quickly finding out that Milton was a fascinatingly storied town!

Its geographical area is unassumingly large, ranking 10th largest in land area and 8th in population (10,352 bodies at the 2010 census). All of that space is a perfect for hemming in obscure things and historical oddities. In the 1920s, aviation enthusiast and innovative inventor Paul Schill built an airport in town, where Sears and Ace Hardware are today (which accounts for the pancake flat plot of land along Route 7). But his goal of putting Milton on the map as an aviation manufacturer hot spot died in the beginnings of the great depression after he declared bankruptcy. In the later half of the 20th century, we were one of the premier racing towns in the northeast, with the Catamount Stadium (something I’d love to write about in great detail) and a drag strip drawing enthusiasts from around the region. These things have also became faded ghosts with the changing of the times.

Over the years, Milton would be a place where I would begin to shake hands with a lot of ghosts. Some were metaphorical; conjured from inflicting wounds laid upon to me. I began learning a lot about my Aspergers diagnosis in this town and still remember my lonesome youth rolling and stumbling, figuring out how I processed information in different ways from the rest, and how I often felt powerless because I didn’t feel like I understood the world around me, learning the rules out with the wolves.

But some of these ghosts were real. A former friend once told me about how their Bert’s Mobile Home trailer was haunted by the ghost of a little girl, who particularly liked a long narrow hallway connecting the bedrooms behind the living room. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time there in my past life, I never had a run in with her. But I do recall the hallway always being dark and creepy, even during the day, which is a good breading ground for spook stories. When I asked the family about the girl, it became more complex and amorphous like these stories always tend to do; there were no records of any young girls growing up or dying there, making this story a weird mystery. But, they somehow knew she was there.

There is said to be a house on Main Street where things literally go bump in the night, perhaps because it used to be a funeral parlor in the last century. Weird lights and objects in the sky have been reported around 900 foot Cobble Hill for a few decades, and local lore tells of a haunted island in man-made Lake Arrowhead where a young woman was murdered by her jealous stricken husband in the late 30s, when he became enraged after the men of town kept admiring her. And, I’ll always remember this arbitrary point of non-trivia about Hobbs Road. Though the paved thoroughfare was named after a farming family, my friend once joked to me as he was reading the directions I wrote down so he could find my house; “I noticed that your neighborhood was off Hobbs Road…did you know that Hobbs is an old name for the devil?”

The more curious I became, the more I began to take comfort in the quiet company of weirdness and lore. Some mysteries I would have the pleasure of investigating, others still remain lost somewhere in the haze. Either way, both sets of ghosts would successfully haunt me for years to come.

Underneath The Ground

One of the most impressionable stories from my childhood told of a clandestine tunnel that started in the basement of the Joseph Clark mansion and ran underneath several old homes on Milton’s Main Street.

The stately Joseph Clark mansion, perched on a slight rise above Route 7, used to be the town offices and library back in the 1990s, which was the time when I picked up on the story. According to some, one of the house’s long dead builders is still there, and may be responsible for the next part of the story.

Kids in the library used to do what kids do best, and venture into places they weren’t supposed to. One of those places was the tunnel. But some would come running back up the stairs, visibly shaken, and tell the librarian that they were chased away by a man in the tunnel they thought was a security guard, whose presence was announced by the sound of heavy footsteps approaching them and then a glimpse of his tall dark form. But, the librarians would be confused and explain that the library had no security guard.

Unfortunately, that was where the story went cold. Was there really a tunnel underneath Main Street, connecting many of the town’s oldest homes together? If so, what was it used for? Popular theories guesstimate that it was constructed for use in the underground railroad.

Lorinda Henry of the Milton Historical Society was kind enough to sit down with me and help me in my search for answers. Meeting in the Milton Museum, which is pretty much the town attic that sits in an old church, we dug through countless unlabeled binders and boxes, but sadly, any information containing the tunnel wasn’t in their archives, or had long been lost. But the builder of the Clark mansion, however, was well documented.

The Joseph Clark Mansion
The Joseph Clark Mansion | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

After Milton’s official chartering in 1763, settlement was lackluster for the next 30 years. West Milton on the lower Lamoille banks, became the first part of town to be developed. A few miles up the river was a part of town that was known as Milton Falls, which would be the area around present day Main Street. In 1789, Elisha Ashley would survey the first east-west road in the Milton Falls section of town, by running a straight line from the Westford/East Road intersection, to a stump on the Lamoille River. Noah Smith, one of Vermont’s first lawyers, owned most of the land around what would become Main Street and Milton Village.

Joseph Clark was one of the earliest settlers in town, and his business endeavors made him both one of the wealthiest and most influential residents in Milton. He came to Milton in 1816, a year known by Vermonters as eighteen hundred and froze to death, because of the unseasonably frequent snow and frosts that caused widespread crop failure across the northeast. It’s no surprise that some superstitious Vermonters saw this as the coming of the end of the world.

But while the crops were failing, Clark and his partner Joseph Boardman saw opportunity in the rich pine forests that covered most of Milton, and hired crews to harvest the fine timber. The logs were floated up Lake Champlain to Montreal, before they were shipped to England, many to become used by the Royal navy. By 1823, he would purchase a sawmill in West Milton to process the raw timber. But by 1830, woodlands were replaced by agricultural land, and Clark decided to invest in other opportunities. He would build a gristmill in Milton Falls, then move into the brick mansion on Main Street that now bears his name. Later, he would build himself a two story brick office building where Main Street meets River Street, today’s Route 7. Clark’s move and investment in Milton Falls would lure more people and business endeavors there, and make that the new hub of town.

Joseph Clark's Gristmill, where present day Ice House Road runs over.
Joseph Clark’s Gristmill, where present day Ice House Road runs over. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Here, the Lamoille River and gravity worked together to form about 5 waterfalls in a few miles of one another constricted in a rocky gorge, before relaxing at West Milton. These falls were ogled and soon sought after for industry. Some however also envisioned bravado and a way to kill boredom. In the 1800s, a growing number of young people in the northeast were jumping in barrels and going over any waterfalls they could find, which would achieve both getting mentioned in the newspaper and sometimes death. I once heard many years ago that around that time, a local boy and self-described dare-devil went over Clark’s Falls in a barrel. But to my huge disappointment, I couldn’t find any verification or information on this man or his leap over the falls. I liked that anecdote enough to include it in this entry though.

Railroads were rapidly spreading their steel arteries across the United States, bringing people, opportunity and growth with them, and because these things were vital for business exploits, this caught Clark’s attention. Partnering with John Smith of the Central Vermont Railroad, they worked to get some tracks built through Milton. In 1845, Milton had a rail line and accompanying train station, and that benefited the town greatly. After the civil war, the railroad brought vitality to the town’s burgeoning summer tourism industry and industrial mainstays like the former Creamery, a building which has shaped my love of exploring and photography.

Clark would continue to remain active in town affairs until his death in 1879. The house was passed down to family members until 1916, when Joseph’s granddaughter, Kate, deeded the house to the town of Milton to use as the town offices, and remained so until 1994 when it was reverted back to a private residence.

Lorinda speculated that the former gristmill behind his mansion could have warranted the construction of a tunnel, which would have sat where present day Ice House Road is. The house was built on a slight ledge, which would have made the tunnel a more convenient way to travel from one place to another, especially in the grueling Vermont winters. But there was no way to know for sure.

The mill and most of the development near the river were washed away during the flood of 1927, making investigations almost impossible.

It was later told to me that someone knew of a “thick iron door” found in the basement of Joseph Clark’s former office building on the corner of Route 7 and Main. This was one of the few buildings on River Street to survive the flood of 1927, so that claim seemed pretty credible to me. (But if it were built at a later date, I would be really curious about that mystery as well)

Joseph Clark's Office Building on the corner of RIver St (Route 7) and Main. Milton denizens today may recall it by it's former reincarnation, as Irish Annie's Pub.
Joseph Clark’s Office Building on the corner of River St (Route 7) and Main. Milton denizens today may recall it by its former reincarnation, as Irish Annie’s Pub, which was sort of a hole in the wall affair where the brick facade almost fell into the road a few years ago. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Geography would aid me here. The building was built into a ledge that forms the beginning of Main Street hill. Right above sits the Clark mansion. This means that a door in the basement wall would have lead to some sort of subterranean chamber, which may have been a tunnel.

The historical society told me of a former resident and her mother who once lived there, and claimed to have seen the iron door themselves. The facts seemed to be finally adding up here, but it seems my request for information was a few years too late. The building has since been sold, and it’s current owner denies the existence of a door firmly and doesn’t want to talk about such things. I attempted to reach out to the previous owners who brought forth the iron door sighting, but they had told the historical society so long ago, that their contact information had since vanished.

The Irish Annie's building (now vacant) - where the supposed iron door is said to be. Main Street is to the right, which runs up the hill. The Clark Mansion sits behind it.
The Irish Annie’s building (now vacant) – where the supposed iron door is said to be. Main Street is to the right, which runs up the hill. The Clark Mansion sits behind it. Photo: Google.

Another suggestion illustrated that the tunnel once ran all the way up the hill to the abandoned creamery on Railroad Street. And sure enough, there is a walled up door in the basement that once did lead to a tunnel. Could this be the proof I was looking for? I did a little digging around (literally), and talked to a former employee. As it turns out, the door did lead to a tunnel, but it wasn’t the tunnel. It ran significantly shorter, just over to the brick building next door which was also owned by the creamery at the time (now converted to a private residence). But that tunnel also had its notoriety. Former creamery employees and older Miltonians wistfully admitted that they used to sneak down and party in that tunnel, those shindigs usually included spirits and cigarettes, while the creamery was in operation and even in the years after it’s closing.

The Creamery Tunnel, sealed off at it's other end.
The creamery tunnel, sealed off at its other end.

The tunnel story seemed to be disappointingly falling apart. Though it was cool to think about – practically, it didn’t make sense. If we stick to the theory of a tunnel running all the way underneath Main Street, why would such a long tunnel need to be constructed? What was it’s purpose? To further deteriorate the story, the stately homes on Main Street were all built around different times, meaning their construction most likely didn’t accommodate the existence of a tunnel. And to prove this, I had spoken with a few Main Street residents who had never even heard the story of the tunnel, but all assured me the only way into their homes were through the front or back doors.

Vicious Waters and Dislocation

It wasn’t until some time later, after this project had been pushed to the back of my to-do list that something came up which immediately pulled it from memory. A Facebook commenter who knew that I was attempting to get to the bottom of this sent me a message and shared a personal account with me. As a kid in 1960s Milton, he used to play with his buddies down near the river, and he recalled seeing a cave like opening set back in the cliffs near the dam. Popular labeling at the time dubbed it as a tunnel. He even remembers his parents admonishing him and telling him not to go near it because it was likely to be dangerous. He never did, but speculated that it may be what I’m looking for. He also said that some of his friends claimed to get inside, but couldn’t recall any more than that. For all we knew, they may have been embellishing the truth.

One gloomy summer afternoon in August, I set out with a few friends to dig around the Lamoille banks, trying to find the telltale opening. That part of town has long been awarded an odd moniker by local youth who call it The Vector, which is a robust sounding name, but I can’t seem to relate it’s actual definition to the rocky gorge spanning from the Route 7 bridge to the bottom of twisting Ritchie Avenue. But the name has proven very successful at sticking into the flypaper of local culture. I grew up knowing that area as The Vector, and still do.

An early stereoscope view of the area known as The Vector, early 1800s, before the dams and industry. The Lamoille River gorge was a wild place. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
An early stereoscope view of the area known as The Vector, early 1800s, before the dams and industry. The Lamoille River gorge was a beautiful wild place. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Early explorers on the Lamoille River near Milton Falls, early 1800s. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Early explorers on the Lamoille River near Milton Falls, date unknown. Explorer Samuel De Champlain called the river la Mouette, from all the gulls he saw when he navigated it, but it’s solidified name came from an error years later when an early map maker forgot to cross his t’s. The waterway is the only Lamoille River in the world. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Ritchie Avenue is one of Milton's more impressive thoroughfares. The quiet road follows the pools of the Lamoille River before dropping down a series of ledges offering great views of the Lamoille and the towns rolling hills that stretch out to Lake Champlain. The distracting road was built to accommodate the construction of a pulp mill down in the vector, which once employed over 100 people. A strike in 1925 closed it, and the flood of 1927 destroyed it.
Ritchie Avenue is one of Milton’s more impressive thoroughfares. The quiet road follows the pools of the Lamoille River before switchbacking down a series of ledges yielding great views of the Lamoille and the low profile hills that undulate to the shores of Lake Champlain. The distracting road was built to accommodate the construction of a pulp mill down in the vector in the early 1900s, which once employed over 100 people who all built homes in town, which accounts for why so many houses on upper Cherry Street look similar. A strike in 1925 closed it, and the flood of 1927 destroyed it. Most of the area has been transformed into a kayak launch area and substation for Green Mountain Power, but some of the twisted remains and chunks of brick walls from the old place can still be seen at the bottom of the hill. I used to hang there as a teenager and explore the river’s islands, caves and rapids. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The incline railroad that carted lumber at the pulp mill, ran up the steep banks and towards where present day Mackey Street is. Years and years ago, someone told me that one of the rods or bolts from the supports could still be seen in those woods today, if you know where to look. But I can't verify this, as I haven't been able to find it.
The incline railroad that carted lumber at the pulp mill, ran up the steep banks and towards where present day Mackey Street is. Years and years ago, someone told me that one of the rods or bolts from the supports could still be seen in those woods today, if you know where to look. But I can’t verify this, as I haven’t been able to find it, which sort of makes this a similar tantalizing mystery like NYC’s Central Park and the famous lost survey bolt from it’s creation. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

While doing our amateur urban archaeology, we found a surprising amount of items along the river banks, in the waters and even stashed in crevices that ran like veins through the crumbling rock ledges. Broken pieces of China plates, old glass bottles, rusted tools and even the remnants of an old truck lay trashed down in the rocky gorge, things that blurred the lines of being considered an artifact or garbage.

I knew this area was hit hard during the flood of 1927 and artifacts, cars and even entire homes were swept up in swollen brown tides down this part of the river, depositing much that still rests below wet rocks and Hemlock trees today. I even was able to dig up old newspaper accounts that were printed when the disaster was happening. One vivid memory was reported by a woman, who watched an entire house be swept down the river, almost entirely intact. She said she was able to look inside a broken window and see someone’s bed that had been turned down, as if the person was just about to turn in for the night.

The flood of 1927 is mentioned frequently in conversation of Vermont history, as the flood completely rearranged Vermont culture and infrastructure, and the after-efforts built much of the state we know today. The UVM Landscape Change Program archives had lots of photos of Milton pre and post flood, which gave me a startling impression of what was lost. This is the former town square, Milton's
The flood of 1927 is mentioned frequently in conversation of Vermont history, as the flood completely rearranged Vermont culture and infrastructure, and the after-efforts built much of the state we know today. The UVM Landscape Change Program archives has lots of photos of Milton pre and post flood, which gave me a startling impression of what was lost. This is the former town square, or “Downtown Milton” (1890). Joseph Clark’s office building can be seen on the immediate right, and was the only building in this photograph to survive the flood and exist into present day Milton. Phelp’s Store, which wasn’t photographed, also still stands underneath modern day red vinyl siding. Today, Route 7 is more or less, built right over this area.
Starting on November 2nd, an estimated four to nine inches of rain drenched Vermont and turned rivers into raging destructive torrents. Because it was late Autumn, the dry ground was unable to absorb the water. Soon, Milton residents watched as the Lamoille River turned River Street into an accurate description of it's name. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Starting on November 2nd, an estimated four to nine inches of rain drenched Vermont and turned rivers into raging destructive torrents. Because it was late Autumn, the dry ground was unable to absorb the water. Soon, Milton residents watched as the Lamoille River turned River Street into an accurate description of it’s name. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Flood waters on River Street in Milton, 1927. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Flood waters on River Street in Milton, 1927. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
This is one of my favorite photos I was able to dig up, because it awesomely depicts the destructive powers of nature. In this blurry shot, it shows the Star Theater sink and wash away before a crowd of onlookers. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
This is one of my favorite photos I was able to dig up, because it awesomely depicts the destructive powers of nature. In this blurry shot, it shows the Star Theater sink and wash away before a crowd of onlookers. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Post flood damage. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
By November 5th, it was over, and the post flood damage was phenomenal. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The remodeled town square after the flood, with Joseph Clark's office building and Phelp's store the only surviving buildings. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The remodeled town square after the flood, with Joseph Clark’s office building and Phelp’s store the only surviving buildings. The Gold Medal Flour advertisement on the back of Phelp’s Store survived until the building was renovated years ago, and sadly sided over. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
One of more popular tales of Milton lore is of the village underneath Lake Arrowhead. Basically, people claimed that downtown Milton was flooded underneath the lake when it was built, meaning there are a collection of soggy farmhouses at the bottom of the lake. As a kid, I even heard stories of scuba divers diving into the lake and setting foot on the roof of a house. After extensive digging, I was able to find this picture. This shows River Street, or Route 7 north of the bridge, which is now the Lake Arrowhead Causeway. These houses all sat where Route 7 is now.
One of the more popular tales of Milton lore is of the village underneath Lake Arrowhead.Basically, part of old Milton still remains below the lake after the area was submerged. As a kid, a friend’s mom told me that she knew someone who scuba dived down to the bottom and set foot on the roof of one of the old houses, which I thought was incredible. Then I would find this picture, which would offer some clarity to my fascination. This shows River Street north of the falls. The buildings pictured would be all underwater today, near where Route 7 runs along the lake. When plans to flood the area were made known, homes and businesses were moved and the new road would be built atop a raised dirt bed 90 feet high, still refered by old timers as “the fill”. But local lore maintains that some properties that were too damaged by the flood, somehow weren’t hauled off, and remain at the dark soggy bottom today. If there is in fact stuff down at the lake bottom today, I’m sure it would be in pretty rough shape, but with other stories around Vermont of sunken villages, would also be believable.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
In 1936, The Public Electric Light Company began constructing a dam above Clark's Falls, which would create the 750 acre Lake Arrowhead and provide a source of hydroelectricity. At the time, the Burlington Free Press lauded it as a technological marvel.
In 1936, The Public Electric Light Company began constructing a dam above Clark’s Falls, which would create the 750 acre Lake Arrowhead and provide a source of hydroelectricity. At the time, the Burlington Free Press lauded it as a technological marvel.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Luman Holcombe, a longtime Milton resident and respected community physician, was the one who suggested the name
Luman Holcombe, a longtime Milton resident and respected community physician, was the one who suggested the name “Arrowhead Mountain Lake” in 1937, because on still days, the reflection of nearby Arrowhead Mountain in the water forms to make an arrowhead. The cluster of trees in the middle of the lake are growing from the allegedly aforementioned haunted island. I also like the boats in the picture. The lake is a relatively dead place now days.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

A better understanding of the flood also gave me a better understanding of the area I was going to explore. Not surprisingly, its popular with people who like to metal detect who are still finding things transplanted from the flood and years onwards, so seeing all of this rubbish down there wasn’t a shocker. But something didn’t quite fit. One odd find was that a certain crevice seemed to be filled with trash – but it was put there by someone. This wasn’t naturally occurring. Someone had been down there at one point, trying to fill it up…

After a while of picking at the pieces and dislocating rocks, we were able to catch a peek deeper into the crevice, which expanded far back into a dark rocky chasm. It was evident that there was, in fact, more to see, and it did extend backwards, but I knew it wasn’t what I was looking for. Granted, the space had long been filled in by dead leaves and garbage, but it seems too narrow for what could be considered a tunnel. No man could seemingly fit back there, without the aid of tools and a great deal of ensuing noise. Either way, I stopped my efforts.

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The collection of items we were able to dig out of the crevice in the cliffs. All of the following photos were taken in the dying days of summer, 2014.

DSC_0874_pe DSC_0884_pe DSC_0886_pe DSC_0887_pe DSC_0891_peDSC_0873I came up empty on August’s exploration, but in October, another lead would unexpectedly manifest itself, and it was promising. Meeting up with childhood friend Zach, I found myself in a location I normally avoid, a hole in the wall bar and pool joint in Essex Junction.

I was there to speak with a friend of Zach’s, someone who grew up in the Clark mansion and knew the building well. The house still belongs to her family today. When Zach had mentioned I was interested in the Clark tunnel, she said she needed to meet me in person.

And, she happened to be the bar tender who served us our drinks. Those who know me well are aware of the great cosmic relief that I often feel far more in my element in a location that is “off limits” to society, as opposed to legally being inside a dimly lit bar  underneath a perfume of cigarettes and sweat. But she was all smiles, and her enthusiasm put me in a good mood. “Oh man, that house is definitely haunted!” she exclaimed. Though that wasn’t exactly my crux, I had to chuckle. “As the story goes, the house might be haunted by Joseph Clark?” I questioned, now amused.

“Nope” she replied. “We actually think it’s a woman”. Old records state that Clark was once married to a Colchester woman; Lois Lyon, which possibly could explain this. Over the years, she and her family have heard the sounds of high heals clacking on hardwood floorboards upstairs, and of course, whenever one would go and investigate, the second floor would be empty. She also recalled the upstairs being creepy as a kid, a place she wasn’t all that fond of hanging around in. Other accounts like phantom cold chills and the unmistakable feeling of being watched upstairs she also said were pretty common. But damn it, was there a tunnel? 

Much to my pleasure, the mystery was finally confirmed. There was a tunnel, and she has seen it! Now to get to the bottom of things.

Opacity 

In the cellar walls of the Clark mansion is the clear outline of a door that sits well below the grassy lawn, now sealed up. But the distinctive outline of a door cleared up all skepticism. Also in the basement was another relic I found to be very cool – a massive cast iron safe that once belonged to Joseph Clark still sat in the wall. Though much of the mansion had been renovated over the centuries due to its many reincarnations, a few authentic pieces of the place still remained. She explained to me that the tunnel had to be sealed up, because local kids kept getting into the tunnel and using that as passage inside the building, where they would steal and break things. This happened even after the building reverted back to a private residence in 1994, so actions finally had to be taken. What a shame. By now, the tunnel is more or less unsafe to enter as well, due to neglect over the years.

However, I don’t want to deceive you folks. This information was directly given to me from the niece of the current building owner, that owner also declined my phone calls to seek a tour of the place, which disappointed me a bit.

So the fabled tunnel is now proven to exist. But where does it go? It runs down to the basement of the defunct Irish Annie’s Pub at the bottom of the hill. Its original purpose was so that Joseph could travel from his office to his house conveniently, but over the years, it’s very nature of being direct and discrete inspired a few other uses. During prohibition, it was reinvented as a smugglers’ tunnel, which allowed rum runners to transport goods into a speak easy that once operated out of the basement of Irish Annie’s. Astonishingly, the remnants of the actual speak easy can still be seen today below the building, which really hasn’t changed all that much. The basement is a traditional old Vermont cellar, low ceilings, stone walls, and filled with things that crawl. The old iron door into the tunnel is still there too, the very door I was told about so long ago.

Were there other tunnels? Maybe. But the affor-mentioned flood of 1927 and post-reconstruction completely wiped any other leads I could possibly have. And as for that tunnel or cave near the Vector, I wasn’t successfully able to find that either. Perhaps something is still there, just filled in with erosion or a rock slide over the years. Though my lead at The Vector was a bit of a disappointment, I soon found out about other caves in the gorge with their own lore. Some rumored to be the hideouts of smugglers in the embargo act days of the 1800s and dry 1920s, and transitioned as hangouts by local youth and now, cavers looking for a thrill. Some are only accessible by kayak, weather permitting, and offer creepy claustrophobic excursions into dark spaces.

This blog entry has been one of my favorite pieces to write so far. By trying to do research on what I assumed would be a straightforward topic, I kept stumbling on more information and stories that continued to morph and blurred whatever side of the line between reality and fantasy you wanted to be on, far too many for your blogger to fit in this already lengthy article.

One night while sitting in the living room of a former friend’s house, his dad told me their old farmhouse was built in the early 1900s, out of an old barn built in the 1800s, and was dragged to Milton by oxen from its former position where the airport in South Burlington is now. I guess the house contained many other cool details, but sadly we’ve since lost touch.

Another favorite find of mine was a few years back, when a WW2 medal belonging to a Nebraska man was found stuffed in a VCR cassette and stashed inside a tree. No one knew exactly how the medals ended up in Vermont, or why.

Milton is a cool town, and the people who live their have their share of extraordinary stories. I have quite a few other Milton points of interest and esoterica that I plan on writing about in the future. Until then, thanks for the inspiration Milton.

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If you missed it, I was recently interviewed by Stuck In Vermont and Seven Days. If you’d like to learn a little bit more about your blogger, feel free to check out my interview.

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To all of my amazing 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.

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!

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

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The Soggy Remains of The Pines

Last weekend, I took a road trip with a friend to The Borscht Belt, a tongue-in-cheek colloquial moniker given to an area of New York’s Catskills Mountains interspersed with decaying hotels from a bygone era.

In the 20th century, the Jewish community from New York City were being battered with a growing antisemitism movement which barred them from many mainstream hotels and vacation destinations. That well-realized awareness encouraged them to build a destination of their own, and the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York City became their prospective topography that would be superimposed with lots and lots of blueprints.

Many establishments started out as simple farmhouses that offered hearty meals and a place to sleep, attracting city dwellers with mountain views instead of glass and steel, scented mountain air instead of smog, and noises other than the sound of a city crawling with bodies. Other early attempts at tourism capitalized on the mineral springs fashion of the Victorian age.  It seemed like these investments were working, because towards the 1930s, the area began to turn celebrity. Smaller establishments expanded as new hotels would be envisioned.

Soon, a rather long and boundary debatable cluster of small hardscrabble towns began to become destination communities as lavish all-inclusive resort hotels began to spread out on former farms or woodlots. As time progressed,  some places began so popular that private air strips were being envisioned so they could accommodate a predicted increase of air travel from the city. The most revered appeal of the Catskills was that many of these resorts offered upper class amenities and made them accessible to folks that normally couldn’t afford those luxuries.

The Pines was one of those hotels, once beloved now moldering in the tiny and depressed little hamlet of South Fallsburg. Existing since 1933, The Pines wasn’t one of the largest Borscht Belt resorts, but it was arguably one of it’s grandest. It grew to offer 400 rooms, a golf course, tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a ski chalet and trails, an indoor skating rink, conference rooms and a night club, and restaurant and bar. It’s once lavish theater hosted the usual ‘Jewish Alps’ (another Catskills epithet) entertainers of the day such as Buddy Hackett and Robert Goulet.

The Catskills popularity found it’s pivot point during the 1970s, when social changes stepped out of the throes of the fight many younger members of the Jewish culture no longer had to face as their parents did.

That, and cheap air travel could take people to other places for around the same price as a trip upstate. Now, people could go to Florida or Europe and didn’t need to settle for the Catskills. Ironically, even the Adirondacks, the loftier and bumpier part of upstate New York, were still increasing in popularity, leaving the Catskills to corrode in rust and sorrow. The Pines’ story seems to end like most of these stories do. The sprawling hotel was sold in 1998 and bought by The Fallsburg Estates LLC, who wished to revitalize the 96-acre property and, in addition to revamping the ski hill and golf course, build shiny new condos over the ramshackle hotel. But by 2002, they filed for bankruptcy, which is consequently why the hotel is in the deplorable and vulnerable state it’s in today.

The remnants of the Catskill craze are still around, even if the craze isn’t. Today, the region is littered with abandoned properties – fantasies of blight whose visages bear slovenly expressions that welcome vandals, explorers, arsonists, scrappers and teenagers who are excited by the prospect of a paintball game or a place to drink cheap beer.

Arriving in South Fallsburg, I felt awkward driving around it’s deserted residential streets. Much of the area looks strangely incongruous, like a mockup community built by the government during the cold war that was awaiting the detonation of a nuclear bomb. The weird inner city like apartment blocks sitting in the woods were oddly desolate and forlorn looking, and the increasing amount of signs in Yiddish further sent me a feeling of dislocation.

Hiking up through the woods on a great 63 degree October afternoon, myself and my friend soon found ourselves staring at the brooding and ugly ruins of what was left of The Pines, and there wasn’t all that much. I had came a bit late, after it’s exploration heyday it seems, leaving me with what remained of it’s rotting bones.

The old hotel was absolutely trashed, being inside was like stepping into a rotting cave. The perpetually soggy carpets and dripping water immediately soaked my boots and the air was absolutely foul without a resporator mask. Some levels had entirely collapsed, while other wings were more hole than floor. Moss, mold and plant life grew wild on the the carpets and walls. Some rooms were completely destroyed, while others were strange enclaves of preservation, the difference at times depended on which side of the hallway you were on. Mimicking the residual motions of the long gone guests, I spent several hours walking around it’s dark passages, feeling disparate nostalgia for a time I never even lived through.

Scrappers had ransacked the surviving sordid buildings for any valuable materials they could rip out of the walls or ceilings. Evidence of squatters camps could be found in a few rooms, which was a real poignant and sobering sentiment that there are some who do spend the night in this grim place, leprous with mold, rot and water damage that was beginning to make entire buildings buckle and bend as sections begin to lose their ability to do what they were designed to do.

A few different arson attempts were successful around 2003 and 2007, and consumed a few smaller outbuildings. Later, the indoor pool, famous theater, and indoor skating rink were razed, with an implied intent that the rest of the property was soon to follow. But demolition was halted, and the property sits in perishing limbo, somewhere between what it once was, and whatever it’s turning into.

Vintage Postcard of The Pines, circa 1960s. via cardcow.com
The Persian Room, the nightclub and theater at The Pines, now demolished. via cardcow.com
The Pines’ kidney shaped outdoor pool with concrete arch bridge. via cardcow.com
Indoor Pool, now demolished. via cardcow.com
Indoor/outdoor skating rink. The Pines was one of the early resorts to use artificial snow making in the area. Now demolished. via cardcow.com
Oof. A Very dated guest room at The Pines, circa 1960. Those sheets look pretty interesting, how they are designed to fold snugly around the shape of the bed and over the pillows, like housekeeping wanted to make sure you had the most sanitized night sleep of any hotel you’ve stayed at. via http://uglymotelrooms.blogspot.com/

Here is a promo made around the 1980s I found on Youtube, to give you an idea of what this place used to be like.

My talented friends at Antiquity Echoes made this great edit of their exploration to The Pines a few years ago, and their thoughtful camerawork shows much of the hotel that has long vanished.

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The first building we came upon was the former clubhouse on the golf course, a cool mid-century building with an angled roof line. The building was two stories, and housed locker rooms and a pro shop. The interior was strewn with soggy insulation and broken glass, skis and ski boots, golf bags and pairs of cleats, and a weird pile of plastic ‘Hawaiin’ leis in the basement.

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First up was the two story Regency wing.
Next up, the two story Regency wing.
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The dark interiors were a ruined and spongy creation of hip 1970s avocado pallets.

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All that remains of the Persian Room is the signature concrete terraced levels.

 

DSC_0347_pe.jpgIn the 1990s, convention centers were becoming Catskills de rigueur, so many hotels, including The Pines, built them up on their properties.

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One of the catwalks that connected the many buildings of the hotel together, so guests could get from place to place in convenient comfort.
One of the catwalks that connected the many buildings of the hotel together, so guests could get from place to place in convenient comfort.

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The soggy remains of the lobby. The entire carpet had grown a lawn of moss and plant life, and the eerie sound of dripping water through rotten ceiling tile was the only sound that could be heard in the otherwise silent building.
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One of the former bars of the spacious two-story lobby. This reminds me of a story I read somewhere on the internet a while back (whose source I’ve forgotten). Years ago, an explorer who was visiting The Pines found some Zima’s in a refrigerator that had clearly not been refrigerated for years. For some reason, they drank all 6 of them. About a year later, they were at a party, and a girl opened a fresh Zima. In horror, they discovered that Zima were supposed to be clear in color. Though not drinking suspicious beverages left at an abandoned location is exploring 101 for me, I strangely know a few people who have done this and were absolutely okay with it. I love adventures, but that’s a bit more adventurous than I want.

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What remained of the restaurant. There was quite a bit of leftover evidence of a paintball game that had happened here. But that got me questioning. The floors here were more hole than not, with us stumbling into several occasions when we discovered that the carpet was the only thing preventing us from falling down into the basement. How the hell did they play paintball here??

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The massive kitchen was lit up generously by lots of skylights.
The massive kitchen was lit up generously by lots of skylights.

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Straight ahead is the Essex building. The dark space underneath is where guests would have driven under upon arrival.
Straight ahead is the Essex building. The dark space underneath is where guests would have driven under upon arrival.

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The Savoy Wing was a funky, kitschy nightmare of shag carpeting, red and pink walls, and guestrooms outfitted with mirrored walls and faux window treatments. Excessive water damage and clogged gutters allowed years of water to pour down through the ceilings and eventually lead to a large collapse in the center of the building.
The Savoy Wing was a kitschy experience of psychedelia, with shag carpeting, red and pink walls, and guestrooms outfitted with mirrored walls and faux window treatments. Excessive water damage and clogged gutters allowed years of water to pour down through the ceilings and eventually lead to a large collapse in the center of the building.

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Autumn just makes road trips better. Driving north towards Middleburgh, we were immersed deep within the surprisingly vast destitution of the Catskill Park Wilderness, which meant driving on curvy paved back roads around beaver meadows and rolling hills all dying in a brilliant uniform yellow for several hours, occasionally passing through a small town that was a collection of unmaintained old houses and maybe a church. There are no gas stations in the Catskills, which always makes my anxiety glance at the gas gauge needle and sucks if you need a bathroom.

Another noticeable difference between the Catskills and Vermont, besides the singular foliage color of yellow, was that while I may encounter 3 deer wandering out into the middle of the road in 3 years in Vermont, in the Catskills, we had to slam on our breaks for 8 deer in a single drive.

Eventually, we happened upon a state park and camped out for the night on the last available night of the state park season. The temperature dropped into the teens and I was kept awake all night by wailing coyotes and things that scampered through the dead leaves around my tent. But with a cozy campfire and some microbrews bought at nearby Middleburgh; a startling and mood improving oasis of blue collar businesses and a Christmas light covered main street, it was a great night. The next morning, I was as rested as sleeping on a tent pitched on a gravel bed in 18 degree weather would get me, and we were off.

Gross at Grossingers

About 20 minutes from The Pines sat another enormous abandonment where I briefly stopped to photograph. This hotel was legendary, and was arguably the hotel that became the representation of the region, growing to a size of 35 buildings on 1,200 acres. In 1952, it would enter its place in worldly accolades as the first place that used artificial snow making on its ski slopes.

So large was this property that a private airstrip was once constructed to handle predicted private aircraft traffic that never came. The hotel’s rise and fall echoes The Pines own tragedy, and became a ghost just as fast as it triumphed. Today, the property is a victim to one of the grimmest truths of reality. It’s so deplorable after two decades of raving and destruction that its disgusting ruins were sadly a disappointment to walk through – a sad fall and postmortem.

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The first thing I saw as I bushwhacked my way onto the property was the area below the former landmark outdoor pool, which is a ruined storage area of poolside lawn chairs and boilers completely ruined by corrosion.

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The Olympic sized outdoor pool. This hotel was famous for it back in the day, and it’s remote positioning at a far flung and overgrown corner of the 1,200 acre grounds make it a mostly missed site for visitors.

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The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling billboards that reckless destruction wrote. All the windows were broken, the doors and walls kicked in. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling totems that reckless destruction wrote. All the windows were broken, the doors and walls kicked in. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling billboards that reckless destruction wrote. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
I actually had reservations going inside, which was a startling sentiment than my eager mood I was conduiting a few minutes ago. It felt like I was being watched the entire time I was there.
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Creeping down the dark hallway with my mag-light in front of my like a weapon, my feet sinking into some unknown mush, my friend suddenly stiffed up, motioned for me to push up against what was left of a hole filled wall, and pointed at this guest room as my hand went for my knife. “See that stuff? I think someone was here, very very recently. He may still be around…” Thankfully, we didn’t run into anyone who left behind a new looking sleeping bag and a pack of cigarettes. But I didn’t stick around.
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Rumor has it that somewhere on the grounds, there is a single, bizarrely intact/preserved hotel room, which is sort of an amusing urban legend of this hotel. I’ve seen a few photos, but many have failed to find it, or at least include it in their blog entries. (This isn’t the room). We had to be back in Vermont by nightfall, so on this trip, I didn’t get to find it.
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What would have been a foyer off the grand ballroom, now a mess of a structure with collapsing floors that fall into the blackness of whatever is below.

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What might just be the most recognized building of the Catskills is an abandoned 1960s wing of the hotel, which also happens to be the tallest on the property.
What might just be the most recognized building of the Catskills is an abandoned 1960s wing of the hotel, which also happens to be the tallest on the property.
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In the 80s, the hotel was loosing money, so the idea was to build a new resort – a bigger, better showpiece! But the gaudy, shopping mall-esque editions that were going up around the more traditional buildings only differentiated from the place. But their ambitious new image wouldn’t save them, and the whole resort closed in 1986 when it, and the Catskills fell out of style. This would have been the new lobby, halted and abandoned in mid construction.

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These 4 rotting bar stools are a photographic icon of this property. At one point, there were more of them, and they were all standing in a row lining the bar that they once accompanied. Today, only these 4 remain, barely.
These 5 rotting bar stools are a photographic icon of this property. At one point, there were more of them, and they were all standing on supporting vertical poles in a row lining the bar that they once accompanied. Today, only these 5 remain, barely.

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An old beauty salon chair, located down in dank and dark levels below, seemed to have been dragged outside and left out near the bar.
An old beauty salon chair, located down in dank and dark levels below, seemed to have been dragged outside and left out near the bar.

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Another wing of the property, which looked almost identical to all the other buildings now in their incarnation of wasteland and mystery.

That is, expect for its extraordinary natatorium.

The mid-century marvel was under the weight of its silence, not even the birds were chirping as I walked around the massive space. Though the electricity was shut off decades ago, the atrium’s great design ensured the place was nicely lit up by plenty of skylights in-between some striking starburst chandelier style light fixtures from the 1950s that were still shockingly preserved . Walking around coats your boots in slick sludge and stubble white mold that has been reclaiming the buckling pool tiles. The pool itself is a chaise lounge graveyard, tossed into some murky filth and curating rot that has collected in the Olympic-sized pool’s deep end.

This place has achieved legendary status for explorers, photographers and curious visitors all around the east coast. A visit here jestingly pushes your explorer legitimacy card. Just before I walked in with my camera, a bunch of teenagers were just finishing shooting a music video here.

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The scariest part of my visit here was actually trying to leave. When we were walking back to the car, my friend and I were inducted into a circumstantial game of face off with a vicious dog, who was creating a raucous of barking and snarling at our presence walking down a quiet back road with our cameras.

After about 20 minutes or so of keeping our tentative distance and wondering if he was going to dash off the front lawn in our direction if we got any closer, it walked around the back of the house and oddly, disappeared. No one came outside, and we heard no doors opening (we were that close). We waited another five minutes or so, and finally decided we were going to chance moving forward. Luckily, we made it safely back to our car with our internal organs in their places.

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To all of my amazing 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.

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!

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

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Face Value: The Bellows Falls Petroglyphs

Bellows Falls is a great village, and has a history that goes back to it’s Abenaki populace who were lured here by the great falls, extends past White settlement who built an industrial canal to bypass the affor-referenced falls and continues today through its distinction as a tourist area and waypoint community for the Connecticut River Byway.

There is a cool yet controversial mid century mural painted on a wall downtown that nostalgically reads Bellows Falls is a good place to hang your hat. It’s also apparently a good place to chisel your petroglyphs.

The Bellows Falls petroglyphs are located on a few large boulders found in the dramatic gorge below the defunct Vilas Bridge that cuts down to the Connecticut River.

Basically, the carvings are an arrangement of rough circles with three dots inside, with some containing pairs of lines that radiate out from the top. It’s surmised that they depict a cluster of 24 odd sized faces, but there is some disagreement on exactly what they are, with arguments for human, animal, extraterrestrial, or other. The lines atop the circles prove to be just as interesting. It’s said that they could be anything from hair of that era, feathers from headdresses, deer antlers, sun rays, or alien antennas. But no one can say for sure.

We don’t even know how old they are, with estimates ranging from 300 to 3,000 years old – some considering them the oldest pieces of art existing in Vermont. What we do know however, is that they were made known in 1789, when visiting reverend David McClure from Dartmouth College wrote about them in his notes, and suggested that they were made by the Abenaki, the native people of the area.

The explanations of these cryptic images are plentiful. McClure speculated that they could be translated as an Abenaki warning that the site marked the location of “evil spirits”, a shamanistic idea that came from associating places like river gorges and waterfalls as a place to communicate with the spirit world. But that was contested by an Englishman named Edward Kendall, who while traveling through Bellows Falls in 1808, believed that they were nothing more than the banal doodles of a bored Abenaki fisherman on a slow day at the river. Plenty of other theories have morphed since then and include everything in between, from grave markers, religious symbols, aliens, memento mori from an important battle, depictions of people who had drowned in the rapids, and the carvings from Abenaki shaman who recorded their visions while hallucinating on the river’s edge.

But it may be the orientation of the petroglyphs which may tell us something of their significance. They face west, towards the village. If this isn’t just a coincidence, Abenaki lore dictates that west is the direction where an Abenaki soul travels after death, meaning that they may be preternatural wayfinding signs for their departed. Interestingly, the artificial industrial island made by the Bellows Falls Canal was at one point an important Abenaki burial ground. For decades afterward, development on the island and local road construction projects would continuously surprise the laborers who unearthed numerous skeletons and artifacts, and became sort of a local spectacle.

Here’s where things get interesting. McClure’s description only mention three faces, which are greatly more detailed than what can be found on the bottom of the gorge today, leaving some to postulate that counterfeit ones have been added over the years.

In the 1930s, some misguided locals got together and had the carvings deepened to preserve them from the constant erosion of the river, damaging their value as historical artifacts and keeping their age and purpose still in the realm of the mysterious.

These were some of the carvings that didn’t make it into the 21st century. Image: History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont including the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Rockingham – Cambridgeport and Bartonsville.

It actually amazes me that these petroglyphs have survived at all. During the nineteenth century, the Bellows Falls river/canal area was a hive of rambunctious industrial activity. Much of the river gorge was permanently reconstructed by dynamite blasts that were used to clear away log jams, which is a real disappointment, because it seems that those cliffs held more than a few curiosities. One sad account comes from sometime in the 1800s. A fascinating curiosity was found embedded in a rock near the Connecticut River; a baffling fossil of a five foot, clearly defined footprint that looked like it came from a bird, but the species was unknown. This caused quite a stir in both the scientific community, and the local one. What could have possibly made a footprint that big? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Word of this important discovery got out and a group of rowdy locals found it first, and dynamited it out of existence. It’s very possible that there may have been more of these petroglyphs as well, that were destroyed to make a few bucks.

The petroglyphs are pretty easy to find. They’re located at the end of Bridge Street near the Vilas Bridge, which is the indefinitely crumbling bridge with grass growing through it’s deteriorating surface, and not the other better-kept bridge that crosses the canal onto the island. Once you get to the “Bridge Closed” sign, they’re down in the gorge to the right of the bridge. The rocks have been marked with strips of yellow paint to guide you to their location, and if you have a camera with a good zoom lens, you should be able to see them. Or, you can do what I did, and take the “trail” to the left of the bridge, which I guess is a very debatable definition, and really was more of a distinguishable area of low brush that meandered between taller thick adjacent brush and trees, which eventually dropped you down a steep rocky embankment and into the gorge. From there, it’s all boulder clamber underneath the Vilas Bridge, but from this approach, you can get right next to them. My scratched and bleeding legs were worth it.

What I loved best about these petroglyphs, besides how they are still a lingering mystery, is the obscurity of them. There are no fences around them with colorful “keep out” signs, and no logos from local universities slapped down anywhere. They simply exist just outside town, quiet and more or less undisturbed.

The Vilas Bridge

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The Bellows Falls Train Graveyard

In the cold days of winter in 2013, I explored and photographed scores of abandoned train cars that lined both sides of the Connecticut River. The yards and the scrapped rail cars are owned by the Green Mountain Railroad, which has a long history of perpetuating industry and travel in the Bellows Falls area, and as rail travel became secondary to the automobile, it left quite a few old passenger cars from the 40s and 50s parked along the river banks, slowly eroding with idle time.

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One of my favorite adventures in Bellows Falls was just driving aimlessly around the narrow streets that climb it’s steep terraced hills above the river, checking out the different neighborhoods, which managed to be so enjoyable that it almost blocked out my friend Daniel blasting dubstep on his car stereo and serially asking me “Chad! Is this your jam man? I bet you know all of these lyrics!”

A Bellows Falls attraction or service?
A Bellows Falls attraction or service?
One of my favorite finds in Bellows Falls – A 275-foot railroad tunnel running underneath a section of the downtown district. Built in 1851, this tunnel is a rather impressive reminder of when three railroad lines were brought through Bellows Falls, helping industrial growth and creating one of the most important railroad junctions in New England. What’s striking about this tunnel is that its partially cut through solid rock and reinforced with massive stone blocks.
One of my favorite finds in Bellows Falls – A 275-foot railroad tunnel running underneath a section of the downtown district. Built in 1851, this tunnel is a rather impressive reminder of when three railroad lines were brought through Bellows Falls, helping industrial growth and creating one of the most important railroad junctions in New England. What’s striking about this tunnel is that its partially cut through solid rock and reinforced with massive stone blocks. Today, these tracks are more or less quiet, a reminder of how the automobile overtook rail travel.

Another Bellows Falls mural.

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Industrial ruins along the riverfront

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looking down where the turbine once was.
looking down where the turbine once was.

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The Robertson Paper Company, another beautiful old building on Factory Island
The Robertson Paper Company, another beautiful old building on Factory Island

 Additional Links:

The Abenaki and the Bellows Falls (VT) Petroglyphs – This great write up was paramount to my research on the petroglyphs.

Mystery is written in rocks of Bellows Falls – The Barre Times Argus, June 21st, 2009

Hayes, Lyman Simpson, 1907   History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont including the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Rockingham – Cambridgeport and Bartonsville. 1753-1907 with family genealogies. There is a digital copy online you can view, if you’re so inclined.

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To all of my amazing 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.

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!

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

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Frontier Town

Most people my age aren’t likely to recall Frontier Town, a once prominent destination turned ghost town in the woods of tiny North Hudson, New York, but there are plenty of people who will tell you that it used to be great,  and integral to the once-thriving Adirondack tourism heyday of the mid 20th century.

The Adirondacks are the rugged mountain range that makes up upstate New York, and most of those mountains are within the 6 million acre Adirondack Park, an area about the size of my home state of Vermont and is the largest park within the lower 48.

I’ve mentioned Frontier Town before in an earlier blog entry, but never truly got around to exploring it until recently.

Frontier Town is a massive place, it’s kitschy-cool ruins stretch unassumingly from the roadsides of Routes 9 and 84, and far back out of sight on the sprawling property at the bottom of shady hollows and a myriad of cold swamps that pulse with mosquitoes in the summers. Because the property is so large, it’s very difficult to get a good idea of just how much there is to see, until you start exploring for yourself. It’s taken me 3 trips to see a good deal of it, and I still feel like I’ve been unprepared with every visit.

My trips started back in 2012, which were focused on the assortment of abandoned motels and cabins lining Route 9 that once served the motel, and slowly, I would explore my way inwards.

The story of these curious ruins are actually pretty extraordinary. It’s one of those anecdotes that awkwardly stumbles its way onto the altar of the American Dream, and can be filed away in the “anything’s possible” camp of things that makes my cynicism do a double take.

In 1951, Arthur Bensen, a Staten Island entrepreneur who installed telephones for a living, toured the northeast with $40,000, to find a location suitable for building his dream project which would be far more ambitious than his current profession; an amusement park.

267 wooded acres in North Hudson would seal the deal, and despite having no construction skills, no idea how to run an amusement park and no real income after purchasing the property, he went to work.

He was known for his amiable personality, someone who was convincing and charismatic, so much so that he got many North Hudson-ites and locals from neighboring Adirondack towns to help him build the park and eventually be employed there, despite some thinking he was out of his mind. But impressively, his tenaciousness and optimism paid off, as his dream began to take shape. Using his 1951 Chevy, he would drag timber behind his car to build many of the log cabins around the site that still stand today.

Bensen was also known to be a quick thinker and good at improvisation – and it was these skills that ultimately would shape the park so many would come to love. Maybe the greatest example of that previous sentence is how Frontier Town became Frontier Town. His original vision was to build a Pioneer Village, but shortly before opening, the appropriate costumes for his employees never arrived. So, Bensen made a trip down to New York City to purchase some, but returned with Cowboy and Indian costumes instead, because apparently, those were the only costumes he could buy in such a short notice. So instead, he made some alterations to his blueprints, and Frontier Town was born, officially opening on July 4, 1952 and would continue to expand in the intervening years.

He soon constructed Prairie Junction to keep with his new theme, which was modeled after your stereotypical Main Street of a dirty wild west town. The low rise wooden buildings were all connected by a broad wooden porch, consisting of a saloon, music hall and a shop selling Western-themed clothing. A rodeo area was built nearby, which held two of them a day would and allowed children to participate. Stagecoaches, replica era steam trains and covered wagons would all transport visitors around the park, and outlaws on horseback would rob the trains and engage in shoot-outs.

Frontier Town wasn’t just loved by the tourists and generations of wide-eyed kids who made memories there, it was also loved by the locals. The park employed many Adirondack area teens, who spent their paychecks on college tuition. Many friendships and romances were also forged here, some which would last lifelong, and would later be recalled wistfully on Frontier Town message boards and fansites that pop up on Google searches about the place.

Employees wore period garb and would teach bemused onlookers how to do thematic daily tasks that our frontier predecessors did back in the day to survive. Stuff like churning butter, demonstrating how yarn was spun, or cook pea soup in an iron kettle over a fireplace, which was said to be a favorite of loggers in the Adirondacks.

The park would come to its peak popularity in the 1960s and 70s and then would enter an inevitable period of decline. The times were changing. The construction of the Adirondack Northway would lure traffic to bypass North Hudson and cut travel time dramatically. Now, travelers no longer needed to depend on Route 9 to get to the Adirondacks from New York City. Some speculate that the park really declined when a new transgressive era ushered in parents becoming uneasy with their kids playing with guns, which was more acceptable when Westerns were all the craze on TV and the silver screen. As one Frontier Town enthusiast wrote on a comment thread; “Cowboys and Indians were big time. Every kid had a gun and a cowboy hat”. Others blame broader travel opportunities that came with the construction of interstate highways and air travel, making places like Frontier Town obsolete.

In 1983, Art Benson sold Frontier Town to another development firm, and would pass away 5 years later. The park was closed until 1989, re-opening with additions, such as a miniature golf course. In 1998, Frontier Town closed for good due to failing finances and weak attendance. The property was seized in August 2004 by the county for past-due property taxes. The stagecoaches, trains, buggies and the tracks were all ripped out and sold, as well as other paraphernalia. Collectors can still find mementos at Gokey’s Trading Post just down the road, which is where a lot of Frontier Town relics ended up during the massive auction after the park’s closing.

Today, awkward and fantastical ruins falling apart in silence underneath the Pines are all that remains of Frontier Town. A walk around the property reveals the tragic process of decay and entropy which is sad and breathtaking to behold, as you reflect on society’s impermanence.

I visited during the dark wintery cold of January, and returned during a far more pleasant 50 degree April Sunday, so my photos are a mixture of winter and early spring shots.

When I took my research to the internet, I found a cool Facebook page, Frontier Town Abandoned Theme Park Now And Then, with tons of great old photos to gaze at. It’s incredible what the transformative power of nature can do to a place in a short time.

Frontier Town in its Postcard Prime

via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com
via cardcow.com

Frontier Town, 2015

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Joining me for my adventure was my friend Bill Alexander, creator of Vermonter.com, who filmed our walk around the grounds. Check out his write up and video below!

Return, Summer 2015

As much as I openly complain about Facebook, and how I find social media more unnourishing and exhausting for me, I have to admit that it’s also been a huge boon in terms of networking and keeping this blog’s momentum in a direction that’s not backwards. Making friends when your an adult is a hard gig. Thankfully, I was able to network with and befriend other explorers over Facebook who dwell all over the east coast. Eventually, we started to organize meet ups with willing participants. In June, 2015, I would meet two cars worth of previously virtual photographer and explorer friends, and Frontier Town was one of our stops on a full day excursion. But, a day of exploring before we arrived in North Hudson had drained my camera batteries, so I only was able to get a few pictures under the coolness of a soft summer evening.

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To all of my amazing 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.

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!

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

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