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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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!

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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!

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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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The Great North Woods

“NEW ENGLANDERS They buried their emotions deep, Long years ago, with care; And if a stranger dares to dig He finds but granite there. — Catherine Cate Coblentz — Driftwind, May 1925”

A few days ago, I was traveling through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a compelling region that I wish I had taken the time to explore more of when I was a college student in the Northeast Kingdom, far before the ugly reality of adulthood trimmed the fat off things. While Vermont tends to have a more gentle feel at times, New Hampshire is crucially different, it’s north country is essentially one giant patch of wilderness, which some say is roughly the size of Wales.

Part of the great Appalachian chain, it’s difficult not to be in awe of the rugged magistery of the White Mountains, whose hulking mountaintops rise out of view above the clouds, or the deep V-shaped natural excavation of Franconia Notch, it’s walls carved from the oldest rocks around.

The small town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, has been around since 1774, and in the last days of 1799, it would adapt it’s current moniker, shared with the city of the same name on the other side of the world, though the origins behind the naming of New Hampshire’s settlement are a bit of a mystery. A drive down Route 302, the main drag in town, reveals one of the most architecturally impressive Main Street’s I’ve visited. A great collection of showy Victorians with some of the most ornate and complex woodwork that I imagine a human mind could ever devise. Busy roof lines punctured by wandering tactile patterns that sat next to humble Bungalows that have been very well preserved. Bethlehem’s exceeding aesthetics can be owed to the town’s heyday as an early tourist destination.

In 1805, the Old Man Of The Mountain was discovered, and by 1819, a path was created that carved its way up to the summit of Mount Washington. The White Mountains, their fresh air, craggy and almost daunting landscape and the mystique of their geographic curiosities were beginning the shift into a tourist area, and Bethlehem found itself conveniently in the middle of it’s many prominent attractions, which proved to be good for business.

In 1867, the railroad came to town, bringing tourists from the urban hubs of Boston and New York City. By 1870, a building boom period began, which would eventually create 30 grand hotels that lined Bethlehem’s streets which were all fiercely competitive against another. Each establishment tried to out-do each other in garish grandness and opulence, and they had to, because with a lodging bubble, standing out from everyone else was paramount.

Seven trains a day roared into the village, dropping of scores of passengers at five depots. Bethlehem must have been doing something right, because eventually, well-heeled east coasters took notice of the mountain town and decided to build their “summer cottages” here, which were blown up to colossal sizes and scaled up the hillsides that rose out of town. This included the likes of the famous Woolworth family and the enterprising swindler P.T. Barnum, the fellow who allegedly popularized the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”.

So many affluents would build here that an event called “the Coaching Parade” was conceived, which was pretty much those aforementioned rich folk flaunting their wealth and by ornamenting their carriages as ostentatiously as possible, and then literally parading them around town, which drew larger spectator crowds by the year, and led Barnum to call “the second greatest show on earth”.

But the decline of the White Mountains would have the same story that parallels other American vacation destinations of the same era and caliber; the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century would be the beginning of the end, as tourists were now no longer limited to only seeing places the railroads could bring you. When the automobile and their infrastructure worked its way up into the formidable highlands, the grand hotels eventually became ghosts, and the tourism culture changed to what pretty much is today.

One of these hotels was The Maplewood.

The Maplewood Hotel, circa 1905. Via Wikipedia.

Opening in 1876, this hotel would soon become a showpiece, your textbook example of an incredibly lavish 19th-century resort which unabashedly marketed itself as “The Social and Scenic Center of The White Mountains”. It would eventually grow to ginormous proportions, encompassing its own 18 hole country club, casino, cottages, and was served by its own train station, Maplewood Depot. I guess I can see how their claim could hold it’s own. As a friendly New Hampshirite pointed out to me; in the glory days of rail travel in the White Mountains, the small Victorian station rivaled the most revered and fabled of north country stations, such as Crawford and Fabyan.

A historical postcard of Maplewood Station for comparison

Maplewood Depot was abandoned in the early 20s in the wake of the automobile, and the hotel it served would function for a few more decades, before burning to the ground in January 1963. Today, the grounds have been revitalized as the Maplewood Country Club, with striking views of the Presidential Range. But sitting in the woods behind the links, the old train station can still be found, now leaning at a dramatic angle in its slow decay, wasting away in silence as the town thrives around it.

Most of the details depicted in the postcard, such as the expansive porches and apex tower have long faded into postcard memory. The former railroad line had it’s tracks pulled shortly after the station went defunct, but the right of way can still be detected, a ruler-straight path that is slightly less overgrown than the woods around it.

The station truly appears ghostly, skulking in the middle of the woods. Minus a few new-ish looking armchairs that have been toppled over, and most likely an addition to the building after it’s abandonment, it’s completely hollowed out, with empty doorways and tall, narrow windows. Inside, time has not been kind to the wooden structure. Much of it had long succumbed to weather damage and vandals, and portions of the original wooden floors had been ripped upwards as the building slowly sagged over the years, forming a jagged rip that ran the partial length of the room. I was a bit surprised at how clean this place was still, completely void of the graffiti and beer can piles which are found in many abandonments. I was still able to climb the narrow wooden stairs that curved around a brick chimney, revealing three rooms that were more or less intact, apart from some holes in the floor.

It’s a spooky place, especially as the winter winds hit the building, creating strange noises. I’m sure it takes on a far different atmosphere once the leaves fill out on the trees, blocking out even more light from reaching it. It’s almost startling to think about the fact that this place used to be a train station, and today it’s nothing but a trembling corpse that gives almost no clues to it’s former life. And at the rate that the place is leaning, I’m rather amazed that it’s still standing.

Maplewood was also apparently featured in the short concept film American Ruinsand after glimpsing the short trailer, it’s completely sold me. The effects and videography are mind blowing, which no doubt took hours and hours and hours of patience, producing and editing. Maybe someday I’ll aspire to creating something great like this.

[vimeo 25832079 w=500 h=281]

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Over The Notch

Route 3 used to be the main route to get from the top to the bottom of New Hampshire, and still pretty much is, though it’s a bit quieter today in light of the construction of Interstate 93 which practically parallels the road. Both routes are pushed together when they run through mountainous Franconia Notch, joining to form the Franconia Notch Parkway, the main access road to all of the scenic points in Franconia Notch State Park, and the tourist attractions and motels farther south in the town of Lincoln.

Passing through the notch, I couldn’t help but gaze at the jagged stump where the Old Man of The Mountain used to be, now being battered by fierce mountain winds and the puffs of snow spray they send. The famous rock profile crumbled in 2004, and after much controversy, the state decided not to synthetically re-create it. Despite the formation’s disappearance, the Old Man is still used as a state marketing icon, and can still be found awkwardly on a variety of things from license plates to state route shields. It will be weird to think about there being a day where no one remembers seeing him in person.

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In Lincoln, I stopped at an Irving Station to get gas and a coffee, and got an unexpected surprise in the form of a rather large mural of what looked like a seemingly friendly alien who was hitchhiking, which took up a rather large chunk of wall near the entrance of the store. Not exactly what I’ve came to expect from a stop at a gas station. On the top of the painting were the words; “First Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Betty and Barney Hill, Sept. 19th, 1961.” I recognized the names. The Barney and Betty Hill abduction case is the most infamous in all of UFOlogy.

My amusement was carried from the wintery cold to inside the store, where I noticed the extraterrestrial theme continued in the form of wall to wall paraphernalia, photocopies of newspaper articles and other copied information related to both the Betty and Barney Hill case, other alleged incidents, and an assortment of fan images from science fiction TV shows and movies.

The shop owner who was behind the cash register at the time, caught me staring, and enthusiastically explained to me that right across the road from that exact store, was the actual site of the abduction. However, a friend of mine, as well as some commenters over Facebook, argued this fact, and said that it actually happened a further down the road, where Millbrook Road meets State Route 175 in Thornton.

Though I can really take or leave UFOlogy (more so on the leave side) I found this offbeat memorial and it’s fanaticism interesting enough to write about.

As the story goes, on the night of September 19, 1961, husband and wife Barney and Betty Hill were traveling South on Route 3 to their home in Portsmouth, NH, when, according to their claim, were followed by a spaceship near the present day Indian Head Resort, and eventually accosted by some sort of extraterrestrial crew, taken aboard their craft, examined, and then released on the side of Route 3 in the early morning hours of September 20 as the sun’s first rays would begin to grey the New Hampshire skies.

The collection I saw above me mounted on black poster board was originally smaller in size, and more of a quirky secret, formerly located on a wall inside their unisex bathroom. The current owner of the gas station has only owned the store for a few years now, and told me how disrespectful visitors kept stealing memorabilia and eventually, he grew sick of it and moved all of it around the store, so everyone could still enjoy it, but couldn’t grab a keepsake. As an extra precaution, they also outfitted the store with lots and lots of security cameras. They apparently get a lot of interested people who stop by, so they also sell alien key chains, bumper stickers, shirts and books about the Hills near the door. I neglected to buy a souvenir, but did get my coffee.

Have a weird encounter of your own? There is also a blackboard outside to the left of the mural, where you can share your own stories. I noticed that stuff had been written there, but nothing UFO related, which I suppose didn’t surprise me.

I didn’t think of this until after I had gotten back home and was writing up this post, but I have sort of a strange tie-in to all this. A location I explored last year reported seeing unidentified flying objects hovering above the skies shortly before Hill incident happened, but as for an actual connection between the two events, that remains subjective.

If you’re interested, just take Route 3 through Lincoln, New Hampshire, and look for the Irving Station near the Indian Head Resort.

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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 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.

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 School Of The Feeble Minded

Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a changing attitude on mental illness, and that created state schools. Though it’s considered a school by name, that’s a misnomer. No forms of education were carried out here, this was a warehousing facility. It was built to house around 700 residents, but shortly after it opened, it far exceeded it’s capacity, topping out at around 1,500 between the ages of 1 and 18, all housed in 13 dorms.

State schools were essentially warehouses for “feeble minded children”, or children who were infirm or autistic that parents just didn’t know how to deal with. So, federal and state governments allocated tons of money for these facilities to be built, in the name of “progress” of how societies invalids were treated and supported.

Though these places were supposed to help these children grow to their potential in a safe and educated environment, the unfortunate charges who were sent to these places were most likely abused by overworked and untrained staff, lived in squalid, over crowded conditions and received no developmental services.

While many of these institutions were brought forward with virtuous intentions, social philosophies would soon change towards World War 2, when the American Eugenics Movement and Darwin’s theory of natural selection would become popularized and propelled by misguided politicians, scientists and physicians. These “schools” became laboratories, and the unfortunate inmates would become test subjects, because once you were locked away in these sort of places, it was easy to carry out these sort of ghastly things that says a lot more about the human race than I’m comfortable with, without the general public getting word of it.

This undisclosed 876 acre state school was constructed in 1922 to serve these troubled youth, and would expand to 50 buildings. While many institutions before this one were centered around magnificent Kirkbrides, times had changed, and this facility was streamlined, focusing more on functionality in the form of duplicate buildings in a colonial brick style with white trim, which were pretty admittedly pretty drab.

The usual suspects – overcrowding and understaffing, lead to the campus to sink into deplorable conditions. Because employee responsibilities were stretched so far, treatment of the those in their care became atrocious. Many of the children were left unattended, and would wonder the halls, moaning, and covered in their own excrement. Others who were physically handicapped would be simply left restrained to their beds and forgotten, often for weeks. Sometimes, if a stubborn inmate was really unlucky, all their teeth would be removed to make feeding them easier, especially force feeding. If they weren’t neglected, many staff members would physically beat them to keep them under control, or worse, because they felt like it. If this wasn’t bad enough, the buildings were deteriorating because of neglect and no funding to maintain them, and eventually, that lead to a vermin infestation.

Though this article wasn’t written about this particular psychiatric facility, it miserably details a personal experience living in one of these state institutions by a former patient.

Conditions and life here were unknown to the outside world, until 1971, when the father of a patient filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were not only the victims of sexual abuse, but were also living in horrific conditions. He wrote of abhorrent things like; “maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds.” Investigations began making their way in, as public outrage exploded.

Rampart lawsuits and scandals in the later half of the 20th century began the slow process of these snake pits shutting down, and becoming abandoned, as people began to get an idea of what life was really like in these campuses. The fate of this hospital sadly followed many in the United States, and the stuff that was brought to the surface is horrible.

But despite these disturbing discoveries, this school awkwardly hobbled along, sinking further into a spiral of decline until all operations officially ceased in 1992 – almost 2 decades later, leaving a maze of rotting wards and tunnels behind.

A Winter Visit

I heard the end was coming. Asbestos abatement had began in a few buildings, and plans had been announced to slowly begin demolition on the school. I didn’t have to sneak around much. Though the entire property was covered in snow drifts that often came up to knee deep levels and filled my boots, the attitude here was relaxed. Other photographers meandered their way around various buildings, and a few people were walking their dogs.

A majority of the buildings were sealed up, but a good amount had their doors torn open, and security was nowhere to be seen. Many of the buildings were boarded up and were pitch black. If it wasn’t for the wintery cold, the mold and asbestos inside would have probably been insufferable. Others had entire sections which had completely collapsed.

Though there was much to see, most of the buildings were void of anything of interest. The auditorium was by far the most splendid place to explore, and also the most dangerous. The overcast and bleak landscape made the cavernous interior more sad and dreary that day. The entire building was coated in a dangerous layer of ice, so moving around the collapsing structure had to be done carefully and methodically. Some of the wooden floors were more soggy than I felt comfortable with trusting, and every staircase was coated so thickly with ice that I had almost debated not taking the risk climbing them. I was already exploring an abandoned hospital, I didn’t need to visit a real one! But I took the risk, and I’m glad I did. The floor plan kept continuing, and became a bit of a maze as more hallways and staircases kept revealing themselves.

Below the rotting auditorium was one of the better finds, the old gymnasium, a spacious area outfitted in grungy yellow hospital tile that was coated with mold and rot. The basement area consisted of two levels, and it was inky black. The lowest level was filled with knee deep water, with a layer of ice underneath, making passage treacherous. With the aid of our maglites, we made it into the gym. All I could hear was a roaring cacophony of dripping water raining down from the decaying abyss above our heads which ran down the back of our necks. It was so cold downstairs that I could see my breath in the beam of my flashlight. A friend of mine later told me that it wasn’t much different during the warmest months of the summer.

Another find worth photographing was the large cafeteria building far back, and the old power plant complete with dysfunctional and rusting machines sitting in dark spaces. The wooden floors in there were suspicious so I didn’t spend a great deal of time inside. Though I had arrived relatively early, I was surprised at how much time I spent shooting here, and now I was loosing daylight. Between that, and the effort it took to trudge through the snow, I was exhausted.

But I’m glad I got to see such a place, an epoch of human history and how far we’ve came, or maybe how far we still have yet to go. If the powers that be stick to their schedules, it should be luxury condos and mixed use space come next summer.

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I was pretty much depending on my flashlight to get me through the basement levels, which were black and icy.
I was pretty much depending on my flashlight to get me through the basement levels, which were black and icy.

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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

Donate Button with Credit Cards