Dungeon Rock

The mystery isn’t in the technique, it’s in each of us. ~Harry Callahan.

The dark term dungeon isn’t a common moniker around New England, (unless you count Vermont’s arcane Popple Dungeon Road) yet alone the United States, so when I heard of a place in Lynn, Massachusetts called Dungeon Rock, of course I was interested. Interested enough to take the 3 hour drive from Vermont to the face paced town of Lynn. In a large tract of woods concealing a landscape of boulderous terrain and large ponds with icy waters gently lapping at gravely beaches, lies an especially craggy boulder at the top of a steep rise of land. If you were to get a little closer and squeeze your way through some narrow crevices, you may notice an iron door set in the rock. Behind that door is a knee bending steep staircase that descends into blackness with dripping cold water, twisting passageways, and steep drops in elevation before eventually ending in solid rock and dank water, where the ceiling becomes so low that crouching becomes necessary.

You could probably speculate a lot of practical reasons why such a cave exists. But you’d probably be wrong. It seems that dungeon is a misnomer, it’s not a dungeon at all (but certainly takes on that appearance) It’s actually the product of a man looking for pirate treasure with instructions given by a ghost.

The story behind this interesting location starts in the early 1600s. It was here at Dungeon Rock where where notorious pirate Thomas Veal is said to have buried a sizable treasure here, deep in a well concealed cavern. Veal himself was hiding out in the wilderness of Lynn, the lone survivor of a band of pirates who were caught and returned back to England where they were hanged for their misdeeds. Veal took refuge in the same cave where he hid his ill-gotten treasure. But misfortune struck in 1658 when an earthquake hit New England and sealed up the cave forever, with Thomas Veal inside.

Shortly after, treasure seekers began trying to extract Veal’s treasure, picking and digging around the rock where they suspected the cave once was. But all efforts proved fruitless. It was lost within the Earth. It was around then when the rock earned it’s moniker, Dungeon Rock, maybe due to the fact that it was said that the sealed up cave with it’s dead pirate owner was much like a dungeon.

Interest in the cave stopped until 200 years later, during the craze of spiritualism. The story of Thomas Veal and his treasure attracted the attention of Hiram Marble from Charlton, Massachusetts.  In 1852, he bought the property where Dunegon Rock sits, and sought out a spiritualist medium who contacted the ghost of the pirate and learned the precise whereabouts of the treasure.

He erected a house and a few outbuildings, and moved his wife and son there. Confident in the new found information and enthusiasm of finding a vast sum of wealth in the rocky New England soil, he saved a considerable fortune and began excavating operations. Day after day, he would chip at the unyielding stone, which then lead to using blasting powder and drills to dig deeper below the ground. Hiram would hold regular seances where he would have check-ins with Veal’s ghost, to direct the course of his mining. But despite all of his attention into his DIY project, he was only able to dig a single foot every 30 days. Then, in 1856, he ran out of money. But Hiram was committed to continue his laborious plan.

Moving at such a gruelingly slow pace, with no funds, one might wonder what exactly kept him going? The regular contact of Thomas Veal was probably the culprit, because Hiram still had an astonishing amount of faith. But maybe his efforts were about to pay off? His seances were recorded – the dialogue between the two were written down. One such written account revealed that the pirate told Hiram he was close, just one more curve needed to be dug! But that curve would require at least 12 feet of digging, which would take another grueling year of backbreaking labor.

By 1864, they had managed to dig an astonishing 135 feet of twisting catacomb. Hiram’s son Edwin even joined in. And as luck would have it, his big dig was drawing attention far and wide. So Hiram decided to capitalize on his new found fame, and charge people admission for a tour of the man made cave. With the admission funds, he continued to finance his project.

Dungeon Rock bonds were sold for a dollar, entitling the purchaser to a share of the treasure.

In November of 1864, after they had managed to borrow 200 feet of tunnel, Hiram died. Edwin followed his father to the grave in 1880, (and is buried beneath a Hemlock tree that grows right near the rock) leaving Hiram’s efforts as nothing more but a useless hole descending far below the ground of Lynn. The city eventually acquired the property in 1888.  While some family members bequeath personal heirlooms to their loved ones or elaborate (and often vain) monuments that decorate a community, Hiram Marble left a giant hole that is tainted with sadness and intrigue.

Today, the cave is sealed off by an iron door that is open for a few hours each day in the warmer months, or upon special request by a park ranger, which is how I was able to get in on this particular blustery November day.

Dungeon rock can easily be missed. Though it’s one of the highest points around you, it looks like all of the other rock and boulder outcroppings scattered around the woods, and there are quite a lot.

Once you find the rock, you enter through a narrow crevice that leads to the door, which leads into a cold, wet and dark cave. The daylight immediately vanishes and leaves you having to turn on your flashlights and headlamps, which are necessities to explore the cave with – especially navigating the thin wooden steps leading down to the cavern floor that is so slick, it offers no traction. From there, this dank enclosed space twists and turns deeper below the earth, each corner a specific blueprint from a dead pirate. That’s something to ponder as you scramble around down in the dark. Eventually, the cave becomes too small to stand up in and dead ends abruptly in a pool of orange stagnant water. Once back outside, it’s not hard to see why Dunegon Rock is probably one of the strangest places in New England.

Maybe the lesson here is if you probably wouldn’t trust a pirate in the mortal world, why trust one in the afterlife?

Rocks, rocks, rocks...

Rocks, rocks, rocks… (the Hemlock tree nearest the rock is where Edwin is said to be buried)

Dungeon Rock

Dungeon Rock

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the original blasting holes can still be seen

the original blasting holes can still be seen

First turn and a bunch of rocks to stumble over

First turn and a bunch of rocks to stumble over

another turn

another turn

before descending down a slippery rock slope, further bringing us down

before descending down a slippery rock slope, further bringing us down

more rocks to stumble over, the cavern ceiling getting lower

more rocks to stumble over, the cavern ceiling getting lower

the roof still getting lower

the passageway still getting lower

another drop

another drop

and yet, another climb down a slippery rock wall

and yet, another climb down a slippery rock wall

end of the line err cave.

end of the line err cave.

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Oh no! It's a pirate ghost! Just kidding, it's me.

Oh no! It’s a pirate ghost! Just kidding, it’s me.

I guess at one point, someone made a fake pirate chest and turned it into a geocache in the cave, which may have disappointed a few explorers, but admittedly is still pretty cool. I didn’t come across it on my visit however, or a real pirate chest for that matter.

Dungeon Rock is location in Lynn Woods, and can be found on their website

High Rock Tower and the New England Frankenstein

We set off for Lynn, Massachusetts in search of adventure, but little did I know that my real adventure would actually be finding my way around on the harrowing Massachusetts road system. We became frustratingly lost out of staters, the one ones being honked at by locals. With the streamline pace of Route 1 traffic and that famed Massachusetts aggressive driving, the actual transit part of this trip was far more awe inspiring, in it’s own sense. Being from Vermont, the endless sea of strip malls, billboards and 6 lane roads was far more monstrous than pirate ghosts and claustrophobia.

There was another sight in Lynn that I wanted to visit. It’s not abandoned, it’s actually in a manicured park right in the middle of town, but given our time going in circles around our previous circles, we never did make it.

But the story is a fantastic one, and still remains as one of the most bizarre stories I have ever heard.

Rocks are an everyday part of life in New England – most likely because of their abundance and something not so easily gotten rid of. Lynn is no different than any other New England town in that aspect. Just driving around through several neighborhoods with bucolic street names, rocks were everywhere. On lawns, in cemeteries, making up beaches that ringed ponds.

And it’s these rocks that have drawn some other truly spectacular characters apart from The Marble family. Further south of Dungeon Rock, is the highest elevation in town, a rocky bluff rising to about 170 feet fittingly called High Rock. The top of the bluff is adorned with a large stone tower called High Rock Tower, which functions also as an observatory. Back in the 19th century, when spiritualists weren’t aiding Hiram Marble in his quest for pirate’s treasure, they were convinced the geology of the area held some sort of special energy field, and acclaimed the Lynn area as “nature’s warehouse of infinite magnetic force.” – the centerpiece being High Rock.

I read about this story in author and folklorist Joseph Citro’s book, Passing Strange, and I was so intrigued, I wanted to see it for myself. In this tale, another gentleman with a compelling and ambitious idea is profiled here.

John Murray Spear was born in Boston in 1804. Not long after, his father died, immediately thrusting young John into the working world so he could help support his family. John was a product of his family values, and had a kind spirit, gentle nature, showed generosity and an eagerness to learn, which no doubt helped him progress steadily in life.

From early in his youth, John Murray wanted to become a preacher, and with much determination , he soon rose to that goal. His amiable personality made him well liked, and he eventually would conduct his first sermon in Brewster. After that, it was official, he was ordained by the church and became a passionate and forward thinking Universalist Minister.

But things took a completely different turn, when one night, when he was wide awake, his hand suddenly took on a life of it’s own, picked up a pen, and began writing – a process called “automatic writing”. When he was done, he observed the results. The script directed him go to Abington to provide medical aid to a man he had never met before, David Vining. More strangely, the note was signed Oliver, the name of a dead friend that once nursed him back to life after a brutal beating in Portland, Maine.

From here on, John and his dead companion Oliver Denett reunited, and struck up a partnership, with Oliver assigning him other requests to provide medical aid to wealthy individuals. Willingly, he was happy to comply without question, but there was one thing. John knew absolutely nothing about medicine. He would always travel to his destinations on foot at night, and would reliably find that he was always able to help his victims, the spirits would see to that. Over time, the spirits’ influence on John became so powerful, that one night during a seance, they instructed the now inspired reverend to for-fill his new destiny, to revolutionize the world, and to achieve divinity.

Like many others, he became heavily influenced by the Spiritualist movement,  so much so that Spear would attempt a Frankensteinian experiment of his own, right here in New England. He began to embark on a journey that involved alchemy, the odd conversion of science and religion and a series of bizarre experiments that he hoped would achieve a stupendous result; he was going to play god, and create life.

In October of 1853, he began planning what would be his transformative accomplishment – a mechanical apparatus that would draw it’s power from those aforementioned rocks and harness their incredible powers. Though he was destitute in the art of science, physics and biology,  he soon began construction on his electrical machine, with blueprints drawn up by who else, his spiritual advisers. He took his operation to the ledges of High Rock, a place where spiritualists professed they saw angels. In the thoughts of Spear, no location would be more fitting.

The original High Rock Tower, built in 1847 and burned in 1865. The cottage to the right is Hutchinson’s Stone Cottage, the place where John Spear was said to have built his “Electrical Infant” through his seances. Photo courtesy of Lynn Museum

It was said that his workshop was on the dining room table inside a stone cottage owned by the Hutchinson family, who also owned High Rock at that time. Other accounts say it was a woodshed.

Soon, his contraption would begin to take form.

“From the center of the table rose two metallic uprights connected at the top by a revolving steel shaft. The shaft supported a transverse steel arm from whose extremities were suspended two large steel spheres enclosing magnets. Beneath the spheres there appeared [..] a very curiously constructed fixture, a sort of oval platform, formed of a peculiar combination of magnets and metals. Directly above this were suspended a number of zinc and copper plates, alternately arranged, and said to correspond with the brain as an electric reservoir. These were supplied with lofty metallic conductors, or attractors, reaching upward to an elevated stratum of atmosphere said to draw power directly from the atmosphere. In combination with these principal parts were adjusted various metallic bars, plates, wires, magnets, insulating substances, peculiar chemical compounds, etc… At certain points around the circumference of these structures, and connected with the center, small steel balls enclosing magnets were suspended. A metallic connection with the earth, both positive and negative, corresponding with the two lower limbs, right and left, of the body, was also provided.” -from a write up by Robert Damon Schneck, Greyfalcon.us

The idea was with this precise peculiar arrangement, motion -or, life – would be the result. He would call his invention the “Electrical Infant”.

Locals began calling his new creation “The God Machine”, and that was probably fitting in terms of where the story is going. Spear wanted it to be the equivalent of a modern day new messiah, something that would forever change humanity. The machine would symbolize a newborn baby, much like Jesus in the christian faith, and all babies need a mother. Around this time, he had convinced a woman only known as “The New Mary” to be that mother. Apparently as time progressed and construction commenced, she began to show signs of pregnancy.

The total cost of parts and vital minerals needed was around $2,000, and rather than a detailed precise plan, each component was added in no particular order, much like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Honestly, the description of this machine baffles me, and far exceeds my imagination, but I was able to find an illustration online of what it may have looked like.

A rendering of Spear’s “God Machine” – The Fortean Times

Fast forward 9 months – or one pregnancy term – and Spear’s creation was finished, the final product being roughly the size of a dishwasher. Now was the moment of truth, would it be cable of infusing life?

On the big day, “New Mary” was the key component of the inaugural unveiling. She laid down in front of the machine while showing symptoms of labor, and then sat up and symbolically touched it. What happened next was controversial.

Somehow, his calculations came together, and what the spectators beheld was astonishing, it moved! Accounts from even the most skeptical agreed that the thing did in fact move, somehow. But while some accepted it as truth, others were convinced that the movement was most likely caused by wind and magnetic forces. But regardless, his creation supposedly did exactly what he promised it would. So, what would Spear do now with his giant machine?

Sadly, nothing. An angry mob who were furious that Spear was conducting an act of blasphemy, or playing god, destroyed the machine, which broke his spirit. He never made another attempt at recreating his Electrical Infant.

A lot of questions probably surface here. What sort of impact would Spear have had on modern society today if he had continued his experiments? Is High Rock really this so called conductor of magnetic forces? Are these properties still present and detectable today? Today, High Rock Tower stands on the hilltop, which shelters and observatory and related delicate equipment inside (Google maps geotags it as an observatory with a powerful telescope). Maybe they chose a good spot for other reasons than the view? I wish I got to see it.

 

Though I wasn't able to visit in person, Google Street View allowed me to do some armchair adventuring.

Though I wasn’t able to visit in person, Google Street View allowed me to do some armchair adventuring.

High Rock – Location, History and Legends

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This 58' Plymouth still retains lots of it's original character despite rusting away in the middle of the Sheldon woods. Literally, there are no roads or trails remotely nearby, only an eroding set of tire tracks starting from the car and ending 50 yards from it, going nowhere. Most of everything has been salvaged or destroyed.

Fall was a fading thing, gusty winds showered the car with dead leaves and rattled the burly body of my friend’s 96′ Volvo. Just having left our previous stop at Fort Montgomery, it was decided that we made the most of what was likely to be the last of the year’s great weather, and further our adventure.

We were en route to the small agricultural town of Sheldon, where he grew up, and we were on a search for the forgotten.

It’s fascinating and musing to think about how much Vermont’s small towns have changed in a century, hell – even in 20 years. Today, we were met by neglected paved back roads and sprawling corn fields that had only recently been cut, the small withering stumps of corn stocks sticking up like toothpicks in graying soil. Sticking out from the countryside are newer homes with 2 car garages and out of place condo complexes that look like they would be more fitting in Saint Albans or Burlington than in the middle of farm country.

What really brings me into a reverie though, is just how much of the past is tangible to us, and how close it is. Less than a foot beneath the soil we walk on to be exact. My friend takes up metal detecting in his spare time, a very cool hobby in my own humble opinion. Guided by his innate wisdom, we pulled onto Shawville Road, which lead us into the small village of Sheldon Springs.

A Boom Town

The name Sheldon Springs is of obvious origins, it was named after the springs found off the Missisquoi River, which were responsible for the growth of the community. In it’s interim, there were multiple springs hotels and a train depot, built to exploit the springs and their lure of tourism.

In the 1860s and 70s, a boom period sparked in Sheldon Springs as more eager tourists came to take “the waters”, and 11 hotels were all built around the Missisquoi, some of them featuring over 100 rooms and billed themselves as having luxurious accommodations equal to big city hotels.

Analyzed by a New York chemist, the springs contained chloride of sodium, carbonate of sodium, chloride of magnesia, carbonate of magnesia, chloride of lime, alumina, sulphate of lime, silica, carbonate of iron, carbonic sulphoric acid, carbonate of manganese and hydro-chloric acid.

Around 4 “tubing” operations were set up at the springs, and bottling plants soon followed, selling the Sheldon Springs waters. Professedly marketed boldly as a miracle remedy for cancer, scrofula, and other diseases of the blood, bottles could be shipped across the country, thanks to a train depot and proximity to the former Richford branch of the Central Vermont Railway (refurbished as the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail). But like most boom periods, people eventually lost interest. Sheldon Springs tendered it’s resignation in the early 20th century because of the collapsed tourism industry, but the name still remains printed on the usual green aluminum signs off Route 105.

Today, Sheldon Springs is pleasantly quiet, a weird dissimilarity to bustling Route 105 nearby. On our walk around the village, only 2 cars passed us, kicking up leaves. With his collection of 19th century maps of Franklin Country from the Beers atlas, he is able to locate what once was, and what is mostly impossible to find today. One of the old springs hotels is now an unremarkable gravel parking lot next to a small church. It was called Congress Hall, and was one of the hotels to have it’s own bottling plant. From old photos I was able to find online, it seemed like quite the ceremonious place. But like many wooden buildings of that time period, the hotel burned down circa 1909 in an act of arson, set by a disgruntled employee. From all my Vermont research, it seems that fires hate hotels the most…

Congress Hall

People on the porch of Congress Hall

It’s strange to think about how such a large building is now completely untraceable. As we walked through town, he pointed it out to me. “You can see that the parking lot is almost raised above the natural geography here – like it was a foundation at one point. You can sort of see where it drops off in the back, like there were cellar walls there at one point”.

But what was more interesting to me, was what Congress Hall left behind. I guess the saying “one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is pretty accurate in these circumstances. Back in 19th century Vermont, we didn’t have the so called Green culture inserted in our state’s virtues like we do today. Instead, if you needed to get rid of something, you just threw it out. Most commonly on your farm, or down into a ditch or a river, and left it there. Congress Hall also thought this convenient method was the most efficient way of getting rid of one’s problems, and dumped all their garbage down a steep bank near the Missisquoi River. Today, this garbage once thrown out, is now desirable and waiting for a respectable act of disinterment. Remnants of 19th century relics remain hidden beneath layers of soil, trees, erosion and dead leaves. The most significant feature here though, are Sheldon Springs mineral water bottles. There is literally a mound of hundreds - somewhere, in the woods and slopes of Sheldon Springs, and if what my friend tells me is accurate, an intact bottle can bring a good sum of money on eBay.

Walking a few feet down the road, we came to a Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail crossing. In an open field area directly paralleling the tracks, he pointed out that the former rail depot used to stand somewhere in the vacinity. Today, that’s completely unrecognizable, unless if you have an old Beers atlas of course. He’s metal detected around there, and told me he’s found quite a few old coins around the area, from former passengers dropping them from their pockets. Some he discovered were freshly minted at the time they were dropped, and sat there ever since as the years went on.

Across the road sat an unremarkable old ranch house lined with brawny old Maples that exploded in bright oranges and reds, beginning to shed their jackets upon the lawn. It used to be the home of his childhood friend, and he had metal detected on their lawn as well. About 4-7 inches below the surface he dug up more interesting artifacts. Coins, buttons, old tools, and other various things from a time long ago.

He recalled one time on a patch of farmland a few miles from there, he was digging and came across an old pipe, which he guessed probably ran to the river at one point, but now ran to nowhere. Through a rusted hole in the pipe he hit, was an old wrench which was quite large. He was able to determine that it was from circa 1930s. From what he speculates, the laborer that built the pipe literally dropped his wrench during construction, and it stayed there all these years until he unearthed it.

Haunted Rope Swings and Swimming Holes

Taking a short drive from the hotel ruins turned parking lot, we drove out of the village on an old steel truss bridge that crossed a temporarily placid pool held back by the dam, before the water tumbled over and down the falls. We pulled over and he pointed out areas he used to play as a kid. Climbing down the steep banks, there was an original brick pump house constructed almost directly into the rock face of the upper gorge, dated 1911. Kids in town used to make the seemingly dangerous climb on top of the building demonstrating their bravado, and maybe they still do. Though I now have a better knowledge of tempting or choosing my fate, I did stuff like that in my youth as well.

There were still some large foundations of the former hotels and mills nearby the gorge. He also pointed out that nearby, there used to be a “sketchy rope swing” that local kids would climb too and jump off of, plummeting down into the cold Missisquoi River below. A great Vermont summer tradition that is still popular today.

The rope swing was no longer there, vanishing after recent work to the truss bridge (which was much needed), but he could point out the branch it once was tied too. The rope was described as fraying and awkward, and the branch’s ability to support the weight of countless reckless youth was also questionable, but it held, and the kids used it. There was a weird detail though. Some kids around town thought there was something amiss about that old rope swing.

The rope swing has a spook story attached to it. Allegedly, kids had seen it swinging by itself, moved by unknown forces on still windless summer days, with no logical explanation to it’s movement. Maybe a tragic story from over 20 years ago could link to the peculiar attributes. As my friend informs me, two kids drowned there in the 80s, which may be that connection to it’s seemingly phantom movements. Regardless of empirical evidence or folklore that could clarify the phenomena, it’s certainly interesting, and possibly Vermont’s only haunted rope swing. Or, at least that’s been documented in a blog such as this one.

Boarding houses and School houses

Heading back into town, we passed Boarding House Road, which deadpans it’s namesake. He pointed out a restored 3 story building that used to once be a boarding house in town, giving lodging to laborers and workers that once worked at the Missisquoi Pulp Mill, another life blood of the community. The pulp mill was built in 1894 and still remains as an important employer of the village today.

The boarding house was abandoned when he was a kid, and he and his friends recalled exploring it, and getting creeped out by it’s unsound condition and ghostly appearance inside. Today, it has been restored as a private residence, and doesn’t look at all like a menacing or dangerous place. From the outside. Other vestiges of the mill remain around town, in the form of almost identical looking houses built along the main street that once housed the mill workers. As a matter of fact, he grew up in one of those houses, and they have since became Sheldon landmarks.

Nearby, past the mill, he pointed out another parking lot, this one more recent, storing rows of 18 wheelers. He recalled that used to be an abandoned schoolhouse when he grew up, and what a place it was. It was 3 stories and in a bad state of dilapidation. There used to be a sizable auditorium out back, and him and his friends would go inside and hang out on the rotting stage and rows of decaying seats, before going off to explore the dark hallways and dusty classrooms. He told me that there were definitely creepy feelings inside, especially in certain parts of the school. At times, they didn’t like going into certain areas and avoided them. The schoolhouse was sadly torn down by now, which was a disappointment to me after I had excited asked him if he could show me where it was. But even staring at the parking lot, the story remained robust.

A Walk In The Woods

But the next place we ventured too was enigmatic, it had no history we knew of, or a real road that lead us to it. It was in the middle of the woods, far from anything. It had the appearance of a southern shotgun house, but the inside proved to be a little more spacious than I had thought. It was a simplistic country house, done in traditional horsehair plaster and subtle wainscoting accents, sort of everything you’d expect to find in an abandoned Vermont farmhouse. Parts of the ceiling and floors had started to cave in at various rates and were covered in layers of plaster dust and disintegrating miscellaneous. All of the furniture had long been removed, leaving no relics behind apart from a few rusted cans in a pantry and the more modern Natural Ice cans. The house once had a front porch, but that has long wasted away from the front. The side of the house was also interesting, because it looked like two identical houses had been pushed together to make one house, judging by mismatching siding. But on the other side of the house, it was all uniform greenish siding. Back then, Vermonters had ingenuity, and if a job needed to be done, they did it in any available method to them. This might have just been a way to finish siding the house.

There was an abandoned garage nearby, which felt sort of strange to see in the middle of the woods with no driveway or path leading up to it’s double doors. I suppose my mind has been strongly trained to make assumptions. Inside, there was a collecting of disused tires buried in leaf fall.

Around the house, and underneath my boots, were a collection of a familiar Sheldon relic, bottles. Plenty of old glass bottles were laying around the house, many of them weathered beyond legibility. Just to the right of me was a steep bank that tumbled down into a stream below. Wooden retaining structures had been built in certain places down the streamfall. My friend informed me that those were an old way of guiding and controlling water current. He also told me that somewhere down that steep bank was a pile of bottles that was almost baffling in size, knee deep and stretched several feet across the slippery banks. But the freshly fallen leaves completely obscured it from view, and he didn’t quite recall where it was. I decided not to climb down the bank and look for it, the ground was slick, and figured that there was more of a chance of getting hurt than finding treasure.

Before we left, he had one last thing to show me. Following a barely visible set of tire tracks, which I thought was so bizarre to find in the middle of the woods, we came to the shell of an old 58′ Plymouth. The tracks started at the house, traveled about 100 yards, and ended directly at the car, in the middle of a sizable forest far away from any back road or farm. Due to my love of old cars, abandoned and functioning, I was very pleased to photograph it. It had been sitting there for quite some time though. The frame was in the late stages of decay and corrosion, and the inside was completely gutted, no relics were left behind.

This trip was one of my most memorable. Though it wasn’t a tremendous abandonment, my experience just walking around the quiet and increasingly mysterious town of Sheldon on a very enjoyable Fall afternoon really sparked layers of curiosity in my mind that will now be forever associated with the community. And I want to uncover more.

There was so much information that I left out of this blog post. As it is, I already wrote far more than I expected to. I’m in the process of planning another trip up to Franklin County, and actually trying my hand at metal detecting. If all goes well, I hope to write about it, and finish this great story.

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This massive old fuel tank was found in the woods near Sheldon Springs. This picture doesn’t do the size any justice. Standing next to it, the side vents came up to my head. My friend told me that he remembers once when he was a kid, that his brother crawled into the tank. I could smell the coal and the oil residue that assaulted my nose and I couldn’t imagine myself ever crawling inside the dark of that tank. Now that would be impossible. Someone came out and overturned the tank, covering the entrance. And because it’s so heavy, I doubt anyone will want to put the effort into tipping it back over…

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Fort Blunder

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Stumbling my way around the impressively dangerous ruins of Fort Montgomery, as my presence disturbed hundreds of Pigeons that are now the fort’s permanent residents, I was nothing short of awe inspired. Though only 1/3rd (give or take) of the fort actually remains, it was immense in anyway you can measure it up. Stone and brick walls several feet thick, uniform archways framing collapsing brick ceilings and leafy hardwood trees lead into cavernous casemates that entombed a dank chilliness that left residue on the aging stones, regardless of the out of seasonal 80 degree fall day that we chose to explore.

For being an abandoned relic relatively hidden in plain sight and yet, out of the way, it’s evident it receives a lot of foot traffic. It’s arched hallways have almost no wall space left intact, covered by layers of graffiti, going back to as early as 1971. Or – the earliest we were able to find at least. Countless names, cultural expressions, slanderous accusations of obvious enemies and the occasional term of endearment could be read as you wondered around the property, which was pretty stimulating and could easily stand out alone as part of the experience.

Fort Montgomery was quite the fascinating place – something that I could explore, but in a sense, never be able to relate too. It was built during a time of when America had real fears of being invaded by British Canada, and our independence was at stake.

But despite the resilient bones gently loosing their will to fight mother nature, the fort has a rather underwhelming and ironic history, which would explain it’s rather unintimidating nickname, as far as forts go.

It’s location was strategic, where Quebec’s Richelieu River empties into Lake Champlain, right on the Canadian Border between New York and Vermont. Construction on the unnamed fort began in 1816 and called for an octagonal structure with 30 foot walls. However, when President James Monroe visited the location in 1814 to see how the progress was going, he discovered they had made a huge mistake. Because of survey errors, the fort was inadvertently built in Canada. Oops. The resulting mistake lead to the fort’s nickname, Fort Blunder, which carried on into the 21st century. Construction was immediately halted and the fort was abandoned.

After much dispute between Canada and the United States over the sloppy boundary agreements and who owned what, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 finally would resolve the problem for good, annexing Island Point – the location of Fort Montgomery, as part of the United States.

It was decided again that a fort should be constructed there, and in 1844, laborers broke ground on what would be known as Fort Montgomery. Fort Montgomery was a “third system” fort, or, one of the forts that were being built along the Northern frontier. Work on the fort was continuous through 1870, as the civil war raged on and another fear of a possible British invasion (the bad type) had everyone panicking.  And when the Saint Albans Raid happened in 1864, that fear seemed very reasonable now.

During the 30 year construction period, the attention to detail was immaculate – nothing was left unplanned, and with cutting edge military tactics and a round the clock labor crew of 400 of the best stone cutters and masons working at the site, it was intended to be a showpiece, a symbol of brazen resilience.

The fort also had a rare feature that only 9 forts in the United States possessed at the time; a moat. With the moat dug around the fort, it was situated on it’s on private island, with a drawbridge and a stone causeway it’s only land entrance. The moat can still be seen today, though, now filled in with layers of mud and runoff, with the creeping forest getting ever closer to ramble down it’s dirty stone retaining walls. The drawbridge also had a very unique feature – it acted essentially like a sea-saw, being able to teeter on both sides with a central balance point.

Though it was intended to house 800 men, the fort never actually saw battle, and was really only used as a form of visual intimidation at the border – allowing your mind to really do the rest. One man manned the fort, and lived in a caretakers house nearby.

The fort officially went defunct in 1926 when it became obsolete, and the government sold it. Residents of Rouses Point took it upon themselves to salvage material from the fort, considering it was great material, and most importantly, free. Stone, brick and wood were used for construction projects all around town. Houses, sidewalks and retaining walls can still be seen today that incorporate a little Fort Montgomery in them. My friend, who is also an adventurer and who was playing the role of tour guide that day, said that he remembers someone in Alburgh he knew with original wood from the fort inside their farmhouse.

The fort was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and today, the property is actually for sale, and as far as I know, it hasn’t received any offers. Admittedly, the remains of a 19th century fort in your backyard would be a far cooler feature than lawn gnomes or pink flamingos. While tromping around the overgrown grounds, we were discussing other great uses for the property, like a great outdoor music venue location.

My friend was the perfect tour guide. He used to come here back in high school, along with many of his friends, back when the fort was really forgotten. They had paintball matches here, which seems like an ideal location for such activities, and just generally hung out underneath the brawny yet ethereal stone archways. Countless area kids (and adults like myself) would also hangout there, as evident by the plethora of graffiti and Natural Ice cans left behind. Modern day relics. Walking around, he knew many of the names spray painted on the walls. One person in particular he recalled getting hit by a train when she was walking her dog years ago. Less poignantly, he also pointed out where his high school band rebelliously self promoted themselves on a wall inside.

The ruins of the fort were disorienting, something else I didn’t expect. The place was so overgrown, that there were times while exploring the upper levels, that you actually perceived as just a walk in the woods, until you looked over and noticed you were actually 30 feet in the air, above a row of arches vanishing into thick vines and forests shedding their Autumn jackets. At times, literally climbing up earth banks to get to the second floor, you notice a black hole beneath your feet, with crumbling bricks falling into the dark and the deep below, reminding you that you are on a man made structure.

And of course, walking through the airy hallways as the fragrant breezes blasted through the windows, countless Pigeons would swiftly bolt down the hallways, coming very close to smacking me in the face. Sort of an Alfred Hitchock type of situation, except, this was real.

Walking back across the moat and down the access road – which was no more than a 4 wheeler trail at this point, we noticed the old trees that lined the path had white chalky residue over their aged bark, evidence of the water levels of the lake. The lake was incredibly low this Fall, some of the lowest we’ve seen it we both agreed. It was sort of strange to see those marks well at waist level as we walked by.

“Fort Blunder” certainly added another layer to my prowess, an intimidating ruin that was both venerable and deceitful. But honestly, I enjoyed hearing the stories from my friend and his personal accounts there far more than it’s faded history – it somehow adds an entire new layer of mystery and character to it – something that is a little more tangible to me as I trudged through piles of dead leaves on the way back to the car.

I can’t help but think. What will archaeologists be able to uncover about our time in the distant future, and what will those things say about us?

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Throughout the fort, there was this sort of undulating stone used, with ambiguous patterns found in their surface. Me and my friend speculated they might be fossils from the Champlain Sea, which once covered the area we walked on over 480 million years ago. If these fossils can be found in Isle La Motte, which is nearby, it may be possible that the same rock was quarried and used in the fort walls. Or, so we assume...

Through-out the fort, there was this sort of undulating stone used, with ambiguous patterns found in their surface. Me and my friend speculated they might be fossils from the Champlain Sea, which once covered the area we walked on 480 million years ago. If these fossils can be found in Isle La Motte, which is nearby, it may be possible that the same rock was quarried and used in the fort walls. Or, so we assume…

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A feature of the fort I liked. It once had duel stone spiral staircases linking top to bottom. Today, both have collapsed, but the remnants of some steps still remain, retaining their circular motion down curved stone walls. One of them (not this one) was filled with so much earth and compost that it was still usable for a trip up and down.

A feature of the fort I liked. It once had duel stone spiral staircases linking top to bottom. Today, both have collapsed, but the remnants of some steps still remain, retaining their circular motion down curved stone walls. One of them (not this one) was filled with so much earth and compost that it was still usable for a trip up and down.

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It’s hard to describe a place like the deteriorating ruins of The Cold Spring House, especially if you’ve never had the experience of visiting it yourself. The remaining residue of The Catskill Mountains and their heyday as a resort destination – hotels such as this one once catered to primarily Jewish clientele during the 20th century, looking for a little relaxation from the turbulence of New York City in the scenic Catskills. Driving through the gripping, winding road through the Kaaterskill Forest, with wild rivers cutting through steep hardwood shrouded peaks that resembled saw teeth, it wasn’t hard to see the allure.

This is the first time I had ever been to the Catskills region before, and my target village of Tannersville made an attractive first impression, which I was incredibly relieved with after the problematic start to my day. It almost seemed like I would never make it to the Catskills, as numerous setbacks, construction projects and traffic jams kept delaying travel time, each hour of precious daylight being swallowed by the oncoming October evening. Because we were making a 5 hour drive down from Vermont, I was determined to make this count.

Navigating the highways of New York, we passed by many derelict structures and sordid towns that were more depressing than anything, reminders of the decreasing amount of tourists in the area. A passing visitor to the area, I admittedly knew little about it apart from conversations with friends who grew up around there, and a few things I’ve read. I definitely had no local insider information, so anything I took in was most commonly coming through the view of the windshield.

The road through Kaaterskill Forest

The road through Kaaterskill Forest

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Catskill Glory

As we approached Tannersville, the comedown daylight was filtered through a black sky foreshadowing fury that never seemed to come. The air was crisp, carrying the smell of dead leaves, as chilly mists began to settle on our faces. It felt like it was going to rain, but it never came, and the mists continued to be misleading. There we were, staring up at the imposing ruins of the Cold Spring House, and it’s various stages of decay. The slumping roofs and bending wooden frame ripped open several holes in the building, giving off dead weight that popped out windows and pushed various items through the glass. It was well into the evening now, but we had made it, with just enough light to photograph and do a little exploring. But the question was, where do I even start?

From what I know about the place, it was one of the earlier Catskills hotels, on the outskirts of the Borscht Belt, an area once a dazzling vacation-land now reincarnated as a collection of behemoth and storied abandonments. The Cold Spring House was a grand showpiece, which was very different from the closet cottages and revelrous resorts the area was known for at that time.

Built on what is now Spruce Street in the 1890s, it was the second largest hotel in Tannersville, as well as the first Jewish hotel in town – able to accommodate 200 guests at the base of mountains rising to around 2,200 feet. It started as a hotel called Bieber’s Cold Spring House, but was sold in 1922 to Saber Khouri, and re-branded simply as The Cold Spring House.

According to a 1904 advertisement I was able to find online, the property featured expansive lawns, offering tennis and croquet grounds, surrounded by old trees offering comfortable shade on summer days. There were farms on the property that supplied the hotel with fresh milk and vegetables everyday, which were pared with what the ad boasted as excellent table service in the form of German and Hungarian cuisine. And of course, fresh spring water was offered – from the springs which the hotel derived it’s name from. The hotel was also widely regarded for it’s popular classical concerts on the lawn. Two signature towers at opposite ends of the building, now slumping dangerously, were once observatories, giving guests extensive views of the mountains. Today, that view would be worth the price of your life.

What I found interesting about the advertisement was that it boasted such amenities as “sanitary plumbing and fire extinguishers on every floor” – items that we take for granted today, but around that time period, were new features and were only beginning to be enforced by laws. I’m sure that was a selling point – definitely a plus when I choose a hotel. But it makes sense. The time period was a time of transition. There was a nationwide push that required to implement such systems, but it was a costly expense to outfit these old buildings, and many old hotels couldn’t afford keeping up with the competition.

The advertisement also stated that the hotel was continuously expanding as it’s increasing popularity was luring more and more people to stay there each season. Older photos showed a much different building, with only one tower, and most of the western wing not yet added. The final product was a much larger and grander property – the brooding structure you see today.

But times certainly have changed. During the late 20th century, much of the region fell out of favor as a vacation destination. With an increase of automobile travel and an ever burgeoning highway system, more Americans were driving, and could travel farther distances and see more places,. Now, they no longer had to settle for the closest area available – a trend that I’ve seen so many times in humbled abandonments I’ve visited. Tannersville was no exception. Many vacation homes eventually were abandoned and hotels were shuttered. The Cold Spring House fell into the trend, and was abandoned in the 60s, leaving quite the compelling ruin in it’s wake.

It literally hunches over Spruce Street in it’s old age, leaning in all directions. A symbol of human progress and the change of the times, something inevitable that tends to leave growing pains on the often bumpy road of advancement and the fodder of bandwagon fads. In an ironic sense, this more off beat form of tourism can also serve as a poignant melding of public awareness, a chance to learn from our past.

Today, Tannersville is more known for it’s proximity to Hunter Mountain Ski Area than a summer destination, but while many Borscht Belt towns are still struggling, Tannersville seems to be in the middle of some sort of revival. As it was explained to me, people started to rediscover the town and were taken by it’s natural beauty. Old vacation homes began to be fixed up at expensive costs because of the bad shape they had deteriorated to, and more businesses have opened up on Route 23A.

As for the Cold Spring House though, I had the pleasant chance to speak with photographer Linda O’Donnell, who has been researching and documenting the building’s deterioration for the past several years. She informed me that the place has been scheduled for demolition since 2012, but demolition by neglect may happen before any actual bulldozers arrive on the property. It makes you wonder, when will the familiar become just history?

Dying Light

This was truly one of the most spectacular places I’ve had the chance to photograph (and a great change of scenery from Vermont!), but with it’s awe inspiring profile came very tangible dangers. As I walked around and got to know the place better, I was able to recognize something very quickly. The building was far too dangerous to venture inside, and because of our late start, there was little daylight left. Peeking in through an opened window, I was met with an interior of collapsing floors, wooden walls intended to support the structure were crushed into an accordion like resemblance, and various artifacts collected in indistinguishable piles of fragments covered in dust and lead paint speckles. The weight was so great in some places that many things had actually been pushed through the floor, which was already cracking on the added weight of my body. That musty old building smell wafted out from the opening, mixed with a heavy damp musk. To my far left, a staircase, illuminated by the dull light of broken windows, climbed above the wreckage and into the mysterious upper floors. Or what was left of them. Though I ached to go inside, that would have been an idea that probably would have been counter productive to my travel plans, which were to leave intact and alive.

For a relatively rural back street, the traffic was thunderous, a constant roar of pick up trucks going by, and slowing down when they noticed me with my camera. Because New York State has very unforgiving rules against trespassing, and with me being in such a surprisingly public area where I would no doubt be trapped should I be caught, the odds were stacked against me.

I had no choice but to keep a safe distance. But the exterior alone was worth the drive. The tops of the building still wore it’s yellow paint job, the original color of the hotel, while the lower levels were weather worn into a dull grey and showed signs of various stages of rotten cavities that completely ate through the walls. Older photos showed a sign that read “Cold Spring” that hung over the porch near the front entrance, but when I visited, that was also long gone, the last clue to it’s identity.

Signs of human presence were everywhere. Graffiti was found on many of the upper windows, and not the good kind of graffiti – instead, it was the almost expected profanity and unoriginal racial slur sort of stuff. But, it also meant that some adventurous intruders made the trip to the upper floors…

I often find strange items left behind when I explore – and this was no exception. There was an interestingly large collection of abandoned records found all around the hotel, most on the front lawn, tangled in tall grass and cedar trees. Some of them were arranged specifically, with various items such as kitchen utensils and bottles filled with suspicious colored liquids in them, propped purposely around the sides. I didn’t recognize any of the artists – but some looked like they would have been right at home in some embarrassing 70s porno.

Just gazing up at the place and looking in the numerous windows offered many things to see. Radiators that had fallen out broken windows. A glimpse of a bed post. Dark rooms with holes in the ceiling letting in the dying daylight. Old glass bottles left on windowsills. Then the wind blows, and the eerie creeks of a shutter can be heard, before it bangs loudly against a wall several stories above you – you see the movement, and your pulse quickens as you jump to conclusions. Despite the reliable hum of noise outside, closer to the hotel, things faded into an uncomfortable silence that was almost loud in itself. It was quite startling considering it was just a short walk down the lawn that offered such a fast transition.

Not wanting to draw attention by staying too long, we left and began the journey back to Vermont, the Cold Spring House leaving a lasting impression.

ColdSpring

These are some great historical photos of the Cold Spring House in it’s heyday, which I found online accidentally and was kindly given permission to re-link by Flickr user Linda O’Donnell. Not sure of the dates, but it really gives you a sense of what this place used to be like.

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Used with permission from Flickr user Linda O’Donnell

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Used with permission from Flickr user Linda O’Donnell

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Used with permission from Flickr user Linda O’Donnell

  The Cold Spring House Today

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 Information:

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information on this place. Most of what I was able to compile in this post came from speaking with various people, and a good article I found online from the Register-Star 

There is also a group on Flickr I found, dedicated to sharing memories and photos of it.

This is one of my favorite things I came across while researching. Here is a fascinating article and photographic journalism piece about the Borscht Belt

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It was the mid 1950s, and the United States and The Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War. The race was on, both nations stockpiling enough firepower to wipe out most major cities, vaporized in a discharge of enormous mushroom clouds. The ensuing radiation would take care of the rest. According to those in the know, if a nuclear bomb was dropped, the result would be an obliterating flash of light, brighter than a thousand suns.

Paranoia gripped the nation, and preventative measures were taken by the government. Vermont’s desolate Northeast Kingdom became one chosen location to detect and be an early warning against the end of the world.

The United States Air Force chose East Mountain, a 3,438 foot sprawling ridge line surrounded by some of the most remote wilderness in all of Vermont, to be the site of a radar base. Construction started in 1954, and by 1956 and 21 million dollars later, the North Concord Air Force Station was functional. The base was designed to provide early warning signs and protection from nuclear fall out, as well as sending information to Strategic Air Command Bases.

About 174 men lived in the base in a village of tin and steel Quonset Huts, situated on a mid mountain plateau surrounded by almost impenetrable bogs. Their job was to guard the radar ears, which resided in massive steel and tin towers on the summit of East Mountain – constantly straining to hear the first whines from Soviet bombers coming from the skies above. The giant buildings were topped with large inflatable white domes that protected the radars. The government spared no expense protecting the United States from a possible soviet attack. People were urged to build bomb shelters in their basements, school kids were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear blast, and almost every town had a fallout shelter.

The Quonset village offered amenities such as a store, bowling alley and theater, barber shop and mess hall. But the wilds of Vermont were a tough place to live, especially in the winters, when snow drifts could often reach the edge of the roofs. Sometimes, the air boys would be stuck on the mountaintop when the mountain road became impassible, and would have to wait out the storm up there. Some enlisted men dreaded serving their time in Vermont because of this, but it was the city boys who hated it especially – many who served from the Chicago area. A mural of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive once covered an entire wall of the mess hall in an effort to make the men feel more at home (but that mural can’t be anywhere near detected today). The base also provided a bus that drove to Saint Johnsbury every night, for a little stress relief and therapeutic contact with civilization, so the men could see a movie and hit the bars.

At first, there was only one way to access the base, a dirt road that traveled through deep mountain valleys and up steep slopes to the base, a 9.3 mile drive. Later, a paved road was constructed from East Haven on the mountain’s western slope, offering another approach. Though the base was a cold functioning monument to man’s urge to destroy itself and the trembling hands of fear, it also offered a boost to the area’s economy as well as social impacts to area towns. In 1962, the base’s name was changed to the Lyndonville Air Force Base.

But the functional life of the East Mountain Radar Base was brief, as expensive costs to keep it running were adding up, and advancing technology made it obsolete before construction was even completely finished. It officially closed in 1963. Since then, it’s became the idol of local legends. Strange stories of death, UFOs and unknown characters skulking behind rusting ruins and evergreen forests slowly began to haunt the place.

The weirdness started before the base even closed. In 1961, a strange object – which many speculate was a UFO – was identified in the skies above East Mountain, which the military reported as lasting for around 18 minutes. A few hours later, Barney and Betty Hill were allegedly abducted by a UFO near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, which lead some to believe there is a connection between the two coincidental events.

In 1965, Ed Sawyer of East Burke bought the property from the government for $41, 500, and what a purchase it was. The base was in pristine and authentic condition at the time, and he loved it. Sawyer made money by selling surplus equipment and scrap metal. He moved into one of the Quonset Huts and also ran a woodworking shop there. In 1969, a group of snowmobiliers rode onto the property without permission. As they were traversing the lengthy access road, one of them hit a chain slung across the road as a makeshift gate, and was decapitated.

Not long after, trespassers and vandals discovered the base, and started making trips up into the vast wilds of the mountains hoping for an adventure. Sawyer installed several gates going up the roads to deter people from coming up, but he would numerously find several padlocks had been pried off and ruined. Sawyer had to replace about 35 padlocks a year. He would eventually result in shooting at trespassers to protect himself when menacing visitors became destructive and violent. He had even been threatened before.

Not only would they loot and steal everything from wiring and original furniture, but they destroyed the buildings. There was even an account where he woke up one night to a bunch of snowmobilers who were able to ride over the roof of his building because the snow drifts were so high!

The constant influx of vandalism and weather took its toll on the radar base, which has since further deteriorated and taking on a forlorn, haunting appearance underneath bounding hills and silent forests.

The property was put on the market, and remained unsold for many years, until recently when Matthew Rubin purchased it, who envisioned building a wind farm on the site, and anyone who has been on East Mountain would understand why. But after years of attempting to get permits from the state, he postponed the project indefinitely. The property has since been added to Vermont’s list of hazardous places, for massive soil contamination from oil and other motor fluids.

Around 1990, another person met their own mortality on East Mountain, when they fell from one of the radar towers and was killed. To add to the radar base’s already mysterious reputation, it’s been said that the rotting ruins have also been home to hobo camps and a hideout for the Hells’ Angels at one point.

Today, the radar base sits abandoned in a nebulous haze that hangs over the kingdom forests, the incongruous ruins littering the mountain top – the eerie silence is occasionally broken by the winds and the scraping sounds of rusted metal. A disconcerting and questionably regressive riddle to the end of one apocalyptic dream, and the uncertainty of what the future will bring.

The Quonset Village, Circa 1961-62

The radar towers on the summit

One of the radar towers on the summit.

Historical Images via The Air Defense Radar Veterans’ Association – photos from the 1960s

The East Mountain Radar Base - satellite view

The East Mountain Radar Base – satellite view. The Quonset living area is in the lower left corner, and the radar towers are in the upper right, to give you a sense of scale.

The East Mountain Radar Base was one of the most unique places I have ever gotten the chance to explore. Approaching from the small town of Victory underneath the bravado of September skies and rambling mountains, we made our way up the long gravel road, along the banks of a boulder littered river and underneath fallen trees that hung over the road, as our tires jarred into pothole washouts. As I’m writing this, I can’t think of accurate words to describe the sense of isolation we felt up in the mountains of East Haven. Miles away from anywhere, no cell phone service, no sounds of the familiar world to ground you and give you a sense of place.

Eventually, we came across a weedy clearing in a sea of Green forest, the formidable forms of the Quonset Huts with their rusted steel facades and broken glass skulking behind the fading colors of early autumn. We had reached the former living area of the base – the sentinel forms of the radar towers high above us could be seen on a steep ridge where congested softwood forests climbed out of the swamps. Many of the huts had been razed already, leaving cement slab foundations choked with weeds. One of them was dismantled and given to the Caledonia County Snowmobile Club, where it was re-assembled. The remaining buildings were low profile, almost completely obscured by the forest that was slowly reclaiming what it once had.

A walk through the buildings was a sentient experience over broken glass, soggy and exposed insulation, a storied compendium of generations of graffiti, and evidence of human habitation, arson and partying.

Radar Road, infront of the Quonset Village. Halfway up the mountain, the gravel road turned into pavement, which has surprisingly been left in good condition for being abandoned for over 40 years.

Radar Road, infront of the Quonset Village. Halfway up the mountain, the gravel road turned into pavement, which has surprisingly been left in good condition for being abandoned for over 40 years. Notice the disused utility poles in the background – the telltale sign of habitation. The area would have been very easy to miss now because of how wild it’s gotten.

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The Mess Hall

The Mess Hall

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This Quonset Hut had a few hay bails in it - the floors covered with matted hay and animal feces, like someone had been keeping an animal here recently...

This Quonset Hut had a few hay bales in it – the floors covered with matted hay and animal feces, like someone had been keeping an animal here recently…

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Further evidence of habitation was found in the next room. It seemed like someone was, or is, living here…I had no problem with not running into whoever had made their home here…

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The former bowling alley and theater

The former bowling alley and theater

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The shapes of the radar towers perched high on the summit can be seen from the living area through dense tree growth and overgrown roads.

The shapes of the radar towers and their far away eyes, perched high on the summit, can be seen from the Quonset village through dense tree growth.

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The radar base was already proving to be a creepy area to explore. The compelling silence up there was occasionally met with auditory hallucinations – we would jump at the sound of what we thought were other people lurking somewhere nearby, or the oncoming roar of a motor of a passing vehicle, only to be greeted by nothing but our own fears and the self imposed things that crawled into our heads.

From the Quonset Village, we climbed back in the car and drove up the remaining stretch of Radar Road, and were immediatly met with the most imposing road I’ve ever traveled on. The forest literally was swallowing the road – the cracked paved surface immediately pitched upwards on a grueling steep grade that kept on climbing - the growth was so thick that tree branches came in through our open windows and began to smack us in our faces, until we were forced to roll up the windows. The road was only wide “enough” for one car, and that was even far fetched. There was no place to pull over, no place to turn around. If another car was coming in the opposite direction, especially around one of the many blind hairpin turns that also happen to travel uphill, you would be screwed. One of you would have to give. At this point, the orange glow of my friend’s low fuel light illuminated on the dashboard, giving us another reminder of just how far away we were. If we ran out of gas up here, it would be a very long walk back to civilization.

But the drive to the top was exhilarating – the intoxicating scent of Spruce and Balsam trees blew in the winds and filled the car. Soon, the trees became stunted and the horizon began to open up from the dark forests, and the shapes of hazy blue mountains with their knife sharp ridge lines began to undulate in the horizon. All of the sudden, we were underneath the imposing steel skeletons of the radar towers. We had made it.

Radar Road on the summit - from there, The Presidential Range in New Hampshire could be seen.

Radar Road on the summit – from there, The Presidential Range in New Hampshire could be seen.

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Almost immediately, we were greeted with a good reminder at just how dangerous this place was. Several of the floors in the steel towers were rusted through, some with holes, and others with entire sections that actually swayed and bended with each passing step. Mysterious liquids of various colors rested in odorless pools on the floors and dark spaces, as the wind howled outside and rattled the walls. Rust was everywhere, and the possibility of Tetanus discomforting.

Almost immediately, we were greeted with a good reminder at just how dangerous this place was. Several of the floors in the steel towers were rusted through, some with holes, and others with entire sections that actually swayed and bended with each passing step. Mysterious liquids of various colors rested in odorless pools on the floors and dark spaces, as the wind howled outside and rattled the walls. Rust was everywhere, and the possibility of Tetanus discomforting.

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It wouldn't be an adventure if we didn't find a Bud Light can along the way, which seems to be the drink of choice for people who frequent these types of locations.

It wouldn’t be an adventure if we didn’t find a Bud Light can along the way, which seems to be the drink of choice for people who frequent these types of locations.

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The best part about the visit here was no doubt the magnificent 360 panorama of the Northeast Kingdom and New Hampshire from the top of the tallest radar tower, but getting there was a game of nerves. Climbing up the already questionable structures reverberating with the groans of rusting tin moving in the wind, and up a rusted ladder coated in a layer of mysterious slime that gave you no traction. If you slipped, you plummeted several feet down towards a hard concrete floor into pools of fluids obscuring soggy insulation and rusted objects. But once on top of the tower, as you gaze into unbroken wilderness as far as you can see, and you bask in the profound silence, it’s completely worth it.

At the summit, there were visible campsites made on the slopes beneath the towers. I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it would be to camp up here in the deep, underneath the constellation light. I’m sure it would be a spectacular experience, perhaps even unsettling. As we were leaving, another car came up the road and parked, before a group of teenagers climbed out holding quite a few packs of Twisted Tea. I guess other people are taken by the strange allure of this place as well – and it draws characters of all kinds.

Proving this point, on the way back down the road, we met up with another vehicle, its roof and grill lights flashing, and it was barreling up the road. Thinking it was the police, we found a place to pull over. As the car passed us, we clearly read the words” Zombie Apocalypse Survival Vehicle” written on the sides in police-esque decals, the car soon sped out of sight as it headed towards the mountaintop.

Sometimes, the pursuit of life can bring you to some incredible places.

An old photo of an alleged Indian Mound near the shores of Lake Champlain. Photo courtesy of The Milton Historical Society

On my quest to discover Vermont curiosities, weirdness and mysteries, I made the mistake of overlooking my former hometown of Milton, a community steeped in stories and legends. But Milton presented a challenge to me. While some lore seemed to be well recited among local residents, the actual stories behind the stories simply weren’t there. Over the past year, I began talking to people, writing down notes and choosing things I wanted to research further in detail. I wanted to bring these great stories to life once again, and through arduous research, I was finally able to fill in some missing pieces. This will be the first in what will hopefully be a few entries on Milton mysteries.

A year ago, I stumbled upon an old photo which fascinated me. The photo depicted a large mound of earth dubbed as “The Indian Mound”, it’s vague description locating it somewhere near the shores of Lake Champlain. Was there an Indian Mound in Milton?

I’ve traveled the many dirt roads of West Milton all my life, but have never seen a geological formation like this before. If there was such a mound, surely it would be of great importance. Why was it so discrete? Do people know of its existence? And, the most heavily weighed question, where was it?

An old photo of an alleged Indian Mound near the shores of Lake Champlain. Photo courtesy of The Milton Historical Society

An old photo of an alleged Indian Mound near the shores of Lake Champlain. Photo courtesy of The Milton Historical Society

Speaking with Lorinda Henry from the Milton Historical Society,  she explained that the mystery about the Indian Mound was far greater than the information about it.

After digging through stacks of papers and unlabeled binders at the historical society, I was able to find my first clue; that the mound was located down near Camp Everest in Milton, a hidden area off a series of remote back roads that don’t receive much traffic other than locals, and a name that may very well be lost to many Milton residents today.

A vestige of the days when Milton was a summer tourist destination, Camp Everest was just one of the many large camps that dotted the practically unpopulated shores of Lake Champlain.

In the mid 1800s, camping in summer cottages and tents drew locals and tourists alike to the shores of Lake Champlain – and because of its scenic and quiet location, was a desirable escape from the bustling and dirty urban centers of east coast metropolises.

The camps all had farms, providing them with fresh food. Many of them boasted luxuries such as proximity to clear mountain springs, and the availability of fresh cream, eggs, milk and vegetables. The properties also offered many amenities such as recreation halls, lawn sports, fishing excursions and hayrides. Some camps even had handsome hotels standing proudly above the waters, with classic New England verandas and dramatic peaked roofs. Old advertisements even boldly claimed that they had “positively no mosquitoes” – although, being quite accustomed to Vermont summers,  I can’t help wonder just how they went around keeping that promise.

A hand drawn map of Milton’s summer camp colonies, and the area town known as Miltonboro. Photo courtesy of The Milton Historical Society.

The area along the lakeshore became known as Miltonboro, which included schoolhouses, a church and meetinghouse which catered to the campers and locals who didn’t want to travel all the way to Milton village. Today, most of Miltonboro has vanished, leaving only a small cemetery ringed by a stone wall, and a name on a map.

Camp Everest, the southern most of Milton’s lakeshore camps, was established in 1878 by Zebediah Everest and A.W. Austin, and they couldn’t have chosen a more splendid location. Bordered to the south by serpentine marshlands that now make up the Sandbar Wildlife Management Area, and to the north by the dizzying ledges of Eagle Mountain, with a sweeping view of South Hero island and the Adirondacks across the lake. The camp included a camp house, bowling alley and eight cottages, occupied by both family members and renters. It was here at Camp Everest where the alleged mound was located.

However, the information I read didn’t portray the mound as culturally significant, but rather in a bureaucratic sense – it was simply a piece of property. A camp was built atop the steep hill in 1927 by the Hutchins family, and named “Indian Mound”, perhaps romantically after what the earlier campers viewed the mound to look like. I was able to reach out to Barbara Hutchins, whose family originally owned the camp, and she was kind enough to give me further information.

She explained that the mound itself was probably formed during the glacier age, most likely a remnant of the Saint Lawrence Ice Sheet that once covered this part of North America. UVM did some digs around the mound in the 1950s, and found nothing of Native American significance, but they did find some old sea shells and fossils, evidence of the Champlain Sea,  the tropical sea which covered what is now Vermont millions of years ago.

The Hutchins eventually sold the camp, and lost track of the property. I was able to dig up choppy pieces of information at the historical society – listing the names of various people who leased the camp throughout the years. The dates got sparse after 1970. Eventually, the information just seemed to cease. So, what happened to it? Was it still there?

Lorinda Henry explained that the state of Vermont wanted to hack apart the mound and use it to fill in a nearby swampland in 1948, but further research told me that because the area was prone to flooding, they decided not to, because the amount of dirt they would have gotten from the mound would have most likely been lost within a few years, leading me back to my original question.

The existence of an Indian Mound is also curious, because Vermont was never thought to be associated with mound building Indians. But then again, at one time, it was thought that Native Americans never settled in what is now Vermont. But Milton farmers would constantly find artifacts and arrowheads while clearing and plowing their fields. Arrowheads were also allegedly found when Andrea Lane, a small neighborhood off Route 7, was being constructed years ago. Lorinda Henry explains that because of native traces in the area, there are parts of the neighborhood that can’t even be developed because of archaeological significance. If that myth was debunked, than would the presence of an Indian Mound be that hard to believe?

On a breezy August day this summer, I took the beautiful drive back down towards Camp Everest, with the intention of solving this mystery. The camp is much different from it’s heyday, now a series of private camps, owned by various people. The bowling alley and other amenities have long vanished into history and the creeping forests.

With the hand drawn map featured above in this post as my only reference, I scanned the roadside and across the many meadows bordering the area, but the imposing sight of the Indian Mound was never seen rising above the various clover filled fields or cedar forests near the roadside. I ran into several people, some jogging, others washing their SUVs in their driveways, and they were all happy to talk with me. But sadly, none of them knew about an Indian Mound or a camp of the same name. Some were out of staters and weren’t aware of the area’s history.

From the map, I was able to sort of pin point the general location of the mound, but the area is much different than when the picture was taken. I had assumed, the mound might be still existing, now deep in the woods and covered in vegetation. But shortly after publishing this blog entry, I stumbled upon some further information.

Laurie Scott, who is an Everest, explained to me that the mound was eventually purchased by the grandson of the Hutchins family. The Everest’s lease most of the land where the camps sit, but her grandmother, Ethel Everest, sold the mound to them. The mound and the camp are still there, and as I assumed, is now obscured, hiding successfully behind a Vermont forest – an ideal getaway.

An interesting footnote to this story is that while trying to solve the mystery of this “Indian Mound”, Barbara Hutchins recalls that she heard there were a few other professed Indian mounds somewhere in Milton as well, but as for their locations, she doesn’t remember, leaving this intriguing mystery currently ongoing.

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A favorite activity of mine is to go shunpiking – cruising around Vermont’s back roads and letting my eyes and mind soak up whats out there. A few nights ago while traveling down a straight-of-way in Addison County, a pancake flat paved rural roadway surrounded on both sides by expansive hay fields, I came across a forested island in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing – a small patch of surprisingly dense hardwood trees, tall grasses, and the Vermont state flower, the Clover. Behind the growth, I noticed there was something man made here that was coexisting with the small jungle - the second story of a sordid farmhouse could be seen above a fortress of clinging vines that were almost consuming the structure. Slowing down to take a better look, I realized there was yet another abandoned house across the street that was nearly invisible, and behind it, I could make out the shapes of a scattering of barns and sheds, all falling and fading. I had stumbled on an abandoned farm.

Pulling off into what was once probably a driveway, I basked for a moment in the silence that hung around the farm. The sounds of crickets and the smell of clover came through the open windows, and the breeze gently rustled the trees. As I was sitting in my late summer reverie, movement caught my eye. From behind the abandoned farmhouse I was near, a solitary figure rode into the opening on a bike, through thick grass and tanglewoods that I assumed were probably very difficult to bike through. Manning the bike was a gentleman, who appeared to be in his 40s, outfitted in moth eaten clothing and a rather new looking bike helmet. He approached the car, and I braced for his encounter the best I could, giving him a small smile, waiting to see what was about to unfold.

“What are you doing here?” was his first question, which I predicted as much. “I’m just turning around, took the wrong road” I said calmly and cautiously. “Do you own this land? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you”. “Oh, I worked here for over 30 years, so I pretty much do own the land” he began. “The farm is abandoned now, the family is pretty much all dead. I still come by almost every week and check up on things though” “Oh wow, that’s pretty incredible. This place looks like it has a lot of history” I observed. And that seemed to light an internal fire - a simple initiation of conversation, and suddenly, his reserves were taken down, and he opened up to me. “Oh man, the stories I could tell you”. I smiled at him and explained my passion for stories and history. His eyes lit up like flashbulbs. “Actually – do you have some time, I can show you around?”

Next thing I knew, I had my camera in hand, and was ignoring my better senses as I followed a total stranger through thick tall grasses, well out of sight from the relative safety of the road out front. He introduced himself as Ivan as we went to shake hands. Putting blind faith in this gentleman, I allowed him to lead me around the property and we began to talk about the shifty ways of time, his stories cutting deep into history.

“I started working here when I was 10, back in the 60s”, Ivan began. “I used to carry hay bails from the fields to the barn all day long. That’s how I got these” he snickered, as he flexed his muscles. “I used to work all day long, never took a water break. People always used to warn me I’d get dehydrated, but I never did” he said proudly. 

We found ourselves standing in front of a barn. “These barns are over 150 years old, built from Oak, Cherry and Ash, all cut right here on this property. There used to be a mill over there” he gestured to now open pastureland. He walked over and wedged a sliding door open, it made a loud groaning noise as the door grinded against the building. The entire facade seemed to tremble at this disturbance.

Inside was a forgotten world. Incredibly thick quilts of spiderwebs clung to brawny timber beams and fell from the ceilings like snow, getting tangled in my hair. Hay scattered on the dirt floors 30 years ago was still there, matted and molding. Certain rooms were packed wall to wall with various artifacts. wooden apple crates, tires with wooden rims, old bikes, desks and shelves filled with various artifacts and paraphernalia, accounts of over 150 years of farming now sitting forsaken underneath swirling dust and sunlight coming in through dirt streaked windows. On our way out, he noted me looking at the apple crates. “I love these things. I have a few of them in my apartment, holding books and stuff” I commented. “Oh yeah, I love those old crates too. There used to be an apple orchard right behind this barn. Over 100 trees! I remember, we all used to eat so many apples – they were great on a hot summer day. They tore them all out a few years ago, the entire orchard”

Making our way through the tall grasses, we made our way across the property. In a neighboring barn almost completely concealed by tree growth, he pointed out that that particular barn was used exclusively for trapping. The farmers used to trap unlimited beavers, otters and raccoons on their property and the nearby creek, and used to bring all the pelts to hang and dry in that barn – where a long narrow hallway ran between two sets of walls where the hooks still were hanging.  “This barn used to be full of hides – all the walls would be covered” he reminisced. “We used to either eat them or sell them. Any bit of money helped” It was a strange image, staring at those filthy and barren walls that afternoon underneath filtered light streaming through broken boards. I noticed a dated industrial grain sorting machine at the very end of the narrow hall. He told me that the farm used to also produce its very own grain. The floor was still coated in ankle high piles of the stuff and it had gotten in my shoes. Standing inside, there was a moment of silence as we took in our surroundings, and weird sounds seeped throughout, the soft summer breeze clearing my mind.

Wondering back around one of the abandoned houses, he told me that after the farm started to go out, the house was rented out to people outside the family. The last occupiers apparently stole a great deal from the farm. Valuable antiques such as firearms, milk jugs and other artifacts they had been taken. Most of the original family had died off, all but one member, who is now well into her senior years, and still lives nearby. She’s tired and doesn’t have the want to upkeep the farm anymore, and is almost completely unaware of it’s slow collapse. “It’s a real shame” he said. “Once she dies, a guy wants to buy the place, come in and bulldoze all the barns, the houses, everything. They want to expand the fields and farm this area. Everything here will be lost”.

Walking across the road, he brought me over to another abandoned farmhouse. “Back in the 60s – this used to be filled with people from California. Used to come up here by the bus loads – there must have been at least 20 or so people living in this house. They were the ones who were in charge of keeping this farm running ship shape”

The door to the house opened effortlessly, swung inwards and banged against the neighboring wall – the sound was like a shotgun blast in the somber interior. Inside, the life was gone, but something kept on creeping on, the floors creaked as the past walked by. The interior was what I expected to find in an old Vermont farmhouse. Faded linoleum floors, porcelain sinks, peeling wallpaper and rooms filled with garbage. There were holes where stove pipes used to run and heat the house, and an the exposed skeletons of an electrical system that looked like it was done haphazardly years ago. “There used to be rows of bunk beds in these rooms – they all used to sleep in here” he pointed out as he swung open a door of an upstairs room.

As we walked back down the stairs, he paused at one door we hadn’t opened yet – the basement door. The entire farmhouse had shifted and slumped over the years, almost trapping the door in its frame, but after a few hard tugs, it wrenched free, sending splintered fragments of crown molding in the air. The basement was pitch black, and the old wooden stairs were no longer standing. “You know, I’ve always wondered if there was like a chest full of gold or something down there” Ivan said as he scanned the darkness with his eyes. I was now curious. Was he making a joke? But he was quick to explain. “Back when I was growing up – I heard stories that the older members of the family had hidden gold coins around the farm. There was some sort of currency scare in the 1800s where people assumed paper money was going to loose its value, so they all started to switch to gold coins. I guess I heard they had a few stashes hid around the houses” Hidden treasure was certainly intriguing to me, so I asked him if he had ever found any of these alleged gold coins perhaps hidden under a floorboard or in the pipe of a woodstove. “Nope, never. I think it’s just a story” he said.  With a little research later, I discovered that there was in fact a large scale panic in the mid 1800s, The Panic of 1837, where wages, prices and profits went down, and unemployment and a general distrust of banks went up. As a result, I’ve heard other stories of old Vermonters investing in gold currency, something they were confident was dependable and safe, and kept it around the house as opposed to opening an account at a bank. Even if his intriguing story was a rumor, or if he was simply trying to spin a yarn, it did have its roots in historical accuracy.

Now outside the house, he brought me over to another barn and stared up at a rusted basketball hoop rim that was hung above one of the entrances. “Used to play here a lot as a kid to pass the time” he recalled nostalgically. “We used to have games, me and the Californians. Was thinking about going out for the basketball team in high school, but I never did”

“How often do you come by?” I asked Ivan, now curious by our chance meeting. “About every week” he replied. “I like to check up on the place, to make sure things are alright, to make sure it’s all as it should be”. It seemed Ivan was waiting in vain for something to happen – throbbing, and wincing, not knowing who to love or who to blame.

Getting ready to leave, I reached out to shake his hand, and sincerely thank him for his grand tour. It always means a lot when people open up to me – those experiences suddenly become shared experiences, and effect both parties involved. “It’ll sure be sad when this place goes, that’s for sure. Just down the road, the neighboring farm already sold parts of their land to other people, and they built houses on them” I knew too well what he was talking about. “Yeah, that’s pretty common. A lot of the farms I remember growing up around have succumbed to development now” My comment seemed to strike him off his feet. “What? Oh no…I’ve never really left town, haven’t really been anywhere I guess. So I wouldn’t really know” he said wistfully, he almost seemed to grieve from the disease of change and urbanism. I felt badly for him, it seemed all he wanted was a sense of place, but there was only silence and heavy humidity.

It’s always interesting to think about how many great stories are still existing in Vermont that have gone untold, and are in danger of completely disappearing. Images of proud men slick with sweat sticking to tractor seats and labor that would break the summer’s back. Farm life isn’t a romanticized escape from the bustle of modern life, it’s sadly an often thankless, lynchian job of back breaking work with little to show for it. But it also is a labor of love and devotion matched by earnest gazes and blue skies that have seen the same troubles as us. Exploring abandoned places like this sometimes compels you to look for answers to your own questions, but all I seemed to find is everything seems to change. As the world progresses into a future that seems like a dream now, countless more farms may find themselves like this one. It’s an experience like this in a haze of turbulent innocence, where you get a hard reminder that nothing stays the same.

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House of the Syrup Folk

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My so called urban exploring profile is relatively prolific, I’ve had the chance to explore many wonderful places and have had memorable experiences in the wake of them. But there is always that one place that stands out from the rest – and on a breezy August morning, I stood in front of what has to be the most unnerving house I have ever explored, and it was the question of why that really bothered me the most…

Skulking off a quiet backroad underneath the canopy of dense forests, on a slope with at least a 9 percent grade – this fading weathered house sits in the forest like an infected sore – a strange world where nature slowly undoes the deeds of man, with skin so thick, it’s empty eyes were like knives, not worried about who was receiving them.

The awkwardness started from the moment I got out of the car, and got a good look at the place over a forest of thorns and vines that had been tangled in the wind – a solitary trail sleuthed its way through the growth towards the house. Something had been through here recently. Staring up at it’s faded and splintery facade that almost matched the wilderness around it, there was something unsettling about the place. You could actually feel it’s age, and you could smell the smells – that typical old house perfume and rot that hung around the property like musk. Through the broken windows, the interior was pitch black, with secrets smothered in dirt. Though my fears weren’t routed in anything empirical, my skin was trembling.

Deciding to get a better look at the place, I proceeded to stumble through the grass. I was already regretting it. The thorns immediately sliced my arms and legs to ribbons, and I began to stumble over things that were previously hidden. Rusted trailers, oil barrels, broken glass and a knotted web of disused sap lines lay along the weedy floor, all covered in condensation which coated my boots, and made me slip more than once. Just getting over towards the place was turning into an adventure. Bees swarmed from flower to flower, and unseen creatures slithered in the grass, making the stalks snap and rustle.

Standing at the foot of it’s darkness, I noticed some things that immediately made me stop my pursuit. There was a new looking satellite dish on the side of the building, and an even newer looking utility box. But, there was no electrical hookup to the house. Some of the wires sat exposed, pulled out of the walls, and chewed on. Could someone actually live here? There were giant holes in the wall, and half the windows had long been shattered, but from my experience, that isn’t always evidence…

Upon closer investigation, I noticed an odd sight. Someone had actually taken the time to pick up the large fragments of broken window glass, and set them back into the wooden window frames. Other windows were barricaded from the inside, with chairs pushed up against them holding curtains in place. Someone made vague attempts to keep people out it seemed, but just around the corner, there was a door that was wide open, and a broken window would easily allow access. What was going on here? Peering inside a window, the interior of the house was cast in shadow, further and further, until there was nothing but strange land. A cold dampness settled on my face, and I could taste the musk as it settled in the air on my tongue.

I couldn’t explain it, I was incredibly uncomfortable at this point. I felt like something was watching me, like something was lurking just beyond the lens of my camera, offering no explanation. Though the inside of the house was smoldering in an entombed silence, there were strange noises coming from the places out of reach, like something was moving, something unknown saying, if I stay here, trouble will find me. To add to my unnerved state, tree branches around the house started to snap, but no one was around.

Eventually, I trekked back towards the road and rejoined my friend, who had opted not to go any closer to the place. I guess I couldn’t really blame him at this point. “I heard weird noises coming inside – I decided to leave” I said when I saw his questionable face. “Oh, I thought I heard something as well” he said. “I thought it was the syrup folk or something coming by” I stopped. “syrup folk?” He then pointed to the labyrinth of active sky blue sap lines that criss-crossed around the property. Though I now understood what he meant, there was something cryptic, almost ominous (and probably uniquely Vermont) about the term “syrup folk” that really stuck with me, hence the name for this blog post.

Though my trip here was discomforting, it’s these sort of experiences that often can be regarded as some of our finest ones - allowing you to discover what’s deep between your own skin and bones. And at the very least, they make for the best stories.

As we were about to leave, just to confirm my suspicions that something was inside, a raccoon popped it’s head out of the third story window, through a broken section of shutter, stared at us for a few seconds, than dipped back in to the deep cold darkness inside.

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Isle La Motte's Lighthouse, as seen from North Point Road - the best place to get a good view of it, unless you have a boat or a kayak.

Though Vermont is the only New England state without a seacoast, we have our fair share of vast waters and attractive islands here. The Champlain Islands – an archipelago stretching from the Canadian Border, encompassing roughly 200 miles of shoreline around a trio of islands and a peninsula, is practically a different world. Accessible only by 3 bridges or a ferry from Cumberland Head, New York, the islands are isolated from the rest of the state, and as a result, are relaxed (though, 21st century stress doesn’t entirely escape) and carry a different attitude.

With the Adirondacks rising dramatically to the west across the lake, and the Green Mountains to the east and the south, the islands are a beautiful place. There’s not much to do, and that’s exactly what I love about this region. Route 2, the main artery, passes through 4 out of 5 towns that make up Grand Isle County, with the only stoplight being on the drawbridge that separates North Hero from Grand Isle. The economy is largely dependent on agriculture and tourism, most often combining the two in agritourism pursuits of farm stands, restaurants, and even a vineyard.

Things can coexist up here in the world around it peacefully, and sometimes, even manage to go largely undetected. And those sort of conditions are just ripe for mysteries. The numerous smaller and inaccessible islands that dot the lake are mysteries unto themselves – which are also most commonly private property. It’s easy and fun to speculate what sort of things happen on those remote chunks of rock, and what can be found there.

Carleton’s Prize

One of the most interesting stories I heard comes from off the south west coast of South Hero – a small chunk of rock rising 30 feet from the choppy waters of Lake Champlain, in a large passage between Providence and Stave Islands. One day, I was searching on Google maps, and noticed that this almost insignificantly tiny scrap of land had a rather peculiar name; Carleton’s Prize. Why would a small rock have such a strange name? What exactly is the prize here?

As it turns out, the name can be dated back to the Revolutionary War. Local lore has it that Benedict Arnold escaped around Valcour Island with what remained of his fleet during the battle of Valcour Island- and a dense fog had draped over the lake.  The trailing British fleet, lead by Sir Guy Carleton, were searching for escaping American fleets, but unknown to them, the Americans had slipped by them in the cover of night.

But up ahead, through the fog, they spotted something. A silhouette of what appeared to be a ship. This was their chance. The British bombarded it with cannon fire. However, the smoke from all the black powder obscured their vision even more, and eventually, they couldn’t see a thing. But determined to take down those no good Americans, they kept on firing. An hour later, the firing finally stopped, and the smoke and fog cleared, and they would finally see what an hour of shooting had gained them. And what a dose of reality it was.

They hadn’t been firing on an American ship. They had wasted several rounds of ammunition on a small rocky outcropping in the middle of the lake they had mistaken as a ship. Since then, somehow and somewhere down the line, the small landmass has been referred to as Carleton’s Prize. Some say that you can still see the scars from cannon fire, and maybe even a cannonball or two on the island’s rocky shore to this day. But this is where the story gets a bit hard to trace. This story apparently isn’t well documented, and not much information exists to actually back this up – apart from a Wikipedia article and a blog entry - but even the blogger was questioning the truth of this interesting legend. So, did this blunder actually happen? I suppose we can only speculate. As far as I know, no one has came back with a cannonball yet.

Though the story of Carleton’s Prize is intriguing, the island’s original name is far more mystical. In the book, In Search of New England’s Native Past, author Gordon Day tells us the Abenaki knew this small rock as odzihózoiskwá, or “Odzihozo’s wife”. But who or what is Odzihozo?

Odzihozo, “the transformer”, was the supernatural being who created Lake Champlain, the mountains and all the lands that made up their homeland.

According to the legend, Odzihozo was an impatient deity, and before he was even completely formed with a head, legs and arms, he set out to change the earth. His last creation was Lake Champlain, which he considered his masterpiece – and he was incredibly happy with it. So happy in fact, that he climbed onto a rock in Burlington Bay and turned himself to stone so he could watch and be near the lake for the rest of eternity. The rock still resides in Burlington Bay, and is known to boaters as Rock Dunder - several miles away from his wife. It was said that the local Abenaki would bring offerings of tobacco to the rock as late as the 1940s.

travel tip: near White’s Beach, make sure to check out the alluring bird house forest and keep an eye out for the miniature Barber castles scattered around the island.

Carleton's Prize - the small bump in between the 2 islands.

Carleton’s Prize – the small bump in between the 2 islands.

Carleton's Prize from White's Beach in South Hero

Carleton’s Prize from White’s Beach in South Hero

Isle La Motte’s Coral Reef

From the extreme southern portion of the islands, we travel to both the most northern and most remote of them – tiny Isle La Motte.  It is here where one of Vermont’s true treasures can be found – something prehistoric, something unique, and something that many people wouldn’t expect to find in the northern reaches of Vermont.

Around the island, curious visitors can witness evidence of the oldest fossilized coral reef in the world – some 480 million years old. As a matter of fact, almost the entire southern half of the island is made up of this incredible natural resource.

Many years ago, Isle La Motte was underneath the warm waters of a tropical sea, roughly where Zimbabwe is today. Officially dubbed the Chazy Reef, it once stretched from an area covering Quebec to around Tennessee, now sitting fossilized in quarries and underneath farms around the island. Over the millenia, the earth’s crust shifted, and eventually, due to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the pull of the tides, Limestone formed, preserving the reef.

On a recent visit, I had the experience to view some of the reef myself. Stopping at the Fisk Quarry preserve, I was first taken by the tranquility of the place, almost quietly awe inspiring. And yet, if there weren’t signs to hint at what you were looking at – you might not even know you were walking around such a magnificent treasure.

The Fisk Quarry itself is actually no longer an active quarry – nothing has been quarried here in over a century after the incredibly rare and highly desirable “Black Marble”. In 1995, proposals to once again open the quarry for asphalt purposes was put on the table, but local residents who didn’t want to see the fossils get turned into road fill, protested, banded together, and was able to get the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust and the Lake Champlain Land Trust to officially protect the land in 1999.

Today, it’s incredible to think that you are walking around on a coral reef – it’s years of history preserved, giving scientists an understanding of the formations of primitive reefs and their development overtime – in other words, what the world was like millions of years ago.

Nature has reclaimed most of the quarry and other reef viewing sights, offering tall grasses and wildflowers and mixed swamp lands with still green pools (and of course, mosquitoes). Underneath your feet, you can see the undulating patterns eternally molded into the stone, and various outcroppings and quarry walls showcasing different fossils. The nearby Goodsell Ridge Preserve has an even more remarkable collection of fossils that are much easier to find. Maybe next time, I’ll be more prepared.

Perhaps the real mystery is why in an area ranging from Quebec to Tennessee, the best preserved chunk of the reef is in Isle La Motte? That still remains to be explained.

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According to a sign, the areas around the white portions of the quarry walls are where most of the fossils can be seen.

A Pink Lighthouse

To some, the idea of a traditional lighthouse seems out of place in tiny landlocked Vermont. But Lake Champlain’s 587 miles of shoreline is home to 12 lighthouses, 6 of them belonging to The Green Mountain State.

At a total of 120 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point, Lake Champlain is the 13th largest lake in the United States. Often dubbed as “New England’s West Coast”,  the lake was a vital part of the settlement of the region and has been inseparable from local history.  In 1819, the Champlain Canal was completed, connecting the lake to the Hudson River and eventually New York City. This would change the culture of the lake as it was propelled into a transportation route for trade and tourism. Burlington became the largest port on Lake Champlain, and the third largest lumber port in North America. The waterfront was transformed into a bustling and chaotic shoreline of mills, factories and no shortage of cargo ships and passenger steam liners. With this much travel on the lake, lighthouses were needed to make sure travel could be made safely from one end to the other. And with a series of dangerous reefs and no less than 70 islands scattered throughout the lake, these lighthouses played important parts to keeping the lake running efficiently.

Today, the lake is a different place then it was 200 years ago. Heavy ship travel have been replaced by personal recreation boats and a few ferries carrying people across the lake. Interstates 87 and 89 run along both sides of the lake, and have became the main routes of travel between Canada and the United States, leaving the lighthouses unnecessary. Now, these vestiges of the past have slowly been forgotten as the lake tides carry their memories into the mists. However, they are still surviving, finding new lives as private estates or cultural showpieces. Some are landmarks, and others have made large efforts to camouflage them from public knowledge, an irony to their original purpose.

The lighthouses of the lake have always been a curious subject for me. I’ve spent summers traveling around the shorelines and seeing countless summer camps, McMansions and beaches, but a lighthouse is a rare, almost unseemly. But as it just so happens, one of the 6 lights in Vermont rests on Isle La Motte, and unlike most, you can sort of catch a glimpse of it.

The realization of  the need for a light on Isle La Motte started humbly in 1829 with some good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity; by hanging a lantern light on a tree branch on the Northwestern tip of the island, to help mariners navigate their way around the island and through the channel. In 1856, the U.S. government purchased the land around the point for a grand total of $50. The first attempt at a real structure was made in the form of a pyramid shaped limestone tower that would hold the lantern.  However, the lantern would always blow out on stormy nights, and eventually the need of an actual lighthouse became evident, and in 1881, the first permanent lighthouse was finally constructed on Isle La Motte.

A twenty-five-foot tower made of curved cast-iron plates was constructed. Originally painted bright red, the tower features many attentions to detail, such as an Italianate cast railing, arched windows, and molded cornices. Over time, it has faded to a light pink.

During the 1930s, in a cost saving measure, lighthouses began to be replaced with steel skeletal towers. The Isle La Motte light was replaced in 1933. In 2001, the Coast Guard determined it would be cheaper to return the light to the original tower rather than replace the deteriorating steel tower and on October 5, 2002, the light once again shined across the lake’s waters.

A reminder from the locals that they would prefer you not drive down aptly named Light House Point Road - it's a private road.

A reminder from the locals that they would prefer you not drive down aptly named Light House Point Road – it’s a private road, and the lighthouse is private property.

Isle La Motte's Lighthouse, as seen from North Point Road - the best place to get a good view of it, unless you have a boat or a kayak.

Isle La Motte’s Lighthouse, as seen from North Point Road – the best place to get a good view of it, unless you have a boat or a kayak.

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Cloak Island

Off of Isle La Motte’s south east coast is a small island with a weird name; Cloak Island. Why would you name an island, Cloak Island? In Tara Liloia’s book Champlain Islands, the name behind the interesting moniker is revealed. As the story goes, a domestic quarrel in the 1770s boiled over, when Eleanor Fisk got sick of her husband’s angry tempers. She hitched up her team of horses and set out across the frozen lake towards Alburgh, but never made it. Later, her red cloak was found along the bushes and rocks of the island, which would forever be known as Cloak.

But there is another variation of the story. After Eleanor Fisk went missing, concerned townsfolk suspected she had drowned, but needed proof. So, they gathered down near the lake and dropped her red cloak into the water. An old Yankee superstition dictated that to find the body of a drowned victim, all you had to do was drop a cloak belonging to the missing woman in the water and it will come to rest above the body. The cloak eventually found its way over to the island and got tangled on the beach, thus giving Isle La Motte’s tiny neighbor it’s name.

Weird Waters

Isle La Motte’s waters seem to hold many secrets at their murky bottoms, where they lay until we learn to live with them. The island’s west shore, which is ringed by vacation cabins and small farms within sight of the matchstick like silhouettes of the Malone wind farm, has been host to allegedly bizarre phenomena over the years. In 2004, a Champ sighting was supposedly reported off of Isle La Motte near Point Au Fer, by a Maryland family out on their boat, when there was an “explosion” that came out of the water, followed by 3 “humps” that breached the surface and sank back down almost as quickly as they came up. The startled family had no explanation for what they all witnessed, and none of them were fast enough to grab a camera. Champ sightings are all good, but there is a much larger scale of weirdness that tends to get reported from around the lake, including people claiming they saw balls of light shoot astonishingly out of the water! The weirdness continues with other unidentified swimming objects spotted moving against the tides and creating large wakes in their path. There are even said to be UFO sightings. Sadly, these claims aren’t nearly detailed enough to warrant a separate blog entry at the moment or even more than one paragraph (maybe a future blog entry in the works?), but are certainly compelling. After all, it comes as no surprise to most of us that weird stuff has been reported along and around Lake Champlain for centuries, but rarely makes it into circulation.

Cloak Island

Cloak Island

I’d like to close this entry on island weirdness, with both an interesting account and a fact I was able to dig up. One of them happened many years ago. On May 19th, 1780, something called a “dark day” was experienced across the islands. Starting in the morning, and lasting for 36 straight hours, the area was plunged into inexplicable and startling darkness, so much so that people were lighting candles and lanterns in the middle of the day, just to see.

While this might seem terrifying and otherworldly – the explanation is easily presentable. During that time, vast wildfires were rapidly spreading their way across Ontario, the smoke billowing down into New England skies. Today, Vermonters are relativity experienced with that, as smoke from Quebec forest fires of previous years have spread down our way. However, nothing thus far as been powerful enough to send us into another “dark day”.

Another fun fact worth noting, especially if you’re a geography buff, is that Alburgh is one of only six non island places in the continental United States that doesn’t share a land border with anywhere else in the country. Alburgh, being a peninsula, is surrounded by water, and technically cut off from both Vermont and New York. It’s only land border is with Quebec.

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On a recent cruise along the back roads of St. Albans town, I came across something peculiar among the sprawling pastures and humble farmhouses. Heading down the dips and rises of Lower Newton Street, the strange object could be seen a long distance away from it’s location, towering above the forests and silos of farm country, and it stuck out. Pulling over to get a better look at this curiosity, my first thought was, “it looks like an oil derrick “. But I stopped. The idea of an oil derrick in Vermont seemed out of place, especially today. So, was this rusting tower, slightly leaning over an entanglement of field grass, in fact an oil well? When I arrived home, coffee mug sitting nearby, I took to the internet, and found what seems to be a lost, yet briefly fascinating era of Vermont history.

Vermont has a rich history of treasure seeking it seems. From the annoyingly mysterious Captain Mallett supposedly burying his gold chest near Coats Island on Malletts Bay, Spanish prospectors finding silver deep within our granite mountains, or the suspected Celtic copper seekers and the strange stone domes left behind from their visits.

The northwest part of the state can also join the ranks of treasure booms, and like many tales, it took a matter of digging deeper to uncover it.

The strangeness started with the Bellrose family of Swanton. Lawrence Bellrose had just dug a 650 foot well, and successfully struck water, which he had then hooked up to the plumbing of their house. Shortly after, a fuse blew out in the cellar, followed by a strange hissing noise. Mr. Bellrose descended the stairs to investigate the damage but was taken by that foreign sound. He struck a match for light, and the room lit up with a fireball.

But this apparently wasn’t an isolated incident, as other Vermonters from around the region have also had similarly bizarre encounters in their own homes.

Highgate Center well digger Lyman Feely was drilling a well in South Alburgh. He had reached 465 feet and hit an abundant water source, which provided 60 gallons a minute. One of his men had light a small fire nearby to keep his hands warm – and when the drill hit water, there was a large explosion which tore through his rig and and badly injured two of his men. After the explosion, Feely found that the well was filled with bubbling gas and floating rock.

Kitchen faucets at Robert Carpenter’s farm in nearby Alburgh blazed like torches, which some people might consider to be attributed to a rare phenomena called fire water. What was going on here?

In St. Albans, a similar event unfolded, but this time, something was different. After a farmer near the Yandow farm accidentally set his entire field ablaze, they noticed that most of the flame quickly went out, but a small crevice continued to burn, which was the key to this seemingly nonsensical phenomena. This wasn’t something supernatural – this was just the opposite and very much natural. They had discovered natural gas deposits in Northern Vermont.

Though this might have came to a shock for some people, as early as the 1950s,  The American Gas Association had mapped and studied the Lake Champlain valley and claimed that the region would be a valuable source for natural gas and oil in the future. And it seemed to be true. Robert Carpenter recalled that a lot of neighboring wells dug in Grand Isle County would often be found to be filled with natural gas.

Nothing was really ever acted upon, until St. Albans businessman Douglass Kelley became interested, and launched Vermont’s first oil boom. Because natural gas is often discovered before oil, Kelley assumed he was sitting on top of a black gold mine.

Kelley banded together a group of like minded associates, and started the now defunct Maquam Gas and Oil Company. On April 19th, 1957, Isadore Yandow’s St. Albans farm became the first place in Vermont to be drilled for oil. Soon, neighboring landowners were swayed by dreams of becoming rich and the rest of the state dreamed of the prosperity that the oil boom had brought other places in the country. Kelley even brought school buses full of children and tourists out to rural St. Albans to see the rig. Everyone seemed to be interested.

But after months of drilling to a depth of 4,500 feet, labor teams working intensely around the clock, and striking rocks, methane, water and everything but oil, operations finally stopped and the prospects were abandoned. Because Vermont was new to the oil culture, maybe they didn’t realize that often only one out of several wells that would be constructed would ever actually strike oil – and Kelley only financed and constructed a single well.

But the seeds were already planted, and a few years later, two more wells were financed and constructed in Malletts Bay, but after reaching 10,000 feet, they ran out of money and left empty handed as well.

Rutland resident and geologist Earle Taylor wasn’t so quick to abandon the dream. He also figured if they found natural gas deposits, then oil would surely follow. Taylor contacted Rutland attorney James Abatiell, and with 24 other Vermonters, formed the Cambrian Corporation, and Taylor’s expertise proved to be as “good as gold”.  He did a large scale geological survey of Vermont, costing well over $100,000, and the results were promising.

Between 1962 and 1963, Cambrian persuaded Belgian oil company Petrofina to come to Vermont and run an operation on a parcel of farmland in Alburgh. From the accounts of the operation, things were looking good – the company had drilled to a depth of over a mile with a tower 160 feet high.  This was also the first dig in Vermont to use rotary equipment – and extensive further studies were conducted as the beginning cuts were made. They even went as far as doing sonic and gamma-ray tests on the topography. It seems this was incredibly and painstakingly well researched and meticulously planned. The crew was said to have kept saying “It’s looking good, it’s looking good!” the entire time. But something happened. They just stopped, left, and gave no explanation. To this day, that remains a mystery. And just like that, Vermont’s first and only oil boom came to an end with little commotion.

Today, almost no visible evidence remains of this short lived time in Vermont history, except for that single abandoned derrick in rural St. Albans, rusting at the edge of a sprawling cornfield. The wooden blocks at the base of the derrick have rotted away long ago, slowly making the derrick tip to about 30 degrees, eventually coming to rest on the well head.

I can’t help but wonder, if someone were to pick up where Kelley left off, would they find a rich supply of Vermont oil just feet before the cut off point?

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In 2012, Vermont took a completely different direction, as Governor Peter Shumlin officially  signed a bill into law making Vermont the first state to banf racking. But, drilling is still permitted.

A smaller vestige of Vermont's oil boom in Grand Isle, a former wind (or possibly water powered) pump/drill.

A smaller vestige of Vermont’s oil boom in Grand Isle, a former wind (or possibly water powered) pump/drill.

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If you’re curious, the Vermont Geological Society has a map with all of the former oil drilling operations in the Northwest part of the state – and you can view that here.

Additional Links:

Oil and Gas in Vermont: A collection of oil and gas articles and information dating from the 1950s to 1989

A History of Oil and Gas in Vermont, The Addison Eagle

Vermont Crude“, Green Mountains Dark Tales by Joseph Citro

On Vermont’s Great Oil Boom, Lance Khouri, Vermont Life Spring 1977

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