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?
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.
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.
“Vermont Crude“, Green Mountains Dark Tales by Joseph Citro
On Vermont’s Great Oil Boom, Lance Khouri, Vermont Life Spring 1977
Though I’ve written about The Caverly Preventorium previously, it wasn’t until a few days ago when I would actually get to set foot inside for myself. Meeting up with Paul Dulski from Haunted Vermont, we set out for the Rutland County town of Pittsford.
Researching the storied and often troubling history about the hospital, as well as listening to numerous people telling me of uncomfortable and most often unaccountable events that they experienced inside the building, this abandoned tuberculosis hospital in the woods has long held my interest. It certainly is a unique place in the Green Mountain State. Even DeadFi productions offered strange accounts they remembered while filming there one night last fall. But it wasn’t until visiting the place that I truly had a better understanding on just how compelling it really was.
Pittsford Volunteer Fire Department members Cody Hesse and Ethan Nordmeyer, who also help run the Pittsford Haunted House, a Halloween attraction ran on the first floor of the abandoned hospital every October, were kind enough to agree to unlock the building and give me a first hand tour. Sitting outside, swatting away swarms of mosquitoes under summer humidity, I got my first look at the hospital. Already, it was firing my imagination, and I underestimated it. The building looked smaller than I had thought – and with the tacky Halloween props decorating the facade, I admittedly wasn’t taking my first impressions all that seriously.
However, I had subconsciously broken my first rule of adventuring, to come in with an open mind. And as I was soon to find out, that would end almost immediately as they unlocked the basement door, and beckoned for me to step inside. I knew things were going to be interesting when I saw the amount of effort the fire department took to keep people out. Each entrance was outfitted with deadbolts and padlocks. Ethan explained that several people had attempted to break in recently. Some of the doors were damaged from where a forced entry via crowbar was unsuccessfully attempted.
Apart from renovations to create the different areas of the haunted house, the bones were still authentic. The basement was musty and dark, a labyrinth of side rooms and doors. A massive old boiler adorned with ornate decor on its cast iron door was illuminated by the beam of a flashlight, standing out from swirling dust. Old industrial porcelain sinks, and relics from the old hospital lay stacked up in piles, leaning against the old walls in silence.
Almost immediately, my camera began to act up, which was a rare occurrence for me. It refused to focus when I attempted to take a photo and my battery kept loosing energy. To the group’s amusement, they all laughed at my misfortunes, and nodded their heads in mutual affirmation. They had all seen this happen before.
Cody fiddled with another padlock and swung open a camouflaged side door, revealing the staircase leading up towards the second floor, an area that visitors aren’t allowed to see. Almost instantly, the atmosphere changed, and we went from black painted walls and hanging demon clowns set to spring at you, to a funereal atmosphere of peeling lead paint, pensive silence and dull light coming through dirty windows. This was what I wanted to see, this was the bona fide experience.
Almost immediately, I felt different, it was something tangible, something I noticed crawl underneath my skin. Our feet clomped up the wooden stairs, the aging planks groaning and cracking beneath our feet that seemed to crack the heavy silence. Gazing downwards through the beam of our reliable mag lights, the original hospital floor, which had long faded, could still be seen, covered in lead paint speckles, dust, and raccoon feces. Cody explained that they always found evidence of raccoon and other critters on the upper floors.
We were met with a long and narrow hallway, with lines of wooden doors leading in either direction. Most of the rooms were almost identical, and empty, with robust radiators sitting underneath windows, showered with more flaking lead paint. It was strange to think about how these decrepit spaces were once occupied by suffering children who knew all about agony, now vacant, lifeless, and miserable in a completely difference sense, haunted by silhouettes. Things that were once in order, now seemed so strange.
Through the stale air, we pressed on, flashlight beams momentarily brightening dark rooms. Walking around up there wasn’t for the faint of heart. With lead paint, animal feces and asbestos, it wasn’t a sanitary place to be, but there was another quality that smoldered within the empty halls, we all felt uncomfortable being there.
Parts of the building had been taken down or have collapsed over the years. Former porch areas had been razed, leaving doors on the second floor opening into nothing but a straight drop down to the lawn below. Other sun porches – which was once thought to be a tuberculosis treatment, were now rotted beyond repair and unsafe to tread on, barricaded by doors that had been screwed shut.
The main house was surrounded by three smaller cottages, which offered a similar landscape of grungy hospital tiles, awkward spaces and stale air, all sealed up like a tomb. It would honestly be quite easy to loose your mind inside one of these buildings. The entire time I was inside, I felt like I had been spending my time in dislocation, walking by displaced dreams and speaking to things on the floor, coming to find a feeling.
After the grand tour, we all gathered again on the front lawn, and as Cody and Ethan swapped their own stories of strangeness, I had a better idea of why The Caverly Preventorium had such a dark reputation. It was one of the few places I’ve gotten involved with where most people openly and insistently admitted to experiencing something inside. Though I didn’t see any ghosts or witness anything baffling, I can honestly say that this was one of the most unsettling places I’ve ever explored, and it certainly left an impression on me. Maybe somethings escape, and maybe others never get away.
West Haven’s Ghost Hollow is the only geographical location in the state named after a paranormal occurrence. Well, as far as I know.
The name is sure to fire up the imaginations of any curious traveler or map gazer. The tiny town of West Haven is on the extreme southern tip of Lake Champlain, where the lake joins the Poultney River. Surrounded almost completely by water on most sides, the town forms an awkward looking peninsula that dangles into New York State. There are no state routes or highways passing through town (with the exception of Route 22A clipping a tiny portion on the eastern border, near landmark Devil’s Bowl Speedway), West Haven is isolated from the rest of Vermont – a land of rolling farmland and hardwood forests, rising above deep bays and winding rivers of brown water.
Among West Haven’s assortment of quiet byways is a narrow and winding dirt road, barely wide enough for 2 cars, passing through quiet pastures and rocky ledges, called Ghost Hollow Road. But why the interesting moniker?
The story is an old one, dating back to the days before established roads and railroads linked Vermont together, Lake Champlain was the main highway between Canada and New York City. Rough communities sprung up around the water, building landing areas for boats. Once on land in West Haven, a long narrow rutted road spurred away from the wharf and into a wooded hollow, where even on sunny days, it was said to be dark.
It was on this unwelcoming path that a young man found himself sprinting upon one night over 2 centuries ago. He frantically made his way through the dark and cold woods to see his wife, who was in labor. Back in those days, the chances of surviving childbirth were poor, especially in rural locations where often the only ones to aid you were neighbors and friends, who were likely inexperienced with delivering a baby.
As the young man was racing ahead through the woods, he noticed something ahead. It was a figure, and it was approaching him. As he slowed down to assess the situation, he realized he was staring at a radiant young woman, dressed in the moonlight and paler than bone, in a white gown. A sudden realization gripped him as he grew closer. The woman in white was his wife! Almost immediately, he began to panic. As he raced over towards her, about to ask her what she was doing out of bed in a time like this, she vanished.
The young man’s curiosity and concern now turned into terror, and as he raced back home and stumbled in the front door, he was confronted by what he dreaded most, his wife had died in childbirth. The last time he ever saw his wife was that encounter in the hollow.
Ever since then, the area has been known as Ghost Hollow. Ghost Hollow Road itself is nothing like the legend alludes to. Today, there is nothing ghostly about it. It’s a pleasant back road that menders through beautiful countryside and hay fields with grass that undulates under summer breezes. It’s a quiet place, where all you can hear is the gravel crunching underneath your tires.
I was told that the street sign for Ghost Hollow Road was stolen so many times (it may possibly be found in some teenager’s bedroom) that the town of West Haven decided to create a solution, by printing the name of the road on a giant boulder near the intersection. I’d like to see someone try to steal that.
This rustic cabin can be found at the foot of a remote notch underneath Mount Mansfield’s iconic anatomical resemblance, on a steep and winding dirt road that follows a mountain brook along its rocky course down the rambling slopes of Underhill. Up there in the wooded plateaus, high above the settled Browns River Valley, was another world. The small cabin bore no graffiti and no evidence of human traffic treading inside, it’s rotting bones allowed to decay in silence, only to be called on or called by, by those who recall it. Though its remote charms were splendid and evoked images of rural life underneath soft summer breezes and comedown daylight, the inside was a chaotic mess. Most of the floor had fallen into a cellar area, and there was a hole in the back wall that allowed the outside in, melding two worlds we try to separate. Dead leaves and pine needles littered the floors, and the multiple collapses in the small structure took their toll on the rest, advancing its decay. Relics and keepsakes of whoever called this place home were sparse, leaving much for the imagination and speculation, and nothing to guide you to the truth of the matter. What I remember the most fondly about this cabin was the silence that hung around it, making me feel old as a stone as I trudged around the woods.
My favorite area of Winooski is along the river, walking below the brick edifices of herculean textile mills that once powered the spirit of the city – an mixed use area of attractive boardwalks and picnic areas to wooded river coves and lush deciduous forests where you can’t hear the roar of traffic from city streets.
A few days ago, while walking along the Winooski banks, I came across what I think is a cool find. A small path strayed from the trail, leading to the river. Because it’s my nature to explore stuff I stumble on, I changed direction. After veering off the trail and following the path through some thick overgrowth, I stumbled upon a rather nice beach underneath shady dogwood trees. But there was something that made this beach different. Though it was hidden previously at trail level, the slight drop in elevation down at the beach opened up a cool feature – It’s backdrop was a set of stone arches and retaining walls, remnants of the once expansive mill operations here. These arches would have allowed runoff water from the turbines to discharge back into the river, now dry and filled with mud and driftwood. But it was the beach that was the most intriguing to me. Large portions were made up of deposits of crumbled brick fragments, most likely from the skulking remains of a collapsing industrial mill tower which looms over it – obscured by massive tanglewoods and shadows.
The question of how the brick fragments wound up on the beach, whether it was years of mother nature or human help is questionable, but finding a beach on a beautiful stretch of river cove made from hundred year old industrial brick crumbs is a pretty cool find none the less.
Quickly making the trek over to the mill tower near the beach, it takes on a completely different persona once the foliage fills in during the summer. The trees block out the sunlight, making the crumbling structure ominous in appearance, and shockingly hide it from view though it sits yards from the trail I was just on. Though I’ve already explored this location before, I loved the chance to revisit it and see it in a new perspective. There was also new graffiti I had noticed, which is common with locations close to urban areas.
Every story has to start somewhere, and in the case of Mount Abraham, which rises over the eastern edge of Addison County, it has compacted and intertwined layers of history and folklore that make up a layer of bedrock that can’t be studied by geologists.
Mount Abraham is the fifth largest peak in the state of Vermont, rising at a lofty 4,017 feet. It’s crossed by Vermont’s fabled Long Trail, and is the tallest peak in Vermont’s presidential range, a range within the Green Mountains.
At the mountain’s base is the small town of Lincoln, a gateway to the Green Mountain National Forest. From the back roads that mender along the narrow valleys, the mountains form an imposing wall that almost look impenetrable, as the hardwood forests slide into the evergreens as your eye travels up towards the ridge lines. It almost may come as a surprise to some when Lincoln Gap Road becomes steeper and steeper as it switchbacks up sheer ledges and stunted hardwood trees before finally going up and over Lincoln Gap, a steep and wild mountain pass at 2,424 feet. The road is narrow and considered so steep that the state closes it in the winter rather than plow it. In the summer, is common for you to find the already unnerving road clogged with parked cars and pedestrians.
But long before a road ran up over the gap and Vermont was an established state, this land was occupied and settled by another group of people, The Abenaki.
The Abenaki generally settled in the fertile lowlands of the Champlain Valley, where the rivers and lake provided excellent fishing and the rolling hills and their deep forests offered reliable hunting. They generally avoided going up into the mountains, not because of curses, but because they were sacred places, where their god, Gluskabe, lived, which translates interestingly into the title of “The Owner”.
Cuts in the mountains such as Lincoln Gap were used to travel means, routes linking hunting parties with the Mad River Valley to the east and The Champlain Valley to the west. But when the White Europeans came down Lake Champlain and eventually streamed into the valleys and built settlements, the Abenaki were eventually pushed off their land. Some assimilated into the new culture and adopted Christianity as their religion, while others sought refuge in the higher elevations, including places like Lincoln Gap, which were seemingly safe in that impenetrable Green Mountain wall.
Today, the Abenaki have held on and survived, and can be found living around Vermont, especially in the north west corner near Canada. But some people say that the ghosts of an Abenaki party have remained, skulking behind the trees and outcroppings of Lincoln Gap. Also known as “the protectors of the Gap”, these presences occasionally make their existence known. The smell of burning wood from campfires has sent hikers off the trails to investigate the source of the smell, only to find nothing. Some have reported that the scent of the fire changed directions when the wind changed. Others shrugged it off as someone burning down in the valley, but did admit to them thinking that the fire sure seemed like it was close by. Other hikers have reported seeing eyes staring at them through the woods and fleeting shadows moving at inhuman speeds along the trails, but never getting too close. Not much is known about this ghostly hunting party, but they’ve been written about in quite a few publications on Vermont ghosts and folklore. One theory is that they are trying to forever protect the wilderness of Lincoln Gap, one of Vermont’s last wild places.
Twisted Shrapnel and Sweeping Views
Somewhere below the wind swept summit of Mount Abraham lies another interesting part of the mountain’s history – the battered remains of a plane wreck, rotting below scented Spruces.
The story behind this interesting wreckage is rather uncomplicated. The plane is a Cessna 182N model, and it crashed on June 28th, 1973 when a pilot was trying to navigate a cloud bank and instead struck the slopes of Mount Abraham, just below the 4,000 foot mark. The pilot survived the crash. According to local lore, he climbed out of the plane and walked down the mountain. Not much is left of the wreck, apart from crumbled pieces of twisted metal. Most of the cockpit, the controls and the interior have been completely deteriorated. The engine is missing as well, possibly hurled further down the slopes, resting somewhere in deep scraggly forests not treaded in by humans in years. The fuselage may have been the most interesting thing about the wreck – completely carved with various graffiti of countless passersby who have all left their mark here. Thought the wreck might be a little underwhelming, it’s what the wreck isn’t that is the most fascinating. An representation of the ongoing story of man’s battle with nature, and the will to survive.
The mountains of Vermont are scattered with various plane wrecks, most people can recall the most famous one being on Camels Hump, but there are plenty others worth the adventure, all offering stories to tell to someone other than the mountain winds.
One thing about human beings, is we tend to leave behind fascinating ruins that simultaneously tell our story and raise far more questions. New England is a little lackluster on such places – opting for cellar holes, old cemeteries and names on a map instead. But we do have our share – like Connecticut’s mysterious Gungywamp or New Hampshire’s Stonehenge of America, all incorporating what is found in abundance here, stone.
In Chesterfield, New Hampshire, across the river from the bustling town of Brattleboro are a set of stone ruins that are incredibly recent in the grand scheme of things. A dramatic stone staircase soars 20 feet into the air before ending abruptly above a collection of crumbling stone pillars and weed chocked foundations in the background of a dense forest unbroken as far as the eye can see.
The official name for this place is Madame Sherri Forest. Locals call it Madame Sherri’s Castle, and it’s 500 acres of wild and protected land combed by hiking trails, beaver ponds and ledges.
But who is Madame Sherri? Madame Antoinette Sherri, (who is just as interesting as the ruins of her grand home) was a French costume designer, born in Paris and transplanted in New York. However, her fame would be achieved not in the empire state, but tiny New Hampshire. She bought land in Chesterfield and built a summer home tucked away in the deep forests and gulfs during the 1920s. What started as a simple farmhouse turned into a lavish summer home by 1931 as she wasted no expenses in expanding.
She was well known for her wildly lavish parties she threw at her “castle” with an equally eclectic group of friends from the city. When she wasn’t partying, she was known for being the life of the party elsewhere by doing such things as riding around the region in her Packard touring car in nothing but a fur coat. Reportedly, she eventually ran out of money and abandoned her her grand home as it fell into ruin. But with a personal mantra like “only the best”, I suppose this was inevitable. By 1946, she abandoned her castle. A fire in 1962 eventually brought the demise of her property, leaving only the stone ruins left to this day, sitting curiously in the middle of the forest.
The fire left behind a rather forlorn yet satisfying medieval-looking ruin, displaced in the middle of New England, which is most likely where the “castle” moniker came into its name, from people who have visited since. After comparing older photos of the mansion, it definitely looks more like a castle now than it did when it was inhabitable.
The “first floor”, or, the only floor, of the ruin still has a few surviving stone columns and chimneys that sit above crumbling remnants of the old stone floor, covered in weeds and wild flowers. But there is a level beneath the rocks which is starting to slowly cave in, filled with detritus, broken beer bottles and satanic graffiti. It may have been larger at once point, but with the level of collapse, it’s hard to tell. It’s very evident from the discarded bottles, cigarette packs and smoldering charcoal that people party here – and perhaps worship the paranormal, just as Madame Sherri would have wanted.
On my somber visit here today, it had been raining steadily since I got off the interstate in Brattleboro. Once crossing the river, I turned down Gulf Road, a distractingly beautiful drive through beautiful forests and jagged cliffs leering over the road covered in moss – everything was below a come down fog. The rain however made the ruins more of a dangerous trek than anticipated. The stones were slick and it was easy to loose your footing. This was most evident when I tried climbing up to the top of the large staircase. There are large cracks in several places, part of the stonework is eroding, and the steps offered no traction. Avoiding my own stupidity being my murderer, I tromped around the rest of the ruins. The dank cellar area was littered in interesting graffiti, and there was lots to read. People who came and went, their names, quotes and opinions underneath dripping ceilings, especially someone named Tyler telling me he visited as recent as this year. Around the property were older growth trees, most likely original to the house, towering above the young forest. One tree in particular was peculiar, the inside was partly hollow, and it was filled curiously with lead pipes and a various assortment of placed boulders. There were also several inscriptions and carved initials in the bark, which were amusing to read.
I think the impression that weighed with me the most about this place, was just how silent and deep the forest was around the dripping ruins – I truly felt something pleasant slip under my skin, but the ruins held supreme, over taking the striking beauty of the New Hampshire forest, the sound of rain falling onto the leaves.
How To Get Here:
The Madame Sherri State Forest is located off Gulf Road in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. Just take Route 9 across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro, VT, and take your first right on Gulf Road as soon as you cross the bridge. Follow Gulf Road through beautiful woodlands until the parking lot will appear (sort of) on your right – just keep an eye out for the brown forest sign.
To find the ruins: Cross the bridge at the end of the parking lot, and you will come to a fork immediately in the trail. Take a right at the fork, and the ruins will come right into view.
This dated abandoned house was one of the most awkward explorations I’ve ever embarked on. The small property is located just outside the fringes of a slowly expanding village – where suburbia meets Vermont meadows and neglected rural roadways. Though the property is now surrounded by cloned condominiums with basketball hoops hanging over garages, the house itself is almost invisible, hidden by its own property that has became a wild entanglement of thorns and tall grass, growing over startling piles of debris and garbage mulching around the yard. Everything here begs the question, how lonely do you feel now? Shambling through the tall grasses and watching my step carefully, the sound of kids on bikes soon gave way to a strange quiet that was broken as the winds disturbed the grasses.
It wasn’t the dangerous assortment of garbage or the evident structural concern of a rotting back deck and splintery barn in the throes of slow collapse that were the most unnerving to me – it was the dark interior of the house, smoldering in a sea of its own perfume, haunted by its ghosts and secrets, saying nobody knows the things I have known.
The house was tiny, a home that was built before excess was the norm in Americana, but the inside seemed much larger, a mysterious jungle. The inside was filthy, a cramped space of floor to ceiling piles of artifacts and garbage and things that haven’t been cleaned in years. Family pictures hung on disintegrating walls, important newspaper clippings were still taped to the fridge, and unopened mail, years old, lay on the kitchen table. Everything had been left behind it seemed.
Oddly enough, this house still had working electricity. The refrigerator was shockingly still working, and running as I entered the shadowy kitchen, the loud humming of the motor cracked the silence of the house. However, I declined to open it, not wanting to encounter whatever horrors waited within. Clock radios showing a time hours behind and dated light bulbs still worked as well.
Walking around these types of locations is a revealing experience, you unknowingly become part of someone’s life that you have never met before. Though it’s all a guessing game, you can’t help but feel oddly connected and a little displaced – wondering when the temperature went sour. It’s a subjective and abstract look into an aspect of human psychology.
My friend was also quick to point out that I should be on the lookout for dead bodies, which I suppose is another real concern of these alternative worlds – you never know who or what might be lurking inside.
The gears and soul of a happy life are conjured by its people, not the creature comforts, so once you subtract the people, you get the bones and the ashes of something that was once alive and reduced to a lonely beat. It’s my experiences and discoveries when exploring that makes me ache for this drug that will never be enough.
Most people passing through Saint Albans know where Bellevue Hill is, maybe without even realizing it. It can be best viewed from the interstate – a giant white dome protrudes above the tree line high above the city, a distinct contrast from the otherwise gentle and low key landscape of Northern Vermont. But what is it? I’ve heard many things – a planetarium and an observatory to name a few. But it’s actually the last functioning vestige of a radar base that was constructed on the steep hilltop – its wasted debris now littering the mountain under a strange silence that hangs over it.
The Saint Albans Air Force Station as it’s officially known, was established on Bellevue Hill on August 1st, 1949 – the hill’s sweeping views of Franklin County and close proximity to Saint Albans making the location a selling point. Construction was started on May 8th 1950 and was completed by Janurary 15, 1951.
On 1 September 1951, the 764th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron began operating here. The station initially functioned as a Ground-Control Intercept (GCI) and warning station. As a GCI station, the squadron’s role was to guide interceptor aircraft toward unidentified intruders picked up on the unit’s radar scopes.
The radar squadron provided information 24/7 where it was analyzed to determine range, direction, altitude, speed and whether or not aircraft were friendly or an enemy. Data was sent to two satelite branches of the Saint Albans base, Bangor, Maine and Blue Mountain Lake, New York.
Over the years, the base would grow in size and amenities, including a two lane bowling alley with automatic pin setters, a dinning hall, massive landscape projects opening up the views on the hill, a gym complete with a weight training room, handball court, a shower room, and exercise equipment.
In June of 1963, a stretch of beach was leased and set aside and opened for Air Force personal, known as Air Force beach on west side of Hathaway Point. The beach featured a snack shack, bath houses, bathrooms, volleyball and boats for the use by squadron personal and there families. Today, there is still a street sign that reads “Air Force Beach Road” on the way to Kill Kare state park.
Over the years, the equipment at the station was upgraded or modified to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the information gathered by the radars, until June, 29th, 1979 when the station was finally deactivated, as other stations in the north east found themselves facing the same fate when they were no longer needed.
Today, the FAA assumed control of the site, and continue to operate a search radar there. The other radars have since been demolished.
Looking at old photos of the base, I was surprised to see just how large it was, several cloned wooden buildings shambling up the slopes of Bellevue Hill built around a winding road traveling from the valley to the summit. Today, those photographs are hard to believe. Most of the area has been razed – leaving a deserted road winding its way through young hardwood forests, mother nature slowly reclaiming relics of government paranoia and a monument to the folly of man. A walk up the crumbling road revealed several cement foundations with stairs going to nowhere, rusting yellow fire hydrants obscured by long grasses, broken glass, beer cans and litter. Out of all of the buildings at the base, two remain, and both are in sorry condition.
The surviving buildings have a cold, and monotonous feel to them – typical of 1950’s era “efficient” architecture and design.
One had been halfway demolished, leaving mounds of garbage and pink insulation chunks scattered around the area – a pleasant view of Saint Albans underneath ancient green mountains which stand silent in background, watching the coming and going of people and the seasons, offering quiet comfort. Poking around through the buildings, my feet stepping in soggy puddles of insulation and disintegrating floor tiles, I was always on the lookout for an animal – the cheerless and filthy conditions would be the perfect locale for a den of some sort.
The building that houses the former handball court was unnerving to say the least – its brutal concrete design with shedding paint and dark interiors through blackened doorways was were perpetually haunted by the American dream – a knife like contrast to the warm spring sun outside. The building seemed small, but the interiors opened up vastly, jutting far back into the dark and damp recesses – some unknown liquid forever dripped from the rotting ceilings above, a cacophony of dripping water that seemed to turn into a dull roar after reverberating off the solid walls.
The former handball area itself was by far the worse, it was dark and cold, and gave me an assaulting feeling of awkwardness that creeped under my skin. Most of the area was sealed up, allowing little light to get into cramped rooms of peeling lead paint and puddles of bad water on the old floors – a foul smell wafting from the handball court meddled with the sound of bees flying around the rotting ceilings above.
It was then when me and my friend heard the unmistakable sound of a two way radio – the voice on the other end coming in fuzzy and indistinguishable. But the radio’s owner never spoke, and the building went silent again. We waited, and even decided to walk the perimeter looking for the culprit, thinking that if we were going to get caught, might as well get it over with. But we never ran into another person, nor did we hear another phantom radio communication. We left the radar base with the spring sun beating down our necks, wondering just what the hell we heard?
While adventuring today, I had the unique opportunity to stumble upon one of my strangest and poignant finds yet – a ghost town situated awkwardly within one of the state’s most vibrant communities.
There are entire neighborhoods within South Burlington’s North-East Corner, near the airport, that sit vacant, the Nuclear age suburban homes with basketball hoops in the driveway and boats in the backyard sit next door to sagging ranch homes with crooked front steps and ugly vinyl siding being encroached by mold. Windows are broken, browning mail still sits in mailboxes. Pools are being over taken by weeds, and signs of break-ins are evident. Many homes have “No Trespassing” signs taped to front doors, the glaring red lettering can be seen successfully from the road. And then there are the smells – foul stenches wreaking of mold and water rot waft through the air and traveled into the car. But another turn, and we found ourselves back onto heavily traveled Patchen Road. People were having yard sales and kids were playing basketball in a nearby park, and just a block over, it’s desolate and silent. It’s admittedly a pretty weird place, a sort of area you can’t find anywhere else in Vermont.
But why was an entire neighborhood abandoned? The answer is simple. Because of the neighborhood’s close proximity to Burlington International Airport, the noise generated from the operations there is deafening, which is argued to be detrimental for your health and mental well being. In light of this, the airport is offering to buy up the neighborhood, then abandoned and demolish it.
Last I checked, the airport had purchased 144 homes, with 60 pending for demolition. Some residents have already left, while others are holding out, not wanting to leave the homes where they grew up or started a family. As I walked around today, I felt strangely uncomfortable the entire time – like something unexplainable was creeping under my skin. With a few neighborhood watch signs and the occasional resident outside, I didn’t want to hang around too long in fear of being suspicious, and there was plenty to see. It will be weird to think about how years down the road, it will be like these streets never existed, its memories and legacy vanishing like smoke I once tried to hold.