“NEW ENGLANDERS They buried their emotions deep, Long years ago, with care; And if a stranger dares to dig He finds but granite there. — Catherine Cate Coblentz — Driftwind, May 1925″
A few days ago, I was traveling through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a compelling region that I wish I had taken the time to explore more of when I was a college student in the Northeast Kingdom, far before the ugly reality of adulthood trimmed the fat off things.
Part of the great Appalachian chain, it’s difficult not to be in awe of the sublimely rugged White Mountains, whose hulking mountaintops rise out of view above the clouds, or the deep trenches of Franconia Notch, it’s walls carved from the oldest rocks around.
The small town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, has been around since 1774, and in the last days of 1799, it would adapt it’s current moniker, shared with the city of the same name on the other side of the world, though the origins behind the naming of New Hampshire’s settlement are a bit of a mystery. A drive down Route 302, the main drag in town, reveals one of the most architecturally impressive Main Street’s I’ve visited. A great collection of showy Victorians and humble Bungalows that have been very well preserved, and it’s aesthetics can be owed to the town’s heyday as an early tourist destination.
In 1805, the Old Man Of The Mountain was discovered, and by 1819, a path was created that carved its way up to the summit of Mount Washington. The White Mountains, their fresh air, and the mystique of their geographic curiosities were beginning the shift into a tourist area, and Bethlehem found itself conveniently in the middle of it’s many prominent attractions, which proved to be good for business.
In 1867, the railroad came to town, bringing tourists from the urban hubs of Boston and New York City. By 1870, a building boom period began, which would eventually create 30 grand hotels that lined Bethlehem’s streets. Seven trains a day roared into the village, dropping of passengers at five depots. Bethlehem was attracting well heeled people from all around who were building their summer “cottages” up the hillsides that surrounded town, even attracting the likes of the famous Woolworth family. The town became such a spectacle that it even drew the attention of P.T. Barnum, who described an event called “the Coaching Parade”, which was pretty much the wealthy elite flaunting their massive wealth and ostentatious carriages around town, as “the Second Greatest Show on Earth.”
But the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century would be the beginning of the end, as tourists were now no longer limited to only seeing places the railroads could bring you. As a result, the grand hotels eventually vanished, and the tourism culture changed.
One of these hotels was The Maplewood.
Opening in 1876, this hotel would soon become a showpiece, your textbook example of an incredibly lavish 19th century resort which unabashedly marketed itself as “The Social and Scenic Center of The White Mountains”. It would eventually grow to ginormous proportions, encompassing it’s own 18 hole country club, casino, cottages, and was served by it’s own train station, Maplewood Depot. I guess I can see how their claim could hold it’s own. As a friendly New Hampshirite pointed out to me; in the glory days of rail travel in the White Mountains, the small Victorian station rivaled the most revered of north country stations, such as Crawford and Fabyan.
Maplewood Depot was abandoned in the early 20s in the wake of the automobile, and the hotel it served would function for a few more decades, before burning to the ground in January 1963. Today, the grounds have been revitalized as the Maplewood Country Club, with striking views of the Presidential Range. But sitting in the woods behind the links, the old train station can still be found, now leaning at a dramatic angle in it’s slow decay, wasting away in silence as the town thrives around it.
Most of the details depicted in the postcard, such as the expansive porches and apex tower have long faded into postcard memory. The former railroad line had it’s tracks pulled shortly after the station went defunct, but the right of way can still be detected, a ruler straight path that is slightly less overgrown than the woods around it.
The station truly appears ghostly, skulking in the middle of the woods. Minus a few new-ish looking armchairs that have been toppled over, and most likely an addition to the building after it’s abandonment, it’s completely hollowed out, with empty doorways and tall, narrow windows. Inside, time has not been kind to the wooden structure. Much of it had long succumbed to weather damage and vandals, and portions of the original wooden floors had been ripped upwards as the building slowly sagged over the years, forming a jagged rip that ran the partial length of the room. I was a bit surprised at how clean this place was still, completely void of the graffiti and beer can piles which are found in many abandonments. I was still able to climb the narrow wooden stairs that curved around a brick chimney, revealing three rooms that were more or less intact, apart from some holes in the floor.
It’s a spooky place, especially as the winter winds hit the building, creating strange noises. I’m sure it takes on a far different atmosphere once the leaves fill out on the trees, blocking out even more light from reaching it. It’s almost startling to think about the fact that this place used to be a train station, and today it’s nothing but a trembling corpse that gives almost no clues to it’s former life. And at the rate that the place is leaning, I’m rather amazed that it’s still standing.
Maplewood was also apparently featured in the short concept film American Ruins, and after glimpsing the short trailer, it’s completely sold me. The effects and videography are mind blowing, which no doubt took hours and hours and hours of patience, producing and editing. Maybe someday I’ll aspire to creating something great like this.
Over The Notch
Route 3 used to be the main route to get from the top to the bottom of New Hampshire, and still pretty much is, though it’s a bit quieter today in light of the construction of Interstate 93 which practically parallels the road. Both routes are pushed together when they run through mountainous Franconia Notch, joining to form the unique Franconia Notch Parkway, the main access road to all of the scenic points in Franconia Notch State Park, and the tourist attractions and motels farther south in the town of Lincoln.
Passing through the notch, I couldn’t help but gaze at the jagged stump where the Old Man of The Mountain used to be, now being battered by fierce mountain winds and the puffs of snow spray they send. The famous rock profile crumbled in 2004, and after much controversy, the state decided not to synthetically re-create it. Despite the formation’s disappearance, the Old Man is still used as a state marketing icon, and can still be found awkwardly on a variety of things from license plates to state route shields. It will be weird to think about there being a day where no one remembers seeing him in person.
In Lincoln, I stopped at an Irving Station to get gas and a coffee, and got an unexpected surprise in the form of a rather large mural of what looked like a seemingly friendly alien who was hitchhiking, which took up a rather large chunk of wall near the entrance of the store. Not exactly what I’ve came to expect from a stop at a gas station. On the top of the painting were the words; “First Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Betty and Barney Hill, Sept. 19th, 1961.” I recognized the names. The Barney and Betty Hill abduction case is the most infamous in all of UFOlogy.
My amusement was carried from the wintery cold to inside the store, where I noticed the extraterrestrial theme continued in the form of wall to wall paraphernalia, photocopies of newspaper articles and other copied information related to both the Betty and Barney Hill case, other alleged incidents, and an assortment of fan images from science fiction TV shows and movies.
The shop owner who was behind the cash register at the time, caught me staring, and enthusiastically explained to me that right across the road from that exact store, was the actual site of the abduction. However, a friend of mine, as well as some commenters over Facebook, argued this fact, and said that it actually happened a farther down the road, where Millbrook Road meets State Route 175 in Thornton.
Though I can really take or leave UFOlogy, more so on the leave side, I found this offbeat memorial and it’s fanaticism interesting enough to write about.
As the story goes, on the night of September 19, 1961, husband and wife Barney and Betty Hill were traveling South on Route 3 to their home in Portsmouth, NH, when, according to their claim, were followed by a spaceship near the present day Indian Head Resort, and eventually accosted by some sort of extraterrestrial crew, taken aboard their craft, examined, and then released on the side of Route 3 in the early morning hours of September 20 as the sun’s first rays would begin to grey the New Hampshire skies.
The collection I saw above me mounted on black poster board was originally smaller in size, and more of a quirky secret, located on a wall inside the unisex bathroom. The current owner of the gas station has only owned the store for a few years now, and told me how disrespectful visitors kept stealing memorabilia and eventually, he grew sick of it and moved all of it around the store, so everyone could still enjoy it, but couldn’t grab a keepsake. As an extra precaution, they also outfitted the store with lots and lots of security cameras. They apparently get a lot of interested people who stop by, so they also sell alien key chains, bumper stickers, shirts and books about the Hills near the door. I neglected to buy a souvenir, but did get my coffee.
Have a weird encounter of your own? There is also a blank black board outside to the left of the mural, where you can share your own stories. I noticed that stuff had been written there, but nothing UFO related, which I suppose didn’t surprise me.
I didn’t think of this until after I had gotten back home and was writing up this post, but I have sort of a strange tie in to all this. A location I explored last year reported seeing unidentified flying objects hovering above the skies shortly before Hill incident happened, but as for an actual connection between the two events, that remains subjective.
If you’re interested, just take Route 3 through Lincoln, New Hampshire, and look for the Irving Station near the Indian Head Resort.
Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a changing attitude on mental illness. Children with intellectual and learning disabilities would no longer spend their days festering at home, thanks to a bunch of bureaucrats putting their heads together and creating special institutions for them to live in. Some parents sent their kids to these places to give them a shot at a better life and access to help they couldn’t provide. Other parents, who didn’t know how to deal with their children, now had a resource and exhaustingly shipped them away.
This undisclosed 876 acre state school was constructed in 1922 to serve these troubled youth, and would expand to encompass 50 buildings. While many institutions before this one were gloriously centered around magnificent Kirkbrides, times had changed, and this facility was streamlined, focusing more on functionality in the form of duplicate buildings which were pretty drab.
Though it’s considered a school by name, that’s a misnomer. No forms of education were carried out here, this was a warehousing facility. It was built to house around 700 residents, but shortly after it opened, it far exceeded it’s capacity, topping out at around 1,500 between the ages of 1 and 18, all housed in 13 dorms.
The fate of the hospital sadly followed suit with most others in the United States, and is the stuff of nightmares. Overcrowding and understaffing lead to the campus to sink into deplorable conditions. Because employee responsibilities were stretched so far, treatment of the those in their care became atrocious. Many of the children were left unattended, and would wonder the halls, moaning, and covered in their own excrement. Others who were physically handicapped would be simply left restrained to their beds and forgotten, often for weeks. Sometimes, if a stubborn inmate was really unlucky, all their teeth would be removed to make feeding them easier, especially force feeding. If they weren’t neglected, many staff members would physically beat them to keep them under control, or worse, because they felt like it. If this wasn’t bad enough, the buildings were deteriorating because of neglect and no funding to maintain them, and eventually, that lead to a vermin infestation.
Conditions and life here were unknown to the outside world, until 1971, when the father of a patient filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were not only the victims of sexual abuse, but were also living in horrific conditions. He wrote of abhorrent things like; “maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds.” Investigations began making their way in, as public outrage exploded. From there, the school awkwardly hobbled along, sinking further into a spiral of decline until all operations officially ceased in 1992, leaving the sprawling property a hazardous and continuously corroding ruin which is ambivalently being forsaken by those who don’t want to think about it, or kept alive by a different population of urban archaeologists and curious adventurers, contributing to it’s fluctuant story line.
A Winter Visit
I heard the end was coming. Asbestos abatement had began in a few buildings, and plans had been announced to slowly begin demolition on the school. I didn’t have to sneak around much. Though the entire property was covered in snow drifts that often came up to knee deep levels and filled my boots, the attitude here was relaxed. Other photographers meandered their way around various buildings, and a few people were walking their dogs.
A majority of the buildings were sealed up, but a good amount had their doors torn open, and security was nowhere to be seen. Many of the buildings were boarded up and were pitch black. If it wasn’t for the wintery cold, the mold and asbestos inside would have probably been insufferable. Others had entire sections which had completely collapsed.
Though there was much to see, most of the buildings were void of anything of interest. The auditorium was by far the most splendid place to explore, and also the most dangerous. The overcast and bleak landscape made the cavernous interior more sad and dreary that day. The entire building was coated in a dangerous layer of ice, so moving around the collapsing structure had to be done carefully and methodically. Some of the wooden floors were more soggy than I felt comfortable with trusting, and every staircase was coated so thickly with ice that I had almost debated not taking the risk climbing them. I was already exploring an abandoned hospital, I didn’t need to visit a real one! But I took the risk, and I’m glad I did. The floor plan kept continuing, and became a bit of a maze as more hallways and staircases kept revealing themselves.
Below the rotting auditorium was one of the better finds, the old gymnasium, a spacious area outfitted in grungy yellow hospital tile that was coated with mold and rot. The basement area consisted of two levels, and it was inky black. The lowest level was filled with knee deep water, with a layer of ice underneath, making passage treacherous. With the aid of our maglites, we made it into the gym. All I could hear was a roaring cacophony of dripping water raining down from the decaying abyss above our heads which ran down the back of our necks. It was so cold downstairs that I could see my breath in the beam of my flashlight. A friend of mine later told me that it wasn’t much different during the warmest months of the summer.
Another find worth photographing was the large cafeteria building far back, and the old power plant complete with dysfunctional and rusting machines sitting in dark spaces. The wooden floors in there were suspicious so I didn’t spend a great deal of time inside. Though I had arrived relatively early, I was surprised at how much time I spent shooting here, and now I was loosing daylight. Between that, and the effort it took to trudge through the snow, I was exhausted.
But I’m glad I got to see such a place, an epoch of human history and how far we’ve came, or maybe how far we still have yet to go. If the powers that be stick to their schedules, it should be luxury condos and mixed use space come next summer.
photo: Ray Parizo
Mount Mansfield is literally the largest thing in Vermont. The state’s loftiest peak rises above everything at 4,395 feet, coming to an end on a wind battered rocky summit covered with the blinking lights of transmitter towers that serve area media companies, throngs of hikers, and one of the few places in the east that can support rare arctic alpine tundra – actual surviving vestiges from the ice age. The sprawling ridge line’s anthropomorphic profile explains the names behind it’s distinct standout topographical features, such as The Forehead, The Nose, The Chin (officially the tallest elevation), and Adams apple, although not everyone apparently agrees on seeing a human face. Interestingly enough, the idea of seeing a human face in the rocks may just come from some Yankee competition around the 19th century, when neighboring New Hampshire officially decided that a rock formation in the White Mountains looked like an old man, turning it into a regional mascot and a symbol of state pride in a time when the mystic and science of geology was a growing interest. The best Vermont could do was to find one in the upturned profile of Mount Mansfield, but it was nowhere nearly as admired.
If you arrange the pieces of the face together, “the chin” is much higher than “the forehead”, so I guess it’s sort of a stretch of the imagination. On an interview with VPR, historian Jill Mudget had a humerus observation. During the 19th century, a time where new and radical ideas spread like wildfire, there was an introduced theory that you could tell a lot about a person’s intelligence by their facial features, which I suppose would mean that Mansfield’s profile isn’t very intelligent.
The gargantuan landmass separates two counties, Chittenden and Lamoille, and it’s eastern slopes contain one of the more popular ski resorts in the eastern United States; the ritzy Stowe Mountain Resort. The rest of the mountain is forever protected by the Mansfield State Forest and Underhill State Park, which has spared the mountain from ruinous development, including one notable 1930s project when it was actually proposed to build a scenic highway that would have ran right over the summit! Today, a different sort of highway runs along the top of the mountain, the oldest long distance hiking trail in America, the celebrated Long Trail.
Mount Mansfield is a grand mountain in many considerations, with a complex biography of history and myth, but perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the topographical area is how things here got their names.
It’s original Abenaki name, Mozodepowadso, was English translated to Moosehead Mountain when people began to settle closer to it’s slopes, but unlike other Indian names that have stuck around and worked their way permanently into local parle, Moosehead didn’t, and the mountain eventually became known as Mansfield. But the origin of the name is mysterious. Some speculate that Mansfield was named after the town of the same name, which was charted literally on the steep and practically inaccessible slopes, making development slow and survival far tougher than the surrounding towns. Eventually, Mansfield, and the neighboring town of Sterling, became ghost towns, and were carved up into the present day towns of Stowe, Cambridge and Underhill, giving them their unusually large and weird shapes. Other theories speculate that the state’s most prominent feature may have derived from the name “Mans Field”, named after the burly and intrepid early settlers who endured strenuous labor to make a living in the harsh wilderness. Either way, the name stuck.
Another much smaller monument to mankind can be found along the summit. There is an innocuous cairn with an interesting name. Called Frenchman’s Pile, it marks the spot where a man was struck by lightning many years ago, and killed on the spot.
Hiking is one of my favorite activities to do, and with so many trails that snake their way over the mountain and such varied terrain, I always have some sort of new experience that keeps me wanting to come back and explore. While hiking the mountain a while ago, I came across the most peculiar name for a hiking trail I had ever seen in my time in the woods – Wampahoofus Trail. I had to stop for a second, the name wasn’t familiar at all. I couldn’t help but wonder, just what the hell was a Wampahoofus? What did it mean?
I took my search to the internet, and got a wonderfully strange story behind the etymology. The name derives from an animal which is now extinct, and their story is a tragically ironic one. The Wampahoofus, (sometimes referred to as Sidehill Gougers), was a large mammal, that some say resembled a hybrid that was part deer, part wild boar. The only place in the world you could find one was limited to a certain area of Mt. Mansfield, usually between 2,600 and 3,200 feet in elevation, and some say the slopes of the deep and remote Chateauguay wilderness near Bridgewater.
The Wampahoofus wondered around the mountainsides, moving in lateral directions across the slopes, and were well adapted to Vermont’s mountainous terrain, especially because of a peculiar characteristic. The males traveled in a clockwise direction, and the females in a counterclockwise direction, never deviating. Because of spending generations moving laterally in these patterns, their legs adapted, and one of them became much shorter than the other as a result, depending on the direction they moved. This also allowed them to graze quite comfortably on steep hillsides.
They stayed in their particular region, never venturing to the valleys below or the summits above, the females taking an especial liking to the Nebraska Notch area. The only time males and females interacted with each other was during mating season, and because of their odd traveling patterns and different sized legs, mating could only occur then, when they literally came in contact with each other as they traveled around the mountain.
They were said to move at haste speeds, theoretically making them very difficult to come across, but if you did want to encounter one, maybe all you need to do is travel straight up or down a slope?
Their unusual evolutionary adaptation wasn’t an issue for many generations – but unfortunately, it would eventually be their undoing. The males’ right legs and the females’ left legs kept getting shorter and shorter, until eventually, when a couple met to mate, they were no longer able too. As a result, the Wampahoofus died out, leaving these great terrestrial beings unceremoniously remembered by their name carved on a sign.
But how did this trail officially receive its name? That honor was dubbed by a Professor Ray Buchanan, when he saw a rock formation nearby that he thought resembled the profile of a Wampahoofus. (source: Joe Citro’s The Vermont Monster Guide)
As long as we’re on the topic of Mount Mansfield mysteries, The Abenaki told legends of beasts called Gici Awas, or, giant hairless bears that they said used to roam the mountain and were dangerous if encountered, but no trail is named in their honor. Perhaps Wampahoofus is just a catchier name?
How to get there:
The Wampahoofus Trail can be reached via the Butler Lodge Trail from the Stevensville Trailhead in Underhill Center. Follow the trail around the back of the Lodge, pass the start of the Rock Garden Trail.
Happy Hiker: My First Hike to Mount Mansfield – great account and pictures from a hike on Mansfield, that gives a better idea of the rugged mountain.
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In your typical Vermont forest near the hillside campus of Johnson State College stands an otherwise unremarkable tree except for one tiny peculiar attribute to it. Though this may sound like I’m going to jump into a lesson on Botany, this abnormality is man made, and very explainable. It’s incredibly easy to miss and is surely to raise questions if you find it. There is a USB drive lodged deep inside the tree, the distinguishable plug protruding out of the bark surface, allowing anyone to access it. But why?
This seemingly random and thoughtfully suspicious USB drive is actually part of a vast system of hidden flash drives that span the globe. Hidden in just about anyplace a creative mind can think of lodging such an item – brick walls, underneath bridges, trees like in Johnson and even in innocuous objects such as padlocks, this is part of a project and growing cyber society called Dead Drops, which is absolutely nothing like it’s ominous sounding name.
Created five years ago by Berlin-based media artist Aram Bartholl, Dead Drops is an anonymous file-sharing network via the use of USB drives that have been hidden around the world in public spaces. Anyone can find them and use them, downloading whatever files that have been left on the drive, or uploading files of your own to share.
If you’re so inclined, you can join this cool project yourself and install one into a wall or other spot in your own neighborhood. They’ve even included a useful how to video if you want to do so.
But with a project on this large of a scale, it also is bound to raise quite a lot of questions. How many of these hidden USB flash drives are out there? This project is five years old now, do they still work? Do people still actively contribute? Until very recently, this would have been a guessing game, but now, you can check out the Dead Drop Database, where you can find the Dead Drop closest to you, with updates from the most recent user telling you if the site is working, broken or gone.
Johnson seems to be the only one in Vermont, and according to my last check on the database, it still appears to be in working order! However, the location is a little vague, and may require some detective skills to find it’s exact whereabouts. But a USB drive successfully tucked away in a tree definitely helps to establish an aura of mystery that surrounds the project and it’s contributors, which is pretty alluring and may be worth the search. I’m actually pretty surprised that Burlington of all places doesn’t have one. Yet.
If you browse the map, the database lists another Dead Drop being located on Gore Road near Morse’s Line in Franklin County, but that seems to have been incorrectly geotagged. If you click on the icon, the real site is actually in Mont-Saint-Bruno, Quebec.
On Twitter? You can also follow the project on Aram’s Twitter account
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Vermont’s hills seem to be a beacon in the smog for the offbeat, things that don’t quite fit into a world obsessed with categorization. For some reason, we offer ideal real estate appeal for people of mystery and fantastical artifacts to come and dwell, sometimes going undetected. I suppose I can understand why. After all, I certainly don’t want to live anywhere else.
Brookline’s Round Schoolhouse
Americans seem to love round buildings. Probably because we live in a society of increased standardization, so in a world of square things being the norm, round buildings just stick out. But for a society who loves them so much, we sure don’t build more of them. I guess that just makes them all the more special.
The out of the way town of Brookline, population roughly 500 at the last census, holds such a building. Brookline’s round schoolhouse was built in 1822, and is possibly the only one in the country. It was designed by the same person who would mold the minds of local children there, Dr. John Wilson, who in addition to being a school teacher, was also the town’s resident physician.
Dr. Wilson however was an indisputable enigma. A distinguished gentleman from England, he had an amiable personality and a brilliant mind. He was also gifted and proficient in the field of medicine, so much so that the locals began to wonder why such a talented and cultured man would work as a lowly schoolteacher, in Brookline of all places? He could easily earn a much more substantial income as a doctor in Brattleboro or Burlington.
But there were more questions that would add to the man’s already weighted reputation. Year round, he would wear high collars or thick scarves, even during the hottest of summer days, and he would always walk with a noticeable limp. Despite his charm, he was also very remote, and would avoid questions about his behaviors or attire, or getting too close with anyone. In a small Vermont community where everyone knew everyone, Dr. Wilson inevitably became the subject of local gossip.
But perhaps the strangest of all was his equally obscure schoolhouse. It’s construction was off red brick, with windows facing in all directions, making it a distinguishable and unique piece of Vermont architecture. There were some who thought the round building was just as suspicious as the doctor himself. Why go through the effort to build such a structure?
In May 1847, Dr. Wilson lay on his deathbed. During his time in Brookline, he had apparently befriended someone, someone he liked enough to bestow trust in. He called on them and exacted a rather peculiar last request. His odd promise stated that he was to be buried in the clothes he was wearing, including his scarf and boots. Dr. Wilson’s strange story may have been entirely forgotten if it wasn’t for his friend breaking that promise. What happened next would finally reveal the answers that the residents of Brookline had long waited for.
When they undressed the corpse, they found that Dr. Wilson’s heel had been blown away by a musket ball. In it’s place, was a cork prosthetic heel. They also discovered that his neck had also been horribly disfigured, as if he was unsuccessfully hanged or slashed. His cane held another shocking discovery – there was a stiletto concealed inside. A trip to his home uncovered that it had been turned it into a make shift ammunition locker, filled with guns and swords.
Eventually, the pieces would come together. John Wilson, man of mystery, was actually an infamous British highwayman known as Captain Thunderbolt. Terrorizing the Irish countryside and the England-Scotland border, the scoundrel was said to be a Robin Hood figure; he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. During his many dauntless escapades, he certainly didn’t forget about himself, and slowly saved up enough funds to to escape to America, choosing the wilds of Vermont as his new home. In Brookline, he decided to take a new lease on life, and “retire”, becoming a respectable and well liked citizen. But he never stopped worrying. He had a price on his head after all, and the law didn’t exactly see eye to eye on their varying principles of justice. So, his schoolhouse became an asset; his lookout. There, he could hide out as the local schoolteacher, while slyly looking wearily in all directions. If a law man came his way, he would have ample time to flee.
This fascinating story sounds much like a folktale, but it’s very real, evident by the brick schoolhouse that still stands along the main drag in Brookline. More delightfully, I was told that some of the doctor’s possessions, like his false heel and cane sword are still around! They’re on exhibit at the Brooks Library in Brattleboro, which if I had the time, I would have liked to make the drive over to see.
Grafton’s Fiji Mermaid
It might strike you as odd to find out that Vermont, far away from any ocean, can lay claim to a mermaid sighting. The mermaid after all, isn’t a native species of Vermont, or New England. But they’re seen here from time to time, and the best place in Vermont to see one is at the Grafton Nature Museum.
Upon first impressions though, this probably isn’t what you had envisioned when you thought of your foundational image of a mermaid. Instead, this one is hideous and startling. Comprised of half parts Monkey and half parts Fish, with rows of nasty little teeth and sharp claws, this dexterous DIY Frankenstein of a project is a gruesome little creature that almost looks human. So, what’s the story here?
The tiny, shriveled up artifact is the elaborately planned hoax of famed showman and huckster, P.T. Barnum. While today, in an age of skepticism and the internet, this most likely wouldn’t fool an audience, but over a century ago, this mesmerized and baffled carnival patrons, and it was the legendary entrepreneur P.T. Barnum that decided to capitalize on that.
The Fiji Mermaid would slowly enter western culture in the 1700s, when mariners began to come across them in newly opened oriental trade ports. Japanese and Polynesian seafarers used them for good luck charms, believing their powers would protect them from rough seas and ensure a prosperous catch. American sailors who had never seen anything like them before, started to bring them back home as souvenirs and they became instant conversation pieces and objects of fascination. In my opinion, a Fiji Mermaid is a much better souvenir than a coffee mug or key chain.
Barnum was one of the many who were drawn by them, and bought one in 1842 thinking that he could turn it into profit. If he could fool his audiences and convince them that they were mythological mermaids, he could make a small fortune. He exhibited it as an “authentic Feejee Mermaid”, and the name stuck. The mermaid was an immediate success, so much so that his competition would soon imitate him and make several fraudulent ones that were passed off as authentic imports. The real faux creatures and fake faux creatures began to circulate in carnival side shows, or payed top dollar for in someone’s private cabinet of curiosities.
In an era when the world was really beginning to be discovered at a larger extent, and there were so many animals that had never been seen by the western world before, people were enthralled.
But while the public took the bait, scientists and biologists weren’t buying it, and would constantly ridicule Barnum for displaying something that was clearly fraudulent. Over time, carnival sideshows became a thing of the past, and the Fiji Mermaids began to disappear, the surviving ones ending up in various museums or maybe forgotten in a box someone’s attic somewhere. Fiji mermaids today are very hard to find, and an authentic one as opposed to an antique replica like most places seem to have on exhibit, are nearly impossible.
In the case of the Grafton Nature Museum, this one was a gift from the Odd Fellows Hall in Brattleboro roughly over a decade ago. As for why the Fiji Mermaid was gifted to a nature museum mostly geared towards children, museum curator Lynn Morgan had no idea. Lynn was kind enough to open the museum briefly for me and let me have a personal encounter with one. But as for the information behind it, sadly, that seemed to be a mystery. There wasn’t much to trace. I’m not even sure if this one is the real deal or another replica. She had a bit of information stuffed inside a small manila envelope, containing a few internet printouts of Fiji Mermaid information, a photocopy of a newspaper article, and an old black and white photograph of the mermaid’s pre-museum home, displayed randomly on a wall, hung above a much larger attention swallowing trophy fish. She wasn’t sure if that photo was taken at the Odd Fellows Hall or not.
The mermaid is a bit out of place in the nature museum, because it’s not a real creature and therefor can’t really be included in any of their exhibits. If anything, it says far more about history than biology, which sort of makes it a bit difficult explaining it to curious children who are there on a Zoology field trip.
For the most part, the general public isn’t even aware it exists of that it’s there, which in my opinion is a shame. But observing the tiny figure which was placed on the table infront of me brought awareness to something else; it’s age. A closer look at it’s requisite monkey/fish body revealed that it was showing signs of wear and tear, with some parts slightly damaged. But that tends to happen with old things, they disintegrate with age, making the preservation of this grisly curiosity even more important.
The good news is that I’m sure they’d be willing to show it off to interested parties if you ask politely.
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My travels to New York state often start with the same question; Who is John Galt? Usually, I cross into New York via the Crown Point Bridge over Lake Champlain, and I always find myself observing this busted sign on dysfunctional wheels with two cryptic messages arranged on both sides. I’ve found plenty of questions, but no answers.
Good friend, mentor and fellow explorer Dan Koopman of Environmental Imagery tells me that the sign used to have a smorgasbord of anti Obama hate messages on it’s dented sides, which I assume was the work of the mysterious and aforementioned John Galt, ruler of the titular Galt’s Gultch, which seems to be a collection of ramshackle campers alongside the railroad tracks. I recall him showing me the sign years ago, but it seems the sign has gotten a bit more enigmatic and stagnant since then. I always make a point to look whenever I pass, to see if there is a new message. So far, nothing.
After a little internet research, the search term John Galt introduced me not to a New Yorker, but to a character created by author Ayn Rand from her novel Atlas Shrugged. Galt is a philosopher and inventor who believes in the power and glory of the human mind. Galt stood for the ideals of free thinking, individualism and Egalitarianism rather than a society embracing conformity oppressed underneath the government. That’s something to think about on your commute.
Though Dan was the one who introduced me to his stomping grounds of New York state years ago, on this trip, I would venture to the exotic world upstate with another friend and adventurer Eric Hodet of Cabbages and Kings. We made a quick pit stop for gas in Port Henry, a jaded village that climbs up some steep ledges above Bulwagga Bay.
Port Henry, Home of Champ
Though we once had a very short lived christening as the 6th great lake, Lake Champlain is still pretty great, being shared by 2 states and Quebec. It is also large enough to completely conceal an elusive unidentified swimming object of monstrous proportions. “Champ”, which I suppose isn’t the most creative name for a lake monster, is said to take on a Plesiosauric resemblance, and is most often depicted as your typical water dinosaur, with it’s defining humped back, small head, long neck and ending with a long tail.
Of all places that border Lake Champlain, Port Henry proudly claims itself to be the home of Champ, the lake’s renown lake monster, and they take that distinction pretty seriously. So much so in fact that the first Saturday of August is designated as Champ Day, which brings a street fair and entertainers, with the centerpiece being, a Champ float.
What’s made the legend of Champ so important, apart from the various marketing campaigns, bumper stickers and business names, is the numerous eyewitness sightings, consisting of a rather long tradition of reports. French explorer Samuel De Champlain’s journals told of a sighting of some strange beast near Isle La Motte when he first traveled down the Richelieu River into the lake. But his records were lost to knowledge until the 1800s, when the first verifiable report of a Champ sighting came into public consciousness. It captivated the public so much that P.T. Barnum once offered a reward for it’s capture, dead or alive. More interestingly, in the 1970s, Champlain’s records were once again studied, and it was discovered that the intrepid explorer’s account may have been mistranslated, making his sighting officially unofficial. Instead, it was most likely that Champlain saw a Garfish, which still live in the lake today.
But what really propelled allegations into fixation was in 1977, when Sandra Mansi captured a photograph of what she claims is Champ. The photograph in question shows something that vaguely takes on Champ’s described appearance rising out of the waters of the lake – but a sense of scale is hard to determine here. Was it actually Champ? A giant Sturgeon? Or maybe, just a piece of driftwood?
Regardless of Champ’s existence, countless sightings have been reported over the years, and people hold firm to their stories. My grandfather even claims that he saw it – as well as quite a few other people, whose names have been memorialized on a wooden memorial south of the Port Henry on Route 22. The sightings unsurprisingly start with Samuel De Champlain in 1609, and escalate into the 21st century. Even local celebrities like WCAX’s Gary Sadowsky made it on the list. The dates stop at 1989, which raises a few questions. Have there been any reported sightings in Bulgwagga Bay since then? Are any plans to extend the list?
I’ve sort of made it a point not to write about Champ in this blog, because admittedly, I’m just not all that interested in the Champ hype. But it’s almost impossible to not pick up some information about it along the line, and I found myself slowly giving in, because some of it is actually pretty interesting. This is probably my favorite; Documented sightings of Champ actually predate those of the Loch Ness Monster by fifty years! I find this amusing because most cryptozoology enthusiasts consider Champ to be “America’s Loch Ness Monster”, but maybe it should be the other way around?
To be fair, Lake Champlain is a large lake, with depths said to be beyond 400 feet in some places near the Charlotte-Essex ferry crossing. With many areas uncharted, I suppose it’s possible that something could live harmoniously in the lake undetected. That, and scientists did discover a sonar sound emanating from the depths of the lake that was so unique, they named it after the lake monster (they did however claim that the odd sound did not belong to Champ)
So, why did Port Henry land the distinction of being the home of Champ? The first modern day sighting of Champ was reported here in 1819, by a “Captain Crum” in Bulwagga Bay. His eyewitness report illustrated a rather graphic spectacle of a black monster resembling a seahorse with three teeth, large eyes, a white star on its forehead and a red band around its neck. So I guess that’s as good of a reason as any.
Ironville, Birthplace of the Electric Age!
When traveling to unfamiliar territory, one of the first impressions of a community you take in is their welcome sign. The small town of Ironville’s sign stood out from the others I’ve noticed (apart from Port Henry’s, of course). The sign had a pretty groundbreaking claim written along the bottom in capital letters; “Birthplace of the Electric Age”. That left me and my friend scratching our heads a little. But a little après-adventure research was able to put the pieces together for me.
The hills around Ironville were known for their rich iron ore deposits, and mining activities brought great prosperity to the rural region. Curious about the natural magnetic rocks in the area, Joseph Henry, an early pioneer in electricity and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in Albany, was interested in the phenomenon of magnets and how they worked. He traveled to the Penfield Iron Works in town where he obtained some high quality Iron to study. His goal was to attempt to create magnets of his own. At the time, magnets worked by wrapping bare wire around an Iron core, creating magnetic fields. But they were short lived, as the fields always rapidly collapsed into the iron core. Henry then got an idea; why not insulate the wires?
He attatched his new prototype to a battery, the only known producer of electricity at the time, and created the world’s first electromagnet – and the key component to making all electric power possible today. Eventually, Ironville became the first town to use electricity for commercial use. It was this breakthrough that would inspire Vermonter Thomas Davenport to invent the electric motor, and eventually, a world ran by electricity would become the norm.
The real reason for visiting upstate New York was to visit Aiden Lair, a sizely rotting wooden building, deep within the forests of the Adirondacks.
The history of Aiden Lair begins around 1850, with the construction of a crude log cabin to house travelers and hunters going into the interior of the Adirondacks, at at time where the rugged region was only beginning to be more accessible. The cabin eventually burned down, and in 1893, the first Aiden Lair lodge was built, a grand Adirondack hunting lodge ran by an Irishman named Michael Cronin.
But the lodge truly gained notoriety for being a vital part of the so called Midnight Ride of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, which would be the first stop of a remarkable presidency.
Being president of the United States can have contingent natures with the responsibility, and I don’t think there are many American presidents that have been more fit for the role than Theodore Roosevelt.
On Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley was in Buffalo attending the Pan American Exposition when he was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a hot tempered anarchist. At the time, vice president Theodore Roosevelt was a guest of the Vermont Fish and Game Club in Isle La Motte. When word reached Roosevelt on the attempt on the president’s life, he immediately left and traveled to Buffalo.
But McKinley’s surgeon insisted he was fine, and that he would surely recover. Roosevelt, no longer feeling needed, decided to travel to join his family who were vacationing at the Tahawus Hunting Club. He had campaigned laboriously during the election of 1900 – an effort which involved much traveling and speech giving. Some rest and relaxation in the Adirondacks sounded damn good.
In Tahawus, Roosevelt decided that a great way to kick off his vacation would be to have an afternoon hike up Mount Marcy, the tallest elevation in the state. He sought out some guides and set out up the slopes. While relaxing near Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson River, a foot messenger named Harrison Hall found him and gave him word that McKinley’s condition had worsened, and it didn’t look good.
According to local lore, Roosevelt’s reaction after reading the message was to say “Gentlemen, I must return to the clubhouse at once,” before calmly finishing his lunch, and then making the 12 mile hike back to Tahawus in 3 hours.
Roosevelt was reluctant to go back to Buffalo unless he was truly needed. He was just there, and that would be a long trip to make for a false alarm. But soon, another telegram came with news came that president McKinley was dying. Roosevelt set out for Buffalo immediately, but first, he had to get to the nearest train station which was 35 miles away at North Creek. That would be an arduous journey on muddy rut choked roads in the middle of the night, through vast mountainous wilds, a journey that would take at least 7 hours to complete today. The 35 mile stretch would have to be completed on horseback, with a stop somewhere in between to switch the exhausted horse for a fresh one. He departed Tahawus and made the grueling journey to Aiden Lair Lodge in Minerva, where he would switch horses.
A team of wagon drivers were organized, and would switch off driving Roosevelt at different legs of the trip, until they made it to the train station. David Hunter, the superintendent of the Tahawus Club, drove the first leg, a 10-mile stretch from the Tahawus Club to the Tahawus post office. The first stretch took two hours to complete because the road was practically washed out due to rainy conditions. From there, he would swap drivers again until he would get to Aiden Lair Lodge in Minerva.
By the time he got to Aiden Lair around 3:30 AM, he was already president. McKinley had died at 2:15 AM, while Roosevelt was still rushing through dark wilderness and rough roads. Though word had reached Aiden Lair, Michael Cronin decided not to tell Roosevelt. The staff knew he was dealing with great stress, and tried to urge him to rest there for the remainder of the night, and leave a day break. But Roosevelt was having none of it, and hitched up his team. Cronin drove him the remaining 16 miles, partially in an altruistic gesture, but mostly because if anything were to happen to Roosevelt en route, he was threatened that he would be held accountable. The wagon barreled and slid down slippery and sinuous mountain roads, with Roosevelt himself holding the lantern in front of the wagon so they could see where there were going. They made the journey in an hour and 41 minutes.
By the time they arrived, the news had been broken. A telegram awaited him with the news of McKinley’s death at the train station. Roosevelt boarded the train en route to Buffalo and his oath of office. Apparently, Roosevelt’s final leg of his ride achieved so much fame that other drivers had attempted to make the same route and beat the time, but no one has been able to succeed. As far as I know.
But, there is a little deception here. Though it makes a good story, the ramshackle building that skulks behind the the state historical marker on the side of the road is actually not the Aiden Lair that Roosevelt stopped at. The first hotel burned down in 1914, and a new 20 bedroom hotel was built shortly after, the 16,000 square foot decaying wooden structure you see today.
Though Mr. Cronin seemed to play an important part in the earliest hours of Roosevelt’s new found presidency, cosmic relief would pay a visit to the Irishman. Not long after the midnight ride, A New York Tribune article from April 1914 ran a headline that announced: “Roosevelt Guide Crazy.” Michael Cronin was hospitalized for mental health reasons. The lodge burned a month later, and was rebuilt by his family without his help. He died shortly after.
The hotel continued to serve travelers to the Adirondacks from hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and as the times changed, skiers and snowboarders heading to Gore Mountain, until the 1960s, when Adirondack hunting lodges began to go out of style and Aiden Lair closed for good. According to a segment of Adirondack Attic on North Country Public Radio – a gentleman from Albany bought the property a few years ago, with the intentions of restoring and reopening it, to continue it’s storied legacy. But the hurtles of renovations and reaching out to historic preservation proved to be too much, and it has since faced demolition by neglect – rotting in a state of limbo.
I drank copious amounts of Stewart’s Shop coffee before the long drive up to Aiden Lair, fighting the urge to pass out in the car. Long drives with the heat on and a prior week of insomnia were wreaking havoc on my body. It was much colder in Minerva. The temperature had plummeted to 11 degrees somewhere along the ride from Schroon Lake, and there was at least a foot of snow in the high peaks. Immediately after exiting the truck, my hands and face stung painfully, and I found myself not being able to control my shivering. But we didn’t travel 2 hours just to turn around, so onward we trudged.
I hadn’t had any expectations to get inside Aiden Lair, as I heard it was sealed up very well, but we found a door around back, near an old dam that created a small pond. The bottom had been kicked out, leaving a human sized hole to crawl through onto a rotting sun porch – the afternoon sun was pleasantly warming the peeling yellow lead paint that speckled the weather beaten floors.
I gazed into the interior dubiously. Because the floor had already began to sag underneath the weight of my hands as I pulled myself up, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be worth the risk or not. The lack of maintenance has caused serious damage to parts of the buildings – especially the roof. The damage has festered its way down to the stone cellar, causing the entire structure to rapidly fall apart from the mercurial freezing and thawing of the seasons.
Aiden Lair was a now formidable and sizable husk of a building, devoid of most of it’s original details that have been effaced with time. Being on the upper floors in cramped rooms flourishing with mold that discolored disintegrating walls and suspicious water dripping down my neck, I found it almost difficult to believe that this was once a respected and comfortable place to want to be. But some beautiful details remained. Two massive and classic Adirondack stone fireplaces could be found illuminated by my flashlight, and a balcony overlooking Stony Pond Brook had that identifying mountain woodwork on the railings that many Adirondack lodges have synonymously featured in their architecture.
The vastness of the floor plan took me by surprise as well. Though it looks relatively tiny from the outside, once inside, it becomes apparent at just how much there is to see. I was quite surprised with how many hallways and rooms there were. We were humbled at least once when we found ourselves loosing our bearings.
The cold was having deleterious affects on my nervous system. At this point, I was already trembling in my coat, and I was beginning to get hasty. The floors throughout the entire building were so perilous, that we were exploring at a very slow crawl of a pace. This is definitely one of the most dangerous places I’ve ever been in to date.
The place was incredibly silent, void of life, so sound carried through remarkably well, not being obstructed by competition. The cold rushing waters of Stony Brook could be heard inside, and provided some white noise behind the clomping of our boots and steady breathing. The movement of a door banging against a wall from a gust of wind flickered in our peripheral vision – making us someone else was inside with us. Another urban explorer perhaps, or a cop…
I’ve always thought that the term “lair” in the name was a little ominous sounding, but after seeing it’s state of slow collapse and dark places within, that part of the name now seems very fitting.
When writing these blog posts, and comparing my photographs to historical ones when these places were in their prime, it’s almost surreal. A place that was once frequented and celebrated in many ways, now is forsaken and seemingly unwanted; a burden. We human beings are sentimental creatures, and those sentiments can transcend far beyond other humans. Man made things, constructed from wood, stone, mortar and slate also have powerful emotional bonds to otherwise utilitarian objects, and as they were once so easily loved, they can also be so easily lost.
Admittedly, the cacophony of all that we were taking in here can make you want to stay for quite some time to enjoy it all, finding a different world that doesn’t exist in the superfluous found outside. But, there was much wanted heat back in the truck…
The Glebus Count
I’m a bit of a weirdo, so it’s great that I’m also friends with weird people, with plenty of inside jokes between us. This one is definitely a time honored one, now being practiced for a few years running. Whenever we travel to the northern reaches of the empire state, we found ourselves engaging in something that I call “The Glebus Count”. What is this strange ritual?
While Vermont seems to have it’s fair share of real estate agencies represented, across the lake in the high peaks region, one name reigns supreme on red and white signs emblazoned with a bold, down to business, san serif font; Glebus. They’re everywhere. I’m not kidding. Almost every piece of property that listed as for sale has a Glebus sign in front of it, with the occasional other Realtor found in between. But who are they kidding, they’re not Glebus! Over time, we began to start pointing out when we’d come across one of their signs, and soon, that turned into trying to count as many as we pass during our trip. You’d be surprised at just how easily you’re drawn into it.
“Who do you think this guy Glebus is? He’s pretty much selling everything in upstate New York” The best satire we came up with thus far, was that the mysterious man had to have an old timey name evocative of infamous business moguls from the golden age of unprecedented capitalism- something like, say, Cornelius Glebus, (according to their website, his actual name is Gary) and he could be found in his real estate lair sitting in a gilded throne drinking wine from a chalice. Sometimes it’s those long drives that inspire the best conversations that you probably wouldn’t have elsewhere. You know what I’m talking about. It’s unintentionally became such a integral part of my treks here that I feel it’s that if I’m writing about upstate New York, it wouldn’t be fitting unless I included it.
Next time your in the high peaks, see how many Glebus signs you can count. And if you were curious, we counted 21 on this trip.
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The ballad of hiding things behind walls is a pervasive one that’s well sung. I’ve always had a fascination with things lost and re-discovered, and often can’t help wondering what sort of clandestine things exist in the mundane world we see everyday, and if uncovered, what sort of power would it have on it’s discoverers?
Years ago, I remember an old farmhouse in Colchester that was getting a face lift. As the rotting clapboard siding was removed, work grinded to a stop when laborers found quite the surprise underneath. The entire side of the humble dwelling was covered in Barnum & Bailey circus posters from the 1890s. This is an old trick used by Vermonters, who used any material they could to help insulate their houses during the long winters. Newspapers and in this case, circus posters, were all utilized. Though at the time the posters were the modern day equivalent of junk mail, today they remain as important relics of human history and culture, and of course, valuable collectors items. It’s always made me wonder just what else could be found behind a seemingly innocuous wall or structure, and what sort of stories could be told. Sadly, I never got the chance to to photograph those Barnum & Bailey posters, but recently, a new opportunity would come my way.
A lost mural, 104 years old, found deep within the walls of a former Old North End synagogue turned apartment building, was on public exhibition for 2 short weekends before being restored and moved to a new location. On a gloomy monotone Sunday of bland whites and cold winds, I found myself on the second story of a wooden building on Hyde Street, coming face to face with something spectacular. It was a strange feeling, seeing something so luminous and mysterious in the middle of a sterilized room with new stark white drywall and plywood floors.
Though it spent years in a state of limbo and neglect, the delicate surface and fading paint were remarkably well preserved and still were very successful in moving the observer. Arranged in a compilation spanning dramatically angled ceiling panels that forms the inside of a wooden turret, the mural is lively, dimensional and complex, featuring several scenes with incredibly ornate details.
The tour guide of the affair explained that the mural’s survival is nothing short of lucky itself. If it wasn’t for the original slate roof that caps the historic wooden building, the mural would have been already long lost. Between Vermont’s infamous cold winters, and the drastic temperature changes between interior and exterior, the naturally occurring elements are bad for preservation and great for corrosion. When the mural was walled up, the paint and wall insulation were sharing direct contact with each other, thus transferring moisture from the insulation to the mural face. It was really amazing that it survived in the condition it did.
But what’s the story here? Why is this painting so important? And why was it walled up?
Around 1880, Jews from the Kovno area began to migrate to Burlington, and soon began to congregate together for worshiping, establishing an insular neighborhood known as Little Jerusalem. In 1889, The Chai Adam Synagogue was built on Hyde Street, two years after the first synagogue, the Ohavi Zedek, was built. It was the second synagogue constructed in the Old North End.
In 1910, Lithuanian immigrant Ben Zion Black immigrated to Burlington. The son of an artist, he had attended several art academies in Kovno and was showing interest in the theater, especially theatrical writing. The move to Vermont however was out of love. In Lithuania, he had developed strong feelings for actress Rachel Saiger, who came to audition for a play he had written. Her parents however disapproved of the relationship, and in 1905, decided it would be best if they brought her with them to join family in Burlington. But he wouldn’t be deterred, and after 5 years of sending her postcards and letters, he eventually also moved to Burlington, and the two married in 1912.
When he arrived in Burlington, he was commissioned $200 to paint a mural in the Chai Adam synagogue in the Old North End, in the style of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe.
The congregation could gaze admirably at an eye catching optical illusion of an open sky with birds in flight that can be viewed through openings underneath suspended shrouds of heavy and colorful curtains adorned with tassels and ruffles. The centerpiece are the brazen Lions of Judah planted regally on both sides of the ten commandments, written in Hebrew, with the crown of Torah floating above, all bathed in golden rays of the sun. As I was taking everything in, an animated woman and her son raised a good question; if the artist was thinking of the landscape of the Champlain Valley and birds found in Vermont when he was painting the scene.
But this mural was unique for some other curious details it contained apart from the familiar tropes carried over by tradition. Black included angels and musical instruments in his work, elements that were banned on the Sabbath and were considered taboo by the community, thus creating some displeasure by some worshipers. While his evocative mural made lasting impressions on some, others weren’t that pleased, and he was never hired to paint another mural again.
Decades later, the synagogues in Burlington merged together, and the Chai Adam took on a secular life in 1939 as a dry goods store and then, a carpet warehouse, before eventually being converted into apartments in 1986. Though the synagogue was painted from floor to ceiling originally, most of the artwork was destroyed during the renovations when it was being converted into an apartment building. The only reason the remaining part of the mural had survived was because of the fact that it was covered by a wall and forgotten. The mural lay in darkness until 2012 when it was uncovered, and this time, the community was determined to make sure this treasure wouldn’t become lost again, or worse, destroyed.
Called “The Lost Shul Mural”, the name can stem from the term Shoah, or, The Holocaust. The mural comes from a formerly widespread tradition of Eastern European synagogue paintings that were almost entirely wiped out during World War 2, when entire Jewish communities vanished. Since then, remaining Jewish folk art has almost nearly been wiped out due to a myriad of reasons, from war, weather and neglect. The Lost Shul Mural in Burlington may be the only surviving example of it’s type in America.
Now, efforts are underway to preserve it. In a laborious and delicate process, the paint and plaster have to be stabilized to prevent any further flaking. Once the mural is prepared, the roof of the Chai Adam Synagogue will be removed, a steel frame will be constructed around the mural, and it will be transported to it’s new home at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Then, it will be cleaned and restored to it’s former glory, making it available for Vermonters to come view it’s story.
You can read more about the project, the mural’s history, and donate to the fundraiser on the official project website
Good Read: A blog post by architectural historian Samuel Gruber explains why the mural is so significant.
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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.
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?
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. But everyone who gave us directions and tried to get us back on track was very friendly, and had that sort of funky vibe that I like to find in other people.
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.
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.
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.
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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?