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Queen Connie

Vermont’s roads are pretty regulated, so there isn’t much here in terms of weird or kitschy personalized properties that people like to put into the broad category of roadside Americana – which includes a perpetually growing compilation of the same genre (nonstandardized) but vary widely in sentiment and imagery.

But, that doesn’t mean obscurities can’t be found along Vermont’s byways. Take the tiny farm town of Leicester, whose most famous denizen can be seen lumbering over the small oval-shaped lawn of Pioneer Auto Sales, right along the side of Route 7 either before or after you approach the tiny village center – which is pretty much an intersection with a few houses and a newly reopened gas station that now has a growler filling station.

“Queen Connie”, which it’s sometimes referred as when it’s not called “that big gorilla holding the VW bug”, is a huge 20-ft. tall, 16 ton, concrete ape, holding up a progressively rotting Volkswagon Beetle in one of her upraised arms, while the other arm is stretched out, palm upward, acting as a place where someone could grab an uncomfortable seat and a gimmicky photo opportunity.

But how did something like Queen Connie end up in aesthetic conscious Vermont? And what’s the story behind it? Actually, the answer is pretty straight forward – according to what I was told anyways. The owner of the car dealership had commissioned local artist T.J. Neil to do some concrete work around his pool at home. He was impressed with Neil’s work, and casually suggested another project; to do something cool to spruce up his business. Neil surprised him by suggesting a hyperbolized gorilla – his only reason was because he wanted to see it holding up a car. In 1987, Queen Connie was constructed using steel reinforced concrete, and she’s been observing activity on Route 7 with a disgruntled facial expression ever since, and for Vermonters who are into the weird, might be one of their first forays into oddity hunting.

Though I’m glad Vermont isn’t carelessly overdeveloped like other states, emblems like this are a pejorative thing to build here in the present tense, so it makes it all the more enjoyable.

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Your blogger and local weird worker, posing for a photo.

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Up The Molly Stark Trail

I was heading down to explore parts of southern Vermont with a friend. My summer turned into a lot of stress and setbacks, and I felt like my life was becoming as standard as my white apartment walls. My prescription was a long drive, and the lure of autumn’s sway just makes road trips better. Passing through my favorite town of Wallingford always cures a frown on my face, and as we got farther south and the trees began to turn gold in the hills around Mount Tabor and Dorset, I enthusiastically recalled a defunct marble quarry I hiked to last summer.

Route 7 turns into a limited access highway through most of Bennington County, until it reverts back to full access in Bennington and brings you right into its historic downtown district, the center of town being where it intersects with state route 9. I took a quick jaunt up the hill to the Old Bennington neighborhood to take a few photos of one of my favorite buildings in Vermont, The Walloomsac Inn, then ventured up route 9 eastwards into the mountains.

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The Walloomsac Inn, my favorite haunt in Bennington.

Route 9, also known as The Molly Stark Trail or The Molly Stark Byway as the state issued scenic byway signs tell you –  is one of my favorite drives in Vermont, and the same sentiment could probably be said for quite a few other people. It’s an extraordinary road to gawk at through the windshield of your car, and even better when you’re stopping to get out and look around. The mountain road twists and turns through the innards of the national forest and gains elevation and grade pretty much as soon as you get beyond Bennington’s limits as it starts to climb the first of many hills and parallels the boulder filled Walloomsac River. To be honest, lots of things on this road vie for your attention.

A sense of awe and anticipation builds in me when I see a trademark brown and white national forest sign, telling drivers that there are various access spaces to Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest for the next 15 miles or so. That includes the massive Glastenbury wilderness, one of Vermont’s largest undeveloped areas, but more known for the titular defunct town and about 2 centuries worth of weirdness that culminated on its many slopes and took off like a contagion shotgun blast into paranormal sensationalism. But it”s hard not to be fascinated by the large expanse of wilderness. The huge area holds ghost towns, a slew of trails and forest roads, man-made feats of engineering, and plenty of mysteries. Just ask the Geocaching community.

We passed through forested Woodford, the highest town in elevation in Vermont at around 2,215 feet, then descended into Wilmington. Which is where I unintentionally found some local curio. A green 1915 iron truss bridge first caught my eye, because it was obviously abandoned, as indicated by all the trees growing through it. The underwhelming replacement was a simple concrete and steel span that bridged the river inches away. As I was gazing at the bridge, I noticed a strange white sign across the bridge that was put up on a small weedy embankment that welcomed me to “Medburyville”, and gave me a precise census of 31 people and 26 pets who I guess lived somewhere nearby in the rural area.

I was at a loss here. The area around the sign was pretty much an undeveloped light wilderness area, and I knew that we had already crossed the Woodford/Wilmington town line. I’m a pundit on Vermont geography and had never heard of Medburyville before, so I was pretty curious. What was/is Medburyville? A local parody or some kind of irony? A name of an obscure back road Wilmington neighborhood?

My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.

My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.

I was curious if there was a mystery or story here, so I sent an email to the Wilmington Historical Society. In their reply, Julie Moore explained that Medburyville was a village in Wilmington, but was erased when the Harriman Reservoir was constructed for the purpose of flood control. There was a mill, several houses and a railroad line that ran through the area at one point.

Today there is only a small aluminum sign that raises more questions than answers. Just a few feet from what was/is the Medburyville area is a narrow arm of the aforementioned reservoir, which is experiencing pretty low water levels lately so it was more sandbars than water when I drove by. Local lore has it that when the reservoir is low, a slimy church steeple from the former village is exposed, but I didn’t see anything that day that looked out of place in a reservoir.

Another obscure footnote is that there once was a placename along the reservoir that had the post office address of “Surge Tank” – a name of a temporary settlement that sheltered the men who built the Harriman Reservoir dam that had it’s own recognized post office. The post office also moved around between Readsboro and Whittingham – depending on wherever construction was happening. I still see Surge Tank sometimes on obscure place name lists. Like Medburyville, Surge Tank is long gone, and without a sign to commemorate it.

Back on the road, the forests occasionally break up a little and you got a positioning glimpse that you were right in the middle of the green mountain chain. Unlike some parts of Vermont where a high elevation isn’t surrounded by other mountains and instead reduces off into valleys, the mountains around Wilmington and Marlboro stretched as far as the vistas, with various 440 million-year eroded summits slanting into other rounded domes. A few “runaway truck ramps” with large yellow signs and rhythmic blinking lights were a reminder that the undulating byway had the potential to be more dangerous than scenic for other drivers, and judging by the scars and pit marks in one of them, it had been used recently.

The “100-Mile View”

But it was the so-called “100-mile view” in Marlboro that was the most impressive. I’m not sure if that name is superlative or not, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter because the view is awesome. From a large wooden deck with coin functioning viewing apparatuses for the tourist crowd, you can see what’s left of southern Vermont before it transitions into the Berkshire Hills, and the bumps of southern New Hampshire, including Mount Monadnock.

One of the ramshackle old lodging cabins from a deceased ski resort, which I was about to hike to, sits on the edge of a drop off below the overlook, and might be one of the most photographed site among the sights. I took a walk down, and there was a laminated sign taped to the twisting floorboards telling people like myself to keep out – it’s not actively maintained (as evident by the peeling paint) and can be dangerous if the building decides to tumble down the hill. But I was able to get a shot through a dusty old window along the side and gaze curiously at a few items of older furniture left inside.

I live in Vermont’s largest city, and dig the scene there, but sometimes my hometown is just too oversaturated with people for my taste. I really ache for having access to land like I did when I was younger, where I could go 4 wheeling and hiking and just let out the things storming in my mind. So my predilection was that I could sit on that porch all day or night and gaze off into the distance in my own reverie, listening to Gregory Alan Isakov albums. 

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It seems like I was racing storms all day as I traveled around the state yesterday. They finally caught up with me at the top of the Molly Stark Trail, one of Vermont’s most scenic byways. Someone once told me how the few street signs (mostly stop signs) in Greenland’s research bases and camp cities are completely coated with stickers. It’s a way to get the story of its visitors or inhabitants. Where you’re from, what you like, what you stand for, etc. I thought that was pretty cool, and remembered that when I saw the guardrail that hemmed in the road atop Hogback Mountain. Though that’s not quite the case in Vermont, I’ve seen a few guardrails covered in visitor mementos, many just confessing fannish love for various companies or organizations, alongside sharpied graffiti, names and dates. Appalachian Gap on state route 17 has a similar theme.

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The cluster of tourist buildings that sort of delineate the maximum height of land between Bennington and Brattleboro were all once a part of Hogback Mountain, a defunct ski area cut out of the slopes of Mount Olga which has mostly been recovered by nature.

Hiking Around Hogback Mountain

Hogback was one of the longest lasting family owned traditional ski resorts in the state, and arguably is one of the best lost ski areas in Vermont to explore, though you’d probably guess either of these things while driving by the few diminutive red buildings sitting in tangled underbrush along a slight rise above the wide shoulder of route 9. You’d probably never guess the property was even a ski hill unless you were able to catch the white lettering affixed to the former first aid building that reads “Hog ark Ski Area”, which in all honestly would be a memorable name for a functioning ski hill.

I decided to walk down from the overlook and have a look around at the property. Good thing I wore jeans – the land was wild with tangled undergrowth, and most likely, ticks. Having been bitten by one a month ago, I didn’t want to go through that debacle again. A few old buildings, the rusted bones of an old lift line and a squint-to-make-out overgrown ski trail could still be traced.

Vermont is the land of skiing (and snowboarding) and our pioneering ski hills ranged from extremely plain rope tow affairs to more detailed mom and pop establishments.

If you’re a New Englander, I’d say we’re pretty lucky to have a great site like the New England Lost Ski Area Project. Between that and the book Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont by Jeremy K. Davis, I got a startling impression of how many ski areas we once had just in the lower part of Vermont, and how many of them have been, well, lost.

Hogback Mountain itself seemed to be something special. The ski area warranted a pretty long chapter in Davis’s book and a long entry on NELSAP – considering other areas had merely a few sentences. It has a lot of history, so much I had to condense it a bit for the sake of keeping people reading this blog post.

The truth seemed to be that Hogback was envisioned by a community of people who loved skiing, and the consequences were real. Hogback opened for the 1946-47 ski season on prime real estate owned by Harold White, and was operated by the Hogback Mountain Ski Lift Company out of Brattleboro, as well as several of the families who owned the various businesses along route 9, like the White’s who owned the gift shop, the rental shop, the Marlboro Inn and other rental properties. The Douglass’s who were involved with the ski shop, and the Hamelton’s who were involved with the skyline restaurant.

It featured a Constam T-Bar which could move 900 skiers an hour and was the highest capacity lift in the country at the time. Old brochures and trail maps promote the ski hill’s location in Vermont’s “snow belt”, a high annual snowfall area of the Green Mountains which at the time, received an average of 120 inches. The Vermont winters of today are a bit more disparate.

Hogback’s highest elevation was about 2,400 feet (the base area being at around 1,900), which helped preserve the natural snowfall much better than lower area ski hills, which made it so beloved. I observed some older trail maps, and discovered that Hogback had a unique layout. You’d begin your day along route 9 where a hotel, gift shop and Skyline Restaurant were, and ride a rope tow to the practice slope, but intermediate or expert level skiers would have to transport over to a different face of the mountain to access the main T-Bar and more advanced trails.

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A trail map from the 1970s -Hogback Mountain had 12 trails to ride on. To give you an idea of the weird layout and a wayfinding point: number 21 is the first aid building, and below it is Route 9. The first aid building is abandoned and still visible from the road today. That is also where the practice slopes/beginners area was. The more advanced trails were over on another side of the mountain, where numbers 3, 4 and 6 are.

Over the years, the laid back ski hill caught enough popularity from a top notch ski school, excellent snowfall and a gorgeous mountain where skiers would admire spruce trees crusted in snow. In the 50s, it started to expand, and would continue that momentum through the 70s. More trails were cut down the slopes and made easier accessible by a Pomalift and the addition of 4 more Doppelmayr T-bars. There was also a Quonset Hut brought to the property that served as a ski-in snack hut.

Seriously, this place was a big deal. A lot of the history or accounts I read about the mountain was that plenty of southern Vermont kids learned to ski here. It also helped develop a local interest in ski races and became home to the Southern Vermont Racing Team. If a nearby community, like Brattleboro, had an outing club, they probably went to Hogback. The mountain developed a pretty enthusiastically devoted fanbase. The ski school changed instructors a few times over the decades, each new presence contributing to it in their own way.

One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The hill was literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The trails were literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs nearby warning skiers not to get too close. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs posted nearby warning skiers not to get too close because of the heat. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.

Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.

Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

But towards the 1980s, snowfall began to change to a lack of snowfall. Between not enough natural snow to ski on, rising costs of operation and increasing competition from bigger resorts that were becoming more common on the scene in Vermont mountains, the small mom and pop ski hill eventually couldn’t compete. Hogback’s story is similar to most of Vermont’s lost ski areas. Not being able to compete or stay consistent, most of them became fading ghosts.

Abandoned ski hills are interesting real estate. What do you do with them? Some have subsumed away in the caprices of nature and others re-opened or became private operations. In Hogback’s case, the Vermont Land Trust and a group of adamant people worked pretty tirelessly over the years to secure the funds to purchase and secure the land to save it from becoming a condominium development with a marketed quintessential nature-esque type of name. The purchased acreage was then transferred over to the town of Marlboro, and the cool Hogback Mountain Conservation Area was the result. It’s now glorious protected land, with an abandoned ski hill in the middle that Vermonters can enjoy.

Some of the old ski trails are still maintained and pruned, so hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can still enjoy them. Though, for me anyways, I found that finding those trails was a bit of a challenge.

To my delight and surprise combination, if you bushwhack through some waist-high tangle weeds and growth, you can still find some of the old ski trails, which were still hikable! Well, it’s subjective I guess, but I thought it was achievable. Using the linear rusted cables of the former chairlift as wayfinding points, I decided a short early autumn hike was a good idea. The trail oddly cleared out the farther up I climbed, until both the trail and the lift sort of ended in a blissful and fragrant silence. I was a little bummed I didn’t find an old chairlift or more paraphernalia. If I had gone up farther, I would have eventually stumbled upon the Mount Olga fire tower, which I’m told had splendid far reaching views. You can get there far easier than scrambling up Hogback Mountain, by hiking over via Molly Stark State Park. 

My list of places to visit in Vermont alone is so long, it’s hard to cross stuff off of. I’ll get up there one day.

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There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building

There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building

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As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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Men and women generally make their mark in life through their achievements, earning fame from them and a place in popular culture, especially if the individual dares to toil in the unknown of a less categorizable pursuit, figuring out the hazier parts of our existence.

Though I can’t claim that Vermont breeds this type of person, our small state definitely draws them, and has been home to quite a few extraordinary people and legends who lived here, worked here, were honored here or cursed here.

James Hartness was one of those personalities who dallied with new frontiers of science and invention in such ways that he would eventually catch the imagination of the public. And as I figured out, his life is far more interesting than even I expected when I set out to visit his former estate and prepare to research for this blog entry.

Springfield is one of those Vermont towns that doesn’t cross my mind all that much, that is until I was told that one of the oldest telescopes in the country is hidden away in an underground observatory connected to an old mansion by secret passageways. That interested me enough to start asking questions.

Inquiring further, I found out that the telescope’s existence in Springfield is because of James Hartness, a former state governor, inventor and astronomy savant, who happened to build his own underneath his home. If you’re vaguely familiar with the name, that may be because you’re aware of the Hartness State Airport in Springfield, which wears his name. Or perhaps if you’re a pundit on state governors, you know that he once filled that spot with his single term from 1921 to 1923, his mission statement being to persuade Vermonters to stay and seek employment in Vermont as opposed to elsewhere, but was incompatible with the economy at the time.

A Google search revealed that today, it’s a bed and breakfast called The Hartness House, named after it’s dead builder and because it’s a business in, well, The Hartness House.

My next conundrum was how would I see such a thing. I had called the bed and breakfast in February of 2014 to see about checking it out for myself, but I found out that not only was it their off season and they weren’t opening the place up to visitors, the business had also been sold and the new owners were at the beginning of the seemingly arduous task of figuring out their game plan. So, I stayed persistent and called back again a year later at the end of May 2015, and after a few somewhat miscommunicated phone calls, I had excitedly scheduled myself an appointment to see it and found myself road tripping down to southern Vermont on a humid June morning where the steam was sliding off the slopes of Mount Ascutney.

Hartness’s mansion is a bit to the right of the center of town, inconspicuous in a spaced out neighborhood that was built up a hillside over the decades, with sinuous stripped asphalt streets and patches of woods between residential lots that gave the area a more detached, quiet feeling from town.

Pulling into the driveway that leads guests in front of the street obscured estate, I immediately saw the unique jelly bean looking white concrete shape of the telescope protruding from their nicely groomed front lawn, which lead my eyes to an architecturally impressive Newport style mansion that looks like it would fit in more on it’s namesake coastline in Rhode Island than the Green Mountain State.

I felt a little out of place being there – and I’m really good at feeling like I’m out of place. It was tacit upscale, I wasn’t a paying guest, and was tromping around in shorts, bowler cap, Keep Vermont Weird T shirt and camera bag slung over my shoulder, ready to grab a greasy breakfast and a few cups of coffee at a low key diner afterwards, before going to find some petroglyphs.

I decided to deal with my anxieties later and just make a casual walk through the dark stained front door. The interior exuded a sort of tamed glamor that you’d expect from such a house, and I followed a trail of intricately woven carpets and polished plank floors to the front desk. To my relief, I was pointed towards a nondescript door towards the public bathrooms. Clutching the old knob that wobbled a bit in my hand, I opened it slowly, and a narrow staircase came into my view that descended downwards, inhabited by cobwebs and your expected subterranean dampness. I took a few steps down hesitantly when I saw a light switch now at elbow level. I flicked it on and the tunnel lit up and filled with the hum of older yellow hued light bulbs that would lead me down to whatever I would find at the end.

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My friend had speculated in conversation that at one point, Hartness has built a multitude of secret tunnels that radiated out from his house, towards downtown Springfield, but the hotel denied it when he inquired. However, when he received a tour years ago, he recalled finding a wooden door down in the main tunnel way, and because he was already underground, that door either met an underground room or another tunnel. He opened it when he had a moment alone, and indeed, there was another passageway that extended back into the dark, but he never got to explore it further than it’s door frame. I did see another door down on my walk, but it was locked, and whatever was behind it was off limits due to some sort of “accident” I found out later. Maybe that was the same door he was talking about. But I guess I’d never find out.

Further down the tunnel was another door which wasn’t locked, and that led into an open concrete space that used to be Hartness’s private laboratory, now a museum filled with older telescope prototypes, newspaper clippings, artifacts and hand drawn sketches of the arctic. It was dedicated to Hartness and James Russel Porter, but mostly James Russel Porter, a name I hadn’t heard of until then.

Back out in the tunnel, I opened another set of doors, which lead me to a narrow neck craning spiral concrete staircase that deposited me inside the post 100 year old Hartness Equatorial Turret Telescope, designed and manufactured entirely by Hartness himself, the turret dome being the only thing manufactured in Massachusetts. I began to eagerly scrutinize its design, trying to get a better idea of how it worked. The rotating turret was the green portion of the strange structure with it’s rounded, port hole-esque looking windows, and it rides on rollers supported by the rounded white, concrete structure. The telescope tube is a replacement made of more modern stainless steel and accommodates a ten-inch achromatic objective. Even the fact that the telescope is sheltered is unique – a feature Hartness incorporated because stargazing during a Vermont winter is rottenly cold.

The telescope also incorporates a sophisticated motor-drive, transmission system and clock drive to replicate the earth’s rotation. Using the equatorial drive system makes it possible to view solar residing objects over extended periods of time notwithstanding the rotation of the earth.

Everything here was fascinating to think about for your blogger. I love stuff like this. But disappointingly, the telescope was missing a part (I forget which), so it was only 97% functional, and not enough functionality was present to actually try it out for myself. That was in 2015 though, I’m not sure if they have replaced the part yet or not. I haven’t been back.

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Sitting back at home drinking amounts of coffee that my doctor would be upset about, I was in research mode. Even though first-hand experience here is cool enough, my curious nature wasn’t satisfied. Why is any of this here? Well, I suppose that anyone who can afford to build an astronomical wonder and tunnel system on their property can build it anywhere they want, but still. What’s the story here?

Springfield

Springfield was once a place of civic pride and a personification of industrial advancement. But turning off Interstate 91 and driving past the Holiday Inn Express and down it’s not so aesthetically pleasing main drag today, is a windshield scene of sad looking old buildings with a bland retail district that doesn’t pry for your attention. But the corpses of its aging legacy has simultaneously inspired a swelling steampunk scene from what I’m told.

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A small pocket park off Main Street revealed a glorious view of some broad cascades on the Black River with a photographic tumbledown old factory built into the river banks. This is one of my favorite views in Springfield.

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What is such a grand historical artifact and adjoining elaborate DIY entrance point doing here in Springfield? To understand that, I needed a better understanding of the man who built it, which was connected with the history of the town itself.

The valley locality that wears an omnipresent name for American communities was known in the nomenclature as Vermont’s original “tech hub”. Thanks to the Black River, which rolls and tumbles through the center of the area’s defining long dip in topography, Springfield became a practical place for machine tool industrial operations and the dreamers who made them happen. This small town became so eminent that it adopted the nickname “Precision Valley”, and became Vermont’s highest per capita income generating community – with around 3,000 people employed in the nuances of the activity.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and apparently, Springfield was also allegedly on Hitler’s list of places to bomb if the Nazi’s ever made it over this way – making number two on his list, just after New York City. Or, at least as local lore fills us in with.

So, what happened? Economic death and postmortem go down best a chaser of assigned blame, and according to who you ask, there is a multitude of theories to tell the story of why Springfield was pretty much defenestrated. Unions are one scapegoat, who helped ensure a few strikes in the 1970s which lead to higher wages. Others speculate that newer Springfield generations had no interest in taking over the family businesses, so many were eventually purchased by outside firms, which employers argued gave them a lot less control. But maybe it was the fact that Springfield factories were still making old school products, and overseas companies were innovating both their products and how they were manufactured. Either way, the final result was a community that fell victim to depression and some bitter hindsight and a new footnote on the town’s Wikipedia page.

James Hartness and Russel Porter

Before Springfield imprinted itself with its economic momentum and national popularity, Vermonters were leaving Vermont in droves, with their compasses pointed west. Local industrialist Adna Brown was forced to look for creatively pragmatic solutions to keep Vermonters working in Vermont. He discovered that Jones & Lamson, a machine tool company in nearby Windsor was for sale. So, Brown got together a group of investors and Springfield put together and instigated a new Vermont law where towns would make new industry exempt from taxation for their first 10 years – hoping to give new business some incentive to stick around in the green mountains. The deal went through, and Jones and Lamson moved to Springfield. To run it, Brown hired a young James Hartness in 1889, who was already proving to be a precocious machinist and earnest inventor, because he looked at things at different angles.

I don’t know much about Hartness’s milieu. He was born near Schenectady, New York in 1861, and would become a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur in his life, becoming a working stiff shortly after completing grammar school and steered away from the insecurity dance many of us learn, and began to build and flex his foundation to enable him to bridge beyond orthodox culture. That phrase sounds sort of like a biographical platitude but really fits him like a hard earned degree considering his truly impressive list of accolades that is something that makes me feel a little down about my own accomplishments.

On his first day on the job, he announced that J&L would no longer be making their wide array of products – which consisted of machines to drill gun barrels, stone channelers and engine lathes. Instead, he conceptualized the company only producing one thing: the Hartness Flatbed Turret Lathe, his own invention, named for himself. According to the folks at the Hartness House, it’s considered “one of the most important machine tools ever made.” – because his was arguably the most efficient at milling and shaping all lengths of metal, despite there being plenty of other lathes already existing.

In 1900, Hartness would become manager of J&L, and 3 years later, president. Hartness’s business practices came down to one thing; that a company should only make one product, and it was that idea that built Springfield and secured his success. He was a mentor to other inventors in his employ, and some of them who became incredibly proficient or innovative in their traits or skill sets branched off and started their own businesses which grew the town’s prowess as a manufacturing power. During this time, he would create over 100 patents for improved machine tools and measuring techniques, and get royalties for them.

Being as ambitious as Hartness was, I reckon it rubs off on you in other aspects of your life, including in your hobbies. The sky seemed to be one of Hartness’s fondest devotions; whether it was flying in its atmosphere, or gazing up at it, and he let that seep into other endeavors.

Hartness had a penchant for aviation. He progressed with a Wright Biplane, got his pilot’s license in 1914, and became one of the first 100 pilots in America. In 1919, he would donate land and help construct the first airport in the state of Vermont which not coincidentally was in Springfield, and is now called the Hartness State Airport. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was coaxed into landing there after his transatlantic flight and hang out with Hartness at his mansion. But it was his love of astronomy that really stole the show, and secured his place in the public sphere.

In 1903, he was doing so well for himself that he decided to upgrade his digs, and began construction on a mansion atop a slight rise in elevation known as Cherry Hill. The mansion was completed a year later, but he didn’t stop there, and began to customize the place by building a turret telescope in his front yard (finished in 1910), connected it to the house by a tunnel system, and added more subterranean real estate for his study and laboratory. He may have added more tunnels, but that part is still a Vermont myth. Though it’s not exactly known what Hartness did with his telescope, he was so fond of it that he had it painted into his governor’s portrait in the state house, which has confused quite a few visitors who mistook the weirdly shaped object as a UFO.

The Hartness Mansion after completion. Via stellafane.org

Hartness standing in front of his turret telescope. Via stellafane.org

From his knowledge of optics gained from his interest in astronomy, Hartness invented an optical method of projecting an incredibly magnified image of a screw thread onto a drawing. He had the concept, but he needed it developed into a marketable machine – and engineer, former Arctic explorer and inventor Russel Porter was just the guy for the job. Porter was hired at J&L in 1919, and between the two of them, they would invent the optical comparator.

Porter seemed to be an amiable companion for Hartness, and their skill sets and ambitions were mutually beneficial. Eventually, the two formed a friendship and created the Springfield Telescope Makers club in 1920, where they would give classes on how to make telescopes -later renamed the Stellafane Society, which has a name that sounds like something you’d find on the shelf near saran wrap or tinfoil, but is actually Latin for “shrine to the stars”, a club that is still active and still meets in Springfield in a pink clubhouse on Breezy Hill – facing the isolated form of mount Ascutney, a monadnock that has been revered for centuries as an important wayfinding point in celestial calendars used by the original native Vermonters.

According to further research, it seems like it was really Porter that got hands on guiding the club and acted as an instructor and mentor. The original 15 club members were machinists tool makers or pattern makers at Jones and Lamson, who signed up to learn how to grind their own mirrors and make powerful reflecting telescopes – something which Porter was a genius at. He had spent years on Maine’s weathered coast years prior teaching himself as much as he could about building telescopes. He would eventually be recruited by George Ellery Hale and moved to California where he would help design the Palomar Observatory telescope. Now the astronomical presence that seemed to seep down all of Springfield’s walls was making sense to me. Even today, it’s still affixed in. Springfield-based J&L Metrology remains the only company making optical comparators today in the United States.

Hartness and Porter would continue to practice their craft until their deaths in mutual Februaries of 1934 and 1949. Luckily, Hartness left behind a tactile wonder and physical trace for future Vermonters to marvel at.

The thing about these sort of sites is that everyone has their own experiences and observations. The sights I saw that day and their creating personalities came with their gravity and left an impression on me. As I was ravenously waiting at a Bellows Falls diner for my stack of diner pancakes to arrive and sipping disappointing coffee, I was in a contemplative mood. I try to stay hungry, stay free and stay inspired, and recognize when fear begins to call the shots. I know from experience, resistance to personal growth only leads to becoming a figure of misery. Maybe I could learn something from Hartness and Porter.

As Slug said; You can’t escape regret but you might regret escape.

Hartness’s turret telescope on Breezy Hill. Back then, it looks like the views were a little more far flung than today’s property which is cozily hemmed in by woods that block out the distant hills. Via stellafane.org

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

 

 

 

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The deadliest place in Vermont is simultaneously one of it’s least dead places. The head of the state’s public safety commission once dubbed the Huntington Gorge as “the deadliest place in the state”, and according to those who make it their business to track this sort of stuff, this is considered the most dangerous swimming hole in all of New England. But despite that macabre distinction, in the summer the chasm is absolutely crawling with bodies, energy, and canned beer, all which dive impetuously off of the dangerous cliffs.

It’s not hard to see the appeal to this spectacular rocky crevice carved deep into the Richmond hills. Vertical undulating cliffs rise intimidatingly around a twisting boulder deposited river that corkscrews through several waterfalls, ranging from 6 to 12 feet in height, underneath a ceiling of evergreen trees. But this stunning crevice successfully conceals real dangers, masking strong currents that can easily whisk an unsuspecting person away. With high levels of water rushing rapidly down a steep rise constricted in a narrow spot, it’s an easy place to be greeted by the grim reaper.

Some refer to the spot by its unofficial nickname; “The Hungry Gorge”, probably because of the place’s appetite for human beings. Since 1950, a great number of people have lost their lives here, but just how many people is up for debate apparently. A few books, newspaper articles and the Richmond town records list the number at 25, but other accounts say the number is probably high as 40. The victims’ ages so far range from between 15 and 30, and all lost their lives by drowning. This information may even be out of date by the time I actually get around to publishing this entry. The casualties even include heroic would be rescuers, including a state police officer who attempted to retrieve a body and drowned in the process. And the numbers continue to grow, despite numerous attempts to stem the death tolls.

The most tactile approach happened in 1976 when a band of locals got together and blasted away a dangerous underwater chute where several swimmers had gotten swept into and trapped by strong currents. But the gorge continues to take lives.

In 2005, a 19-year-old UVM student became another statistic when he slipped on some rocks and plummeted fatally into the gorge. Frazzled people wanted a solution. There were demands to make the gorge off limits entirely, with heavy trespassing fines as intimidation to visitors. Some even wanted to build a giant wall around the gorge. That same year, Gary Bressor would purchase the property for $20,000 to preserve it and keep it open to the public, so future generations can continue to enjoy the unique area – or as others would argue, so future generations can die here. It’s a matter of perspective I guess.

The purchase made other gorge goers happy, unequivocally saying that anyone can enjoy themselves here, you just need some common sense and some information – something I’d agree with. Bressor was one of those people as well, so he bought the land to stop the quarreling over what to do with it and formed the Huntington River Gorge LLC, who wish to protect and preserve the natural area. Because it’s now under private ownership, an official ban isn’t possible.

But why do so many seem to die here? Apart from entrapping geography, the answer may lie within its tourist population. Many people who drown here are out of towners, who aren’t aware of the gorge’s concealed dangers, seeing things through youthful impunity. The surprising and frustrating thing about Huntington Gorge is that some of the deaths here could have been easily avoided. According to my research, a few deaths were related to drug or alcohol use before diving in. And sometimes, well, accidents just happen.

The locals know when to avoid the gorge, especially when the river is swollen with high runoffs from snow melt or rainwater, and they know where the safe parts are to swim. Some people have lived near the gorge all their lives and have never set foot down there.

A drive up Dugway Road, the dirt thoroughfare that runs along the rim of the gorge, reveals a plentiful amount of parking ban notices and warning signs nailed to any available tree or fence post that would be visible through a windshield. At the top of the gorge sits an official dark green state historic marker chronologically listing deaths here over the years. But the dates end ominously in 1994 which was probably around the time the sign was erected, and an updated replacement hasn’t been commissioned yet – if it ever will. There is talk of even more signs are planned to be erected when the project gets official zoning approval. But, knowing how human nature works, those signs won’t be of much help unless the visitor actually chooses to heed their warnings. Despite the dangers, this swimming hole remains widely popular, partially because of it’s harrowing reputation, or maybe some just have a perverse interest in tragedy. Humans have always had a fascination with death after all. That’s partially the reason why I visited. Also because I run a blog on Vermont weirdness, and love being outdoors.

Regardless, it’s easy to fall for this site’s charm and majestic splendor. Even in the dead cold of winter when I first visited, it was impressive. Icy waters churned over the surfaces of halfway frozen waterfalls and the cacophony of solid vs. liquid echoed up over the gorge walls. But I stayed well away from the edges, because a very slick layer of ice had glazed over the rocks, and I definitely didn’t want my name emblazoned on a tragedy induced warning sign.

Having a blog has offered quite a crash course on social culture. One of the benefits is befriending cool people through it. My friend Timothy is one such person. We hit it off last fall and even went on a few adventures together. He grew up down the road from the gorge as a kid and agreed to show me around on a sultry summer day.

After a morning of metal detecting at a ghost town and being pestered by mosquitoes, a dip in the Huntington River sounded fantastic, and visiting with someone who was intimate with the place excited me. I wanted to know it’s secrets and it’s stories. But within minutes of arriving, I wanted to go home. The gorge was thick with people in sports jerseys and cheap beer. Timothy groaned and said he missed the days when the gorge something that really only the locals knew about. Today, it’s all overran with bros and frat boys he complained, who, at least on that particular day, were making quite the ruckus as a crew who set up camp on a rock below were challenging someone’s manhood as they waited to see if the guy would jump off the cliffs as a group of distantly perched girls laughed snootily at them. There’s nothing wrong with people flocking to a great spot on a hot summers afternoon, it just wasn’t my particular scene.

Subsequently, the growth of the college kid crowd pushed out a lot of the locals from the gorge said my friend. When he was younger in the 90s, he loved spending his summer days there as he developed a fascination with diving off of the cliffs. Doing this, he got to know several of the old timers who were very familiar with it and knew all of its secrets and idiosyncrasies, like the best places to jump, when to go, and places to avoid. During this time, he explored every nook he could and got very familiar with it. During one of his dives, he found a wheel from a car that was from the early 20th century. On his other expeditions, he told stories of caves he found, and how if you were patient enough after diving into a pool near the falls, minnows would swim into you, hundreds if you had the patience. There are even certain rocks that have seen so many people sunning themselves or used as a launching point to jump off of that they have grooves in their surfaces now. “I remember always trying to make it down there before ten in the morning when I was a kid – that was always before the crowds would come down – and you’d always see the usual people, all jumping off the ledges and trying to out-do one another in the flamboyance of their dives. But it was all in good fun, and some of those guys were really good. Others looked up to them. Everyone knew each other, it was sort of like a club”. Today, those characters may have more or less, vanished from its boulder strewn walls. To my surprise, one of the last vestiges of older crowds to still hang out here, are nudists. We saw a few on our trek down the ledges to the river.

But the gorge is so popular, its entangled its way inside the frothy forefront of local legends. Some put enough emphasis on the gorge in conversation as if it’s the only swimming hole in the area, sort of like how Vermonters refer to Lake Champlain as “the lake”, even though Vermont has numerous other bodies of water.

As we were cringing at the site of a 20 something-year-old girl try to park an orange VW Bus, which was continuously ending in a position where two of the four wheels would be lifted off the road, my friend postulated that he thinks some of the locals might be hanging out at the upper gorge again. The upper portion of the gorge was the original gathering spot for visitors, and the locals hung out at the lower portion away from the crowds, until bad press moved most of the frenzy down to the lower gorge. But here’s the thing; both parts of the gorge are just as dangerous as one another. The only difference is that one area has been stained by hysteria and numerous signs about death, and one hasn’t.

Not surprisingly, a location with such grim stories attached to it has also spawned a few ghost stories. The only one I heard was years ago, where an unsuspecting swimmer was resting on some rocks and got a creeping feeling that someone was watching them. When they gazed around, they noticed a fully clothed teenage boy staring at them, standing on top of a large boulder down river a bit. But they noticed he was sopping wet, and he was standing there still as a stone. Concerned, the swimmer went to stand up, thinking that the boy may have needed help, but when they turned back around, he was gone. It was an open area, so he couldn’t have managed to clamber back up the gorge walls without being detected. But somehow, he had completely vanished. Whether these grim cautionary stories are preternatural occurrences or a local method of driving people away is anyone’s guess.

But the Huntington Gorge’s grim veneer isn’t exclusive. All swimming holes have the potential to be monstrous places if the right circumstances are applied. And seemingly, it seems to be a certain shade of visitors who ruin these sort of places, as opposed to the places themselves. A bit north, the landmark Bolton Potholes are a good example.

Bolton town is an often interstate passed Chittenden County fringe town where it’s old designation as “the land of boulders and bears” is undiluted verisimilitude. It’s charted land acreage is mostly taken up by steep rises in elevation, which suck for farming, but are great for outdoor recreational pursuits like a ski area and part of the 250 mile Long Trail.

A go-to summer relief for many area Vermonters, the potholes are where 3 impressive glacial waterfalls that pour into emerald-tinted holes are formed where Joiner Brook plunges about 45 feet down the Bolton slopes. It’s a cool area, but now days, the site also draws other sights in the form of large herds and obnoxious visitors, who litter, crowd the road and party there which bothers both long time visitors and denizens of the road that runs alongside of it. I used to go there as a teenager, but not so much anymore, opting for quieter locales.

Every action has a reaction, and now, there is talk of possibly closing it or restricting access to the public. Maybe. There is also a fight against that, wanting to keep these special places accessible for present and future Vermonters, which blew up on the Vermont subreddit page. Only time will tell, I guess. I’m more on the side of using common sense, and that it would be a shame to loose our state swimming holes – a deep-rooted tradition up here which is something that we tend to dig a lot. They’re free, all inclusive, and often outlandishly beautiful. The type of thing that summer memories up here are made of. But if you trash the place, well, your part of the problem.

If you visit, just be careful.

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This summer, my camera has developed some technical problems that are above my ability to fix them, and I’m trying to save up some money to have it diagnosed by a professional, and then for subsequent repairs. Because my camera is self designated as the most important item I own, this is a real bummer for me. Any donations would be hugely appreciated.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

Time Will Tell

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

In the 19th century, natural springs were discovered in a hollow near town that had high levels of sulfur, magnesium, and iron in them – which were thought to have medicinal properties if mixed just right – that exact recipe changing quite a bit over the intervening mineral springs craze period, depending on what serial publication you subscribed to. Some even professed that these waters were the equivalent to the fountain of youth. The village capitalized on that, and it’s efforts were successfully rifled. In a time period in America where a sizable roster of traditions and foundational history were sparked and now only largely recalled – it’s main drag eventually became dressed up with handsome grand hotels that you’d expect to see from that era, many rising above 4 stories and wearing broad porches and clapboard facades as it’s reputation swelled to an estimated 10,000 visitors coming in every summer, including the likes of the Vanderbilt’s, which everyone loves to tote about if they had any relation to their area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post card prime, date unknown. via cardcow.com

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

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Lake Champlain is imbued with a sundry of awesome folk tales that stretch the imagination. Mysterious lights, beaches that allegedly make dog noises when the sand is bagged and slapped together (one of my favorites), rum runners, underwater shipwrecks, and places that are said to be bottomless, such as an area near the Charlotte-Essex ferry crossing. Addison County lore even has it that while building the Champlain or sometimes called Crown Point Bridge, construction workers were entombed in concrete inside the pylons during construction. While that’s most likely untrue, it’s a thematic macabre legend that sticks like flypaper to many of the world’s great infrastructure projects, like the Hoover Dam.

The most dubiously notable anecdote is, of course, related to its centuries-old giant plesiosaur-like lake monster, Champ. It’s existence in regional culture can be traced back as long as there has been regional mythology, from the Native Americans who told their own stories of a strange creature that dwelled underneath the waters, to French Explorer Samuel De Champlain who gave his own name to the lake and inadvertently, it’s resident unidentified swimming object. But the reality is that despite countless ostensible sightings over the centuries, little proves of Champs’s existence. If there is a lake monster, I guess it acts like a typical lake monster, because most professed ones I know of rarely show themselves or gobble down a few fisherman for a meal. But I’m not much of a pundit on USOs, so I guess I really have no idea how lake monsters are supposed to act.

Regardless, declared sightings and enthusiasm still permeate today. The little village of Port Henry near the southern end of the lake at the foot of one of two bridge crossings which span the body of water, throws a party in its honor every August. The locals call the shindig Champ Day, which just pushes it’s cryptozoology legitimacy card further and is one of the cooler regional festivities to attend in my opinion.

A Champ sightings signboard posted at the entry point of the village of Port Henry, New York.

There is also an unmemorable memorial on Burlington's Perkin's Pier that commemorates Champ, or the idea of Champ.

There is also a relatively unimaginative memorial on Burlington’s Perkin’s Pier that commemorates Champ, or the idea of Champ.

Some of my particular favorite tales centering on Lake Champlain though are of its treasure varieties. I’ll open with this one in all its brevity.

It has been said that a group of British soldiers traveling down the lake were attacked by local Indians in 1773. Those who survived buried about $75,000 in gold coins on or near Cedar Beach in Charlotte, but intervening parties were unable to find it again.

A Vermont Pirate

Samuel De Champlain is an identity that is understandable mentioned recurringly in relation to the lake, but I’m more interested in another name which sadly isn’t really spoken about as frequently.

Frustratingly little is known about the infamous Captain Mallett, Vermont’s own resident pirate. The name may sound familiar to you. There are a slew of landmarks that bear his name, including what may be the most recognized bay on the lake in Colchester, which domino-effectively gave that moniker to that distinguished part of town, an elementary school, and an avenue that leads from the bay into Winooski – among plenty of other things. Decades ago, there was even a restaurant named after him where Bay Road meets East Lakeshore Drive, now the site of a duplex.

But, it seems that many present day Vermonters are unaware that the bay wears the name of a corsair. There are no historical markers, no mentions in history class, nothing.

According to legend, Captain Mallett was a bonafide, swashbuckling sea pirate who, for some reason, decided on retiring in Vermont. He settled on the large natural harbor in Colchester that now bears his name, which is regarded today as a go-to destination for boaters and a controversial perennial gathering of people who party on rafts called Raftapalooza.

Somewhere along what is now Malletts Bay, he built a cabin and a rough tavern. A written account from Ira Allen verified this, and states that he found him living on Malletts Head, and wrote; “His settlement had the appearance of great antiquity”.

Vermont historian Nadding Hill writes; “Captain Mallett was apparently a man of considerable independence of spirit; he feared no one and acknowledged alliance neither to the English King nor to the American Colonies.”, which seems like your archetypal personality or code of conduct that would be exhibited by a pirate. Local lore maintains that he would always welcome spies and smugglers at his tavern, though his motives, if any at all, remain unclear. Some surmise that he sympathized with the revolution. Or maybe he just liked paying customers.

Inevitably, being a pirate also comes with stories of buried treasure. Supposedly, the captain had one of his own, which he buried on Coates Island.

But your researcher soon found out that any information about the mysterious Captain Mallett is annoyingly brief. The truth is, not much is known about him at all. That even comes down to his very identity. We know he was a Frenchmen, but the confusion is that he is known by many names, such as Stephen Mallett, Pierre Mallett and occasionally Jean-Pierre Mallett. Or, perhaps more properly, his surname could actually be Maillet, Mallet or Malet.  There seems to be just enough credibility to confirm that he was real, but little else.

Who was he? What actual acts of piracy did he commit to earn his title? Tantalizing incidents turned discoveries over the years have only puzzled things more.

William Coates, who lived on Coates Island, once found some brass buttons which be believed belonged to the Captain. More enticingly, trees with strange markings on them were discovered on the island a few decades ago which may have given clues to the treasure’s whereabouts, but the trees were unfortunately found after they had been blown over by a fierce windstorm. As a young boy, I had heard that the treasure was buried underneath two large Pine trees near the shore, that crossed over each other in the shape of a giant “X”, and were later lost in a storm. One more specific protestation says that the trees, which would have been very old at this point, were lost in a tornado that hit the Burlington area around 1987.

Nearby on Malletts Head, a hilly peninsula that divides Malletts Bay from the broad lake, a gentleman named Jed Sharrow and some of his friends discovered a wooden leg while digging for artifacts. The leg was scientifically dated to be from the 1700s. Though it’s tempting to assume these two artifacts may have been conclusive evidence of a pirate, especially considering the knowledge of Ira Allen’s record, the prosthesis and brass buttons were unable to be officially connected to the Captain.  

Tiny Cave Island, also in Malletts Bay, has some strange allegations behind it of stashed loot and clandestine activities, but it’s more likely that it’s namesake topography seemed fitting to christen a tale to, as opposed to actuality. A boat or kayak ride out to its shores will make you understand why – it’s a cool little island.

Cave Island | colchestervt.gov

Further research was done by former Winooski mayor Albert Gravel in 1939, who also was interested in the mysterious character. His research found that there was a Jean-Pierre Mallett that could be traced immigrating to Vermont. This Mallett absconded from France after expropriating the payroll from Napoleon’s army which was supposed to be delivered to French officials in exotic New Orleans, and would die in Winooski in 1818. Could this be the same Captain Mallett? If so, then I guess this would qualify as the act of piracy I was asking about in the above paragraphs.

Joseph Citro, the inveterate chronicler of all things weird Vermont, was able to excavate a great deal more to the mystery.

About half a century ago, an eyebrow raising 22,000 people in France who all claimed to be the descendants of Captain Mallett, got together and developed a quest to get their hands on his loot. Calling themselves the “World Union of Mallett Airs”, (but probably not calling themselves WUMA), they contend that Mallett came to America, fought in the American revolution, and was rewarded for his service with a huge farm in Vermont from the grateful Continental Congress.

The “World Union” also firmly asserted that the Captain came across his fortune honestly. First, he discovered oil on his land, a claim that is believable, as oil was discovered in Malletts Bay during Vermont’s short lived oil boom. Then, he would marry a Louisiana woman who inherited a bunch of gold mines not long after. Finally, the enterprising captain would purchase a string of slaughterhouses in Chicago. Or maybe it was only one of these claims – but as to which one, is up for debate. But, as the story goes, soon to be president Andrew Jackson expropriated everything, an illegal move which may have been due to hard feelings over Napoleon’s blockade of the United States during the war of 1812. Mallett’s vast property, which apparently stretched from Lake Champlain all the way to Chicago, was never claimed after his death because he had no children and no family over in America.

In 1965, the alleged Mallett’s descendants laid claim against the U.S. treasury for $512 million, a sum which would be worth substantially more in today’s money, arguing that because the fortune was seized illegally, the treasury owed them their rightful dues. But, in a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone, the U.S. treasure denied any acknowledgment of the Captain’s missing capital. And because of the aforementioned lack of records, no information could be used as evidence. Whose to say where the truth lies here. Was Jean-Pierre Mallet the Captain Mallett? Are the so-called World Union of Mallett Airs legitimate or fraudulent? What we do know, is that if there is an answer, it hasn’t been revealed yet.

Stave Island

Another extraordinarily strange story refers to tiny Stave Island, located in Lake Champlain northwest of Malletts Bay, off South Hero’s southwestern coast. I would have included this in my mysteries and legends of the Champlain Islands post if I’d have known this then. I’ll do my best to re-translate this patchwork legend.

A farm laborer on the island was enjoying his lunch one sunny day under the shade of a tree. He lazily glanced at a nearby arbor, and he spied something curious; some sort of marking was carved into the bark. It was the outline of a human hand, with a pointing index finger. He roused himself and decided to climb the tree to get a better vantage point of the area. What could the finger be pointing at? Why was it there?

As he gained elevation, he discerned a large flat rock in a nearby clearing he hadn’t ventured over to before. He surmised that the arrow seemed to be pointing right at it. Scrambling down the branches, he bushwhacked through the island forest until he came across the flat rock. Wondering what to do now, he attempted to lift it but immediately discovered that it was far too heavy.

Indifferently shrugging it off, he returned to his home on the mainland. But his thoughts kept returning to the flat-topped rock, which lead him to come to an interesting query. Could the hand and the rock be some sort of clue to finding a buried treasure that he had heard were all around the lake? At the time, I guess there were plenty of such tales, but they have more or less all since vanished into the ether today.

Time whetted his curiosity, and a few days later, he enlisted the aid of a friend who not surprisingly was more than happy to help, and the two eager gentlemen rowed out to Stave Island under the cover of darkness.

Stave

Stave Island.

Equipped with picks, crowbars, and shovels, the pair quietly beached their boat on the shore and fumbled their way toward the clearing. Suddenly, from behind a tree stepped the caretaker. Judging from their arsenal of items they were packing, he surmised that they were seeking treasure, which also illuminated the idea that there was a treasure on Stave Island. He told the startled men that he wasn’t going to allow them to dig, and if they did find anything, anything of value was rightfully the property of the island’s owner. The discouraged laborer and accomplish saw no other choice but to leave in their boat.

A few weeks later the laborer heard a knock on his door, and discovered that the island caretaker had paid him a visit to announce he had a change of heart – sort of. He would give them permission to dig on the island, only, he wanted half of whatever they managed to dig up. The laborer eagerly agreed, because he figured it was better than coming up with no treasure at all.

But it wasn’t for a few weeks until the group met up again, and by then, fate intervened in the form of a freak forest fire which ravaged the island. Every tree became a charred ghost, erasing all evidence of the pointing finger. As the newly cleared island revealed, there were plenty of flat rocks protruding through its surface, and the rock they wanted was no longer identifiable. Not knowing where the correct rock was, the searches were abandoned. If the treasure was ever found, well, I haven’t picked up on that yet.

Today, Stave Island is an envious chunk of gorgeous private property that will never be in my price range, and is more known for its yearly summer gathering of invitation only boaters who converge on and off the island for a few days. There is also a lookout tower, which I’m told that if you climb it, the views are far stretched and resplendent.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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

Sources

As I had stated above, information about Captain Mallett is annoyingly brief, so I sought out as many sources as I could, and tried my best to compile my findings into a single blog post. The Colchester Historical Society was a help to me, word of mouth, and these books:

Images of America: Colchester; Inge Schaefer

Green Mountains, Dark Tales; Joseph A. Citro

Haunted Vermont; Charles A Stansfield,

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Ever since we started narrating our folklore collectively as a species, we’ve always marked the wildest places of our topography as incubators of contagion shotgun blasts for the darkest, grimmest things our human minds can create, existing in a variety of forms. These tales often like to hang around well into the intervening years where they should become obsolete, and yet, they don’t. We all deal with the dangers of the world in different ways. Sometimes, carrying on the traditions of talking about these kind of fabled places is a way of dealing with these dangers. And sometimes, these monsters reveal the most about humanity.

Wizard’s Glen in the Berkshires is a wild, picturesque depression between two steep-sided hills. Intersected by a lone, narrow and often washed out dirt road with it’s to-the-point name of Gulf Road, you are welcomed into this attention-grabbing area by tons of boulders that are stacked up the hillsides, some covered with some impressive and patriotic graffitic murals instead of the flippant teenage rabble I expected to find in such an area.

The name “Gulf” interested me before I even began to think about Wizard’s Glen.  The noun is a distinctive part of the obscure Vermont vernacular. Gulfs are known to the rest of the world as a large area of the sea or ocean that’s almost entirely surrounded by land, expect for its mouth. A Vermont gulf is a landlocked one – found in our mountains. We know them as deep ravines (or more dramatically, an “abyss”) that run between two parallel mountains or rises. To my knowledge, us Vermonters were/are the only ones to use the word in that sense. Vermont actually goes as far as to erect road signs to let travelers know that you’re passing through one. The green aluminum sign that labels “Hubbardton Gulf” in the font Clearview on State Route 30 – immediately comes to mind. But finding a gulf outside of Vermont, even only in the form of a street name, was sort of cool to me. There is also a Gulf Road in New Hampshire near Brattleboro.

This particular Gulf Road runs east to west over the bumps that are the Berkshires. Both entry points are unobtrusive and start out as an unremarkable suburban street with storm drains, crumbling curbs and cobra head street light fixtures that run to the very point when suddenly, the pavement ends, and the obsessively trimmed lawns cease to exist, and you’re in a surprisingly sizable wilderness area that runs for about 1.8 miles between Lanesborough and Dalton. But at the slow speeds you are forced to crawl on this winding roadway, it feels much longer.

Wizard’s Glen

The area known as Wizard’s Glen, vs. the rest of the area that’s not known as Wizard’s Glen, co-exist very inconspicuously with each other. If it wasn’t for the wayfinding graffiti marked boulders, I would have driven right by it.

I got out of the car and noticed the temperature was a pleasant few degrees cooler, and the forest was soluble underneath a still silence. I immediately began to get interactive with my environment and started clambering on top of the boulders and under Hemlock boughs and inside the caves and crevices of undetermined pasts.

Godfrey Greylock described the diminutive gorge in 1879 as being “as though and angry Jove had here thrown down some impious wall of Heaven-defying Titans. Block lies heaped upon block; squared and bedeviled, as if by more than mortal art…”

I have to say, the stories about this place were far more waggish than it’s real life locality would suggest, which only intrigued me more. This place has spawned plenty of strange tales of the supernatural and the dreadful, and many of them are almost as old as New England is.

Someone had told me that the hollow is known for its strange sounds and echo-related properties, and claimed that if you banged on one of the rocks with a hammer, it would make a noise sounding like you were smashing the keys of a xylophone, while inexplicably, the surrounding boulders wouldn’t. However, that enticing theory was disappointingly proven false. Well, at least it didn’t work for me.

It was here that Indian priests and shaman centuries ago performed rituals, ceremonies and incantations amongst the rocks in the ravine known for its echoes. Because they revered this area to have special properties, it was said they even offered human sacrifices here to Hobomocko, the spirit of evil. There is a flat, broad square-ish rock known as “Devils’ Alter” where these cryptic sacrifices were said to be imposed. The rock today has faint traces of red stains on it, which some say is the remaining blood from the aforementioned occurrences – but the reality is the stains just come from iron in the rocks.  The unique name Wizard’s Glen was actually derived from these legends. And it makes sense – it’s aesthetically the type of place where strange happenings can’t be easily dismissed.

The best known story of the glen is of John Chamberlain, a hunter from Dalton about two hundred years ago whose whopper of a story was passed on in Godfrey Greylock’s book Taghconic: The Romance and Beauty of The Hills in 1852, when he interviewed Joseph Edward Adams, a ninety-year-old man who had heard it from the hunter eyewitness himself.

Chamberlain had killed a deer and was carrying it home on his shoulders, when he was overtaken in the hills by a storm. The tired man decided to take shelter in a cavernous recess in Wizard’s Glen. But despite his fatigue, he was unable to sleep and wound up laying awake, lying on the earth with his wide open in the dark. He was suddenly amazed when, according to him, he saw the woods bend apart, disclosing a long aisle that was mysteriously lighted and contained “hundreds of capering forms”. As his eyes grew accustomed to the new faint light, he made out tails and cloven feet on the dancing figures. One very tall form had wings, who the hunter thought to be the devil himself.

As Chamberlain lay watching the through the spiteful deluge from his cave shelter, a tall and painted Indian leaped on Devil’s Alter, fresh scalps dangling around his body and his eyes blazing with fierce require. He muttered a brief incantation and summoned the shadows around him. They came with torches that burned blue, and began to move around the rock singing some sort of harsh chant, until a sign was given, and a nude Indian girl, shrieking, and fighting, was dragged and flung viciously onto the rock.

The figures now rushed towards her brandishing sharpened weapons in their outstretched arms, and the terrified girl let out a shrill cry that the hunter said haunted him for the rest of his life. The “wizard”, (who I’m assuming is the prominent figure with the wings), raised an ax, as the rest of the group waited apprehensively for the oncoming carnalish blood bath. Lightning flashed and quickly illuminated the dark pocket of woods, and Chamberlain noticed the the girl’s face quickly fell on his. The look she gave him tore at his heartstrings. He gathered as much courage as he could, and decided to act. Grabbing his bible he traveled with, he ran towards the debauchery in self-righteous fashion, clutching it in front of him and hollering the name of his god. There was a crash of thunder. The light faded, the demons vanished and the hunter was left sopping wet in the middle of the woods in silence. When morning came, he had almost convinced himself that it was all a dream, until he realized his deer had vanished.

Though not much is really known about Chamberlain, it was apparently well documented at the time that he was “no lover of the Indian race,” which may explain more about the content or the intent of this fanciful legend than anything. In my humble opinion, this eyebrow furrowing story probably shouldn’t be taken as verbatim of a real event. Even as mythology or folklore, it lacks essentially what most of these tales are built on; meaning.

There is no good evidence that any Native American group up in our part of the country even conducted human sacrifices, but I do believe that Wizard’s Glen held some sort of ritualistic importance to the area’s original natives.

Hobbomocco is a real Algonquin deity, though, and was more so associated with darkness and the night. His name is related to all Algonquin words for death and the dead, and has no relation to the Christian idea of Satan, unless misinterpreted by, well, a Christian. In the Algonquin viewpoint, Hobbomocco is actually a side or nuance of the natural world, a potential source of dangerous visions and power, which can be obtained through communication, sort of similar to Voodoo deities, and how it’s said that with enough persuasion, you can persuade them to either carry out good or evil intentions.  I think the rather dramatic story of Wizard’s Glen may be more of a manifestation of the friction between two clashing cultures and their ideas, where everything else is sort of devalued, open for interpretation, or simply cast away.

There is also said to be a talus “cave” known cryptically as Lucky Seven Cave somewhere in the glen. However, after some time clambering around and almost rolling my ankle, I couldn’t find any opening that could shelter a human who wasn’t a small child, so either it’s long toppled, or I just didn’t have good directions. Some speak of covens, convergences and rituals still being practiced in the cave and around the site, given the various paraphernalia and shitty beer cans that you can find there. I find it interesting that this site may still be attracting modern day wizards, witches or spiritualists, or people that think they are these things, but when I visited, I had the beautiful place all to myself under the heat of the day, despite the fact that it’s a geocache location and the famous Appalachian Scenic Trail crosses Gulf Road near the glen, just east of there.

Historic post card image of Wizards Glen, via cardcow.com. Date unknown.

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The Chester-Hudson Quarry

My trip down to the Berkshires last summer was more or less unplanned, a spontaneous random road trip that took us around the region in the most inefficient way possible. I had already visited the legendary Hoosac Tunnel a few years ago, which might just be the weirdest place in the Berkshires. I wanted new ground to explore.

Eventually, I found myself in the jejune town of Beckett, walking up a hill towards the well-partied remains of the Chester-Hudson Quarry. If you died in-between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries and were a Bay State denizen, there is a chance that your headstone came from this quarry.

Beckett’s hills are made of fine granite, and a quarry was opened here in 1850 to profit from it, subsequently becoming one of the area’s biggest employers. The quarry’s story is pretty straightforward, and a little compelling. It functioned into the 1960s until something went wrong. Mismanagement inevitably led to financial problems, and one day, the quarry workers simply walked off the job, leaving everything as it was, where it was. The quarry, without bodies to continue operations, closed for good. Years passed, and no one paid the property any mind. The caprices of nature crawled back in and reclaimed what it lost.

Today, the old quarry is a popular cliff jumping spot on perches that go as high as 90 feet, and party spot for area teens and young twenty-somethings, who do what they seem to do best. I surprisingly saw droves of them hauling cases of  ̶w̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ Bud Lite up the trail where they sat near the cliffs, over exhibited false bravado and tossed their empties in the water below. Not surprisingly, the old quarry turned geographic adrenaline rush has the same stigma of accidental death attached to it that all of these sites normally do.

That inspired a group of locals to purchase the property to protect and preserve it, to ensure that future generations can enjoy and be intrigued by its detritus, or simply appreciate a scenic place to hike or escape the summer heat.  To make a connection to my home state – Vermont’s deadly Huntington Gorge was purchased in a similar fashion as well, and because of that, the stunning area is still open.

That also seemed to inspire a few ghost stories as well, where the estimated 200 or so people who died on the job here supposedly still linger around the quarry. Stories of disembodied voices and moving, three-dimensional shadows are just some of the things that visitors say they’ve encountered.

The ruins varied, from rusted guy and stiff arm derricks, bullwheels, winches, drills, an almost entirely disfigured generator shed, to the more intact rusted integuments of former trucks and equipment cozily embraced by adjacent brush and black flies. 60 years of abandonment can do a lot to a place, but given that, it’s still an interesting area to trek around, certainly not a bad way to spend a few hours. It’s especially nice in autumn. Just make sure to check yourself for deer ticks.

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More Wild Places

While I’m on the topic of gulfs, I’d highly recommend checking out what may be Vermont’s most beautiful; Granville Gulf, a rugged and impressive wilderness area of moss laden cliffs, ferns and waterfalls.

If you’re curious about more of our regional wild places with extraordinary folklore attached to them, my blog entry on Glastenbury and the popularly dubbed “Bennington Triangle” may be worth a read. It’s certainly one of my favorite Vermont tales to tell.

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

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One of my favorite pieces of Obscure Vermont is a mixture of architecture vernacular, and good old fashioned Yankee Ingenuity.

Do you see the diagonally tilted window placed in the gable end of this old farmhouse with its long edge parallel to the roof? A lot of people, Vermonters or flatlanders, seem to be flummoxed about these peculiarly slanted windows. That’s because their orientational existence isn’t found in any other states (though someone did tell me that they think they saw one somewhere in New Hampshire not too long ago.) To add a bit more rapturous froth to the isolated mystery, our Vermont parlance labels them “coffin windows”, or sometimes “witch windows”, depending on who you are I guess. Growing up, my mother would always point them out as “coffin windows” whenever we would take a trip out of suburban Chittenden County to more rural parts of the state, where older structures far outnumbered the new. I wasn’t introduced to “witch windows” until much later.

The etymology behind the monikers vary, and can’t really be traced back to a materialize point of origin. Going alphabetically – it’s said these are called coffin windows because if a family member died upstairs, it was far easier to maneuver the needed coffin out the window and slide it down the roof as opposed to figuring out just how to haul it down a steep and narrow Vermont farmhouse staircase. And trust me, some of them are very steep and narrow to a point of over-cautiousness when walking up or down one – enough for me to sympathize with anyone who would groan at the prospect of dragging anything up or down them.

The name witch window gets a bit more on the superstitious side. It’s said that an old belief was that a witch couldn’t enter your dwelling through a crooked window or opening (sort of like how the ancient Chinese thought bad spirits traveled in straight lines). I know old Vermonters were a superstitious bunch. Our collective state history and folklore include such grim things as incriminating real people accused of Vampirism, or desecrating the graves of dead people accused of postmortem vampirism (our most famous Vampire execution was a man named Corwin, whose remains still loam underneath Woodstock’s boat shaped town green).

But witches? There isn’t much known on how scared Vermonters were of witches, leaving this as intriguing speculation. However, I was able to dig up a small number of succinct accounts in old state newspapers around the late 1700s and early 1800s of various Vermonters who locals suspected were witches, but in reality were probably nothing more than eccentrics living in a more narrow-minded time. One article amusingly reported that a Stowe woman was blamed for making several farmers’ milk cows run dry.

A more practical theory and probably the most likely of the three, was that these windows were a creative solution to let light into the cramped spaces upstairs. Gables didn’t often leave rooms for traditional sized windows and poor farmers didn’t want to spend the money on drafty dormers or getting a custom window made – which was a costly purchase many families couldn’t afford. They also enabled fresh air and ventilation to keep the house inhabitable. Though there are far more scolding environments than Vermont, our summers do get pretty humid, and the upper floors of an old house easily turn into ovens. 

Further down the line, these windows adopted yet another sobriquet with less dour and more civic pride; Vermont Windows. Though I haven’t heard that term nearly as much as the affor-referenced other two. 

In a world that loves things to fall into human-made symmetry, who knew that a window installed at a tilt could conjure up so many declaratory ideologies.

An example of a Coffin/Witch/Vermont window, as seen on Route 100 in between Duxbury and Waitsfield.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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I accidentally stumbled upon this shrub ensnared abandonment in a hardscrabble Vermont town, and decided to stop and take a look. This slumping and fading edifice was thematic. The portrait of town is a sad one. What was once a profitable industrial hub has been reincarnated as a sordid and depressed community.

At one time, the solemn property contained a few blue collar business on street level, with the upper levels awkwardly converted into several apartments accessible by a wobbly network of staircases that climb the back of the building. Inside is leprous with water damage, mold and lead paint that rains down onto the floors.

When I explore these locations, I like to perform less than scientific forensic analyses to do a little urban archaeology, to find evidence of human habitation and demise through the relics left behind and external historical research. Using observation, I do some on site assessments and try to piece parts of the story together. In this case, I discovered a sense of pathos amidst the foul odors and animal feces; there was eerie evidence of recent human life, and there was a story to every corner in this place. 

The entire building is anything but abandoned, it’s been reclaimed by squatters. Each apartment belonged to someone, through some sort of unwritten social agreement, with dirty mattresses and crumpled sheets in each unit. Some had small osculating fans that were actually plugged into wall sockets, and one apartment had several printed Kodak film photographs of strangers, quite a few of them were children, and the photos looked shockingly recent.

But my creepiest find was in the dark, dank basement, an eerie space that held several old walk in coolers and meat freezers that were glistening with fetid brown ooze and filth. I noticed that many of them had also been converted into bedrooms as well, with more mattress pads and bunched up piles of moldering blankets discarded into corners. I decided not to hang around for that long, just in case a current resident decided to head home.

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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

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Legacy is one of those nouns that we as humans are all united by. While all of us will leave some sort of mark behind, many of us mull over just what that will be. How will you be remembered?

Some of us make our mark in life through death, and on rare occasions, certain people achieve beyond that and find themselves exhibitioners of the long sought after status of immortality. Humans have collectively been searching for ways to cheat our other unity as a species since we first came into existence; death. And I have to say, we’re a pretty creative bunch, and have gone about it in a variety of forms that are sure to keep anthropologists and storytellers like myself pretty busy with the secrets that they keep. More interestingly – it’s actually been achieved before, but not quite in the way that we might have expected it, that is, it was successful after the postmortem.

Sometimes these surviving inclusions of this manifesto can be found in your local cemetery, memorialized in crafted monuments and in the psyche of regional denizens until enough time has passed for history to forget – if it ever does. Often, someone’s final resting place is our immortal legacy, and what has been left behind is what lives on for generations after our physical bodies return to the earth we’re buried in. The same concept can be said for the forsaken places I explore.

Vermont isn’t short of memorable memorialsm, a few of which I’ve highlighted in this blog post. Ethan Allen’s landmark grave in Burlington is a soaring vanity project of the state’s most pronounced hero, commemorated with a giant spindly pedestal topped by a rather valiant looking life sake statue of Allen himself, standing his limited ground mute and stubbornly. But the real mind boggle is that no one is sure if Ethan Allen is actually buried underneath his own monument, and if he’s not, where did he wind up?

Thanks to a 19th century Middlebury millionaire who was striving to start a cabinet of curiosities to aww his wealthy friends with, there is now a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy buried in Middlebury’s west cemetery. And, there is rumored to be a forgotten cemetery near Fays’ Corners where all of its inhabitants unintentionally became members of the exclusive club of dead remembered as they wound up as opposed to who they were, at the end of their line. The cemetery was long ago removed by a local farmer who wanted to expand his haying field. The graves were later returned, or at least re-propped back up, but the farmer had forgotten their original orientation, so he lined them up alphabetically. Today the tiny bone yard is shrouded in shadow light cast in all directions by the woods that have reclaimed the surrounding land.

In Middlebury's West Cemetery, a innocuous headstone has some rather strange markings. For example, the date of death is 1883, B.C! An error on the stonecutter's part, right? Nope. This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont's only royal figure, the 2 year old son on an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum's board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.

 This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont’s only royal figure, the 2-year-old son of an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum’s board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.

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Fays’ Corners Cemetery, photograph by Kali Yuga. Used with permission.

“Black Agnes”

But perhaps one of the most infamous grave sites in Vermont is the monument of John E. Hubbard in Montpelier’s Green Mount Cemetery. But it’s the curse that is attached to his monument that has earned its reputation with paranormal aficionados who chase such tales, and gave me a reason to visit it’s whereabout graveyard. As a matter of fact, my own interest in the idea and mystic of curses began when I heard the story of Montpelier’s “Black Agnes” when I was a child.

Green Mount is located on the outskirts of Montpelier. The cemetery crawls 35 acres up the side of a rolling hillside that runs parallel to the Winooski River just outside the nation’s smallest capital city. You’ll know you’ll there when you see the rather large Gothic stone freestanding arch that marks the entrance.

Green Mount began as a bequest of a local benefactor, who purchased 35 acres in 1854 so the city could bury it’s dead on a nice piece of land, at a time when many existing New England cemeteries were reaching capacity and communities were looking for alternatives outside the city limits. The cemetery is on a gentle slope that rises above Route 2/State Street and overlooks the meandering Winooski River and it’s fluctuating moods; it’s monuments and entombments underneath the shade of old hardwood trees. I couldn’t help thinking of this song when I strolled through trying to find my oddity.

The affor-referenced Hubbard was a local philanthropist and celebrity, and his ideas saw that he spent much of his life in controversy, before dying in 1899. Hubbard’s aunt who died a decade before him, wanted to leave her sizable fortune of $350,000 to the city of Montpelier – about 9 million in today’s money – asking it go towards financing a new library and part of the construction of the front gates and a chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. But Hubbard decided to contest her will and squandered her fortune all for himself. In addition to arguing that his aunt wasn’t “of sound mind” when she wrote up her will, he also allegedly bribed city counselor members not to fight him in court. The whole fiasco struck Montpelier-ites as strange. Hubbard wasn’t exactly short on cash, and that move easily made him a detested citizen of Vermont’s capital city.

But after his death, the Montpelier Argus and Patriot reported the contents of his will, and were surprised to learn that Hubbard generously gave the city $125,000 for a new library, $25,000 for a chapel and gates at Green Mount Cemetery, and $85,000 to establish Hubbard Park, the tree clustered hillside that rises above the state house. Hubbard seemed to be a misunderstood gentleman of some perplexities, that were only beginning to unravel after his death. And those include his death itself. Local lore still permeates today that Hubbard jumped off the stone lookout tower in the titular named park and committed suicide, regardless that the tower wasn’t completed until well after his departure.

Austrian sculpture Karl Bitter was commissioned to cast this rather fraught looking bronze statue for his grave site – a shrouded figure that seems to be in a perpetual state of sorrow. Though over the years it has weathered and turned a greenish hue, it is still just as captivating in its transformation. While some say that the monument was supposed to be the Virgin Mary, the anatomy was actually intended to be male. After it’s installment, the memorial almost immediately became a local curiosity. In an interesting account I was able to find; Mrs. Sumner Kimball wanted to buy an even-tempered horse in 1902, and she thought a good test of its calmness would be to bring it to Green Mount Cemetery and take the horse to Hubbard’s grave. As she told the seller; “if she don’t shy at that, I’ll take her.”

But perhaps it’s what we don’t know about this solemn grave site that is the most baffling. The grave is more known by its official yet inexplicable nickname; “Black Agnes”, but no one is quite sure who coined the nickname, or why. And perhaps more puzzling is the frightening curse attached to it.

However this grave site became the instrument to a curse is most baffling. There is no information on the origins of the curse and when its nasty thorns began growing in urban mythology. Legend has it that if you sit on the statue’s lap, (some say it has to be at night, while others argue at all), you will suffer terrible misfortunes, and possibly even death. 

The most popular accompanying urban legend tells the story of three local teens from an area high school who all decided to put the curse to the test and visit Black Agnes one night. Illuminated by the light of the full moon, all three of them sat on the statue’s lap as the witching hour approached. After nothing happened, they all piled back into the car, feeling bravado in their curse debunking accomplishment. But within one week, one fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. One was hit by a car and the other drowned when his canoe capsized in the Winooski River. Maybe it was just a coincidence that all three incidents were apparently less than two miles away from the statue at the time. Or at least that’s what the story says.

Needless to say, this narrative has made the statue a local landmark, and a hot spot for curious teenagers either looking for a thrill or asking for trouble.

After doing a little further investigating into this curse, I found that Hubbard’s monument isn’t unique. Karl Bitter had sculpted a few similar prototypes, and exhibited one at the 1904 World’s Fair. He called his creation Thanatos, which was inspired by the Greek personification of death. There are also a few surviving examples of Thanatos still existing in other cemeteries nationwide. So I guess the metaphor here is that sitting on Hubbard’s monument is the equivalent of sitting on the lap of death. Sure, that’s creepy and emblematic, but not enough people are aware of that information, making the curse a lingering mystery still.

Whether you believe in curses or superstitions or not, a lot of people aren’t taking chances. I’ve spoken to a few people about the statue, and there have been those who outright scoffed at the curse. But when I asked if they would sit on the statue’s lap, they hesitated and eventually admitted they wouldn’t. Is there something to this curse business? I suppose one may never know, unless you’re brazen enough to plop down on Black Agnes’s lap yourself.

Youtuber Ian Burnette made a short video for the Green Mountain Film Festival’s 48 Hour Film Slam in March 2013 which partially features a cameo of Black Agnes, and my good friend and frequent accomplice to my adventures, Eric Downing. Curse or no curse, the story is compelling enough to continuously inspire people and create other monsters.

Whether you believe in the business of curses or not, it is true that the dead can kill you, and they don’t need a creepy story or supernatural mojo to do it. Old civil war era cemeteries like this one have a secret that is literally just raising to the surface. These old graveyards may be leaking toxins, or, the arsenic used in old embalming fluids, into local groundwater. Two centuries ago, it was customary to have a wake for the deceased which could last several days to a week, depending on who you were, and the family didn’t want the body decomposing while it was laid it out in their parlor, so they were pumped full of arsenic to preserve them until the visitors stopped coming and they could be put six feet under. Arsenic was eventually banned in the early 1900s because of its toxicity, but enough corpses were pumped full of the stuff to leave a lasting effect, the real dangers being that today, many of us – especially who dwell near cemeteries, know little about arsenic or it’s dangers.

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I visited in 2011, heading back up to college after spring break. I declined sitting on his lap.

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The Bowman Mausoleum 

If you wish to visit with Cuttingsville’s most famous denizen, you can find the stoic man of mystery in the village’s only cemetery that is directly across Route 103 from an attractively restored Queen-Anne style Victorian mansion that he once referred to humbly as his summer home. 

I’m talking about John P. Bowman. The real Mr. Bowman is long deceased, but a poignant, life-sized monster of masonry is an exact effigy of the intriguing gentleman, and can be found lurching along a hillside cemetery that rises slightly above Route 103.

I first became antiquated with Mr. Bowman as a child. I saw him whenever we would venture down to my deer camp in East Wallingford for a weekend. His mansion was a rather faded, spooky old place which was then an establishment called “The Haunted Mansion Bookshop”. I had no idea that the name wasn’t just a gimmick, the mansion was, and maybe still is presently, purported to be haunted.

But it was what was across from the old mansion that really drew my attention as a young boy; the somber granite mausoleum with a grief-stricken, proportionally accurate statue of Mr. Bowman frozen in mid kneel along the steps that leads to it’s gated front entrance, depicted wearing a 19th century mourning cloak as well as clutching a key and a wreath in his hands – his blues reflected in the grays of his marble eyes that purposely gaze at the family tomb. Even as a kid, I knew there was something, well, a bit different about the Bowman mausoleum. And as I grew older, I realized that quite a few other people seemed to share my sentiment towards Bowman and his estate.

John Porter Bowman was born in neighboring Clarendon in 1816 in an area of town referred to as Pierces Corner, which today is practically little more than the intersection of state routes 103 and 7B. Educational opportunities were limited for Bowman, but his ambitions landed him employment at a Rutland tannery at the age of 15, where he spent five years learning the art of turning animal hides into fine leather, before leaving to start his own tanning business near Cuttingsville. In the early 1850s, he became so well-liked in the local community that he was either coaxed or self-inspired to run for a seat on the Vermont legislature. He won.

But he much preferred  business over politics, and in 1852, moved to Stony Creek, New York in search of opportunity. And he found it, in the form of a 6,000-acre plot of Hemlock forest, where he started a far more ambitious tannery business. The civil war brought great fortune to Bowman, as there was a huge demand for boots, saddles and other leather made wartime paraphernalia. He hired dozens of people, became a venerable figure of the region, and eventually fell in love and married Jennie Gates from Warren, New York. They ambitioned to building a grand summer home in his home state of Vermont where they could raise a family.

While he prospered financially, his personal life didn’t fare as generously. The couple’s first child, their daughter Addie, died as an infant in 1854. Their second daughter Ella survived much longer, but perished in 1879 at the age of 22, when she eventually succumbed to an illness she was fighting. Not long after, in 1800, Mrs. Bowman followed their daughters to the grave.

The agonized Mr. Bowman sought to find some relief. Shortly afterward, he hired labor crews and sent them to Cuttingsville, Vermont to begin construction on that aforementioned lavish Victorian summer home that his family would now never get to see.

During this time, he became obsessed with death; perhaps as a way to cope with his loss, or maybe influenced by the rise of spiritualism. He drew up additional blueprints to his Cuttingsville compound. Now, they would include a grand Neo-Egyptian mausoleum which would become a monument to his departed, and a local tourist attraction.

The colossal project took over a year to complete, and was the creation of 125 sculptures, stone cutters and laborers, the final cost exceeding $75,000. Construction of its facade ordered 750 tons of Vermont granite, 50 tons of Vermont marble, over 20,000 bricks and over 100 loads of sand. And they did a great job; the robust structure still stands proudly along the roadside, almost looking as if it was brand new construction given the great shape it’s in. But it may be the ghostly statue of Mr. Bowman that is the crypt’s most startling piece of artistry. His cloaked figure, clutching that wreath and key, kneels down on the front steps, peering at the front gates.

In 1887, he sold everything in New York and moved to his new digs in Cuttingsville, broken and alone. According to a few accounts, he would make it a point to look out the window each morning and gaze at the family crypt, a ritual he would keep until 1891, when he finally died, alone and sad, forever becoming a figure of misery.

He had no heirs, and no one to leave the house too. He was wealthy enough where he was able to start a trust to take care of his property long after his death. And this is where things get weirdly fascinating.

Though no actual documentation offers proof of this, the story goes that Mr. Bowman left some peculiar details in his will, where he willed his servants to prepare a freshly cooked dinner every night, turn on the gas lamps and turn down the bed-clothes, as if they were expecting Mr. Bowman to return from the dead and walk through his front door. The strangeness continues to morph. Somehow, the mansion began to inspire myths of phantom crying babies, wispy and frail phantoms moving silently down the halls, and even a secret spot where a vast amount of money was hidden by Mr. Bowman himself, still unfound and within the walls, or under a floorboard, or something…

The hidden treasure is more easily debunked. Though Mr. Bowman instructed that none of his property or belongings should ever be sold, by 1950, the deceased millionaire’s extensive fortune finally was depleted, and the trust went bankrupt when the coast of up-keeping the large property became too much – so all of his paintings and furnishings were auctioned off. If there was any amount of cash left behind, it was probably spent well before that time. The claim of a crying baby is curious to me, as no children ever lived in the house.

Some even claimed that Bowman’s large statue inexplicably came to life, and could be seen slowly walking around the cemetery at night or gazing at his mansion across Route 103. Other stories I heard in passing was that local kids claimed that if you visited the statue at night, his eyes would move and follow you, or even blink. A July 27th, 1950 article printed in the Rutland Herald offers some amusing incite. the wife of a long time caretaker admitted to the interviewer that people kept pressuring them for spook stories about the place, until her husband who had had enough, said: “if they wanted a story, I’d give them one”. While that isn’t necessarily condemning evidence of all of this being nothing more than yarns well spun, it certainly makes me wonder.

If these claims are true, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness any of the bizarre phenomena while I visited on a beautiful Spring afternoon. But the Bowman statue and tomb are both incredible works of art and craftsmanship.

I can see why his statue would make someone uncomfortable, though. The well-captured expression of his eternal grief is pretty evocative.

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The handsome Bowman mansion, restored and called “Laurel Hall” – as seen from the front steps of his across the street mausoleum. I would have snapped a better picture, but all of my weird detours had made me late and I needed to rush back to Burlington.

Grave With A Window

New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery is more or less unremarkable, as far as cemeteries go I suppose. That is, apart from one entombment. Among the faded and weathered headstones that are eternal witnesses to the passing generations and the turning of the seasons, is the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith.

Walking through the cemetery, you’ll notice a mound of earth roughly 4 feet in height. On the top is an unremarkable looking square slab of Granite, which really doesn’t allude to the fact it’s supposed to mark a corpse’s final resting place. But upon closer investigation, you’ll realize that there is something more to this seemingly innocuous block. In the dead center of the granite slab is a Plexiglas window. Stained with years of condensation and scratches from the sputtering seasons and many other curious visitors, you find yourself peering down into an eerie undertone blackness underneath the ground your standing on. What is this?

During the 17th century, there were a number of premature burials, enough to make the general public a bit uncomfortable. Medicine was still in it’s momentum of advancement, and as a result, an unfortunate number of patients had a sleeping sickness, or a state of illness that could make the victim appear to be dead, but later to awaken in a cold, dark grave, very much alive. Medicine has thankfully came a long way since those days, and today, we know this strange state of sleep as Narcolepsy.

The horror stories continue. There have an unfortunate number of terrifying accounts in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death, and a few cases in which embalming was started on the not-yet-dead. Not surprisingly, urban legends of people being accidentally buried alive began to surface and spread. Legends tell of coffins opened to find a corpse with a long beard or corpses with the hands raised and palms turned upward, their fingers worn down to the bone as they literally tried to claw their way of their tombs, scratch marks being found on the wooden lid of their coffins.

To stretch the imagination further, Some superstitious old New Englanders didn’t blame these horrifying accounts on premature burial. Instead, they blamed the most logical answer they could muster, the victim had to be a Vampire. Evidence of unfortunate souls being found in a different position after unearthing their graves, with bloody stumps for fingers scared people, and the evidence was used to inspire famous tales as Rhode Island’s Mercy Brown, who innocently became the most infamous Vampire in New England history.

A well-respected man, Timothy Clarke Smith, born 1821, could boast a rather long list of accomplishments in his life. Among many things, he was a schoolteacher, a merchant, a clerk for the Treasury Dept. and obtained his degree as an MD in 1855, which led to his position as a staff surgeon in the Russian Army. But the good doctor also ruminated over those postmortem horror stories and developed a fear – not of dying, but of not being dead. He was terrified at the possibility of being buried alive.

That sentiment wasn’t unique. It was happening so often, that some swindlers decided to cash in on it, and create a market for “safety coffins”

These new models of coffin included glass lids for observation, so people could see in, or out. Ropes from the inside of the coffin were attached to bells fastened on the surface, so that if the poor soul were to wake up six feet under, they could ring it in a panic and hope someone is nearby enough to hear it – which is said to be where the popular sayings “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” originated from. Breathing pipes were also constructed to run air into the coffin, to sustain the misdiagnosed corpses until they could be rescued.

Dr. Smith was going to make sure this wouldn’t happen to him, and gladly paid up for such an arrangement, which he was buried in at the time of his death in 1893 and has no doubt overshadowed any of his other noble life pursuits. Beneath a grassy mound of earth in New Haven, a tomb was constructed with a six-foot cement tube that protruded the surface into a 14×14 inch piece of Plexiglas. This was to allow groundskeepers or visiting family members to check in on him, just in case they saw his disgruntled face staring up at them through the window…

For extra protection, a bell was supposedly placed in his hands that he could ring in case he woke up. But who could hear a bell under 6 feet of earth? And If he were alive, how long would the oxygen really last?

According to old records from the cemetery sexton, the burial vault has two rooms. One for Dr. Smith (with the window) and the other for his wife. The burial vault is arched with stairs (capped by the stone in the lower front of the mound) and leads to the two rooms, with the viewing window at the top of the shaft.

People from years ago claim to have peered down the window and stared directly at the skeletal face of Dr. Smith, along with a hammer and chisel placed on his chest. But today, you can barely see anything through the condensation that has occupied most of the glass surface, which may make the trip slightly disappointing for some visitors.

If you wish to see this literal monument to a man’s insecurities turned extraordinary tourist attraction for yourself, take Route 7 to the small farming community of New Haven, and make a turn on Town Hill Road. The cemetery will be about a mile or two down the road on your right, just look for the rather large mound of Earth right by the entrance and the square slab dead on top. You can’t miss it.

Here is a neat visual of what your money might have gotten you – should you have decided to purchase one of these special graves. It seems that this model comes with what looks like a periscope, but in actuality, the person buried could spin the handles and it would turn above, letting who ever came and checked on the cemetery that the person moved.

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“A dreamless sleep, emblem of eternal rest”

I once heard a theory that it’s better to have an interesting headstone than to have been an interesting person, because the headstone will be around for much longer.

While I think that theory is open to interpretation, in the case of Lyndon Center’s G.P. Spencer, he certainly left his mark, where even after his passing, he remains a well-remembered figure with his grave pointing an accusatory finger at Lyndon denizens, long after the others that weren’t so kind to him have turned to dust and vanished into fading records.

The story as I know it goes that Spencer, born 1825, was a proudly stubborn atheist in Lyndonville, a suspiciously treated minority absorbed into a larger population of hardscrabble northeast kingdomers that identified as being religious in one way or another. Unlike today’s more tolerant attitudes and Vermont’s time-tested reputation for being far less religious than the rest of the country, the folks of town shunned Spencer.

A stone cutter, he decided to fashion himself a grave that would spitefully give himself the last word in the form of a wrap around epitaph which has weathered to points of illegibility. So I had to look it up.

His epitaph reads; “science has never killed or persecuted a single person for doubting or denying its teaching, and most of these teachings have been true; but religion has murdered millions for doubting or denying her dogmas and most of these dogmas have been false.

All stories about gods and Devils, of heavens and hells, as they do not conform to nature, and are not apparent to sense, should be rejected without consideration. Beyond the universe there is nothing and within the universe, the supernatural does not and cannot exist.

Of all deceivers who have plagued mankind, none are so deeply ruinous to human happiness as those impostors who pretend to be lead by a light above.

The lips of the dead are closed forever. There comes no voice from the tomb.
Christianity is responsible for having cast the fable of eternal fire over almost every tomb”

G.P. Spencer died in 1908, and Lyndon locals immediately began fighting his headstone’s placement in the cemetery which today can be found at the end of a dirt driveway that the village boldly named “Heaven Lane”. They lost, and you can still observe it today. A monument to a man who stood up for his beliefs, and maybe a good example of an archetypal Vermonter; stubborn, not spiritually inclined, and having a sense of humor – depending on who you ask I guess.

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The interesting grave topped with a curious sleeping baby, which may be a metaphor, is located in the only cemetery in tiny Lyndon Center. It was just a short yet freezing walk down College Hill from my dorm at Lyndon State College to snap a few photos of it, then retreat back to my room in search of coffee.

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Vermont’s Immortal Man and Frozen Hill Folk?

There is an old Vermont anecdote that pertains to cemeteries. When passing a graveyard, the joke is to ask “how many dead are in this cemetery?”, with the correct answer of course being, “all of them”. But this “dad joke” of a punchline recently took on a new weight with me.

Not long ago, someone told me offhandedly that they found a peculiar grave in a cemetery near Montpelier – which according to this gravestone and a viral post in the Vermont subreddit page, there is a 157-year-old man (and counting) living somewhere in Vermont. What?

The Montpelier and Barre region seems to be a bulls-eye for some of the state’s most interesting memento mori, which may be one of the many reasons why some Vermonters refer to their capital as “Montpeculiar”. Included in this interesting region’s points of interest is Barre’s celebrity Hope Cemetery. Barre-ites discovered over a century ago that the city was literally built on top of a mother lode of a valuable granite vein that was so robust and unique, it’s incredibly resistant to deterioration, discoloration and great for construction projects. That stone made the town so famous that it drew sculptures and stone cutters from around the globe – a good chunk from Italy due to sour economics back home. As the city’s residents died, the locals did what they did best and sculpted some very interesting monuments in their honor that now proudly decorate the cemetery off Maple Avenue – the commemorations ranging from incredible works of funerary art to the kitschy.

Regardless, the thought of an “immortal” man in the capital region only amused me more, as this wouldn’t be the first time that this trope has played out in this part of the state. Over a century ago, it was sensationalized in the Washington County region in 1887 when an article was published in the defunct newspaper, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, in which was a compelling and startling tale of poor Vermont hill farmers keeping their loved ones alive through the grueling winters by inducing forced hibernation, via some strange Yankee magic, which emanated like a contagion shotgun blast from the hills.

In the strange account told by a mysterious first and one-time only contributor known as A.M., he dug up the story in the pages of his uncle William’s journal that told a rather gothic and macabre series of events said to be practiced deep in the Vermont hills north of Montpelier. Wretchedly poor Vermont hill farmers had contrived a solution ensuring that the weakest and most vulnerable members of their family could survive the state’s grueling winters without straining the already meager food rations. Life in Vermont’s mountains was hard, and often death came early.

The chosen participants would drink a special potion – the ingredients a closely guarded secret – and would then be placed inside a large pine box that would be lined with straw, before a wooden lid was placed over it and weighed down by rocks to keep predators out. Once the winter freeze came, the buried family members would literally sleep out the winter in a frozen state. When the Spring thaw softened up the ground, they would be dug up, placed in a steaming bath lined with Hemlock bows, and as their muscles twitched and color came back to their pallor, they would be ready to face the summer with vigor. In theory anyways. And according to A.M., his uncle not only knew about it, he was invited to watch the process, and he transcribed all that he saw in his journal, documenting the bizarre.

At the time, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot had the most circulation of any of the state’s newspapers, meaning that plenty of Vermonters must have been horrified by it, but even more tantalizingly, no follow ups about the weird story were ever printed, nor were any letters to the editor. The strange tale probably would have vanished into obscurity if it wasn’t for a Bridgewater gentleman accidentally finding the newspaper article clipping tucked away in the scrapbook of Hannah F. Stevens,his mother, 52 years later.

On May 24, 1939, the Rutland Herald revived the old yarn and printed A.M.’s story word for word, and explained that no one knew it’s source. Interest immediately picked up. The Boston Globe published something on it 4 days later, and it was forever stuck to the flypaper of New England folklore. Yankee Magazine, The Farmers Almanac,  and Vermont Life soon followed, attempting to cash in on the public’s desire to satiate their thirst for this baffling story.

Eventually, writer and lecturer Roland W. Robbins had managed to track the story’s origins in the winter of 1949-1950, and was finally able to give A.M. an identity; Allen Morse, an untypical dairy farmer from Calais who was born in 1835 and died in 1917. Morse’s granddaughter, a Mrs. Mabel E. Hynes of Agawam, Massachusetts was able to reveal more of the mystery. She recalled him telling her that story several times growing up, perhaps influenced by his interest in spiritualism like many Vermonters of the time. Before the distractions of technology, Vermont farmers entertained themselves by “yarnin”, or, seeing who could tell the best lurid tall tale. Allen Morse had considerable talent, and his brother in law William Noyes, aka Uncle William, would often have rounds against one another and test run their tales at family picnics. Morse’s account of the frozen hill folk was his matchless achievement.

But it wasn’t him that submitted the tale to paper, he never even wrote it down. It was Mrs. Hynes’s mother, who in 1887 was working for the The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, and secretly arranged to have “grandpa’s yarn” published on Morse’s next birthday, December 21, 1887. Morse was delighted, and was glad that they had kept his identity a mystery, for anyone that knew him would have labeled it as a hoax immediately, which may have very well put a moratorium on this great regional folk tale. It became so compelling that even the highly respected journal Scientific American picked up on it around 1900. Other scientists were interested into researching just how peoples’ bodies would respond and survive to lower temperatures, and eventually, Cryonic Societies began forming around the country, all interested in the feasibility of resurrecting frozen humans entombed in capsules chilled to -321 degrees via liquid nitrogen.

Regardless of its faux origins, this cryptic fable left an enduring footprint on local culture that is still spoken about today, especially after being revived again when author Joseph Citro retold the great tale in his book, Green Mountains Dark Tales, and later in Weird New England, which was where I discovered it. But as for the grave of Mr. Edward McNalty, Could some Yankee mountain magic actually be at work here?

Taking a drive through the bustling crowds of Downtown Montpelier and up a pothole chocked road into the hills to the cemetery in question, I found the telltale gravestone. Edward McNalty. Born 1857. Died…

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There it was. So, what’s the story here?

As much fun as it might be to romanticize about an immortal being existing in the mortal grind somewhere in Vermont (after all, New England isn’t a stranger to disturbing tales of immortal men and their misdeeds – like New Hampshire’s dreadful Dr. Benton, one of my favorite regional narratives),  the actual story is planted firmly in logistics. As it turns out, according to the limited information I was able to dig up, the mysterious Edward McNalty was born in Moretown, Vermont in November of 1861, not 1857 – they made a mistake on the headstone but it was never corrected. He would eventually enter the workforce as a railroad section man. Edward would marry Illinois born Rosetta Smith on January 7, 1896 at the age of 44, and settled in Washington, Vermont, according to the census of 1930. For both, it was their second marriage, and this marriage produced no children.

Edward died of pneumonia in Montpelier on December 28, 1935. Because his second marriage never bore any kids, his children from his first marriage decided to bury him next to their mom as opposed to his second wife, which explains the missing date of death on the headstone.

And at the end of the day, this amusing gravestone at least offers a good story, and maybe will spark the most curious of imaginations.

A vignette into early Vermont life.

Sometimes, cemeteries can give us clues into our past. Three barely discernible graves deep within the national forest of Chittenden greet you by surprise within the weeds, and are the only things left to tell whoever is passing by that there was once a town here over a hundred years ago.

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This impressionistic headstone found in the vanished town of West Bolton tells the observer how dangerous childbirth, or being a young child could be in Vermont over a century ago, and how much death early Vermonters were actually accustomed to. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, people are living longer lives nowdays.

To finish this entry off, I wanted to include one of my favorite cemetery tombstones I’ve came across so far. Embarking on a random road trip with friend and talented local artist Sam Balling, we traveled the beautiful state route 125 up over Vermont’s green mountain spine which brought us through tiny Ripton, which local lore says its name comes from its land being “ripped” from other Addison County towns to form the new town, but it’s name less interestingly comes from Connecticut, relating to the first named grantee. The town averages an elevation of near 3,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains. Heading towards Middlebury Gap, a pass between the mountains that allows motorists to drop down the other side into Hancock, there is an old cemetery near the Robert Frost Wayside Wilderness of the Green Mountain National Forest. The small burial ground is interspersed with old gnarled trees and centuries-old gravestones that jut from the pine needle fallen earth like broken teeth wearing the different hues of aging. In the background, stark gray ridge lines barren and almost foreboding in their late autumn death, hemmed in the cemetery in isolation.  I loved it.

This simplistic headstone illustrates the tragic demise of two brothers and strangers in detailed brevity. Winfield H. was killed by an overturned load of lumber, and Perley H. was killed by the explosion of a cannon, a vignette into how different, and deadly life was for Vermonters settling up in the mountains over a century ago.

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Ripton, VT

Sometimes having a peaceful, out of the way location can also be a place’s undoing, especially when for whatever reason, it inspires spectral fodder and monstrous legends. But I’m always very interested in these tales that surpass strange. If you’re curious about more local lore involving cemeteries (or indirectly involving cemeteries), check out an older blog post I wrote up years ago, featuring two stories that saw the glow of a computer screen for the first time when I wrote them down.

While we’re on the topic of cemeteries, here’s a link that I thought was very cool; Atlas Obscura’s Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

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To all of my amazing fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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

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Ephemera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To all of my amazing fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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

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