Rabbits, Rowboats & Roosevelts: Lake Bomoseen’s odd history

The largest lake entirely within Vermont’s borders, Lake Bomoseen in western Rutland County measures 9-14 miles long (depending on who you ask). It extends from Lily pad choked swamp lands in the small town of Hubbardton to the north, expanding into a broad center complete with an island, before narrowing into a slim passage way running just slightly below the interstate type highway of U.S. Route 4 to the south in Castleton.

And there is something compelling about this lake. Speaking to a few people about it along its shores, they all somewhat described they felt a strong pull to the lake – some sort of inexpiable connection of fondness towards it. And with the lake’s storied history with layers that are piled on more compactly than the slate piles crumbling into the lake on the west shore, it isn’t that difficult to understand.

(via CardCown.com)

The name Bomoseen is an Abenaki word which translates to “keeper of ceremonial fire”. The Taconic Mountains, which make up the rolling hills that run along both sides of the lake, are the slate-producing region of Vermont, and the area’s history parallels the rise and fall of Vermont’s slate industry. The area surrounding the lake contains several quarry holes and their adjacent colorful slate rubble piles as reminders of this period, many you can see tumbling down the western shores of the lake – a bizarre and stark contrast to the otherwise gentle landscape around it. Across the lake, you can still witness the overgrown cellar holes of the ghost town of West Castleton, a product of once prosperous times, now a landmark to what once was.

Weird Waters

If your into ghost stories, Lake Bomoseen have an interesting one. The story goes that one night in the 1800s, 3 Irish slate workers from West Castleton obtained a rowboat and decided to row to a tavern on the east shore to entertain themselves. But they never showed up. The next morning, their rowboat was found floating empty on the open waters of West Castleton bay, but no trace of their bodies were ever found. Locals say that on certain moonlit nights, the phantom rowboat can be seen moving effortlessly across the waters of Lake Bomoseen, making no disturbances in the water.

But if phantom rowboats don’t grab your attention, this mysterious body of water has a far stranger tale woven into its web of folklore. Towards the north end of the lake is a surprisingly undeveloped island (apart from an estate on the very southern tip). The island is long, densely wooded and rests a mere 30 feet away from the lake’s North West shore. But this island is known for something far more mysterious than its idealized lakeside real estate. It is here where Vermont’s entire population of giant rabbits are said to reside. As the name implies, they are distinctive because of their size, and more noticeable, their glowing red eyes. But how did the entire population of this elusive sub culture become to be contained on such a small island in Lake Bomoseen, and why?

I turned to Joseph Citro’s The Vermont Monster Guide for an explanation. In a pure Darwinian principle, they somehow hopped the 30 foot jump from island to mainland, and couldn’t get back. The bigger rabbits were the only ones who could make the jump, leaving the biggest of the big trapped on the isolated chunk of land in Bomoseen’s murky waters.  What happened next however wasn’t so bizarre; they did what rabbits did best, and multiplied.  As the years progressed, they became bigger and stronger. Legend has it that some have seen rabbits as large as Volkswagons and Saint Bernards somewhere amidst the dense evergreen foliage that climb the shores.  But these rabbits are by no means new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, the Abenaki may have in fact told tales of these oversized rabbits on the island. And today, it is not uncommon to see curious campers and adventurers boating and kayaking around the island trying to catch a glimpse of these unique cryptids – and as far as we know, they are harmless. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that residents began calling the narrow landmass Rabbit Island.

If giant rabbits and rowboats piloted by unseen forces aren’t good enough for you, Lake Bomoseen has another surprise, one that is concealed by the largest existing entity on the lake – it’s waters. And if the legends are true, this will definitely bring you a dose of rigor…

Around 1986, a man and his wife were fishing on the lake in their seventeen foot boat, when they saw an extraordinary creature moving beneath the water’s surface. It looked like a giant eel. The description created a picture of something eight to nine inches in diameter, and an astonishing twenty feet long! Well – they said it was longer than their boat anyways. Not wanting to attract the USO with their fishing bait, they reeled in and headed quickly back to shore.

So, is there really a giant eel lurking beneath the waters of Lake Bomoseen? Surely something so massive and so distinctively intimidating would have been seen by others? Not so much. As a matter of fact, this was the only sighting I was able to dig up, meaning either it was a one time phenomena, something far more innocuous, or maybe, people are just keeping quiet about it. After all, Vermonters are pretty good about keeping secrets…

State wildlife biologists weighed in on this, and said that generally, the size of eels can vary greatly, but it’s entirely possible that they can reach up to around five to six feet in diameter and weigh around fifteen pounds, and, they speculated that it was entirely possible that larger ones could exist in larger landlocked bodies of water. But Bomoseen, the lake in question, well, they sort of left that answer somewhere in the smoke.

(via CardCow.com)

A Famous History

Lake Bomoseen has been drawing tourists to its shores long before the year round camps and state routes began to ring its shores. As early as 1870, Lake Bomoseen began to establish itself as a tourism getaway. The Johnson farm, on the north end of the lake was said to be the first location around the lake to began hosting summer guests around this time. To reach the Johnson farm, guests crossed a float bridge, which actually did float on the surface of the lake. Still referred to as the Float Bridge, it now does just the opposite of float, as it’s fixed sturdily to land with granite, concrete and steel. Just take Float Bridge Road, still in existence at the north end of the lake.

Over the next couple of decades, more hotels sprang up around the lake. Even the ruins of nearby Hyde Manor brought guests to the lake by stagecoach.

Over time, something else began to make their appearance along the lakeshore as well; summer camps. One of the most famous was on Lake Bomoseen’s largest island – the secretive and elite Neshobe Island, which had a reputation that helped establish the aura of mystery for exclusive clubs and societies.

Purchased in the 1920s by Alexander Woollcott, author, actor and New York Times drama critic, the cottage and island became a retreat for the Algonquin Round Table, a group of journalists, editors, actors and press agents who met regularly at New York’s Algonquin Hotel starting in June 1919. Summer weekends were said to consist of cocktails and croquet on the island with Woollcott as host, and catered to notable guests such as President Theodore Roosevelt – who could be seen landing his seaplane on the lake during his arrivals.

The island was said to be beautiful, with rolling topography, mixed woodlands and miniature meadows filled with wild flowers. While local Vermonters left the islanders to their own business, it was the tourists who tried to invade their privacy (or so the accounts claimed). That was, until comedian, film star, and visiting guest Harpo Marx put a stop to it. One day, as a boat full of rowdy tourists invaded the island’s private beach for a picnic, Marx stripped naked, smeared himself with mud, grabbed an axe and ran down towards the startled tourists hollering and making animal noises. They never came back.

Today, the grand resorts and private clubs are gone, succumbing to disastrous fires and the changing times, and the lake has given way to a more dominating landscape of summer camps and private homes. But the lake is still quite active, and is just as beloved as it was a century ago. An official stop on Vermont’s Stone Valley Byway, and lined by several beaches, a state park, a popular golf club and lakeside restaurant that offers dock side conveniences (after all, Bomoseen is a boating lake), Lake Bomoseen still draws several crowds that all share a mutual love of the lake, but undeniably, a lot has indeed changed.

Below is an interesting video of Lake Bomoseen’s history, if you are so inclined.

 Left Behind

Just south of Lake Bomoseen, where the road breaks from the shoreline for the first time, and the landscape returns back to woods, is a small and rotting remnant of Lake Bomoseen’s tourism heyday of yesteryear – an abandoned mini golf place. The faded and weathered sign over it’s sloping rental building reads “Bomoseen Golfland” with a rather creepy looking clown as its official mascot, something that conjures more of an image of sinister intentions than a round of mini golf.

Though I don’t know any of the history behind this small mom and pop operation, it most likely functioned during the mid 20th century and provided passing tourists and summer campers with some cheap fun for a few hours, and closed when the region’s tourism trends changed. Today, the ruins can still be seen from the side of Route 30, now desolate, weed ridden and forgotten, the water logged AstroTurf’s awkward green color a sort of gross presence to the otherwise natural landscape around it.

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Overall, I spent a total of 10 minutes wondering the moldy grounds of Bomoseen Golfland. It wasn’t the most interesting place I have ever visited but it was creepy enough. The dilapidated wooden building with its peeling paint sat underneath a sky of broken lights,  smashed over the sad remnants of each mini golf obstacle. But it certainly is a monument to classic roadside Americana and a simpler time. And for that, I’m thankful I had the chance to visit.

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24 Comments on “Rabbits, Rowboats & Roosevelts: Lake Bomoseen’s odd history

  1. Loved this post, especially the last clown pic…..sends weird sensations through me…. liked the video inclusion too. Great job taking us there Chad. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing this Chad! I found it very interesting! Would like to go there sometime. Never knew about all the Big Bands and such on Bomoseen.

    • Thanks Holly. Lake Bomoseen has a pretty interesting history behind it, but I suppose it’s no different than any other body of water in the North East for its heyday. What I found the most interesting is you’d never know any of this just by driving by the lake today, it’s very much downsized over the years haha. Bomoseen is nice though, I’ve been to a few ice fishing derbies there, and have boated there once.

  3. One of my good childhood friends had a summer house on Lake Bomoseen. I spent a couple weeks there every summer in the early ’90s. I also remember playing mini-golf at the Bomoseen Golfland as a kid and hitting the ball into the clown’s mouth on the 18th hole – you got a free round if you got it in the smaller hole in his nose. If I remember correctly, it had a driving range, too. It probably closed sometime in late ’90s or early ’00s, so actually not all that long ago.

    • The remnants of the old driving range are still there, sort of. It’s mostly just a field now, but the platforms are still visible. There seems to be a lot of cherished history in this region that has sort of just faded into the ether overtime. The clown is an arguably freaky mascot now, with warn paint and slow evidence of decay lol

    • You are remembering correct if you got the ball in the nose it won you a free round of mini golf. I grew up not far from that location on the lake & it was late 90’s wile I was in high school that it closed down. Only within the last 5-8 years is when the Bomoseen inn aka “the dog” closed down. But it was purchased in the last few years and the new owner is working on repairing it & from town rumors restoring it to its old glory.

  4. Chad, great article. I attended my 40th class reunion of Fair Haven Union HS this past summer at the TrakII Inn, just a few steps away from the Bomoseen Golfland. It was sad and creepy to see what’s left of it now. Viewing your pictures reminds me of ghosts-of-childhood-past spending many summer days navigating that mini-course with great fun and laughter in the company of best friends. And of course, it was great competition to see who could win the free game by hitting the clowns nose at the end. It’s sad that no one has taken over the property and built a new course. I think it’d still be popular with a new generation.

  5. “State wildlife biologists weighed in on this, and said that generally, eels found in Vermont lakes can be around five to six feet in diameter” Do you mean inches? five to six feet in diameter would be huge!

      • I got thrown off by the fifteen pounds part in relation to the five to six foot diameter, it doesn’t seem like it could be five to six feet in diameter but only fifteen pounds?

      • I’m just going off information that was given to me! I’m not very knowledgeable with eels I’m afraid.

      • And get this, they say that larger sizes are in fact possible. But could Lake Bomoseen support such a creature? Doubtful.

      • Gotcha. I didn’t mean to call you out, it just sounded weird that it was 5-6 feet around but 15 pounds. I really like your blog!

      • Haha no worries Ethan, I always enjoy a good conversation. Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Interesting piece, although you might want to do some fact checking with Don Thompson who has written a complete history of the area. Don lives on the lake and has published a well researched book. The Lake Bomoseen Association is a vibrant group that has brought lake shore home owners and visitor together to preserve and protect the lake. There are many year round activities that are offered including the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Display, Boat Parade and Picnic. Our ice fishing, snow shoing, and winter activitie abound. This autumn was spectacular for leaf viewing. We have an active non profit organization garnering donations to continue the efforts of lake preservation on Lake Bomoseen. The Lake Bomoseen Preservation Trust helps fund worthy projects for the stewardship of the lake into the future.

    • Thanks for your input Ellen. Lake Bomoseen is a cool place. I’ve always enjoyed my time spent there. If you know of any interesting or extraordinary stories, facts or folktales, please pass them along! I’d love to hear them.

  7. This breaks my heart!!! My Grandfather poured his heart and soul into Golfland!! Growing up it was not “Creepy” it was amazing and full life. I’m sorry that is the vision you got Chad!! The vision that it was was family fun and laughter and very well taken care of in its day!! It was open from 9 am to 10pm and there were night he did not leave until midnight because people would still be pulling in!! It was a fun place to go! As my Grandfathers health deteriorated so did Golfland! He had so much pride and never wanted to ask for help. Even in his very last year with us he was out mowing the fields to try his best to keep it up.. It breaks my heart Chad that you never new the Man Lee Keirstead who loved this place and Ioved to greet everyone who came!! He is my HERO My Grandfather!!

    • Thanks for commenting! Your grandfather was the one behind golfland? I love relics of Americana like this. We used to have a few mini golf places I used to go to as a kid near where I live, and mostly all of them have shuttered now. Your grandfather seems like he was an amazing person, and people with his passion are the ones who I love to hear about. If you have any stories you’d like to share, I’d love to listen.

    • I knew your grandfather. I worked there during the summer of 1993. He was like a grandfather to me. I loved that place and hearing you describe it brings back wonderful memories – it was a place for family fun. I drive by weekly…and am so sad to see it now but i still have my great memories. Lee and Mary were generous people and I for one will always remember them for the kind, hard-working people they were. They are missed. ~Laurie Knapp Celik

  8. Great article! Our family takes a week off in July to celebrate our independence. Although we have never seen giant eels or rabbits, we enjoy the lake and area around it. We took our kids to play mini golf every year till it closed. Bomoseen is truly a great place for fun and relaxation!

  9. I spent many childhood summers staying with my parents and grandparents on the lake. As kids, my parents treated me and my sister to many fun nights at Golfland. Also, I once caught one of those giant eels while fishing. I was on the south end of the lake in a rowboat (with a small motor) with my dad, sometime in the early-to-mid 1980s. I had a huge tug on the line, which was too much for me to handle. My dad took over and reeled in the catch. What ensued is burned into my memory. To my child eyes, it appeared that a huge, brown, snake thrashed at the end of the line. The exposed part must have been at least 4 feet long My dad quickly whipped out a knife he had on hand and cut the line, and that thing disappeared into the lake. My dad later explained that it was only an eel. That explanation did little to calm me—-I refused to go swimming in the lake for the rest of the summer and gave up fishing for quite a while.

  10. There are still eels in Lake Bomoseen. This past summer we saw a beautiful patterned eel at the Evancho (Float Bridge) launch feeding on discarded bait. It is an easy leap from a large eel to the Lake Bomoseen Monster! This lake gives us such a rich experience from visual beauty, history, recreation and folklore, we are the beneficiaries of it all!

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