Of Mountains and Men; Legends of Bristol’s Cliffs and Hills

Traveling to a friend’s place in Lincoln, it was hard not to notice the cliffs of Deer Leap mountain soaring far above the narrow valley along Route 116, the damp Spring mists burning away like a soul of vapor. At 1,825-feet, Deer Leap is considered a larger elevation for Vermont, its cold craggy ledges thawed by the sun setting over the Champlain Valley to the west.  

At the foot of the mountain is the tiny town of Bristol, a cool little stop in rural Addison County. The village itself is pretty compact, laid out in a bit of a grid pattern with side streets of older and humble wooden homes homes and a quirky compact downtown, but it’s location is a dramatic one, on a plateau at the foot of tumultuous rounded mountains which rises above carved river gorges packed with slippery boulders, before dropping off into Addison County’s pancake farmland. It’s impressive variety of the geographical kind also know how to harbor aging stories and mythology that are otherwise made unassuming by it’s verdant forests during the summertime.

The lofty heights of Deer Leap, which, luckily for Bristol denizens, can be admired at any vantage point from the village, and are a popular hangout for locals alike. According to local lore, there are a few interesting stories behind its dramatic moniker.

One story is that Native Americans used to hunt deer in the area, and would chase their game up the mountain onto the ledges, where they would drive the deer off the cliffs. After searching for the carcasses, they would then be collected to be eaten.

But there is another tale that may offer an explanation. In a Romeo and Juliet series of events, fostered by small town life, two young lovers whose parents forbid them to see each other, met on top of the mountain to elope together. But, despair must have found them that day, for instead of fleeing together, they decided to jump off the ledges, ending their lives with a gruesome and striking statement of their devotion to one another. Some say the name came from one of the lovers saying “Okay dear, leap!” before they fell to their deaths. But that would require there to be a witness present during their suicide, and because my research failed in finding such a person – this second tale seems more of a fabrication, but none the less wondrous, adding to the mystique of the mountain.

The Ledges of Deer Leap in Bristol

The Ledges of Deer Leap in Bristol

My friend recalls hanging out on Deer Leap a lot as a bored teenager in high school with his friends, and doing the usual things small town teens did. The ledges were not only a beautiful vista overlooking the rooftops of Bristol, it was an escape.

“The Money Diggers”

Rocks and cliffs seem to be an inseparable part of the Bristol landscape and its folklore. Within viewing distance of Deer Leap lies a larger and perhaps more miserable elevation, South Mountain, its ledges and rock slides can be seen from just about everywhere in town. But you’d probably never guess that there was once an ambitious and foolhardy silver mining operation here.

For a landlocked state (the only one in New England!), I was surprised and pleased to hear that Vermont had quite a few buried treasure stories through years of folklore research. A rough area south of Bristol village dubbed as Hells’ Half Acre was one of the most fascinating to me, mostly because it begs the question; could there be unclaimed treasure still waiting to be found in Bristol, Vermont?

I had mentioned one such a story taking place in the mountains near Wallingford. Bristol has another such story, which seems to be the best known one of its kind in Vermont, thanks to many people before me who have preserved this great tale, such as great publications like The Money Diggers by Stephen Green, appearing in the book Mischief in the Mountains, and the more macabre part of the story mentioned in Green Mountains, Dark Tales by Joesph Citro.

In 1800, a mysterious Spaniard was stirring up trouble in town. His violent attitudes towards curious townsfolk, especially children, and dirty appearance made him the subject of concern for small town gossip, especially during his visits to the local general store.

But it wasn’t until local kids began running back into town, some in tears, and explaining that some man with a menacing demenor matching the Spaniard’s profile had been threatening them when they were playing near South Mountain. A group of Bristol-ites banded together, formed a mob, and walked up to the mountain. There, they found the Spaniard digging, which only gave them more reason to be suspicious of him. The mob surrounded him, and gave him two clear choices, to tell them why he was in Bristol, or be ran out of town.

Seeing no other way out, he exhaustively told his accusers that his name was DeGrau, and proceeded to enlighten the curious group with quite the tale. Many years ago, his father, who was a miner, traveled the area in search of precious metals, and they found a rich vein of silver near the area he was digging, when Bristol was nothing more than a crude collection of cabins called Pocock. They procured the mining equipment and a larger crew, and began operations. Almost immediately, they found great success – the ore was rich and easily smelted into silver bars. They mined throughout the summer and into the fall and when they were ready to leave, they found that they couldn’t carry everything back with them – they had too much! So, they hid the remaining silver in a cave and hid the entrance. They all agreed they would come back for the rest of the silver, on the condition that they would have to be together. But, complications prevented them from coming back, until years later when DeGrau, who was now a very old man, was the only survivor of the original group.

The residents of Bristol not only believed his tale – they were fascinated by it! But there was a problem. DeGrau couldn’t find the treasure, the mountain looked different, he didn’t remember where the cave was. It was probably covered by some rock slide that is the trademark feature of this unforgiving landmass. But, the locals were able to find evidence of old mining operations around the area, which validated his claim to them. Soon, he faded out of the picture, and eager Bristol residents took his place, digging around the base of the mountain, hoping to strike it rich.

The rock slides and cliffs of Hells' Half Acre and South Mountain, as seen from Route 116. via Google street view.

The rock slides and cliffs of Hells’ Half Acre and South Mountain, as seen from Route 116. via Google street view.

Over time, people from beyond Bristol’s borders made their way to the mountain slopes to seek their fortunes. Small time operations existed in the area until around 1840, when a group of Canadians lead by a mysterious “Uncle Sim” trekked down to Bristol and began more intense mining operations. Uncle Sim was said to do no work himself, but instead, direct and control the operations, and he had his ways. He was said to be very charismatic, and could talk his way into anything. He raised all his investments by promising $100 returns for every dollar raised. Instead of doing the traditional scouting and digging, which relied on methodology and wisdom, Uncle Sim allegedly hired fortune tellers, more notably, Vermont’s most famous, a clairvoyant Calais woman named “Sleeping Lucy”, to guide them and tell them where to dig mine shafts. Stories of miners hiding behind rocks and in caves and making bear noises to scare local kids were also told. Miners also made up terrifying folk tales about ghosts that haunted the mine to keep kids away.

In just a half acre,  they dug numerous shafts into the rocky mountain soil, some that were said to reach 50 feet down, and then travel hundreds of feet directly under the mountain. The area was honeycombed with so many shafts that were said to be miserable, dark and cold that the area was given the nickname, Hell’s Half Acre. And the name couldn’t have been more fitting.

With months of back breaking labor yielding no results, tragedy and bad luck seemed to be the only thing the ambitious crews were discovering. Mine shafts had to be abandoned due to “foul air”, flooding issues and snow drifts. More work went into reclaiming the shafts than digging them.

By 1852, Uncle Sim gave up, packed up his crew and headed back to Canada. But his hopes couldn’t be easily broken, and a decade later, he returned to the site. With the aid of a new conjurer, he was assured that all he had to do was move a few rocks, and he would discover the elusive passage which contained the treasure. But his effort was short lived. An old man by now, he eventually swallowed the taste of defeat and left Bristol, vanishing into obscurity. A few other attempts at mining were made throughout the years, but no success ever came out of it, and as far as we know, there is a large treasure of silver still waiting somewhere within the foul depths of Hells’ Half Acre.

The Ghost Shaft of Bristol Notch

There too is local lore about this grueling landscape. Hell’s Half Acre is said to be haunted by the ghost of a boy and his dog – and the legend varies depending on who tells it. One morbidly cryptic claim is that when the mysterious Spanish prospectors were mining the base of South Mountain, they sacrificed a local boy and his dog under the moon, its light burning their blood on the stark white boulders. By doing this, the boy was cursed to protect the mine for all eternity, shambling through the shadowy woodlands around tree stumps and near caves, with a smoldering hot branding iron and a frightful gash across his throat, chasing away anyone who gets too close to the fabled mine. His dog turned hell hound is said to join him, growling and threatening to tear the throats out of anyone who ventures to close.

The more tragic of the two tales claims that one fall afternoon, a boy and his dog went hiking in the woods around Hell’s Half Acre, exploring the abandoned mines and cavities. But as night fell, they never came home. His worried parents soon launched a search party, and plenty of neighbors and volunteers combed the woods, and found nothing. After weeks of searching, they gave up, and the cold Vermont winter rolled in. The next spring, a passing woodsman was walking through the woods, when he noticed something peculiar at the base of the one of the abandoned mine shafts. As he got closer, he recognized it as the skeleton of a dog. He probably didn’t have to get any closer to figure out what else he would have seen. At the bottom of the 50 foot shaft, the skeleton of a little boy was found. The boy had fallen into the mine shaft and broken both his legs, unable to get out, he starved to death. His faithful dog refused to leave his side, and died at the edge of the hole. And then, supernature clicked in. Some say that on certain nights, you can hear cries for help coming from the dark forests at the base of the mountain. And if you listen closely enough, perhaps, the wail of a heartbroken hound.

Clambering Blindly Through The Woods

Reaching the abandoned mine shafts wasn’t easy. Though the area has recently been designated as the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness, part of the Green Mountain National Forest, there were no hiking trails to lead the way, and no signage even indicating this was forest land. Which was part of this wild areas’s appeal to me. To get here, you had to have a little know how on your side, such as a general direction, and what to look for. I had both.

I didn’t see a horrific boy or demon hound on my trek up the mountain, but there were rocks, lots of them, and a real danger that I’m going to term swipe from Duddleytown, Connecticut; there were lots of Fairy Caves here, or, covered holes in the ground that are easy to slip into while walking, and roll an ankle if you’re lucky. Others are more unfortunate, and leave with broken limbs. The Quartzite rock slide loomed before me as I trekked through the budding woods in their Spring jackets of greens and purples, as the sun was already baking their chalky white surfaces. But the rocks were still retaining some of their winter moisture and snow runoff, and were surprisingly damp and cool underneath where the sun couldn’t reach. It was a surreal world up there in the woods. I could only imagine what the miners of yesteryear had to endure here. Some of the old shafts were still visible underneath toppled boulders and through drifts of decomposing leaves and pine needles, but were far too dangerous to venture down into without more planning on my part. And alas, no silver to be found.

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Trekking through the woods, the land soon became strewn with boulders and loose rocks that tumbled underneath your feet as you climbed higher up the slopes.

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Closer to the rock slides, trees have long adapted to the rough area and have grown up, around and even on top of large boulders.

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The sun baked Quartzite surfaces of Hells’ Half Acre

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2 Comments on “Of Mountains and Men; Legends of Bristol’s Cliffs and Hills

  1. Loved the stories about the area….. what a fascinating time to have lived!!! And the pictures are fabulous and magical. So well done……

  2. I am in Bristol right now and there is something magical about this place, i can’t put my thumb on it, but metaphysically it holds something beyond the human realms and feels like magic. I wish i had more time here so I could go explore Hell’s half acre. If you have any more stories or good reads about the magic I would love to hear. my email is huffnkeen@gmail.com

    I hear the whole town of Bristol is built on quartz which might explain some of the magic.

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