February 25, 2007

HAUNTED HELL

"We may have to fight dead men and devils
before we get fairly hold of it."
-Daniel P. Thompson:
May Martin, or The Money Diggers

An area as remote, sinister, and alluring as Hell’s Half Acre often attracts more than tourists or treasure hunters. Representatives from “the Dark Side” will routinely take up residence as well. Some have been there since the beginning of the Money Diggings, some wandered onto the scene years afterward.

Their otherworldly presence seems to confirm one of the laws of supernature: Where there's buried treasure you’ll find ghosts. (In fact, in most cases the ghosts are easier to find than the treasure.)

One of the most gothic elements associated with Bristol is the belief that a murdered boy and his sidekick, a demonic hound, hold an eternal vigil in the lightless bowels of the mine shaft. They are preternaturally compelled to forever guard against would-be treasure hunters. Franklin S. Harvey wrote, "As these patient toilers hewed their way through the ledge and drew nearer to the object of their search, they could hear the boy sign and groan . . ."

Mr. Harvey tells us that as a lad, he was often present when the phantoms were disturbed. "I can't say I ever heard the howls and groans," he wrote, "but who is to dispute the statement of a dozen gray-haired men, all of whom were ready to say they did hear them?"



This respectful attitude – the will not to contradict -- may account in part for the persistence of ghost tales. And perhaps treasure tales as well.

Over the years the saga of the ghost-boy and his hell-hound has evolved a bit. Though they continue to appear in local folklore, their story a some point began to take on less sinister and far more poignant tones.

Today the boy and his dog are truly sympathetic characters.

In the modern telling, a Bristol boy and his loyal dog set out for a pleasant hike one fine fall afternoon. The lad whistled happily as the dog, its pink tongue dangling, loped along at his side.

Exactly what they were up to is not important and probably changes with the teller of the tale. Let’s say they were gathering spruce gum.

In the vicinity of the abandoned diggings the boy’s curiosity clicked in. Maybe he’d just have a look at the abandoned cavities on Hell's Half Acre. Probably, way in the back of his mind something subtle clicked. It was that same notion that had clicked in Uncle Sim some years before: maybe, just maybe, a fortune in silver lay beneath some long-overlooked rock or below one of the many rotting wooden platforms.

Maybe . . .



That evening the boy didn't return home.

His worried parents stared at the darkening acres around them. Their shouts were answered only by echoes. Before all light was lost the father organized a search party. Men with torches and lanterns crisscrossed the woods. They cried the boy’s name. Then the dog’s. But to no avail.


Sometime months later, after the deep snows of the next winter had finally melted, a local man wandered through Hell's Half Acre. Minding the pits and outcropping he moved carefully, with his eyes scanning the ground.

There was something out of place among the ledges and pits and caves and rubble: the skeleton of a dog stretched flat near the dark opening of a shaft.



I suspect the man never had to look into the pit to know what he would find there. Intuition allowed him to fill in all the blanks: The curious boy had wandered too close to the opening. He’d slipped. Fallen. Slid 50-feet to the shadowy bottom. There, trapped, alone, and terrified, he had died.

His dog, refusing to desert him, waited by the threshold his young master would never cross. In time he died too, a loyal companion till the end.

And nature took its course.

Then came supernature.



Till this day when the moon is right and the shadows are long, Bristol folks and uneasy outsiders swear they sometimes hear "something". Is it the wind? The woodland sounds of wildlife? The rumor of a crowd of searchers long one? Or is it faint cries? Cries for help? Or the unearthly wail of a dog?

Yeah, it sounds far-fetched to me, too. But enough people have heard the unexplained sounds to embed the story in our folk-memory.

I'm sure most of the holes were never named, but one particular excavation in Hell's Half Acre, the westernmost, has come to called "The Ghost Shaft of Bristol Notch."

©2007 by Joseph A. Citro


NOTE: The drawing of the skeleton dog is from The Vermont Ghost Guide by Joseph A. Citro, illustrated by Stephen R. Bissette. Many thanks to my pal Steve for allowing me to reproduce the picture here. Be sure to check out Steve's blog at http://www.srbissette.com



http://www.amazon.com/Vermont-Ghost-Guide-Joseph-Citro/dp/1584650095/sr=8-1/qid=1172441110/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-3363192-8202561?ie=UTF8&s=books

February 20, 2007

BRISTOL MONEY-DIGGINGS: TRUTH VS. FACTS


“Twas after the French and Indian Wars,
As men with their precious haul
Were carrying metals and gems as loot
To Quebec and Montreal…”
--Leo Leonard Twinem A Ballad of Old Pocock

So where is the truth in all this treasure-digging business?

Admittedly, it’s a terrific story, but what, if any, are the facts behind it?

Can there be a real-life treasure in Bristol just waiting for some lucky prospector to come along? Or maybe it’s gone; secretly unearthed and covertly stolen away? After all, it would make sense not to publicize such a find. Imagine the risk.

But no such find is on record, and today the truth, like the treasure, is impossible to unearth.


Were any of the treasure-diggers real?

Apparently so. The holes are there to prove it.

And Bristol newspaperman Franklin S. Harvey claimed personal recollections of Uncle Sim Coreser, who was responsible for the Big Dig of the 1840s. Mr. Harvey recalls the last time he saw Mr. Coreser, circa 1860, when the old man returned to the site alone: "He had a few tools and was digging and prying around in his feeble way among the loose rocks. I pitied the poor old man, and freely forgave him for all the awful frights he had given me during my boyhood; for hiding behind a rock and growling like a bear; for telling me bloodcurdling stories that made my hair stand on end; for ridiculing my odd and bashful ways; all doubts I may have had of his present or former sincerity were scattered in the winds."

Uncle Sim put in his time at the site – some 12 years -- but neither he nor his crew found a thing.

It seems to me the real key to the story's legitimacy lies with the original excavator, Senor DeGrau.

Mr. Harvey claimed he had spoken with reliable people who remembered the original Money-Digger. “He cannot be called an impostor,” Mr. Harvey wrote, “for he asked no favors of anyone."

Given that he existed, dug, and did not find what his prize, his story is still improbable. It is unlikely to me that a band of roving miners -- Senor DeGrau’s father and his companions -- traveling randomly through primitive New England, would just happen to make the needle-in-a-haystack discovery of a rich silver mine while passing through Pocock, Vermont.

The story’s credibility gets more flimsy when we realize silver, like Spaniards, is not native to the Green Mountain State.

Then again, maybe somebody brought it here.

Is it far easier to suppose DeGrau and company hid something in the wilds of Bristol, then later returned to reclaim it. The fact that he was Spanish could provide a clue as to what his "treasure" might have been.

New England folklorist and historian Edward Rowe Snow speculated about this very possibility. Without getting into a confusing and convoluted blow-by-blow of the history of the Spanish ship Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph, suffice it to say that in November, 1752 she was on her way from Honduras to Spain.

The hold was loaded with treasure, including 40 chests of silver. On November 24th problems at sea forced the ship to put in near New London, Connecticut. Requests for aid and repairs were met with deceit and thievery. While at anchor most of the treasure disappeared.

What happened to it remains a mystery that will never be solved. However, it is possible that thieves, carrying an unspecified amount of silver, made their way north, eventually unburdening themselves in the wilds of Bristol before continuing on to Canada.

If that is so, then the Spaniard DeGrau may have been the one remaining member of a pirate band who returned to Vermont in 1800 to reclaim his ill gotten gains.

Though the prospect is admittedly remote, the scenario is within the realm of possibility - as possible, perhaps, as a productive silver mining and smelting operation in colonial Pocock.

The power of this solution is diminished a bit when we consider that several Vermont towns in addition to Bristol - including my hometown, Chester - boast essentially the same story of lost silver and wandering Spaniards.

But here treasure-seeker mentality clicks in: There were at least 40 chests of silver. Maybe different Spaniards deposited chests at different locations, thus accounting for many of Vermont’s, and New England’s, treasure tales (most of which involve Spaniards and buried loot).


In any event, this colorful tale does accomplish at least one thing: it introduces the concept of high seas piracy to the only New England state without a seacoast. So if DeGrau was a pirate, he was a rarity indeed.

True? Fact?

False? Fraud?

Does it really matter?

The Bristol story seems to reveal certain truths about the human character. Somewhere in the human psyche there must be a longing for the unique romance supplied by buccaneers and buried bounty. And, for even the laziest among us, the promise of instant wealth can inspire a lifetime of backbreaking labor and repeated disappointment.

Truths of a sort, without any facts to back them up.

©2007 by Joseph A. Citro

February 11, 2007

TREASURE IN BRISTOL VERMONT



It started with the persistent concussion of metal on rock.

A cluster of local lads ran off to investigate. What they found was an oddly dressed man, a solitary stranger, digging on South Mountain. He was like nothing anyone had ever seen before in the hardscrabble Bristol, Vermont, of 1800.

The boys approached timidly only to be promptly repelled with menacing gestures and a assault of foul, foreign-sounding epithets.

Bewildered, terrified, they raced home to tell their fathers.

Soon Bristol citizens rallied to discuss what might be happening on South Mountain. The local storekeeper recalled a "rough and uncanny" stranger who had entered his establishment, purchased some supplies, mostly victuals, and vanished into the hills. "He weren't a Frenchman," the storekeeper assured them. Turns out he wasn't an Irishman, German, or Dutchman, either.

The boys' fathers and older brothers charged off to confront the mysterious intruder. Armed, they made their way up the mountainside. The impact of his ax against stone led them directly to the lone laborer.

Hardly fearful of the arriving horde, the old man faced them, commanding them to leave at once.

They refused, reminding him that he was the trespasser. He’d better explain himself, they said, or they'd run him out of town.

The foreigner had no choice but to acquiesce. And the tale he told changed the history of the region.

He said his name was DeGrau, that he was Spanish, and had visited the area many years ago as a child. His father and a group of associates were miners who had randomly prospected throughout New England. There on South Mountain in Bristol (then called Pocock) they discovered a rich vein of silver and had begun a mining operation.

Eventually they accumulated a massive amount of high grade ore which they smelted into silver bars. In the fall, while preparing to leave, they discovered they had far too much wealth to carry away. They walled the surplus treasure up in an oven-shaped cave and disguised the entrance with earth and vegetation, planning to return for it later.

Before departing for their faraway homes the miners agreed that in order to reclaim the loot they must all travel together, as a group. For various reasons they never coordinated the return trip. Presumably, they had already carted off enough wealth and never had to refill their coffers. Over the years the original miners died off until SeƱor DeGrau – now quite elderly -- was the only one left.

After some deliberation, the villagers decided that the Spaniard's story had the ring of truth. Ultimately, they believed him.

But, the old man explained, the land wasn't exactly as he remembered it (a fact possibly attributable to the 1755 earthquake that dramatically altered local topography).

Still, the solitary prospector dug and poked and prodded and eventually wandered off into oblivion, apparently without finding his prize.


In the years to come an array of Bristol locals picked up ax and continued where the Spaniard had left off. They discovered some ancient signs of a mining operation, a mysterious marked container, and a few nondescript odds and ends. These worthless finds inspired more treasure hunters, but years of intermittent excavations revealed no mine and no silver.

For decades Bristol treasure hunters were joined by opportunists from far and wide, all determined to secure the Spaniard's silver.

In the mid-1800s a group of Canadians arrived and organized a stock company. An affable sixty-year-old, florid-faced giant known as "Uncle Sim" directed the operation. He spurred the diggers on with humor and charisma, taking his directions from trusted fortune-tellers. One was a woman from Pawlet whom Uncle Sim regularly consulted. Another was an "old Frenchman" who conjured from his cabin on the eastern side of the mountain. Without callusing their hands or wielding an axe, their paranormal vision allowed them to identify the spot where the treasure lay. The amount that would eventually be unearthed, they promised, was $3,100,000 [over $50,000,000 in today’s coin].

Uncle Sim raised funds by promising a hundred dollar return on every dollar invested.

From 1840 to 1852 they dug shaft after shaft, some through solid rock, some 40 and 50 feet deep. One sank to well over 100! Still the silver remained just out of reach.

Shafts caved in, filled with stifling gas, or flooded with water. As much effort went into reclaiming holes as digging them. But no treasure came to light. After more than twelve years and thousands of dollars, Uncle Sim gave up.
But unlike the rock face of South Mountain, Uncle Sim’s faith was never shattered. About a decade later he returned alone. He had met a new conjurer who assured him that by moving just a few stones he could open a passage leading directly to the treasure.

By then he must have been in his eighties, a frail and broken man. His effort was short lived. Defeated, he tottered off into oblivion.

In spite of repeated failures, organized efforts to find the Spaniard's silver continued intermittently.

As recently as 1934 a man from New Haven took up the cause. His treasure finding techniques were more modern than Uncle Sim’s. Instead of consulting conjurers, he used his "divining rod," then began digging and dynamiting until little was left of the earlier excavations. It wasn’t long before he too left, tired, and discouraged.


The forlorn remnants of Addison’s Big Dig remain on South Mountain to this day. “The Money Diggings”, as they are locally called, are on private land. With permission, you can traverse the inhospitable terrain (as nasty as any in the state). You can still discover the rough rock caves where Uncle Sim’s crew lived during their twelve years on what has become known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”





You can locate the filled shafts and — if you’re brave enough -- descend into the only pit that remains open. It drops at a precarious 45-degree angle into – so they say -- a hand-dug cavern large enough to hold a dancehall. From there, three additional shafts burrow into the bowels of the mountain.

It is a dangerous spot, perhaps more so because of the hellhound and demon boy Uncle Sim swore will eternally guard the true path to the treasure.

The bottom line is that in two hundred years Addison’s Big Dig has produced nothing but questions: Was there ever any silver or treasure of any kind? Did one of the diggers secretly find the stash and covertly carry it away? Or is it still there, securely hidden, ready to inspire another century of treasure hunting?

Quite possibly someone is digging there now.




Strange, almost fleshy rock faces: slippery, alien, and almost always hazardous.













Franklin S. Harvey was there while Uncle Sim was bossing the spirit-guided dig. Later Mr. Harvey told the story in a series of articles for the Bristol Herald (1888-89). Later still, his accounts were collected for this little book (now quite rare).


















© 2007 by Joseph A. Citro

February 10, 2007

WHERE TO FIND TREASURE

“I will not take you far or detain you long. But I will lead you into what at first sight would pass for a region of enchantment.” – Franklin S. Harvey, The [Bristol] Money Diggers



Some of the most inhospitable land in Vermont.



Below, the spring that sustained laborers for many years of digging.



One of the rock shelters in which Uncle Sim’s men spent 12 years in hard labor.



NEXT TIME -- THE STORY OF THE TREASURE!

February 8, 2007

WHILE YOU'RE WAITING

While you're waiting for the Treasure Post, here is a little treasure that was passed along by my friend Jay Sames. Now and then I'll come across an extraordinary webpage (it'll be weird, whacked-out, or wonderful in some way) and post it here.
Suggestions are always welcome, but this one will keep you busy for a spell.
http://www.jacksonpollock.org/

February 5, 2007

VERMONT -- A COLLECTION OF WONDERS


With the start of 007, I'd like to try my hand at blogging.
My plan is to post a stellar selection of strange Vermont stories like the ones I've been collecting in books since 1992. I'll also show you pictures and post notes on new investigations.
I hope readers will add their own stories. With luck we can initiate some fascinating discussions and compile a worthy archive of Weird Vermontiana.
Here we'll focus on anything curious or offbeat, mysterious or wondrous, as long as it has to do with Vermont (but no great New England tales will be ignored or deleted!).
Historical eccentricities.
Ghost stories.
Treasure tales.
Monsters and maniacs. It's open season on all of them.
Although I have no regular publication schedule at this point, please check back from time to time until we get a rhythm going. And be sure to let me know you've visited. If you wish, leave a strange-but-(maybe)-true tale that will knock me out of my Reeboks!
Even if you just know a fragment of a story, it is likely someone else can ad to it or fill in the rest.
The goal, ultimately, will be to make a massive off-beat contribution to the Vermont archive.
I'll give it a whirl if you will.
--Joe Citro
NEXT: A TALE OF LOST TREASURE