Classic from Mysterious New England,
Here is a tragedy so heinous, a mystery so unfathomable, an abduction so strange, as to cause all who hear the tale to look askance, and shake their heads.
Have you ever tramped the trails leading from the White Mountains down onto the eastern bank of the Connecticut River? If you have, you will readily recognize the place I want to tell you about. There is a deep gouge dug out of the mountains where a small stream rushes through the rock bed. The water sprays and spirals as it leaves the black stones behind in its haste to join the river. Deep down into that ancient strata it has worn its path during a million years past.
High along its sides rise the cliffs furred with evergreens which seldom see the direct rays of the sun. On bright days shafts of sunlight seep down into the undergrowth where newts and salamanders and snakes coil lazily and stuporously upon the shelves of projecting ore. A long, winding and much-decayed corduroy trail follows the convolutions of what fifty years
ago was a busy lumber trail.
About a mile to the south the pinnacle of the mountain is crowned by a strange rock formation remarkably resembling an Indian’s profile. The mountain rises an abrupt sixteen hundred feet at the water’s edge.
Strange tales are told of the early days in this region, which is uninhabited, although now three hundred years have elapsed since the advent of the white man in the New World.
Some distance to the north, perhaps a mile-and-a-half by modern reckoning, if the stranger follows the tracks of an abandoned railroad, he may still come upon the remains of an ancient village. Here, where once upon a time smoke curled from the chimneys of many happy
homes, and the reflections of the evening sun were followed after dark by the gleam of tapers and tallow candles, stand deserted houses. Shinglesided with slate roofs, and peaks sagging and the window ledges long since rotted by the heavy dews which descend upon the valley, these are the mute evidences of a once thriving rural community.
In these very houses a tragedy so heinous, a mystery so unfathomable, an abduction so strange was enacted as to cause all who hear the tale to look askance at me, and shake their heads.
In the days preceding the Civil War there were rumors rife in the locality concerning a band of wandering Indians, descendants of those tribes that originally inhabited the headwaters of the Connecticut. It is a fact proved by the students of Indian lore in our country, the same who can point out the sites of the old camp grounds of these tribes, that this region was a famous meeting place for powwows. Deep in the recesses of the hills are to be found even now the burial grounds of their braves.
On more than one occasion I have visited a great open mead where mound after mound marks the interment of thousands of red men who succumbed to the smallpox. That was the scourge which these native Americans came to know as the WHITE MAN’ S CURSE, and to fear more than his firewater and his flintlocks, because they looked upon it as being supernatural.
The period I have in mind was the time when immigrants came into the valley and opened a vein of copper which extended back into the hills. There on the shores of a lake overgrown with brushwood, one may still see the workings with its piles of slag, and the deep surface pits from which this valuable metal was extracted. The mule trails are still traversed by the curious who have little faith in the superstitions
of the neighborhood. At the foot of the trail still stand the skeletons of more than fifty houses.
Officials of a mining company had sent their engineers in to select a site which would prove suitable for the erection of a town. Thousands of dollars were spent in laying out the project, and a small tram was
introduced for the twofold purpose of bringing out the ores to the river and for transporting the workers from the nearest ferry to the small municipality. A community store was stocked and everything was in readiness for the miners and their families to move in. There were two
hundred persons including the women and children.
Old records tell us, and ancient residents of the nearby towns have attested to the details, that while the preliminary surveys were getting under way, the construction was beset by many and unusual difficulties.
As the first foundations were being laid, an Indian was seen to be haunting the neighborhood by night. On the following mornings the excavations were found filled in. Though watchmen were set at night, no one was able to describe how the day’s work was undone. Later several Indians showed themselves in the workings by daylight.
In the wake of these strange visitations lumber would be found burning, and timbers split in manner unbecoming good building materials. At other times it was reported that kegs of nails and barrels of supplies suddenly would break themselves wide open and spread their contents upon the ground. What had been scheduled for completion in three months took the greater part of a year.
Finally, each night a roof would be removed from a finished house in the town; cleanly and completely it would disappear from over the heads of its tenants, leaving neither a splinter nor a broken slate to indicate in what direction nor by what forces it had been spirited away. One of my informants maintains to this day that he twice saw a huge black cloud gather on the horizon where the pine trees showed themselves
against the blue of the sky, and in the form of a great tawny hand pass its fingers down the valley until it engulfed the superstructures of a building.
Conditions grew steadily worse after the immigrants moved in, and the nocturnal visits occurred more and more frequently. Indians were seen here and there throughout the settlement with but one exception. There was but one place in the village where they never had appeared, and that was in the plot of ground occupied by the tiny church, perched on a slight rise of ground to the north of town.
The pastor of the little flock began to feel that he might be able to learn some things regarding these disturbances if he could meet one of the intruders, and he at once moved into the home of one of his parishioners who had reported these occurrences most frequently. He had not long to wait, for during his second night there a marauder entered the gate-yard and the pastor challenged him.
The exact words which were exchanged are not a matter of record, but the following day the minister had the church bell tolled and the people assembled. He said that the Indian explained the village had been built over an old burial ground of his tribe. In this cemetery there were the remains of many important chiefs who returned every night and sent him and other braves to warn the white man against building his “cave-of-many-rooms” over their sacred ground.
He said that he was told to advise the white intruders to take their town to another location lest the Great Hand of the Evil Spirit descend from the mountain where the sun rises and remove all who remained, even as it had taken the roofs from off their houses.
When the good man had asked the Indian why it was that his church never had been the object of a visitation, he is said to have declared that the Great Spirits had directed that this was a bond to prove to the white man that even as the Indians had honored the
sacred place of the intruder, they expected the white man to do likewise — and depart.
At these words a great silence hung over the gathering, until certain individuals, bolder than the rest, began to scoff at the story, saying that the pastor was “just entering his second childhood,” and maintaining that all tales of spirits and Great Black Hands were the work of prattling old women.
Folks returned to their homes, and after a day or two of hushed discussions and placing of the family Bibles in the positions deemed to give the most protection against witches and other supernatural visitations,
the whole matter was promptly forgotten.
For a while there were no repetitions of the earlier misfortunes. The miners returned to their work in the pits, and housewives busied themselves with keeping their homes clean and putting up vegetables and preserves against the coming winter. The youngsters played in the village streets as usual and attended the Saturday and Sunday schools conducted by the old minister. Allwere lulled into a false sense of security.
And then …
It was late in August of that year. The diggings at the mines were just beginning to produce on a paying basis. About four o’clock on a sultry afternoon the sky became overcast. The sun’s rays which filtered down through the trees were of an eerie orange color. The slight breeze which had been fanning the tree tops suddenly ceased.
The orange hue deepened to a reddish vapor as though a Gargantuan shaker were pouring paprika down from the mountain top. At the mines a mile away the workers hastened to collect their implements and return home, but the sand banks which bordered the copper pits started to slide down. Ton after ton of sand and stones must have engulfed the poor wretches, leaving them not even the relief of an outcry. There were sixty-one miners in all.
As this catastrophe was enveloping the little group at the quarry, there appeared upon the eastern horizon a tiny speck of a cloud, black and sinister. It increased in size until it resembled a patch of soot pouring through the notch in the ridge of the mountain. As it passed to the river’s edge it grew larger and larger and the uneven, serrated borders which it had exhibited took on the semblance of fingers; long tentacle-like digits which spread from one end of town to the other; from east to west and from north to south it poured down on the settlement and its inhabitants.
Then as suddenly as it had appeared it was gone. A brisk breeze sprang up and the air cleared with that brilliant intensity which follows a summer thunderstorm. But this time it was not the roofs of the houses that were missing — it was the inhabitants themselves. Among all those dwellings marked by this scaring hand, it was the little church alone which remained unscathed — as you may still see it to this day.
No explanation has ever been advanced. No one has ever been found who survived that red day in August more than one hundred years ago. The buildings still stand, to be sure, some leaning, awry and bat-infested, but no new tenants seek them out. The depressions which mark the mines in the nearby hills are still there to be excavated by those who pooh-pooh the legends.
So far no venturesome soul has essayed to reopen the vein of metal. The Indian burial grounds are familiar to those who tramp through their sylvan fastness, the same today as yesteryear; but the spirits, or whatever they were, descend no more to the plains of that peaceful valley.