THOMPSON, Connecticut — East Thompson, snug in the northeastern corner of boxy Connecticut, is a miniature mecca of local lore.
In 1789, the tiny village nearly assassinated the nation’s first president with its rough roads and rougher roadside fare. A century later, it was the scene of the worst railroad crash, measured by number of trains, in United States history.
East Thompson also may have been home to a mysterious hill dweller. Hobbit or human? I’d bet human. Hobbits kept cozier quarters than this:
Beyond that, all bets are off. No one has shown convincingly who made this artificial cave above swampy Rocky Brook, or why.
Locals call it the Hermit Cave. It’s a dome of stones about eight feet in diameter on the inside and about 4 feet high. Soil and pine needles cover the top, making it easy to overlook. It seems remote. The closest road, a couple hundred yards to the north, is rarely traveled and thinly settled.
It wasn’t always this way. The narrow, bumpy trail now known as Thompson Road was one of the busiest interstates in New England in the early years. Later, in the middle of the 19th century, someone cut a trench through the rock nearby and laid a railroad. Sometime after that, someone built a plank bridge over the trench strong enough and wide enough for heavy traffic—cows, I’m told.
The plank bridge still stands, a greater miracle with each passing day. The railroad has vanished. Within a few feet of all this, there’s the opening of the Hermit Cave.
People lived, worked, and traveled by there every day. But as far as we know, no one ever wrote about it. There’s no diary entry, no mention in a land deed or a will to help pinpoint when the structure was made or what it was used for. We only have theories:
A hermit built it. Maybe there’s a good reason for calling it the Hermit Cave. Maybe it gave shelter to a passing vagabond, someone like the famous Leather Man who wandered through western Connecticut and New York. However, I think even a hermit would have to be mighty desperate to call this home. I’ve been inside and, between the dampness and the spiders, I can tell you I’d rather curl up in a snow bank than spend a night in the Hermit Cave.
Ancient Celts built it. I could write a book on all the supposed evidence showing New England was colonized by Celts from Spain or Scotland or Ireland between 1,000 and 9,000 years ago. Instead I’m writing a blog with a deadline. I’ll focus on one compelling fact: the builder created a dome roof by corbelling.
Corbelling is a technique for stacking stones to maximize sturdiness in a curved wall. It’s rarely seen in the local stonework of Indians and not all that common among settlers. On the other hand, it’s a regular feature in the homes of the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles. Salvatore Michael Trento, in his seminal work The Search for Lost America (1978), notes sheep pens in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, that resemble the Thompson structure.
Call me picky, but corbelling alone is not enough evidence to rewrite everything we know about prehistoric New England.
Yankees built it. The mythic Yankee is a pragmatic person and there is some truth to the myth. Many Yankees I know wouldn’t have built this chamber without a damn good reason. And if they had, it would have featured clean, square lines and a door large enough to wheel a cart through. There is a fine example of an underground chamber made by practical Yankee hands within a few miles of this site. It has a tall, rectangular door, two separate rooms, a shelf built into a wall, and a little window in the back. In comparison, our little East Thompson dome seems primitive and pointless.
Outweighing these questions, we know that the spot was part of someone’s farm once. And we know that local farmers built (or had built for them) stone walls and foundations galore. Just because we can’t imagine a use for the chamber, we can’t rule out the possibility it was built by or for a farmer.
Indians built it. Indian stonework abounds in the area, just as Indians themselves did and still do. In earlier times, the land and water around Webster Lake was a meeting place for many tribes, including offshoots of the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Mohegan, and nomadic Nipmuck. Reflecting this, the lake’s Indian name, Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, is supposed to mean, “You fish on your side, I fish on my side, and no one fishes in the middle.”
We know Indians were plentiful in the area. We know they worked in stone, although corbelling isn’t ordinarily seen in Indian work. And we also have this remarkable firsthand description of a southern New England Indian steam house by Roger Williams:
Pésuponck – An Hot-house. This Hot-house is a kind of little Cell or Cave, six or eight foot over, round, made on the side of a hill (commonly by some Rivulet or Brooke) into this frequently the men enter after they have exceedingly heated it with store of wood, laid upon an heape of stones in the midle. When they have taken out the fire, the stones keepe still a great heat: Ten, twelve, twenty more or lesse, enter at once starke naked, leaving their coats, small breeches (or aprons) at the doore, with one to keepe all: here doe they sit round these hot stones an houre or more, taking Tobacco, discoursing, and sweating together; which sweating they use for two ends: First, to cleanse their skin: Secondly, to purge their bodies, which doubtlesse is a great meanes of preserving them, and recovering them from diseases, especially from the French disease, which by sweating and some potions, they perfectly and speedily cure: when they come forth (which is a matter of admiration) I have seen them runne (Summer and Winter) into the Brooks to coole them, without the least hurt.
True to the description, our Hermit Cave is the right size and shape. It’s also a short “runne” straight out the east-facing doorway and down a hillside to Rocky Brook. Our only lingering questions are, again, the corbelling and the absence of any writing about the chamber following local settlement.
Not-so-ancient Celts built it. The railroad came to East Thompson in 1853. With it came crews of workers armed with shovels and picks and explosives to cut a level trail connecting Boston and Willimantic. Many of these workers were immigrants, limited to hard labor by language and prejudice. In the 1850s, very many of these immigrants were Irish.
It’s easy to picture a couple of hearty modern Celts throwing together a handy spot to keep their gear and their lunch. Building a wee corbelled chamber would be child’s play compared with digging the huge trench that gaped just a dozen or so feet away. Maybe our mysterious chamber never made it into the early histories of the area because no one thought it was particularly mysterious—just a cave where railroaders kept their stuff.
The Hermit Cave isn’t hard to reach. Drive two miles north of Thompson Speedway on East Thompson Road. At the intersection with New Road, you’ll come to an odd little curve with a ridge on either side and a flat, sandy area on the left where you can park. Cross the road, climb the ridge, and follow the railroad bed northeast. You’ll come to the plank bridge in less than half a mile. Climb the left bank of the railroad trench. You’ll see the opening of the Hermit Cave a short distance from the bridge.
We’ll deal with General Washington and railroad disasters some other time. For now, the Hermit Cave has given us plenty to ponder.
Update July 2016: A reader mentions in a comment below that a carbon dating test was run on a suspected fire pit near the Hermit Cave in the 1970s, theoretically dating the site to about 750 years ago. This has led some to speculate the structure dates to that time. I haven’t seen the report yet but would be skeptical of any link between the cave and the fire pit unless the fire pit was in the structure itself.
The Hermit Cave has seen renewed interest in the past few years, with the local historical society and conservation commission taking steps to preserve it and Thompson’s numerous other lithic sites. Publicity is a two-edged sword, but the new thinking is that it’s better to have everyone know about a significant site than to keep it secret. The real mystery is that the cave has spent most of its existence in obscurity. The spot is not far from East Thompson’s bustling railroad station, where trains from three directions converged to take on freight, livestock, produce, and passengers. All that activity, but no one thought to remark on our strange little corbelled hole in the ground. Why so ignored if so ancient?
Update March 2020: The Hermit Cave is on private property and no longer accessible to the public. It may be seen from points on the public rail trail. Bring binoculars.