The Hermit Cave

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

PésuponckAn 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.

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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?

22 comments

  1. Don Sykes · · Reply

    Hi Kent – great post, I enjoyed reading it. We would have loved this cave as kids. . .

    1. Thanks so much, Don! Our childhood really wasn’t long enough, was it?

  2. ronnie · · Reply

    heard it was a oven used to bake bread for the railroad construction crews back in the day.

    1. Interesting, Ronnie. I like the imaginative thinking behind the theory. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the case, as the structure seems far too large, the wrong shape and the wrong construction for the purpose, with no other example of such a structure for such a use. Also, there probably would be evidence of fire, either carbon deposits on the stones or charred remains of fire inside or in the immediate vicinity of the structure. Whatever it turns out to be, thanks very much for the comment. Have you been to the site? No matter how many times I’ve walked there, it leaves me scratching my head.

  3. frank benson · · Reply

    Kent , you referred to another site of an underground chamber a few miles from this site. i would love to know where that is, as i am from east thompson and only a few hundred feet from this site. could you tell me where it is? i have never heard of it. thanks, Frank

    1. I’m sure I wrote down where it was exactly but not finding it in my notes at the moment. Currently up to my ears in the Bathsheba Sherman story. Best guess from memory: Buckley Hill Road in the woods near the Rawson Avenue intersection, North Grosvenordale. This chamber is obviously modern. Not as much fun to find as the Hermit Cave, plus it’s on private property.

    2. Frank The other is on Anderson road in North Grosvenordale only part of that one is really oild because my Grand Father and his brother built at least part of it 1 the road is named for the Anderson family that first lived on it .I don’t know if I know you as Butch or his son Franky.But i know you both I lived the last house on the left before the underpass i grew up around Butch and my son Leon gre up with Franky! the “cave” was on your relatives land it belonged to Mary Bensons parents when i lived out there and bensons had a saw mill on the brook way back that might have been part of the rail road work since most of the Benson men worked for the rail road even way back then.

    3. Fantastic contribution, Leonrenaud! Thank you very much for sharing this detailed information. Anderson Road it is, on the north side, not too far from the Corttis Road intersection.

  4. Hello from Ireland – I’m enjoying your blog here & think you might be right to surmise that it was ‘the not-so-ancient Celts’ who built the corbelled roof, as these type of shelters would’ve been commonly used in Ireland dating back to monastic times, and are called ‘cloháns’ – meaning ‘little stone cell’.
    http://limewindow.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/wee-stone-cells/

    1. Thanks so much for your note, Limewindow. Corroborating evidence means a great deal to this kind of research. You saved me a very long swim.

  5. Connecticut Sam · · Reply

    Please sent all information on caves, ghost towns, buried treasures in Connecticut to: tippy1804@att.net

    1. I wish I could, Connecticut Sam, but this part-time project already consumes most of my waking hours. Please keep checking back here at Stone Wings, because Connecticut is one of my favorite places to research.

  6. Kent Spottswood The second structure is on the old Anderson Farm on Anderson Road it’s about 1/8th mile from me. part of it existed from some time before my grandfather built his farm there but the Anderson family also added to what was there it saw different uses at different times I think it was most used as a root cellar but could also serve as a smoke house. Both these structures appear in the Book America “BC” Before Columbus By Professor Barry Fell . There are something like 50 of the structures known through out New England and they seem to be limited to only the New England region.there’s is one know.in near by Rhode Island and one in Sutton Mass.Barry Fell gives credit for the East Thompson structure to either Viking or Celt origin. he has also shown Olgam Writing on some of these structures and translated them in his book I was raised in Village of East Thompson from 1959 to 1972 then moved to the village of North Grosvenordale so i have been very close to these 2 structures a long time! I never heard it referred to as the “Hermit Cave” but all us kids knew of “The Cave” even though we knew it wasn’t really a cave but man made! Some one has opened up that entrance a lot because it was very well hidden with a tree growing right in front of it and plenty of scrub brush,You had to know right where to look or would walk right by it. right at what is now called Stony Brook just below the cave there was a saw mill and a bridge across the brook the footing and remnants of the mill dam were very easy to pick out. There was a clearing right before the brook to the right where we kids would often camp out.

  7. […] old railroad bed trails!), the site of an historic train wreck, a beautifully-preserved root cellar (?), a cool geographic boundary marker, not one but two cross-state trails, gorgeous old cellar holes […]

  8. Hi, I live in North Grosvenordale and I’m originally from Webster. When I was a kid we used to ride our dirtbikes on the trails in that area all the time. I’ve known about that “cave” for quite some time. Sometimes if it started to rain, we would hang out in there to keep dry. We all surmised at the time that it was either a root cellar or a cave built by the rail workers to stash their stuff. Either way, the article was incredibly interesting and obviously touched home. I think it is also important to note that just a short walk over the bridge and up the trail to the right is a granite marker that sits at the intersection of three states. Mass., Rhode Island, and Ct.

  9. This is really interesting as I to grew up in this area and snowmobiled and dirtbiked there.ive been out of the area for 10trs or so but it really b brings back some fond memories.thanx for the articles im going to go back and reexplore all these areas from childhood and see what else we could have missed while we were galavanting, haha

  10. David Johnson · · Reply

    Early Sites Research Society conducted an excavation here, I believe in the 1970’s. A fire pit was unearthed to the right front of the chamber. Chamber was named the Rocky Brook Chamber. This fire pit was carbon dated + or – 1250 ad .
    NEARA now has in its archives the results of this excavation.

  11. streever · · Reply

    Hi Kent:
    I’m writing a travel book on Connecticut cycling, and just for local color/interest, I’d love to include one of your photos in a section on Thompson.
    Please send me an email via my website (http://davidstreever.com/contact) if that would be possible. I don’t have a real budget, but am happy to credit you & offer you some compensation if needed!

    1. Thanks a lot for the inquiry, David. Please see my email message. For anyone else who is interested, I’m a pretty good photographer and a terrible musician who earns money for guitar strings and ear plugs by taking pictures. If you have some work for an experienced photojournalist, you can reach me at kentspottswood@gmail.com.

  12. Joe podles · · Reply

    A very similar structure exists along the old NYNE right of way….now SNE trunkline trail in Uxbridge mass. Always intrigued me as a kid and figured it was shelter for the RR.

  13. Leon Renaud · · Reply

    The “Hermit Cave ” is not near the old rail road station that was better than a mile away from it. The wood bridge was built by the rail road so the farmers that owned the land both sides of the tracks could get to their land. there is other much more closely related evidence that has surfaced recently that dates this structure to a time prior to even Native Habitation of this area. there are about 30 of these structures located through out New England. I was raised 1/2 way between the “Cave” and the old Rail Road Depot ,The house I lived in was involved in the Great East Thompson Train Wreck it having recieved damage from derailed train cars back then .

    1. Thanks for being on top of this, Leon. A long day and a map someone labeled upside down. I’ve updated my update, thanks to you. The station is maybe a mile from the bridge, more or less, but as you say it’s definitely to the west of the crossing at East Thompson Road, not to the east like the cave and the bridge.

      I’m keeping an open mind on the perennial mystery of New England’s stone structures. As far as I know the possibility the Hermit Cave may have been a pesuponck was first suggested here at Stone Wings. But the evidence is overwhelming for a post-Colonial origin in most cases. Almost everyone in rural, preindustrial New England was a farmer. Most farmers grew root vegetables. Most of them had root cellars. It would take strong evidence to support an earlier origin, and extraordinary evidence to argue a time prior to American Indian habitation. Maybe that evidence will be unearthed. Would love to hear of any more recent discoveries you may have heard about.

      I think it would be fascinating to talk to you about growing up at the site. Please contact me at kentspottswood@gmail.com. Thanks again for your update.

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