What is the attraction of ruins, of abandoned towns, defunct factories? They get our imagination going: Who were the people who once lived here? What was their life like? Why did they leave? We use an old path through the woods and wonder about the first inhabitants hunting and fishing. Or we come across a daffodil and a cellar hole along a stream and imagine the world of a century ago. And of course there are stone walls crisscrossing Vermont along old land boundaries. The idea of a “ghost town” brings to mind a Western place inhabited only by tumbleweeds, but there are plenty of towns in New England that sprang up, flourished, and then sank back into the encroaching wilderness.
Taryn Plumb’s latest book, “Ghost Towns of New England” (Down East Books, 2022) explores “26 Locations Lost to Time,” including a significant chapter on Vermont. There are no spectral visitations here, but plenty of creepy places that might give you a shiver, thinking of those in the past who called this place home.
In Waterbury, Little River State Park encloses Ricker Basin, a town that flourished when the railroad came and allowed transportation for lumber and agricultural products. It eventually petered out with the lure of land in the West, the disastrous 1927 flood, and the building of a dam that submerged part of the village. Plumb takes the reader on a vivid tour of the ghost town, revealing the foundations of mills, a cow barn, a schoolhouse, a family cemetery and a church tucked away in the forest.
Some of the Vermont ghost towns sprang up with industry situated near the railroad or river for transport to markets. In West Castleton, slate mining from 25 quarries and a finishing mill for marbleized slate attracted Welsh quarry workers. As in Little River, there is a Slate History Trail near Lake Bomoseen. Indeed, some of the stories of abandoned mines tell the story of immigrants to Vermont and their work.
The Vermont Copper Mining Company near Vershire once produced 60% of the copper on the U.S. market, creating the town of Copperfield, later named Ely after the owner. Many of the workers were recent immigrants who lived in company housing and shopped at the company store. Eventually, they rose up to protest the lack of pay and dangerous working conditions. Vermont’s governor sent in the state militia to quell what was labeled a “riot,” and eventually the mine closed. The legacy lives on, though, with contaminated land, which was identified as a Superfund site by the EPA.
In nineteenth-century Lewiston, Vermont, coal reigned supreme and the advent of the railroad allowed the transport through Lewiston, providing nearby Dartmouth College with the coal needed to heat the buildings. When oil replaced coal a century ago, along with the loss of farmland as the Windsor Dam was built and later with the expansion of the interstate highway, the business dried up and the village disappeared.
Glastonbery (sic) is now a wildlife preserve run by the U.S. Forest Service, but in the nineteenth century the advent of the railroad caused lumber and charcoal production to flourish. Many Swedes worked in the town; an attempt to build a summer resort fizzled with a massive flood in 1898. Now with a population of nine, Glastonbery has reverted to deer and bobcat.
The most fascinating chapter explores a utopian community near Putney, in which the founder, John Humphrey Noyes, urged the doctrine of “Perfectionism,” which included sexual freedom in what he called “complex marriage.” Facing unrest from the neighbors and a power struggle among the leaders, the community moved to Oneida, N.Y., where they farmed and ran a silver flatware business that still exists today, without the socialist leanings of the original followers of Noyes.
Plumb covers the other New England states — Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — with similarly detailed stories of abandoned places that would enrich any road trip. She begins the book with a definition of “Kenopsia,” a neologism describing that eerie feeling you get encountering an abandoned place that was once full of life. It is a feeling we recognize without having an English word for it.
“Ghost Towns of New England” tells the story of these places and the people who lived there. It does not speculate about the First Nation people in New England but instead delves into the European settlement and the rise and fall of industry as the world changes. These are stories that draw us and help us connect to the constant flow of history in the place we call home.
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