October 07, 2012

A Visit to the Upton Chamber

New England is home to hundreds of mysterious stone structures, including cairns, stone circles, and underground stone chambers. Often hidden away on private land or buried deep in woods already filled with boulders and rocks, these structures go unnoticed by most people unless they are really looking for them.

Some of the most famous stone structures can be found at New Hampshire's Mystery Hill (aka America's Stonehenge), or at Connecticut's Gungywamp complex. There is also an amazing underground chamber in Upton, Massachusetts, and the town of Upton recently created a park to showcase it. Tony and I went with our friends Danny and Onix to pay a visit.

Danny, Onix and Tony at the entrance to the park.

What exactly are the New England stone chambers? There are three main theories:

1. Colonial root cellars. Farmers built the chambers underground and out of stone to keep potatoes and other root crops cold through the year. In the 19th century there was a mass exodus of farmers from New England to more fertile (and less rocky) land in New York and the Midwest. Their abandoned farms reverted back to forest, which is why these chambers are now hidden in the woods.

2.  Native American ceremonial structures. Although the Algonquin tribes living in New England at the time of European contact didn't build with stone, it's quite possible that their ancestors in this area did. New England has been inhabited by humans for more than 10,000 years, so it's not unreasonable to think some past Native American society made these structures. Native American groups in other parts of North and South America made cities and ceremonial centers with stone, so the technology could have easily made it to this part of the continent.

3. Ancient European ceremonial structures. According to this theory, ancient Druids, Norsemen, Irish monks, Phoenician sailors, and others made their way to New England before Columbus and built the chambers. Some chambers (but not all) align with the summer and winter solstices, much like ancient Celtic structures, and some (but not all) appear similar to megalithic European sites like Newgrange, although on a much smaller scale.

I think theory number 2 is my favorite, but this New York Times article makes a good case for theory number 1. You can find plenty of information about theory number 3 by poking around the web.

Entrance to the Upton Chamber. I really like how the tree roots frame the entrance.

To me it doesn't matter what theory is correct, because these chambers are amazing. Their creators, whoever they are, put incredible amounts of time and manpower into building them, and they merge beautifully with our stony landscape. The Upton chamber really was quite magical, like something out of a Tolkien novel.

The Upton Heritage Park is located on Elm Street. We parked at the nearby VFW parking lot and walked there. Once you enter the park and walk past the sign, take a right if you want to go the chamber. It's very close to the road. We accidentally took a left after the sign and spent a while wandering around in the woods looking for the chamber. It was a nice day, though, so we enjoyed some fresh air!

Me taking pictures in the woods. Where is that darn chamber?!?
The entrance to the chamber is about 4 1/2 feet high, and opens into a 14 foot long tunnel of similar height. Remember to bring a flashlight!

Tony peers into the entrance.

We had to crouch to walk down the tunnel.

If you have claustrophobia the tunnel may freak you out, but it opens into a beehive shaped domed chamber that is about 10 feet wide and maybe 12 feet high. When we visited the floor was covered in six inches of water, so wear good boots.

Tony and Onix and the chamber. Watch out for spiders!

The chamber's ceiling, which is made from massive stone slabs.

The view from the top of the chamber.
Danny points out a hole in the ground...

... that lets a tiny bit of light through the chamber's ceiling.

The Upton Chamber was definitely worth the trip - I didn't want to leave! But after we finally did, we drove down the road to Red Rock Grill for a really tasty (and inexpensive lunch), and then visited Spaightwood Galleries to see an exhibit of Durer etchings. For a small town Upton definitely has a lot going on.

Me wondering how hard it would be to make a chamber in my backyard. Danny, an architect, said it would be difficult and very expensive.

Goodbye Upton Chamber!

You can read more about the Upton Chamber and the park here, including some information about alignments with other stone structures in Upton. Some interesting sites about other New England stone structures are here and here. Lastly, my friend David Goudsward recently wrote a book in 2006 called Ancient Stone Sites of New England and the Debate Over Early European Exploration.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

Very cool story! I love learning about new stone structures and ancient mysteries around New England.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Heather!

Thanks for the comment. I was really pleased with our trip to Upton. The chamber is really great. We don't have many caves in this area, so it's nice to have a chance to crawl around someplace dank and dark. Plus, the workmanship is amazing.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D. said...

Hey Peter we went today....also took your recommendation and went to the gallery. Spent an hour or so looking at Chagall lithographs. Thanks!

Wade Tarzia said...

These are a lot of fun to explore. I just gave a paper on this subject to the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, and it can be seen at http://tristramshandy21st.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-folklore-of-alternative-archaeology.html#!/2012/10/the-folklore-of-alternative-archaeology.html

Peter Muise said...

Hi Wade and David! Thanks for the comments.

Your paper was really interesting. A college friend of mine contacted me on Facebook. His family owns land in Vermont that used to have 10 farms on it. The farms are gone, but the cellar holes remain, as do a couple root cellar type chambers. He wrote:
"Now the land is a beautiful forest. There are two similar structures there. One is small and quite close to a cellar hole. The other is more interesting. It is a fairly large chamber attached by a stone passageway to the cellar hole of what must have been a fairly large (for VT and the time) house. There is a stone bench on either side of the passage. Ive never seen one like it."

Wade Tarzia said...

You then be interested in Giovanna Neudorfer's book on Vermont's Stone Chambers.

Sequoia TracyStone said...

I live in Upton, but have never heard of the cave. It was really interesting to learn more about my town. Thanks for posting!

safe tech for schools framingham said...

We visited the chamber this weekend. Yes, a lot of water and lots of huge spiders all along the honeycomb perimeter. Not for the squeamish. But really amazing, nonetheless.