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Birder's Journal: Old Curse Haunts New England Forest

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
October 30, 2002
 
Was Connecticut's tiny Dudleytown, which was settled in the mid-1700s,
cursed from the start? That's the only explanation many people have for
the disproportionate number of horrors that befell the residents of the
town before it was abandoned a century ago.

According to some local historians, the town's remains have witnessed madness, suicide, fatal accidents, natural disasters, and vanishings.

The remnants of Dudleytown lie on a hill in northwest Connecticut, near the village of Cornwall Bridge. Stone foundations and cellar holes, surrounded by New England's ubiquitous stone walls, stand as solemn memorials to the small, troubled community that once existed there.

Rocky soil and cold winters—banes of the New England farmer—have been blamed for Dudleytown's demise. But many people insist that a curse was responsible for driving settlers away, turning the once-pastoral landscape into a dark, haunted forest.


The curse has been traced to an English nobleman, ancestor of the Dudley brothers who settled the town. Back in England, old Edmund Dudley got his head chopped off for plotting against King Henry VII. Someone or something put a curse on Edmund that followed his family to the New World and took root in Dudleytown.

In what is often cited as the first manifestation of the curse, one of the Dudley brothers went insane. Other strange incidents: At a barn raising, a man fell to his death (or was it murder?). Lightning struck and killed a Dudleytown woman, right on her porch.

A sheep-herder watched helplessly as the curse destroyed his family. His wife died of tuberculosis, and his children disappeared. When his house burned down, he wandered into the woods, never to return.

According to the chroniclers of Dudleytown, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley should have followed his own advice to "Go West, young man," and taken his wife with him: Mrs. Greeley, better known as Mary Cheney, is said to have hanged herself in Dudleytown in 1872.

Another View

Rev. Gary P. Dudley, a Texas resident and the author of The Legend of Dudleytown: Solving Legends through Genealogical and Historical Research (Heritage Books, 2001), disputes these accounts of the troubled town.

In tracing the genealogy of his name, he found virtually no historical basis for Dudleytown's cursed reputation—no genealogical link to Edmund Dudley, no mysterious illnesses or deaths. As for Mary Cheney, he says she never set foot in Dudleytown.

By most accounts, the final resident of Dudleytown was Dr. William Clarke, a New York City physician who built a vacation home there in the early 1900s. The traditional story alleges that Mrs. Clarke was left alone overnight while her husband was summoned to an emergency in the city, and she descended into madness. Rev. Dudley says Mrs. Clarke committed suicide, but in New York, not in Dudleytown.

Before moving out of Dudleytown, Dr. Clarke helped found Dark Entry Forest, Inc., an association of property owners that designated Dudleytown a nature preserve. As Dudleytown fell to ruin, the land reverted to forest.

Most local people avoid Dudleytown, and according to legend, so do wild animals—except for owls. In the ever-present darkness that shrouds Dudleytown Hill, owls are said to hoot throughout the day. Hence Dudleytown's nickname: Owlsbury.

One soggy afternoon in mid-October, I decided to investigate Dudleytown. Following directions in a guide to nature walks in Connecticut, I drove with a slightly reluctant companion to the preserve's main entrance at the end of Bald Mountain Road in Cornwall. We were met by a locked gate and signs announcing "No Parking" and "No Trespassing."

As we assessed the situation, an SUV came barreling down a nearby driveway. Out jumped a woman who warned that if we dared park there, someone would photograph my car and call the police. She raised the specter of towing, fines, and arrest before disappearing down the street.

I took out my maps and saw that we could enter Dudleytown from the Mohawk Trail, a bit farther north. Dudleytown is about 1.5 miles from the trail's entrance; with our false start, we wouldn't get there until after dark.

I wanted to experience Dudleytown at night, but I'd planned to see it in daylight as well. So we made plans to return the following weekend.

"Keep Out"

Meantime, I did some digging and learned why Dudleytown's neighbors don't cotton to strangers.

The town's legend has long attracted paranormal investigators, journalists, hikers, the occasional birder, curiosity-seekers, and just plain folk inclined toward the supernatural. But in 1999, after the release of The Blair Witch Project (the hugely popular movie about haunted woods in Maryland), goings-on at Dudleytown got out of hand.

Web sites, meanwhile, were spreading the legend far beyond its traditional word-of-mouth audience.

Complaining of drinking parties, campfires, littering, disorderly conduct, and vandalism, the members of Dark Entry Forest, Inc., placed Dudleytown off limits. A news release they issued noted that, in a single year, "law enforcement officers have been summoned 79 times" to the site.

One case involved five teenagers who got lost in Dudleytown at 1:30 a.m. They used a cell phone to call 911, and the police dispatched a search team that included state troopers, firefighters, dogs, and a helicopter. During their search, the rescue team scared up another group of six teenagers. Each trespasser was fined $77.

Such high jinks explain why a sign in the Mohawk Trail parking lot warns hikers to keep out from October 25 to November 4. The trail crosses Dark Entry Forest, Inc., land, including a corner of Dudleytown. In deference to the local residents, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association closes this leg of the trail for several days around Halloween.

Into the Woods

When we returned on October 20, the day was sunny and cool; come evening, we'd see a nearly full moon. Driving north on Route 7, I had marveled at the fabled Litchfield Hills in their autumn colors.

The Mohawk Trail follows Dark Entry Road, which climbs steeply past houses and towering trees—including one with a bulging, fistlike trunk—before narrowing near Bonney Brook. As we trudged along the road, golden-crowned kinglets flitted about the tree tops, their energetic three-note calls punctuating our breathless conversation.

We saw a myrtle warbler and two or three hermit thrushes; heard a pileated woodpecker, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. The birds gave no signal that we should abort our mission.

In the forest, we came to a broken stone wall that crosses the brook. Once it was a dam—Witches' Dam, some now call it. Nearby, we heard a hollow moaning that we traced to a thin stream of water spouting into a rocky pool.

A half-mile beyond, we crossed the brook and entered Dudleytown, which our trail guide referred to only as "an abandoned community." It was so quiet that we spoke in hushed tones as we poked around the doomed settlement's stone ruins. Yet we still heard kinglets.

We were startled by loud voices amid the sylvan silence, and were met by two young couples coming around a turn in the trail.

They expressed interest in spirits, and, noticing my binoculars, asked if I had seen any birds. They found it hard to believe I had, even after I pointed out a hairy woodpecker above their heads. Apparently they subscribed to the "wild animals shun Dudleytown" part of the legend. Intent on getting out of Dudleytown before dark, they moved on.

Although the trail closes at sunset, we stretched the rules and stayed until dark to get the full effect. Some people say they have experienced vortexes and cold spots in Dudleytown; others have seen apparitions, in some cases even recording them on film (though cameras and other battery-powered equipment don't always work there). A few claim to have been chased, even slapped, by ghosts. My companion and I cannot count ourselves among these adventurers.

Still, I was impressed that Dudleytown lived up to its nickname. We did hear owls in Owlsbury—a late-afternoon love duet by two barred owls. And almost simultaneously, we heard the croaks of two common ravens—Edgar Allan Poe's "ghastly grim and ancient" wanderers—and saw them pass directly overhead.

On the way out, we made some wrong turns, but each time we picked up the trail in short order. Flying squirrels squeaked in the moonlight; a Canada goose honked. I pretended that the blue trail blazes painted on the trees had turned scarlet and dripping wet in the darkness. "Shut up," said my companion.

We heard distant wailing—maybe a coyote—and in the gloom of Dark Entry Road, my companion almost stepped on a sparrow that had been lying on its side. It fluttered up and disappeared into hemlock saplings. Had it become intoxicated from feasting on fermented berries? Was it a tired migrant? Or had it succumbed to Dudleytown's spell?

Whether Dudleytown is haunted, I can't say. I do know I'll be returning to the area for a hike to Echo Rock and Coltsfoot Mountain. If the psychic static emanating from gatekeepers and gate-crashers isn't too intense, who knows what I'll find?

Editor's Note: The only way to enter the heart of Dudleytown legally is to obtain a pass from Dark Entry Forest, Inc. Straying from the Dudleytown section of the trail may constitute trespassing.

Robert Winkler's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness" will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

Recent "Birder's Journal" Stories from Robert Winkler:
Birder's Journal: A Morning With Migrants
Birder's Journal: This Warbler Is a Master of Deception Birder's Journal: Seduced by Dueling Thrushes
Birders Journal: Attack of the Flying Goshawk

From the National Geographic Store:
Guide to North American Birds
Portable Birdsong Identifier
Birder's Journal
Songbirds Puzzle

Additional Information from Related Web Sites:
American Bird Conservancy
Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Web Site
National Audubon Society
Environmental Protection Agency: Bird Conservation
 

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