Strange New England - Purgatory Caves

pcaves6The late 1980’s was when I first heard of a places in Newport, Rhode Island, called Purgatory Chasm. While chatting with a woman I met at a coffee shop in Providence, I was about to learn the true research value of talking with the locals. It was springtime and we were talking about fun things we planned to do over the summer. I mentioned how I was planning on going to Purgatory Chasm that afternoon, and she told me she had been there before. She got my attention, and I listened closely as she told me all about the reservation. As the conversation continued, something didn’t sound right. We soon realized we were talking about two different Purgatory Chasms. I was speaking of the Chasm in Newport and she was speaking of the Chasm in Sutton, Massachusetts. Now even more interested, I grilled her for as much information as I could get. I thanked her for the lead, and was on my way. Months later, I made it up to Sutton to experience its Chasm, and was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The park is around over a mile in size. It contains five different trails to hike. The highlight of the park is the chasm. pcaves2It appears as if some powerful force had torn the bedrock apart, leaving a pile of rubble between its walls. The chasm is a geological wonder that has puzzled scientists for over a hundred years. The most recent theory suggests that it was a fault plane. The tectonic forces caused a weakness in the rock but no great fissure. Water seeped between the cracks in the rock, and over 200 million years of freezing and thawing, it chiseled the granite apart. The piles of boulders and steep cliffs offer many interesting sites. As you walk through the chasm, you’ll find signs pointing out various highlights of the chasm. ‘Lovers Leap’, ‘His Majesties Cave’ and ‘Devil’s Coffin’ are just a few; though interesting to explore, they are not the best it has to offer. For below the surface, deep in the belly of the chasm are caves and passages only the brave will dare to venture.

pcaves1On my second visit to the chasm, my friend Dave and I located one of these caves and ventured inside. From the outside it looked like just another rabbit hole between the rocks. Once you take a closer look, you discover it opens up into a narrow passage. As we crawled through this burrow, the passage twisted and turned through the pile of boulders. Eventually, it opened up into a chamber tall enough to stand in. There was a stream trickling through the center of the cave. We now were so deep below ground, that the only light provided was from our flashlights. When we turned them off, we learned the true meaning of darkness. After resting briefly, we continued our journey. We decided to follow the cave to an exit or it’s end. Not far ahead we soon began to see daylight again. The final part of the cave required a short climb straight up. To our surprise, we ended up exiting the same way we entered. After scribbling a crude map in the muddy soil over and over, we couldn’t understand how we had gone in a complete circle. Nonetheless, we had a great time.

Just recently I decided to return to the cave for another run. This time, I would bring along my compass, and try to pcaves3map the cave. Two of my friends who had never been to the chasm accompanied me. I knew they would enjoy the park and it would be good to have them along for safety’s sake. I gave them a tour of the chasm, but found myself frustrated when trying to locate the cave. I spent over an hour searching for it, and turned up nothing. Refusing to give up, I went to the ranger station for some help. These caves are not on the park map for a good reason. They can be very dangerous to explore. Knowing this, I wasn’t sure if the rangers would aid me in my quest. I decided to wear the guise of a curious tourist just passing through. I spoke about different aspects of the park I was already familiar with, and then casually mentioned the cave, and its assumed location. The ranger was quick to confirm my suspicions, and pointed it out on the map. He then told me about a man who was recently injured in the cave. It had taken over 6 hours to safely remove him. Hmmm…,was the ranger trying to tell me something? I had a feeling he saw right through my ruse. Well it really didn’t matter. I had the information I needed, and was on my way.

pcaves5Quickly I located the cave and geared up to enter. It was exactly as I remembered it. The cave was hidden away in a pile of boulders, with the same familiar log pointing the way to the entrance. Once seeing the size of it’s opening, both of my friends decided not join me for this part of the tour.. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I was prepared to dare it alone. I said my goodbyes, and climbed into the dark abyss. It was only early spring, so the rocks below were still very cold and icy. I crawled on my stomach for a while, until I came to the passage on the right that led to the chamber. It was much tighter than I remembered. That could have been because I’d gained 20 or more pounds since my last visit. Getting through it would be easy, but since there was a four foot drop to the ground, I wasn’t too sure about getting out. I yelled up to my friends, but didn’t get an answer. Remembering what the ranger had said, I decided to wait pcaves4until another day. Though I probably would have been able to make it alone, I felt it would be much safer with some company. After a long struggle to turn around, I slowly made my way back to the surface and called it a day.

(All the photos are from my recent visit. Unfortunately the cheap digital camera I used didn’t provide many good photos. I will be returning in June, and will be sure to be better equipped this time!)

~Tom Sawyer

~ Strange New England

Purgatory Chasm State Reservation is located in the south-eastern part of central Massachusetts.
From east or west: Take Mass Pike (Rte. I-90) to exit 10A, then Rte. 146 south to Purgatory Rd. Sutton. Follow signs

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