Strange New England - The Legend of Colebrook Cave- FolkloreColebrookIn Colebrook Conn. it is rumored that there exists a cave of mammoth proportion. Colebrook Cave was alleged to have been discovered in the 1800’s, and rediscovered around 1926, only to be lost once again. Some say that this tale was a hoax created by local pranksters. Though the story reads much like the typical legend, as you dig deeper into its history you begin to find evidence to support it.

Connecticut is the home of many caves, large and small, most New Englanders are not aware of. The largest of these are the Twin Lakes Caves in Salisbury. These caves are impressive in size and called the Champions of New England caves. Though previously commercial caves, they are now closed to the public.

While most of Connecticut’s true limestone caves are found on the western boarder, smaller caves formed by irregularities on the earth’s surface called “faults” can be found in the center and Eastern half of the state. Many believe there are caves still lurking beneath the surface of this quiet state just waiting to be discovered. In the northwest part of Colebrook there just may be one of these elusive caves. On the Norfolk town line and about a mile and a half off the Massachusetts line, is Knapp Hill. Along the side of the hill is a barren rocky spot that once was called ‘Witches Retreat’. A cliff towering 100ft hangs above this pile of boulders and stone. It is here in 1841 that 3 boys are said to have stumbled upon a large cave.

A full description of its discovery was found in a book called ‘American Adventures volume 1’ printed by Harper Brothers in 1868. According to the book, the boys had stumbled on the cave while playing around the boulder at Witches Retreat. After attempting to explore its depth the boys realized that the cave was far too large and dangerous for them to explore. They returned home and share their find with family and friends.Map of Cave

The following weekend, several men went out to investigate the cave. After much work, they widened the entrance enough so that an adult could now enter. The mouth of the cavern faces the southeast and the air inside had a strange odor. Though they didn’t notice any signs of animals, several men were armed with guns as to be prepared for any unexpected surprises. The interior was about 83 feet wide with a smooth gravel floor. The walls seem somewhat smooth and appeared to widen as they moved deeper into the cave. The ceiling climbed and descended erratically. At some points it seemed barely high enough to stand. Several deep pits were found as they venture deeper into the cave. One of them appeared to be 9 fathoms deep and another was filled with water. The main passage of the cave appeared to be straight and uniform in width. It ran in a North-Northeast direction for about a quarter mile. On both sides of the cavern they saw other passages but did not follow them. At one of these passages they could feel a rush of cool air and the sound of water in the distance. After reaching the end, they decided to explore further on another day and exited the cave.

In 1926, in the Nov. 19th edition of the ‘Winsted Citizen’ a story mentions knowledge of the cave resurfacing when John G. Shackley of West Brookfield, Mass. comes across the story in ‘American Adventures Volume 1’ mentioning the cave. The book is filled with many factual stories so one would only assume that this too must be true. According to the article, several men lead by entomologist Dolor La Belle, who was very familiar with the area, searched for and found the cave. It was explored for a short distance but due to lack of proper equipment postponed any further exploration.

CaveA week later another story concerning the cave appeared in the ‘Winsted Citizen’. It was a report on the 2nd visit to the cave by Dolor La Belle, his assistant, Carrington A. Phelps, a novelist, and a dozen other men. Now much better prepared, 5 of the men venture into the cave. The cave was damp and dark. One portion of the cave was tall enough for a man to stand in but most of it was a narrow maze of fallen rocks. It became difficult for the 5 men to continue. After crawling for about 80-100 feet into the cave they came to a large rock that blocked the passage. Though disappointed, they were sure this was the right place. Having discovered plenty of ice in the cave they concluded that constant melting and refreezing of ice in the cave since its initial discovery in 1841 had caused a collapse of a section of the passage. Some distance beyond the rock, they could hear running water. This increased their confidence that this was the cave that the young boys had discovered.

The cave is not spoken about again until twenty years later, in the April 1947 edition of the Winsted paper. Not much is mentioned other than the facts that many people had been searching for the cave but couldn’t seem to find it. The only new info mention is that the cave is supposed to be situated on the “south east corner of the prominent hill north of Shantly Road and in the same vicinity where Colebrook’s famed dinosaur tracks can be seen.” Also the writer claims to have heard that the cave might have been “Closed up a dozen or so years ago as it was feared that someone might enter there and fall into a deep pit near the entrance.”

Since then many people have tried to find the cave with no success. Some claim to have heard that it was all a hoax but there is no way to confirm this since Cave 2those involved are long gone. Having personally explored many caves created by fallen boulders, I suspect there may be a mix of fact and fiction involved. I have been in several caves that consist of narrow passages only large enough to crawl in leading to chambers with standing room. In one of these caves I found a running brook in the deepest part. Colebrook Cave could be the same type of cave. The idea that the cave went beyond the rock found by the explorers in 1947 might have been the same assumption originally made in 1841 when the cave was first explored. The sound of a trickling brook resonating beyond the rock could have given the illusion of distance though it might have been only feet away. The size and depth of the cave might have been exaggerated as the story was circulated by word of mouth. How could this cave remain hidden after so many people have searched for it you might ask? Well, just recently I returned to visit such a cave constructed from boulders I had visited in 1988. The cave was situated in a small part of a park in Mass. After over an hour of searching up and down the area I remember finding the cave I found nothing. I assumed that the cave might have collapsed or had been closed by the park rangers. Determined to get an answer, I went to the ranger station and inquired as to the status of this cave. I was told it was still there and I was looking in the right area. I had the ranger show me the location of the cave on the park map, and returned to that spot. I looked more carefully and soon discover the cave. It seemed amazing that I could have walked over this same spot many times and totally missed the cave. But in a confusing jumble of boulders and stones, every crack and dark space might be the narrow hole leading to the cave. It was easy to assume at a glance that any one of them was too small be the cave. It wasn’t until I was directed to the exact spot that I looked close enough to realize that a certain crack between the rocks was the entrance. This could be the same case with the Colebrook Cave. Who knows? Maybe the cave is just waiting to be rediscovered just as it was before. One warm summer day in the near future, some local boys may stumble on the entrance to this mysterious cave while playing on the boulders at Witch’s Retreat.

~ Strange New England

Here is a link to a digital copy of American Adventures Volume 1.  The Colebrook Cave story can be found on pages 288 – 295.

American Adventures Volume 1.

You can read more about this interesting piece of New England lore at the Colebrook Historical Society Website.

The Mysterious Colebrook Cave




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