Purgatory area developed at height of Grand Hotel era

Hiking at Purgatory Upper Falls has been so popular, cars create a safety hazard on Purgatory Falls Road and the town is planning to construct a parking area at the trailhead.

But it isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. Records note that in 1889, about 1,500 people gathered on the Mont Vernon side of Black Brook on Aug. 20 to dedicate Hutchinson’s Grove as a recreation area. The Hon. Charles J. Smith gave a speech on the history of the area, a speech preserved as a little booklet.

The area was developed at the height of the Grand Hotel era. The site was owned by H.A. Hutchinson. He and residents Joseph Carleton and Henry F. Dodge came up with the plan to improve the site and attract visitors. They built a bandstand, dancing platform, bowling alley and other facilities.

A bridge was constructed across the gorge and railings placed along the cliff edge and around the glacial pot hole called "The Bean Pot." There is also a depression known as "The Devil’s Footprint," which closely resembles a human footprint about 12 feet long.

A natural oddity exists. The Bean Pot, about 10 feet deep is always dry, while the footprint beside it is only a few inches deep and is always wet.

The Thursday closest to Aug. 20 was celebrated as picnic day until about World War I. Use of the area faded with the decline in summer visitors.

When I moved to the area in 1947, the foundations of the dance floor and bowling alley were still evident and there were the remains of a small log cabin beside the access road. There are still a few iron rods in the rocks, but little else.

Most of the old foundations were destroyed by a logging operation in the 1980s, and recreational vehicles badly damaged the entrance road from Purgatory Road.

In 1988, conservationists became concerned about damage to the area by vehicles, littering and unauthorized campers who had set several fires. Access to the area was restricted, and remains so – foot traffic only.

Lyndeborough purchased the 3 acres surrounding the falls in 1973. Mont Vernon acquired the logged-off land some years later, and the whole area is now conservation land. Trails have been constructed from the Lower Falls near Fitch’s Corner in Milford. About midway in the hike is Middle Falls, a little lower than Upper Falls but almost as spectacular. A boulder rests at the bottom, providing a good place to sit.

According to legend, and retold some time ago by Fritz Wetherbee, a young man named Hodgeman deserted from the British army before 1770 and hid in the ravine aided by neighbors. He later changed his name to Brown, and a descendent of his purchased the nearby farm, until a few years ago called Echo Valley.

Wetherbee also has a neat story about how the devil tried to seduce the neighboring farmers with a big feast and used the pot hole as his baking chamber. When he was refused, he stamped the rock so hard that he left his footprint.

Whatever. It is one of the prettiest places around.

Keep up with the past with Another Perspective, which runs monthly in The Telegraph. Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or jessies@tellink.net.