In Episode 156, to celebrate our three-year anniversary show, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger paddle on to Lake Bomoseen in Castleton, Vermont, is search of a ghost town, a phantom row boat, and an island they say is inhabited by giant rabbits with glowing red eyes. This is a buffet of weirdness and wonder with links to the slate industry, tourism, and some A-list celebrities.
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JEFF: Ray, it was three years ago that we started exploring the legends of New England through this weekly podcast.
RAY: I feel like we should celebrate!
JEFF: I agree. We should find some drinks.
RAY: Heck yeah, we should! But uhhhmmm I’m not seeing any bars here on the shores of Lake Bomoseen in Castleton, Vermont.
JEFF: No, but I heard there’s a great bar on the other side of the lake. We’ll definitely have to get to that.
RAY: But first there’s a legend to explore here, isn’t there?
JEFF: Of course there is! And duty calls Ray. Today, where on the shores of Lake Bomoseen searching for a buffet of weirdness. We’re looking for a ghost town…
JEFF: A phantom rowboat.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: AND an island filled with giant red-eyed rabbits.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 156 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: It’s been three years and we haven’t missed a single week bringing you strange but true tales of ghosts, monsters, and odd history from this place we call home. You legendary listeners are the cornerstone of what we do. So many of these stories are crowd-sourced from you guys. We appreciate the great things that happen when we share stories. So keep those leads coming.
JEFF: Please do. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss a single story. You can find us for free wherever you listen to podcasts. And of course we can’t do what we do without the financial support of our patreon patrons. These legendary people kick in just $3 bucks per month to get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to become a bigger part of this movement.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, we’re looking for a ghost town, a ghost boat, and giant rabbits with red eyes?
JEFF: That’s why we’re here. Right.
RAY: That’s a lot to cover.
JEFF: I agree. There’s a lot of weirdness here. There have been people coming to this lake to fish and hunt for many many centuries. The Abenaki, the Mohican, and the Iroquois people all used to fish and hunt here. In fact, the name Bomoseen is an Abenaki word which means “Keeper of ceremonial fire.”
RAY: Ooooo that’s ominous.
JEFF: But most of the weirdness we’re searching for traces its roots to the mid nineteenth-century.
RAY: The lake is about nine miles long and sits on the western border of Vermont. It’s not the biggest, deepest, or widest in the state, but it may just be the weirdest. We’re going to head back to 1854 and set this up.
[STEAM TRAIN AND WHISTLE]
RAY: Though the town of Castleton was first settled in 1770, it’s the arrival of the railroad in 1854 that turns this quiet farming community into a destination for industry and recreation.
JEFF: As for industry, that was slate and marble. Rich quarries around the western part of the lake gave rise to companies who need employees. Plenty of Irish, Slavic, and Italian immigrants flock to the area to find work and set up a life for themselves. The recreation part is a little more obvious.
[PEOPLE SWIMMING AND PLAYING BY THE WATER]
JEFF: As more folks come to enjoy the lake, resorts and hotels spring up to cater to the vacationing crowd.
RAY: Most of these hotels and restaurants sit on the eastern shore of the lake. But the western shore is where we find the village of West Castleton with its mills…
[HAMMERING ON STONE]
RAY: And the West Castleton Railroad and Slate Company.
JEFF: That’s the biggest employer around here. Employees live in nearby millhouses. Working for the slate company is back-breaking, low-paying, and dangerous.
JEFF: There’s blasting that can cause rockslides and cave-ins, plus industrial accidents. It’s a scary place.
RAY: So who can blame the workers for wanting to blow off a little steam on their day off?
JEFF: Hear hear!
RAY: Or celebrate a milestone like surviving another week?
RAY: One weekend night, three of the Irish workers borrow a rowboat.
[ROWING BOAT UNDER NEXT LINE]
RAY: And start to row the roughly mile-and-a-half width of the lake in order to get to a tavern on the eastern shores of the lake. That’s the idea, anyway. The men set off with all possible speed toward the far shore, with beer and whiskey as their goal.
RAY: But the three men never show up at the tavern.
RAY: The next morning, an empty rowboat is found floating near the middle of the lake. There’s no trace of the three men. No bodies are found. Nothing.
JEFF: This spooks the workers of West Castleton. It doesn’t take long for folks around here to start talking about ghosts. Especially on moonlit nights… and when the lake is very still… some people see a ghostly rowboat gliding across the still waters, but this boat produces no wake; no disturbance at all. And then… it fades into nothing.
RAY: There’s so much speculation if these men were drunk before they left, or if there was a fight, or some foul play by a passing boat, but we just don’t know… and that is maddening.
JEFF: As years go by, the quarries become more difficult to work. To get to the slate and stone you have to dig deeper than before. And deeper, is also more dangerous. Eventually, the business just isn’t viable. The factories close, and from here, another industry takes over.
RAY: Tourism. This lake, its resorts and inns, are starting to draw a regular crowd. But one island in particular brings in the A-list. Neshobe Island is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of Lake Bomoseen. Moving ahead to the 1920s, author and actor Alexander Woollcott purchases the island and turns it into a retreat for himself and his famous friends.
JEFF: Famous friends like Harpo Marx, Theodore Roosevelt, Irving Berlin, and many other writers, editors, actors, and other notable people of the day.
RAY: Where there’s celebrities, there’s weirdness, right?
JEFF: While that may be true, Neshobe Island is just a footnote of weirdness here on Lake Bomoseen. For the real prize, we’re going to take our rowboat north just about a mile.
RAY: This is a great summer day to be on the lake.
JEFF: It is. It’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to this place. But it’s not just people. It looks like the island we’re looking for is just ahead.
RAY: Coming up from the south, I can see this island isn’t very wide. It’s heavily forested. It looks almost like a peninsula from here.
JEFF: We’ll take our rowboat along the eastern side of the island to the other side. The island is about the length of a football field and maybe 250 feet at its widest point.
RAY: Okay, I can see the northern part of the island is really close to land. Maybe 50 or 60 feet. What are we looking for on this island?
JEFF: Be vewy vewy quiet. We’re huntin’s wabbits.
RAY: So this is the home of the mysterious giant rabbits with red eyes?
JEFF: That’s what they say.
RAY: Again, this island isn’t that large. We’re talking about a total area smaller than a football field. I think even I could spot an oversized rabbit here.
[WALKING IN WOODS]
JEFF: You’d think it would be tough to miss a critter like that.
RAY: How big are we talking about? Like 10 percent bigger than a normal rabbit?
JEFF: Some have said these rabbits are double the size of normal rabbits. Others have suggested they’re as a big as a bear.
RAY: Come onnnnn. Rabbits as big as a bear? Only on this tiny island? There’s no way an animal that big could live in an area this small. The food supply alone wouldn’t support it.
JEFF: That’s a good point. Maybe it’s kind of like a fishing story. Each time you tell it, the rabbit grows a little larger and its eyes start to glow a menacing red. hmmm I’m not seeing any giant rabbits right now, Ray. Maybe they’re burrowed underground on this hot summer day. And that will bring us back to today.
RAY: Okay, the rabbits, Jeff. I have questions.
JEFF: Yeah, I bet! We know about the rabbit story from Joe Citro’s book, The Vermont Monster Guide. The theory is an evolutionary one. Because the island is so close to the mainland.
RAY: Wait… lemme guess. The largest rabbits from the mainland made the leap across the water?
JEFF: Yes! That’s exactly the theory! The biggest rabbits jumped 60 feet over to the island, then procreated…
RAY: As they do.
JEFF: As they do, and now we’ve got super rabbits on this island. Rabbits with glowing eyes.
RAY: I was curious about this, so I did look something up.
RAY: Rabbits CAN swim.
RAY: They can. They’re not great swimmers, and tend not to be a fan of swimming, but if they have to, they will.
JEFF: There’s also a more obvious way rabbits could get over here.
JEFF: It may not be obvious now on this hot summer afternoon, but…
RAY: Duh… the lake freezes in the winter.
RAY: It would be pretty easy to hop across.
JEFF: It would. One other piece of this legend is worth noting. Ray, check out the official name of this island on the map.
RAY: Oh man… I LOVE it! The island is called… Rabbit Island.
JEFF: It is. And the legend continues.
RAY: Now, about the ghost town.
JEFF: Yeah, let’s row back over to the shore by Bomoseen State Park.
RAY: Using this old map of West Castleton, we can see where the various buildings and workhouses once stood.
JEFF: After 1930, the demand for slate dropped significantly, and this town mostly went bust. Today the park is picturesque with beaches and pavilions, but a short hike into the woods…
JEFF: And we can see some of the ruins of the old factories and buildings.
RAY: There are some creepy stone walls, some of these look pretty dangerous, like one good push, and they’d fall right over.
JEFF: West Castleton is a fading memory slowly crumbling into the forest. And Lake Bomoseen isn’t the resort lake it once was. Most of the lakefront property is privately owned today.
RAY: Well, the sun is starting to set, and it is our three-year anniversary show. I think the only thing left to do is hit that restaurant on the other side of the lake and raise a glass toasting three years so far.
JEFF: I agree. Let’s hop in our boat one more time and head over for a drink.
JEFF: Come on, Ray. Just one mile of rowing and we get beer.
RAY: Isn’t this about how far those Irish workers got back in the 1800s?
JEFF: Yeah, this is about the middle.
RAY: Annnnd now I got a chill.
JEFF: That’s the thing about a great legend. It connects us to the past and to a place. We hear the story of how those guys never made it to the beer across the lake, we find ourselves in the same position all these years later, and maybe we row with a little more caution, careful not to rock the boat too much, just in case.
RAY: I’d rather get to the beer!
[POWERBOAT MOTOR STARTS THEN FADES]
JEFF: Thank you, Ray, for three years of strangeness from all over New England. It’s been an amazing journey so far.
RAY: Thank you, Jeff. And the good news for all of us is I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of all the ghosts, monsters, aliens, and odd history from the northeast.
JEFF: So many of these great story leads come from you, our legendary listeners. We love when you get more involved. You can join our super-secret Facebook group, message us through our Web site, where you can find dates for my on-going and now virtual story tour and links to the New England Legends television series on Amazon Prime, or you can call or text our Legend Line anytime at 617-444-9683. We’d love it if you left our show closing on our voicemail.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Renee currently working to in the Philippines. Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.