In Episode 185, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Deerfield, New Hampshire, in search of a 175-year-old mystery thundering from below ground. Between 1834 and 1846, a series of explosions emanating from below ground were reported in the southern part of town. The sounds were as loud as cannon fire, and the concussion could knock over a stone wall. The only problem is no source was ever found, and earthquakes don’t behave this way. The events made the local papers for years. Scared locals pleaded with the scientific community for answers, but none could be found. Some speculate it could be secret underground mines, trolls, or even an underground UFO base.
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[SLIGHT EARTHQUAKE RUMBLE]
RAY: Woah, Jeff, did you feel that?
JEFF: I did!
RAY: It felt like an earthquake!
JEFF: We don’t get many of those in New England. But they DO happen. Just a few months ago a 3.6 on the Richter scale hit southeastern Massachusetts. It was enough to rattle the pots on my stove forty miles away.
RAY: I remember that! Earthquakes really scare me! I don’t know how our friends in California do it, Jeff. I mean here, if it gets cloudy and windy, we know there’s a storm coming. We take shelter. But there’s no warnings with earthquakes. You could be driving over a bridge and it starts to shake! No thank you!
JEFF: I get it. And thankfully New England isn’t known for earthquakes. They happen, but usually not big ones.
RAY: Still, this rumble felt a little different than an earthquake. More isolated.
JEFF: Well, Ray, we’re walking along Cotton Road on the south side of Deerfield, New Hampshire, looking to solve an old mystery. Deerfield isn’t overly prone to earthquakes these days, but maybe what we just heard and felt wasn’t an earthquake at all. Maybe it was one of the infamous Deerfield Booms.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 185 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes—though we may need a little longer on this one—we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Deerfield, New Hampshire, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We do that through this podcast, through our Web site, our super secret New England Legends Facebook group, and through the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime. We’re a community of legend seekers, and did you know that many of our story leads come from you? We’d like to thank Dana Stewart for tipping us off about this week’s story.
JEFF: Yes, please do keep your ideas and feedback coming. We love it. But before we go searching for these mysterious subterranean booms, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: What was that?
RAY: That may have been my stomach this time.
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RAY: So Jeff, we’re in Deerfield, New Hampshire, looking for some kind of underground explosions?
JEFF: Underground explosion… seismic activity… some kind of mine… a secret underground UFO base… there are many ideas and theories floating out there.
RAY: Wow, that’s quite a buffet of theories. Okay, to figure this out, let’s head back to 1838 and set this up.
RAY: It’s October of 1838, and we’re taking a stroll on South Road in the southern part of Deerfield, New Hampshire. It’s a crisps fall day. The skies are clear. One of those perfect, New England days.
[BOOM LOUD AND CLOSE BY]
JEFF: What was that?!
RAY: THAT must be one of those strange Deerfield Booms we’ve heard about. They started in 1836 and obviously are still happening.
JEFF: Okay, it was loud.
RAY: It was!
JEFF: The ground shook.
RAY: Yeah, I felt it too!
JEFF: But then it was over in just a second or two.
JEFF: I’m no expert, but earthquakes don’t do that. They go on for a little longer. Like 10 to 30 seconds longer.
RAY: It’s definitely weird. And we’re not the only people to notice, either. Enter Josiah Butler, the Postmaster for South Deerfield, but also a former member of Congress and a judge. He begins to document these explosions, or booms.
JOSIAH: The reports have been heard in the daytime as often, and more so, than in the night. They are as loud as a heavy cannon fired near the house, with no reverberation, and little roll. Last fall some of the inhabitants were riding in a wagon when an explosion was heard, and they saw the stone wall, which was apparently quite compact, fall over on one side of the way, and a second after upon the other.
RAY: So half the wall fell in one direction, and the other half of the wall fell in the other.
JEFF: While this may seem like a geological curiosity to us just passing through, folks in Deerfield are scared.
RAY: I can imagine! If something like this happens just one time, you can say it was a minor earthquake, or maybe someone was firing a cannon nearby and you weren’t close enough to see it. But these strange booms continue to happen. As Postmaster Butler explained, they happen during the day or at night. But sometimes, they’re big enough to cause damage.
JOSIAH: An explosion about a year and a half since, shook and jarred the earth and buildings—another, last November, shook buildings, window glass, stoves in houses, opening inner doors, and causing clocks to strike irregularly, and tumbled a stone wall within twenty rods of my house on the south road in Deerfield, and greatly alarmed the inhabitants. Another explosion on the first of July last, (which was succeeded as rapidly as a field piece could be discharged, by ten of more less reports,) was about midnight and aroused everyone from sleep. These three reports are the loudest which have ever been heard. The explosions have increased with the two last years, and have been heard in winter as well as in the other seasons of the year.
JEFF: These strange explosions began in 1834, and have been ongoing. There’s no seasonality to them, either. Folks in Deerfield are scared. They’re on edge. You never know when the next one will happen.
RAY: And any explosion strong enough to knock over a stone wall is strong enough to knock over a person or a house. It’s not a stretch to think your life, or your children’s lives may be in danger from this invisible underground stalker.
JEFF: It’s August 27, 1846 when a letter by someone who signs themselves only as quote, A Native of Deerfield, is published in various newspapers around the region. The letter describes some of these booming phenomena in town, and some of the observations made about them. The closing paragraph reads, and I quote: “These few observation have been made in the hope that they will draw the attention of the scientific, who, if they can show some natural cause for so curious a fact, will calm the fears of the inhabitants and satisfy many of the curious.”
RAY: So, yeah. Folks are scared and looking for help with an explanation. Postmaster Josiah Butler continues.
JOSIAH: The explosions are generally abrupt, and very much resemble the blasting of rocks, and have been felt from two to three miles, by the jar of the buildings, at the same instant that the sound is heard; but one or two of the greatest appeared to myself and some others—continuous—something like the earthquake which was felt yesterday, the 25th at 5 o’clock in the morning, in this State, and I learn, in some, if not all parts of Massachusetts, striking the easterly end of the house, and passing off from northeast to southwest.
RAY: Now THAT sounds like an earthquake.
JEFF: It does! It was felt a hundred miles away. So maybe that one event can be explained. But most of the other booms are more isolated. Josiah explains.
JOSIAH: These explosions are heard in all parts of the town, and also in some of the adjacent towns – especially in the northern part of the town of Candia, to the extent of five or six miles in every direction from the place from which the reports are supposed to originate. On the southeastern part of Deerfield, near South Road, so-called, the explosions are the loudest, and the jar of the buildings is felt more than in any other part of the town, and I have therefore concluded that the reports are produced by some cause existing between or near the mountains and South Road.
JEFF: We should point out that “mountains” is a strong word. This region of New Hampshire isn’t very mountainous. Josiah Butler writes the mountains being referred to are the Pawtuckaway Mountain, a 1,000-foot peak that sits on Deerfield’s eastern town line shared with Nottingham. But the strange thing is, folks in Nottingham don’t experience the explosions.
JOSIAH: The reports are scarcely heard in the center of Nottingham, three miles east of the mountains. On the west of these mountains, or about two miles west of them, and near a small river called Lamprey River, the explosions are the greatest or loudest and most felt. The shock in November last which tumbled down a strong wall on the South Road, was about as great near the said river as on the South Road. The locations of the explosion cannot be determined by the sound so well as by the jar of earth and buildings. The jar is not felt more than three miles, but the reports are heard from five to six miles in every direction from the place where the explosions are supposed to come. About 20 years ago, iron ore was dug near the Lamprey River, but whether there is combustible matter in the earth which causes these explosions, I do not know.
RAY: By 1846 these mysterious Deerfield booms are happening as frequently as once per month, and sometimes even once per week. Though no injuries are reported, folks know it’s a matter of time before someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
RAY: But then, in the latter part of 1846 the booms… stop. After 12 years the phenomenon seems to end, because no more booms are reported. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay, a couple of important historical tidbits worth noting. Nitroglycerin wasn’t discovered until 1847, and dynamite in 1867.
RAY: Got it. So these booms couldn’t have been that.
JEFF: However, people did use kegs of black powder to try and blow up rocks, fallen trees, and the House of Parliament for centuries before 1834.
RAY: Sure, but if someone was blowing powder kegs close enough to knock over a stone wall, you’d see the smoke and fire from that.
JEFF: Good point.
RAY: There goes Crazy Uncle Jedidiah with the black powder again!
JEFF: Right, so we can rule that out. Today, we’re walking along Cotton Road in south Deerfield, right where it crosses the Lamprey River and intersects with Raymond Road, because this is about the area of the hotspot identified in the newspaper articles all those years ago. But nothing looks weird around here to me.
RAY: Me neither.
JEFF: So we decided to make a call for help. We got on the phone and reached out to a higher authority.
WALLY BOTHNER: I’m Wally Bothner, I’ve taught at the University of New Hampshire since 1967. I’m retired, but still thinking geological thoughts.
JEFF: He’s professor emeritus, earth sciences, for the university. We gave him all of the newspaper articles we gathered from the 1840s on these mysterious Deerfield Booms and asked for his opinion.
RAY: But first, we asked him: what is an earthquake?
WALLY_BOTHNER: Well, in very simple terms, it’s a release of energy in the earth, often shallow, but sometimes very deep. So you first get that shaking: bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, that’s the P-wave. The P, which is a punch; pressure wave. An S, which is an up and down, snake-lake motion, and the Surface wave is a sidewinder kind of snake motion that’s restricted to the horizontal plane on the surface. So those three are characteristic of all earthquakes.
RAY: So you’ve got the initial release of energy that may or may not make a booming sound. Then you’ve got up and down waves like on the ocean, and you’ve got side-to-side waves at the surface. Put that all together, and if you’re close enough to the epicenter, and you’ve got a big problem depending on how large the earthquake.
JEFF: A force like that can easily knock down a stone wall or even a building. But earthquakes aren’t localized. I mean, the epicenter is localized, but a quake large enough to knock down a wall would also be felt 100 miles away.
RAY: Professor Bothner explained the reason we don’t get earthquakes in New England like, say our friends in California, is because California is located right at the edge of a big tectonic plate. So there’s more stress as those plates grind against each other. So New England is more in the middle of one of those large plates. The biggest quakes are going to happen at the edges, but he explains we do have various faults in our region, but they’re hundreds of millions of years in age, and are well sealed, so they’re not visible at the surface.
JEFF: He explained we still get small quakes here in New England because our plate is still indeed under stress as it slowly slides westerly. Plus, the rock beneath us isn’t uniform.
WALLY_BOTHNER: And wherever there is a strong difference in rock type in the earth’s crust—not necessarily what you see on the surface—but down under the ground, stress may get concentrated where there’s a big difference in rock type. And when that stress exceeds the strength of the rocks on either side, or on that boundary, there will be a slight amount of displacement, and that displacement will propagate seismic energy.
RAY: Seismic energy better known as some kind of earthquake. So Professor Bothner, given what you’ve read in the old newspaper articles, and how the events were described, do you have any idea of what kind of geological event could have caused the Deerfield Booms?
WALLY_BOTHNER: No. That’s the short answer. I’ve been racking my brain since you sent me the articles and I’ve dug out all of the most recent geologic maps that I have of that neck of the woods. I had a student finish a thesis in the Mt. Patuckaway area that covered Deerfield. So we know the rock types that are there. He didn’t do the surficial geology, but when I located Cotton Road, and Raymond Road, and the Lamprey on Google Earth, it’s very close to a huge gravel pit. There’s nothing geological there that tickles my funny bone, that that would be the site of a seismic event. There are two faults; two mapped faults, one sort of in the area of Raymond, and another one on the other side of Deerfield, but they are not known to have moved for a 170 or 180 million years.
JEFF: So no smoking gun there, but there is one possibility according to Professor Bothner.
WALLY_BOTHNER: The only thing that one could argue would be that there is some wonderful old volcanic center called the Mt. Patuckaway complex. It’s a circular, 120 million-year-old relic volcanic center—no longer volcanic active, of course, but the rocks that comprise it, and that really is only a mile or so from Deerfield Center, but that has a very unique rock type. It’s different from all of the surrounding ones, and there is a hypothesis; essentially it’s a hole-in-the-plate hypothesis. You can take a paper punch and cut a hole in either a piece of cloth or a piece of wax paper and pull it apart a little bit. And you’ll see wrinkling occur in the material, or a rip develop propagating from the hole that you cut in it. So there is potential for stress to be concentrated around this hole. And if the hole happens to be filled with a different rock type as the Mt. Patuckaway complex is, that might be something that would allow stresses to accumulate there greater than on either side, and if one of the rock bodies slipped relative to the other at depth, then the energy would be released and you’d have a small earthquake. Now whether something like that would propagate enough wave form to shake a stone wall or make a big boom, I have no idea.
RAY: So almost like the edge of a tectonic plate, but on a tiny, local scale. It’s just a theory. But in reality, Professor Bothner isn’t sure it could explain 12 years of booms that suddenly stop.
WALLY_BOTHNER: It’s a real puzzle. I don’t know.
JEFF: Granted, this is a cold case. The last reports of the Deerfield Booms was 175 year ago, so it’s not like today’s experts can interview anybody or take any relevant readings because there were no devices in place to record that data back then. But when the experts don’t know, legend and lore take over.
RAY: And then there’s talk of secret underground mines, UFO bases, land trolls, or anything else you can imagine to try and explain something that just can’t be explained.
RAY: Ahhhh… I think that’s our cue to leave.
JEFF: I love it when a mystery can hang around for close to two centuries and still make us scratch our heads! And we love it when you legendary listeners hang around with us. If you’re ready to get even more involved, please consider joining our patreon patrons! These folks are the backbone of what we do. For just $3 bucks per month they get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: Be sure to subscribe to our podcast, because it’s free, and we don’t want you to miss a thing. And we’d love it if you’d post a review or tell a friend or two about our show. The more people who share these stories, the more new stories that come in for all of us to enjoy.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talent this week. A big thank you to professor Wally Bothner for lending his expertise to the his story, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.