The Story of the Yawgoog Trails

Hell Hollow

By David R. Brierley


Caution: Hikers should be very careful, by wearing at least 400 square inches (2,580 square centimeters) of blaze orange material, such as a vest, when hiking in the Pachaug State Forest during Connecticut's deer hunting season (September through February). Hunting is prohibited in Yawgoog. Hikers should also be careful to walk single-file on the left side of roads, facing oncoming traffic.

Hell Hollow is a valley on the Voluntown/Plainfield border in the Pachaug State Forest; Hell Hollow Pond lies within the valley. The blue-blazed Quinebaug and Pachaug trails, maintained by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA), run through the area.

(image)
Panoramic view of Hell Hollow Pond
Coordinates: N 41° 38.229', W 71° 52.205' (Datum: WGS84)
Larger image

(image)
Panoramic view of Hell Hollow Pond in autumn
Coordinates: N 41° 38.229', W 71° 52.205' (Datum: WGS84)
Larger image
Google Map

Hell Hollow has a reputation of being haunted, but this reputation might not be deserved. Part of the valley's mystery originates from its curious name, but demonic names are somewhat common in Connecticut; there are over 25 places with "Devil" or "Satan" in their names (Donohue and Petersen; Philips pp. 125-126). It appears that the valley, like Mount Misery to the south, was named because of its poor land; the rocky soil imposed a hard life on those who settled and farmed there. In 1929 Daniel L. Phillips wrote:

Much of [the land] was not very desirable country -- on the north it included Hell Hollow and Mount Misery, and on the south the ledges of Coalpit Hill, but between these sections lay a stretch of river with its wealth of water-power and the site of the village of Voluntown. (p. 49)

The poor land quality is the reason why the Pachaug State Forest is so large. The state purchased much of it during the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Less productive land was more likely to be sold to the state while better land was kept by the owners; much of the better land is still farmed to this day. An article in The Hartford Courant of October 18, 1935, notes:

In this whole area, [Allen W. Manchester, Regional Director of the federal Resettlement Administration] said, there are but 30 families now living, all of them in the tract around Voluntown where the largest purchases will be made. The land there is stony, sandy and hilly, poorly suited for farming. Only two of the 30 families make a living wholly from the land and they do not want to try it again. The others are part-time farming families, about half of them of native Yankee stock. Some are newcomers who have bought small farms in a "desperate attempt to find a living." They have been "even less successful than those who have been failing for years on the same type of lands."

Life in this area has always been a struggle for a bare existence, Mr. Manchester said. The Connecticut General Court sent a committee to look it over in 1700 and got a report that it was not suitable for settlement. Nonetheless, soldiers who had served in the wars against the Indians were given the land as payment. Voluntown, said the director, means volunteer town, after these early settlers."

Names which early settlers attached to the land still survive. Among them are Bare Hill, Mount Misery, Stone Hill and Hell Hollow.

...

Although there are these 30 farm homes in the area 70 per cent of the land is woods or brush. The average size of the occupied farms is about 100 acres [40.5 hectares], little of it tillable. ("Moving 30 Families" p. 24)

While probably not applicable here, in 1888 H. Clay Trumbull discussed another reason as to how other places earned demonic names, based upon the church-going habits, or lack thereof, of those living in them:

In all our country townships, particularly so in our Atlantic coast states, each church is a centre of light, illuminating the disk of a larger or smaller circle. Beyond the circumference of these circles, and in the interstitial spaces between them, there are regions of moral dimness, if not of absolute darkness, because of the lack of direct influence from the church upon the dwellers there. Some of these neighborhoods are known by such designations as "Hell Hollow," or "Devil's Corner," "Sodom," and the like. Still more of them are recognized simply as neglected or unevagelized districts. (pp. 203-204)

The above does not appear to be the case for this location, as an old church is just 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away on the Sterling/Voluntown border in the village of Ekonk -- about a 30-minute walk.

A group of rock formations known as "Devil's Den" can be seen northeast of Hell Hollow Pond, on the southwest side of the dirt Flat Rock Road on the Quinebaug Trail; the formations exist beside Hell Hollow Brook (CFPA pp. 241, 244; Donohue and Petersen; Hughes and Allen p. 452). This "Devil's Den" should not be confused with the large "Devil's Den" cavern which existed near the village of Oneco in Sterling, Connecticut; it appears that the large cavern was destroyed by granite quarrying in the nineteenth century (Heermance p. 268; Larned vol. 2 pp. 429-430, 570-571; Pease and Niles p. 222; Philips pp. 123-124). Rock formations are often fancifully associated with the underworld.

(image)
Rock formations and Hell Hollow Brook at Devil's Den,
a narrow cave exists in the formation shown
Coordinates: N 41° 39.176', W 71° 51.920' (Datum: WGS84)
Google Map

There are several legends about hauntings in Hell Hollow; a false, but prominent, one relates to a girl named Maud who lived near the pond. Some mistakenly believe she was a witch, but Eileen McNamara reported on the real tragedy in the The Day on October 26, 2003:

Her name was Maud Reynolds, and in the late 1800s she lived briefly with her parents, Gilbert and Lucy Reynolds, on the family's farm on Hell Hollow Road.

She died in October of 1890, less than three months shy of her second birthday.

It was one of several tragedies to befall her parents.

The doctor who filed her death certificate in Town Hall stated that Maud died of diphtheria, a leading cause of death in the United States in the 19th century. It swells throat tissues, making it difficult for its victims to breath [sic], eventually leading to heart failure, paralysis and sometimes death. A vaccine has long since eradicated diphtheria in this country.

A Reynolds descendant said the family contested that finding and always believed the baby choked to death on a piece of apple.

Her parents found her dead in her bed on the morning of Oct. 12, 1890, said Pat Brenek, a Reynolds family descendant. They found the apple she had been eating, the marks of her baby teeth still clearly visible in it. Long after, Brenek said, they kept the apple preserved in a bottle of alcohol, so they could see her teeth impressions.

Mary Rose Deveau, a Griswold historian who has researched Maud's death, wonders if both the apple story and the diphtheria diagnosis might be true. It's possible, Deveau said, that Maud had the disease and the swelling in her throat caused her to choke on the apple.

No matter what the case, she was the third child of Lucy and Gilbert Reynolds to die in Hell Hollow, all within a few years of one another.

...

[Two of Maud's brothers] are buried in the family cemetery, located in the woods across Hell Hollow Road from Maud's grave. When she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, said Brenek, her grandmother often took her to visit the cemetery and Maud's grave.

The family plot, however, is now itself buried beneath decaying leaves and forest undergrowth.

Brenek doesn't know why Maud wasn't buried in the family cemetery.

One story locals tell is that Lucy Reynolds, who was a midwife, was so devastated by her baby's death that she refused to bury Maud in the family plot. Instead, she had Maud laid to rest closer to the home, at the top of a small rise near the farmhouse, where she could easily see the cross that marked the baby's grave.

"It makes sense. From a two-story house it would be real easy to see that grave," said Joseph Tatro. Tatro's father and uncles grew up on nearby Tatro Road and knew the Reynolds. Tatro, 55, also grew up on Tatro Road and still hunts and fishes in the Hell Hollow area.

He grew up hearing the stories about Maud's family. He also heard the witch and ghost stories growing up.

"It's a bunch of bull," he said.

Brenek agreed.

"It's silly. She was just a baby, and I don't know how all these stories about her being a witch got started."

...

That Maud is buried in a solitary grave in such a desolate spot in the woods is probably also partly the reason for the persistent ghost stories about her, said Deveau.

At the time of her death, however, Hell Hollow, like much of the Pachaug area, was comprised of family farms and rolling fields. There were no forestlands, and Maud's tiny grave was at the edge of a field, near the road. It was a stone's throw from her parents' home.

...

Today, Maud's grave rests under a bower of pine trees. Maples, ash and oaks grow in thick stands on either sides of Hell Hollow Road. There is no grave marker, though a jumble of rocks is nearby. Someone has formed circles with several of the rocks. Graffiti of obscenities and odd markings are spray-painted on trees and rocks. ...

All that's left of the family's home, just down the hill, is a barely discernable stone foundation overgrown by grass and trees. Bright fall leaves float in the water at the bottom of a well shaft near the foundation.

During the 1950s and 1960s locals persisted in stealing Maud's gravestone, a 5-foot-tall cement cross, Tatro said.

A relative from New London would always replace it, but eventually gave up, he recalled. At some point, someone placed a sign on her grave warning would-be vandals that they would be cursed. The warning probably helped to boost the witch legend, Tatro said.

...

The ghost stories, Deveau said, diminish Maud's humanity and her memory.

"That poor little girl," Deveau said. "And that's really all she was, just a little girl." (pp. A1, A6)

It is important to note that the newspaper article clearly indicates that the Reynolds grave sites are in Hell Hollow in Voluntown and that they have been unmarked for decades. A broken concrete marker with "Maude" imprinted on it exists beyond Hell Hollow on an old homestead in the nearby town of Sterling, near the Cedar Swamp Cemetery. The Sterling marker may be a hoax aimed at paranormal investigators, as concrete is not a traditional material for headstones. The dates on the marker are also much earlier than the 1890 date mentioned in the article. Furthermore, the marker is not mentioned in historical cemetery transcriptions. In 2013 a gravestone was found in the former Voluntown Methodist Church (Shea).

A separate legend concerns a screaming ghost in the forest. The ghost is said to be that of a Native American woman murdered by British soldiers in colonial times. A more likely explanation would be frightening human-like screams known to be produced by fishers and foxes; both of these elusive animals can be active in daytime.

These legends and others were discussed in The Hauntings of Pachaug Forest, a chapbook produced by David Trifilo and subsequently published in 2005 in The Haunted Violin, a collection of stories compiled by Edward Lodi. Trifilo did not cite sources. Trifilo has apparently made some conflicting statements; in The Hauntings he claims to have seen a ghost elsewhere in the forest (pp. 91-92), yet the McNamara article states, "Trifilo puts little stock in the ghost legends" (p. A6). Earlier published accounts of the alleged hauntings do not seem to exist, making the legends even more questionable. While Hell Hollow is not likely to be haunted, it is a pleasant area to hike through.

Driving Directions to Hell Hollow Pond from Yawgoog: Turn left at the intersection of Route 138 (Spring Street/Rockville Road) and Camp Yawgoog Road and proceed west about 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) to the junction with Route 165 in Connecticut. Turn left (west) onto the combined Route 138/165 (Beach Pond Road) and travel 1.1 miles (1.8 kilometers). Turn right (north) onto Scenic Route 49 (Ekonk Hill Road) for 5.2 miles (8.4 kilometers), then turn left (west) onto Hell Hollow Road in Sterling, at the oval Pachaug Trail sign. Head west then southwest 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) to the small parking area at the pond in Voluntown, to the right (north). Note: A portion of Hell Hollow Road may be closed in winter.

The blue-blazed Pachaug Trail follows Hell Hollow Road from Route 49 to the Sterling/Voluntown/Plainfield border (0.6 mile/0.9 kilometer), where it leaves the road by turning right (northwest) into the Pachaug State Forest in Plainfield; the trail later crosses Hell Hollow Road near the parking area at the pond in Voluntown. The blue-blazed Quinebaug Trail crosses Hell Hollow Road just southwest of the pond. These trails are connected by a yellow-blazed path northeast of the pond, forming a loop. For more trail information, please consult the CFPA's Connecticut Walk Book East.
 

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