The Hanging Hills of Meriden: Legend & Geology
“It may seem strange that a man of science should believe a thing of this kind—an idle tale for the ignorant and superstitious you will say—but I do believe it,” a young geologist wrote in 1898. The tale warned about a curse involving a black dog said to haunt the West Peak of the Hanging Hills of Meriden, an apparition that spelled death and disaster, one some believe wanders the hills even today. “And if you would know why, listen…”
The peaks of the Hanging Hills of Meriden (above) as pictured in “The Black Dog,” a firsthand account of two geologists’ ill-fated encounters with “a short haired black dog of moderate size” seen around West Peak, written by W.H.C. Pynchon and published in the Connecticut Quarterly.
“When winter winds roar…when the rocks stand out black through the drifts…the West Peak (above, as pictured in Pynchon's account) has a look of menace hard to describe. Weird tales have sprung up…one is especially to be mentioned—the story of a black dog seen at times upon the peak.
“Many have seen him once, a few twice—none have ever told of the third meeting,” the young geologist wrote in describing the dog’s ethereal qualities. “Men have seen it bark, but have heard no sound; and it leaves no footprint behind it on the dust of summer or the snow of winter.” Its sight was said to mean certain death for anyone so unfortunate as to look upon it for a third time.
The curse of the black dog—geologists fall victims?
The young geologist encountered the dog, and years later its legend, during his first trip to West Peak made one spring in the late 1800s. “I was then a student at Harvard, and the work in geology I had taken up made it desirable for me to visit the locality.” Connecticut Valley traprock ridges, including West Peak, had held a special fascination for local geologists such as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock since the 1820s.
“Hoary evidences of ancient volcanic action,” was how the young geologist described the hills. “Countless years have elapsed since the great tide of molten lava rolled over the region. Years fewer, but still countless, have passed during which the shattered and tilted remnants of the lava sheets have watched over the land. Deep gorges divide the masses into separate mountains, lonely and desolate, and the most desolate and the most conspicuous of all is the West Peak.”
After the young geologist rode up to West Peak and started collecting samples of “vesicular” lava, the dog appeared to him. He greatly enjoyed the dog's company until dusk, when it “stopped, looked back at me a moment, and quietly vanished into the woods.”
Three years later, the young geologist returned to West Peak early in February with a friend, Herbert Marshall, a geologist with the fledgling United States Geological Survey. The night before, Marshall told about how he had also seen the dog, not just once, but twice before, and “laughed at the legend, saying he did not believe in omens.”
In the morning they made an ascent of the south face of West Peak in the cold and snow, until they reached “deep clefts” in the cliffs that the young geologist would later compare to the biblical “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
Marshall (above, as pictured in Pynchon's account) was in the lead when he abruptly stopped. “There on the rocks above us, stood a black dog,” the young geologist wrote. It was the second time he had seen it, but for Marshall, the third. “We saw his breath steaming from his jaws, but no sound came through the biting air.” Marshall turned white and uttered: “’I did not believe it before. I believe it now.’ And then, even as he spoke, the fragment of rock on which he stood slipped. There was a cry, a rattle of fragments falling—and I stood alone.” Rescuers later found Marshall’s body at the bottom of the ravine, bloodied and broken, and watched by a black dog.
After witnessing the death of his friend, and at the risk of encountering the dog for a third time himself, the young geologist felt compelled to return to West Peak and to carry on the work of the geological survey. “I must die sometime,” he wrote. “When I am gone this paper may be of interest to those who remain, for, in throwing light on the manner of my death, it will also throw light on the end of the many victims that the old volcanic hills have claimed.
Six years later, the young geologist went missing following a trip to the hills. It was several weeks before his body was found in the same ravine where Marshall had fallen below West Peak. According to a newspaper report, “the body was found on almost the identical spot where his friend, Herbert Marshall, met his death six years before…the fifth man who has lost his life on the range within thirty years.” Whether or not he had seen the black dog a third time that fateful day we will never know.
Some wonder if the black dog still prowls West Peak today, looking to claim yet more victims, perhaps such as the climber who lost his life on the mountain as recently as Thanksgiving Day, 1972.
Fact & Fiction
While the tale of the curse of the black dog is the stuff of legend, observations made about the geology of the Hanging Hills in Pynchon's account ring true. The hills, for example, are correctly described as "evidences of ancient volcanic action." Geological studies made in the past, as well as new work being conducted today, show the ridges formed during a series of three periods of volcanism that occurred in the region some 200 million years ago. Exposures of all three of the lava flows, the Talcott, Hampden, and Holyoke Basalts, occur in close proximity in the hills and surrounding areas.
A view southward from West Peak (above) photographed last October. The Sleeping Giant can be seen in the photo centered on the horizon.
"The ridges are all made of the Holyoke Basalt flow," writes geologist Greg McHone in his guide, Great Day Trips to Discover the Geology of Connecticut. Rocks of the Talcott Basalt can also be found along the hills' southern and western flanks; portions of the Holyoke Basalt can be found to the northeast.
Pynchon's account notes that "the cliffs are pierced by deep clefts" and valleys. These notches, visible from the hilltops and highways below, are the results of faults which have split and shifted portions of the old lavas, and made the hills more foreboding. "Since the flow tilts to the east," Greg explains, "yet reappears in several ridges, there must be faults between the ridges that have offset the ridges to lower levels as you go from east to west.
The faults (seen above as thin black lines) separating the peaks (red areas) are shown on the 1985 Bedrock Geologic Map of Connecticut (above) developed by renowned geologist John Rodgers of Yale University, and published by the Connecticut Geological & Natural History Survey.
In an area north of Meriden, faults split portions of the Metacomet Ridge. Since ancient time, water and glacial ice have worked to erode and deepen the ravines Pynchon described as separating the Hanging Hills. The large lake just north of Hubbard Park in Meriden, Merimere Reservoir, now fills one valley between East Peak and South Mountain. As Greg describes in his book, Hubbard Park today provides excellent access to the hills, for anyone interested to explore the hills, hikers and drivers.
Along the road that leads from the main area of the park and up to the peaks are examples of "vesicular lavas" like those Pynchon describes the young geologist collecting on the day he first saw the black dog. Small bubbles of hot gas trapped in the molten rock during the time the ancient lavas flowed remain today as pockmarks and small voids commonly seen in local basalt and known as gas vesicles (below).
If you make your way to the top of the peaks there are other interesting features of the basalts that can be seen. Narrow lines, raised and irregular, are apparent in the surface of the ridge tops. These are evidence of polygonal columnar jointing. These natural designs formed first as the lavas cooled in columns perpendicular to the direction of flow and shrunk and cracked. The vertical cracks, or fractures, later filled with minerals during the long periods of sedimentation in the Connecticut Valley that followed.
Evidence of much more recent glacial erosion of the ridges can be recognized as scrape marks seen in the rocks running north to south. The gouges were worn in the rock by glacial till, stone fragments and sediments that accumulated in glacial ice as it spread southward, worked to scour the traprock ridges and surrounding landscape.
Of course, exercise caution in making any exploration of the Hanging Hills. Whether you see the black dog or not, West Peak is a hazardous place under the best of circumstances.