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On Ben's Farm

Bottomless Bog?
A Durham kettle hole is the site of an unsolved mystery

by Mylinda Woodward '97

Almost as soon as the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts moved to Durham in 1893, Clarence M. Weed, professor of zoology and entomology, began to explore the area. Durham, he said, was a "fortunate region for the home of a naturalist." One of his happy discoveries was a true kettle-hole bog within two miles of his lab in Thompson Hall. Known to the locals as "Spruce Hole," the bog, a unique geological formation created at the end of the last ice age, was known for its ancient beauty as well as the secrets it concealed.

Mary P. Thompson, a town historian and niece of the college's first benefactor, Benjamin Thompson, described the site in 1888 as a large bowl with a dark pool in the center, "said to be unfathomable, concerning which there is a tragical legend."

Miss Thompson gave no details about the "tragical legend," but the students writing for the New Hampshire College Monthly had no such compunction. In the October 1896 issue, they wrote that a former owner of Spruce Hole, a Mr. Laskey, had allegedly committed murder-suicide, first killing his young son and then taking his own life by drowning in the pond. His body was never recovered.

Perhaps that was one reason the myth of the bottomless pool persisted, despite the fact that, according to Weed, soundings taken in 1896 had succeeded in finding a hard bottom.

In February 1918, two students armed with 200 feet of line, a 5-pound weight, shovels, axes, measures and notebooks set out to determine the truth once and for all. The New Hampshire reported the results of their efforts: "By careful measurements the center of the surface was found and a hole chopped through twenty-five inches of ice. When the axe broke through the ice, a jet of dirty brown water was forced up to a height of two feet [and] a strong odor of hydrogen sulfate permeated the atmosphere. The line and weight were made ready and when all was clear the iron was started on its descent into the traditional bottomless pit. The line played out rapidly. Foot after foot was reeled off. Still the line disappeared into the depths below. Then the pull on the cord ceased abruptly. The watchers glanced hurriedly at the remaining line, and after vain attempts to sink it farther, pulled it in and measured off the distance. The pool is twenty feet deep at the middle."

Today, tales of bottomless pits and tragic deaths are long forgotten, but appreciation of this ancient glacial landform remains strong. Ever since Clarence Weed collected his first bug there, Spruce Hole has provided a valuable natural laboratory for the university. Since 1993, research conducted at Spruce Hole has produced no less than five UNH master's theses.

Some of these projects were in connection with a larger study by the town to evaluate Spruce Hole, which is also a stratified drift aquifer, as a groundwater supply for Durham and the university.

Spruce Hole is important nationally as well. There were once six kettle holes known to exist in southern New Hampshire; all but Spruce Hole have been destroyed. In 1972, its uniqueness was recognized by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. A few years later, the Durham Conservation Commission successfully negotiated ownership of the bog. On Nov. 17, 2009, the town's efforts to protect the bog from development were recognized with an official bronze plaque and a ceremony rededicating the Spruce Hole Bog National Natural Landmark. ~

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