TAGS: legends of Candlewood Lake CT, urban legends, Chicken Rock accidents, Lynn Deming, the story of the Witch’s Circle, drowning deaths milfoil, towns buried under Candlewood Lake, lake monsters of the United States, town of Jerusalem CT, Kristi Petersen Schoonover, Down the Hatch Brookfield
Seven Creepy Tales of Candlewood Lake
by Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Many writers pull their inspiration from childhood; fortunately, I had a great many urban legends in mine.
The town of New Milford, Connecticut—where I grew up—has its share of unsettling lore. There is the inexhaustible mythos surrounding Lover’s Leap; there is also the Witch’s Circle, a stand of evergreens where, at midnight, an unseen spirit is said to whisper the date, time, and cause of a brave soul’s death in his ear. Lesser-known is the Glass Baby, the metallic statue of an infant in a clear coffin in Center Cemetery (which one of my friends adamantly claims he saw). As children, none of us doubted the validity of these tales, and the ones set in and around Candlewood Lake were no exception.
Candlewood Lake—which today borders five towns—was created in 1926 by the Connecticut Light & Power Company. Its purpose was to generate electricity, and its engineering is considered a feat. This status, however, came with more than a large price tag: whole communities were wiped out. CL&P, armed with eminent domain, secured property from families who had owned the land for generations. Homes, churches, and schools were burnt to the ground or left to flood. Tobacco farms, bridges, and cemeteries were submerged.
All that loss was romantic, alluring, and fertile ground for storytelling.
These are the tales we whispered around the campfire and at sleepovers. As an adult, I view them as either provincially-colored incarnations of folklore found elsewhere in the country, or as cautionary tales intent on keeping brats in check. When I was a kid, though, these stories were true and terrifying. They fueled my imagination, my love of the lake—and eventually, my career as a writer.
Special thanks to Kristina Hals, who helped me remember some details that had gotten fuzzy.
THE KIDS IN THE PIPE
The New Milford Town Beach—Lynn Deming Park—abuts one of the lake’s largest dams. While the beach area is cordoned in for safety, the ropes don’t do much to keep the adventurous from escaping. It’s said that three bored kids swam beneath the ropes, ventured too close to the dam, and were sucked into a pipe. Some say they were ground up in the turbines; others say they drowned while trying to claw free of the opposing current. Either way, their bodies never were found.
I have no idea how a dam works and I honestly still don’t, although from looking at diagrams this scenario seems entirely possible. What I do know is that our generation took this as a warning, and none of my friends who swam at the town park ever went beyond the ropes. Even at any of our private beaches—most of them miles from the nearest dams—hazarding beyond those thick yellow cords was out of the question.
A RITE OF PASSAGE
At the New Fairfield-Sherman border, on the southern tip of Green Island, looms 25-foot-high Chicken Rock, where you can either jump or rope-swing into the water. While tourists enjoy its quaintness—it harkens to the days when fun was more important than safety—for locals under 18, it’s a popular place for taking the leap into adulthood. There is even a T-shirt you can buy: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Pirates-of-Candlewood-Lake-tm-T-shirt-Chicken-Rock-/150384205508). If you want to see the madness, check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk1NS8hViHc
It’s also, however, the site of countless accidents, mostly caused by people not jumping out far enough and whacking their heads on the way down. While I can’t find any evidence of actual deaths, there is a story that anyone who really wants to test his mettle can sail to the rock in the dark of night, turn off his lights, and wait. Supposedly, one can either observe the spirits of those who have died as they repeatedly relive their last leap, or hear their final screams.
Just about everyone I grew up with has leapt from Chicken Rock. I never have. My high school buddies and I, though, piloted my Dad’s boat over there on an August night in 1989. We did hear screaming, but to this day we’re not sure if it wasn’t from some party happening elsewhere on the lake.
THOSE WHO REFUSED TO LEAVE
It’s tempting to speculate that despite eminent domain and rising waters, some folks refused to leave; the story goes that they chained themselves to their front porches and surrendered to the flood. Since it took many months to fill the lake, it would have been an agonizing, several-week wait depending on the location. It is said that their regretful ghosts, forlorn and freezing in the depths, reach for the light—and seize the ankles of unsuspecting swimmers, dragging new souls to their watery grave.
Even the recent history of the lake is peppered with drownings, and in some cases, the bodies aren’t found for several days due to the murk. This fact, and the abundance of Eurasian milfoil—a tall, dense-growing invasive species that entangles the legs and has been suspected or blamed in several incidents—are at the root of this ghastly yarn. In my pre-awareness-of-seaweed-years, I took this legend very seriously; I had a few run-ins that were so traumatizing I avoided swimming in certain areas of the lake.
At least that I can find, there is no record of owners remaining behind with their property, let alone chaining themselves to it; there are people who would not, however, turn over their land, and because of that, there are some in the town of Sherman who still pay taxes on submerged acreage.
Contrary to what you’re probably thinking, Candy—the Candlewood Lake monster—has no connection to Nessie or Champ.
Candy is a twenty or thirty foot giant walleye or bluegill (depending on who’s telling it) who prowls the shallows around the tip of Vaughn’s Neck—a bucolic, uninhabited spit of land which juts between the towns of New Milford and New Fairfield. On the New Milford side, opposite the Candlewood Terrace beach, there’s a perfect spot for a shaded, private picnic, mostly because it’s got a gradual slope toward shore and plenty of sturdy trees for boat tie-up; yet, rarely anyone takes advantage of it. Candy, who capsizes boats and feasts on their passengers just before they reach the shoal, is why.
It’s no surprise that this story didn’t start circulating until the late 1970s (Jaws had captivated the nation a few years earlier), and since that particular spot on Vaughn’s Neck would’ve made for a prime party location, it may have been a way to discourage troublemakers. All I know is that, in the summer of 1984, my friends and I went over there to camp—and the ghost stories we told were nowhere near as scary as the loud splashing of an obviously large something in the shallows just beyond the scope of our flashlights.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
While it’s true that a few structures were left standing, most were burnt to the ground after the owners were gone. It’s long been gossiped, however, that the village of Jerusalem, which now lies at the bottom between New Milford’s Lynn Deming Park and Birch Point, was left intact; that those exploring beneath the surface will see houses, barns, and meeting halls emerge from the gloom like apparitions.
This narrative contends that on the final day of the school year, students who stand on the shore of the cove and burn their papers will, after the burning is complete, hear the distant toll of the village’s schoolhouse bell.
It seems that most of the schoolhouses were actually relocated to higher ground, and I’m not even sure that Jerusalem village had its own schoolhouse. It is true, though, that some homes were left standing (such as the Tudor Haviland home), and that there are still some structures, such as the Orchard Point Bridge, that divers can behold today. If you’re interested, you can see that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx1atqN1Sm8
Squantz Pond, which is in New Fairfield and is part of the lake even though there is a berm that separates it, supposedly harbors a still-standing church, complete with steeple. People say that sometimes, due to drought or intentional draw-down, the steeple isn’t far enough under the waterline to stay clear of boaters; it can make for a scary obstacle if someone isn’t paying attention.
Folklore says accidentally clipping the church’s steeple will result in a curse on the vessel; shortly after something breaks and is repaired, something else will break and be in need of repair. Long story short, the boat will never run right again, and the pattern will persist until the boat is destroyed (not sold; destroyed. I had a friend whose father was convinced that his used Chris-Craft had been involved with the steeple: he got it for a song, but he barely enjoyed it because it was always in the shop).
Recently, I found a comment posted under an article on Candlewood Lake that made a reference to hitting the steeple and what happened afterward. You can read that here: http://www.damnedct.com/what-lurks-beneath
THE BIG CHILL
Cemeteries weren’t exempt from the power of progress. While many bodies were disinterred and relocated to graveyards outside the flood zone, some families opted not to remove their loved ones’ remains. In addition, it’s likely that many small family plots which dotted the landscape were never emptied.
The legend goes that every year in February—the month they began filling the lake in 1928—the spirits of the abandoned dead roam the ice, crying for someone to dig them up so they will no longer be forgotten.
The lake usually gets drawn down in winter in an effort to kill the milfoil (and possibly for other reasons), and standing on sand that would normally be several feet underwater is surreal. Still, the lake is active in winter—if the ice is thick enough, there are fishermen and skaters, as well as a few curiosity seekers hoping to spot old foundations and chimneys. Toward sunset, though—especially in the throes of February—there is almost a preternatural quiet, broken every once in a while by a mournful wail, the source of which is difficult to identify.
Despite the scary tales of the lake she grew up on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover is a water rat. Her short fiction has been featured in several magazines and anthologies; Dark Alley Press published her novel, Bad Apple, in 2012, and a novelette, “This Poisoned Ground,” in 2014. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, is the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony residencies, and is a co-host on the Dark Discussions podcast. Recently named Guest of Awesome for 2017’s Ro-Con 3, she also serves as co-editor of Read Short Fiction and creates the This Writing Life YouTube series. Find out more at http://www.kristipetersenschoonover.com/
Candlewood Terrace Beach
My childhood beach. It’s one of many locations on the lake where, in winter, unidentifiable sounds echo across the ice. On another note, in the winter, the dock with the diving board is about where the water level starts; everything between there and the shore is dry land. It’s creepy walking on the bottom.
There’s more than one way to test your mettle at Chicken Rock.
History of the Lake
Down the Hatch is a well-known lakeside bar and restaurant famous for its “dock-your-boat-and-eat” culture. It’s been around since the 1940s (and to this day is a favorite summer haunt of mine) and featured this history of the lake on its menu for the 2010 season.
Kristi & Chuck
My brother, right, and I swimming in Candlewood Lake, circa 1982. I would’ve been about 11 here, right around the age when these stories were all the rage among my group of friends.
Urban Legends Map
This map shows the tales’ (approximate) locations.
We’re looking at Vaughn’s Neck on the New Milford side. Candy is said to prowl off a small beach a little further south.