CAMBRIDGE, Vt. & STOWE, Vt.
The roadside marker for this week’s ‘This Place in History’ can be found on Route 100 just below Stowe. Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins explains why we were on our way to one of the most beautiful and popular spots in Vermont.
“We’re going to drive through Smugglers’ Notch. It’s kind of odd that we’re sitting on the side of the highway, but this sign is pointing us in the right direction. We’re going to follow this historic road that was once a railroad, then a carriage road and now one for cars. So let’s hop in and take off!”
“Right now we’re standing at the top of the Notch. If we fell down to our left, we roll down to the Winooski River Valley. If we fell down to our right, we roll down to the Lamoille River Valley. I think we start with what is a notch. A notch is a way through the mountains. There are lot of them in Vermont,” said Perkins.
“It got its name going back to the time of Thomas Jefferson, our President back in 1807. He said that we were not going to import goods from England because they’re causing problems. This all led up to the War of 1812. Well, Vermont traded with Canada more than they traded with anyone else. So there is really a rich tradition of smuggling through Vermont from about 1807 up until 1812 when the War first started.”
“They were smuggling everything from rum, which came up from the Caribbean and then were trading up to Canada, to lace, to cloth, to paper…you know the kind of goods you needed for everyday living. Most of this came from Europe and the settlers in Vermont needed it,” explained Perkins.
“So as you can see from all these boulders here, this is a great place to hide. So I think this is where a lot of the stories started to come about smugglers, pirates and everything else that came to the Notch, and hid all of their items in the caves. So treasure hunters still come here and search this area for treasure.”
How did they manage the rough terrain?
“They hiked. There are stories about cattle being driven through the Notch. But we’re pretty sure this Notch was too rugged to do cattle. They were carrying it through on their backs. Maybe they would get a horse or donkey or something like that to get it through,” elaborated Perkins.
“It didn’t get a road until the late 19th Century. Victorians wanted to come up. They’d take the train up to Stowe and they’d want to come through the Notch. So you started out with a footpath, then it became a little carriage road and then eventually in 1921, the state put in the highway, this Route 108. And it really hasn’t changed much since 1921. It’s pretty narrow at the top. This road closes in the winter; it’s not plowed. So you have to come up [by car] in the Summer or Fall.” You can always hike or snowshoe up.
“People come up here for the hiking in the Winter, the skiing. But you can see some really cool things like really huge boulders. We saw some of those as we came up. A lot of them have been named after famous people who found them. And then right in the Notch itself, there’s some neat rock formations. So there’s the hunter and his dog, which is right above us here. Then on the opposite side is the elephant head. It’s called elephant head, but it lost its trunk in the 1960s.”
“We’re looking at the Big Spring. That’s what the sign says, Big Spring; but it used to be called the Mammoth Spring. So obviously expectations have come back a bit. There was a lot of development right around here, so a lot of tourist-based buildings. They even bottled water and sold it for awhile. Like we’ve been talking about, history’s made up of a lot of stories. Many aren’t true and this one probably isn’t,” started Perkins.
“There was this smuggler chief that was actually on the Black Snake, which is a famous boat in Lake Champlain. He had all of his treasure and he kept it in a cave on the side of Smugglers’ Notch. This cave had a big spring in it. So they had water, they had shelter and they could hide from the revenuers. Well, the revenuers eventually found them. There was a damsel in distress, a kidnapping, all sorts of stuff involved, but the revenuers couldn’t get them out. So they took a whole barrel of gunpowder and they put it in front of the cave entrance. They set it off and the mountainside came down and buried the smugglers. So the revenuers defeated the smugglers. The spring ended up coming through the rubble. There’s supposedly a whole gang of smugglers buried in this hillside behind us,” concluded Perkins.
“Smugglers, pirates, revenuers, tourists and automobiles at Smugglers’ Notch, at ‘This Place in History’!
For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.
For a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here.