"Raggies" and Legends of Mt. Riga
From Legendary Connecticut by David E. Philips / ISBN 1-880684-05-5
Like so many other things in the wild, mountainous area around Salisbury, in the northwestern-most corner of Connecticut, the origin of the name of Mt. Riga has remained a mystery -- and inspired a legend. Some authorities claim that the 2000-foot elevation north of Salisbury village, once the location of America's most important iron furnace, was named by Swiss or Russian immigrants who arrived in the years before the American Revolution to work as charcoal burners and forge hands in the Holley and Coffin works at Forge Pond, near the summit of Mt. Riga.
Here they labored beside native Yankees to turn the local brown hematite ore from the pits of Ore Hill or Lime Rock into iron of great tensile strength, suitable for implements of farm and home and, later, cannon and musket barrels to help free those farms and homes from British rule. It was the Swiss workers, some say, who first dubbed their mountain workplace "Rhigi"; while others, just as certain, maintain that the Russians, perhaps remembering the port city on the Baltic Sea from which they had departed their homeland, were responsible for giving Mt. Riga its name. Still others are satisfied to let the naming remain an enigma, in keeping with the area's reputation for nourishing the unexplainable.
Whatever the case, Mt. Riga's furnace for almost a hundred years provided the Salisbury area with a strong economic base, unprecedented in a community so small and remote. Here, during the Revolutionary War era, were forged the cannon that frustrated the British fleet at Stonington; the sabers swung by Sheldon's Horse, Salisbury's elite fighting unit; and the great anchor of the frigate Constitution, so heavy that it took six yoke of oxen to drag it away from the slopes of Mt. Riga. Even after the war was won, the boom begun by munitions went on in the Mt. Riga region, fueled by the endless call for hoes and scythes, axe blades and bell clappers, rifle barrels and plows -- all the wrought metal goods needed to tame a wilderness and settle a new nation.
As the "woodchuck holes" grew deeper and deeper in the hills around Salisbury, area furnaces annually poured more than two thousand tons of iron into the national manufactory -- and countless golden dollars into the pockets of the local iron masters. The story goes that Salisbury has no central green because the founders were too busy making money at their ore pits and furnaces to bother planning one. And when the first minister was invited to the settlement, they say, he had to sleep for some time in the corner of a blacksmith shop, until his parishioners could find enough time away from their forges to build him a parsonage.
As the nineteenth century began, however, a combination of factors began to spell the slow decline of the industry that made Salisbury the "Pittsburgh of Early America." Since it took 250 bushels of charcoal and three tons of ore to produce a ton of cast iron by the primitive methods then employed, there came a time when the area hardwoods were depleted and the ore pits cleaned out. Hauling both charcoal and ore up the side of a mountain became clearly uneconomical. The forge on Riga closed for a time.
When new owners took over, they found that the steam pumps, which had for so long kept water out of the pits were no longer serviceable. However, just about the time the new electric pumps recommended by works superintendent John Monohan were ready to operate, an underground river apparently opened up, flooding the pits and nearly drowning workers who had to scramble for their lives. Monohan blamed "The Spirit of Riga" for the disaster. Said he, in despair, "There's a million dollars' worth of new machinery down in the bottom level of them woodchuck holes!"
Whether it was the disappearance of natural resources, the economic demands of a changing market or, as John Monohan believed, some evil spirit at work, there can be little doubt that the perfection of the "Bessemer process" of making steel was the straw that broke the sagging back of the Salisbury iron industry. Ironic this was, too, because one of those instrumental in developing the steelmaking process in American was Alexander Lyman Holley, a Salisbury native! Finally, in 1847, the fire that had cast its glow over Forge Pond for nearly a century was banked for the last time. The thriving village beside the pond near Mt. Riga's summit began to empty and crumble, soon to be reclaimed by nature. By mid-century the blue smoke which had hung low over the Salisbury hills for as long as anyone could remember, was seen no more.
Even before the collapse of the region's iron industry, the proper people of Salisbury began to take notice of a strange, dark breed of short people who inhabited tiny farms and isolated shacks scattered through the many little glens on the lower slopes of Mt. Riga. No one really knows where they came from -- or when -- but because they were said to speak a gutteral-sounding language and live in ways alien to the native Yankees, the belief was widely held that they were Hessian deserters from the British army, stragglers from Lafayette's forces or York State Dutchman (or a blending of all three ancestries).
During the heyday of the Mt. Riga iron works, these mountain people worked as wood-cutters, charcoal burners, ore carriers and forge hands. They associated only with one another, apparently intermarried, tended their tiny farm plots and minded their own business. Because of such strange behavior, the "Raggies," as they were called by the affluent Yankees of Salisbury, were regarded by the townspeople with suspicion, spoken about in whispers and even thought to have supernatural powers. The possibility that these dark people were somehow in touch with unearthly forces seemed to be confirmed by the persistent rumors floating around Salisbury that the Raggies and other residents of the slopes of Mt. Riga had frequently seen ghosts flitting through their isolated glens, especially on still, moonlit nights.
The presence of the supernatural at work in Raggie-land was further confirmed in 1802 when several buildings up in Sage's Ravine were involved in a mysterious stone bombardment, or lithobolia, which amazed the neighborhood and frightened residents for years to come. The strange phenomenon began between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m. on the bright, moonlit night of November 8, in S. Sage's clothier's shop. A man and two boys were in the shop, with the boys having retired to rest, when a block of wood came flying through a window, noisily shattering the glass. After that came pieces of mortar, until the man in the shop became so concerned, that he sent the boys to the owner's house nearby to inform him of the situation. After Sage arrived, he was alarmed to see the glass in his windows occasionally break, as if struck by some object; but though the night was bright with moonlight, he was unable to discover the source of the objects striking his store, try as hard as he might. At daylight the bombardment ceased, but it began again at 9:00 p.m. the following evening and lasted until midnight. For two more days it continued, starting and stopping a bit earlier each day.
On the fourth day, the phenomenon moved about 100 rods north to the home of Ezekiel Landon. Here the Landon family was treated to on-again-off-again glass breakage, both day and night, for a period of several days. Finally, the bombardment ceased altogether. The objects thrown into the Sage shop included wood, charcoal and stone, but mostly pieces of hard mortar of a sort never seen in the area before or since. The Landon house was struck only by stones, the first of which came through the door. Altogether, thirty-eight panes of glass were smashed in Sage's shop and eighteen in the Landon home. Several times persons in both places were struck by the unidentifiable flying objects, but injuries were slight.
As news of the ghostly bombardment spread, hundreds of people, including many ministers, were said to have come to Sage's Ravine to observe the stone and mortar barrage. What made every witness wonder was the fact that nothing could ever be seen coming toward a window until the pane actually shattered, and whatever passed through the window fell directly down on the window sill, as if placed there by human fingers. Frequently, pieces of mortar or charcoal were thrown through the same hole in the glass in rapid succession.
Many explanations were offered by those who observed the mischief, but none ever took satisfactory account of all the abnormal characteristics of the flying missiles. Eventually, the shower of stones was attributed by many -- including some clergymen -- to witchcraft or diabolical hands. Unlike the violent lithobolia inflicted upon the Walton family of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in June of 1682, however, the Salisbury missile bombardment was never attributed to a specific witch or stone-throwing imp.
The population of Raggie-land was greatly increased after the failure of the iron industry in the Mt. Riga region, as the victims of technological unemployment came down from the village at Forge Pond and scattered individually and in small groups into the valleys and shallow mountain hollows on the lower slopes of the mountain. Gradually, as they were assimilated into the earlier Raggie culture, they formed a kind of "lost tribe" left over from the boom period in the Salisbury area. Existing in rude cabins and tar-paper shacks, a dozen men, women and children sometimes crowded into ill-heated rooms; intermarrying (if they married at all); drinking from springs often contaminated by human wastes; eating preserved woodchuck, jacked deer or suckers from local brooks, the Raggies were said to have had a mortality rate exceeded only by the fertility rate of the women. A typical Raggie farm, according to the disapproving townspeople of Salisbury was "a half acre of land, the rest just Creation."
But despite all of this, they were a proud people. Seldom in serious trouble with the law, skilled in the art of surviving on the bounty provided by nature and beholden to no one, the Raggies survived as a distinctive folk culture with their own beliefs, customs and entertainments well into the twentieth century. The good folks of Salisbury village may even admit that vestiges of Connecticut's "lost tribe" can still be found today in the back country around Mt. Riga.
Because it explains something of the Raggie spirit, one of their folk tales bears repeating here. The story was passed to the "civilized" world in the 1930s when fishermen from outside the immediate Salisbury area began to catch fair numbers of sockeye salmon in Twin Lakes, two bodies of water on the edge of Raggie country. Since the sockeye is native only to the Pacific Northwest and was previously unknown east of the Rockies until large schools began to appear in the Connecticut waters, conservation scientists of both state and federal agencies were puzzled by the extraordinary occurrence. No one ever tried to stock Twin Lakes, yet there was the sockeye. So important was this discovery that the press services carried the news, along with speculation from fisheries experts as to how they got there, to the outside world. Through it all, according to several sources, the Raggies just smiled. Not only had the so-called "golden trout" been on their menus for several years, but they had an answer to the origin riddle incorporated in a tale they told to anyone who would listen.
Since time immemorial, the Raggies knew, kingfishers had been instrumental in maintaining the fish life in the ponds, which both birds and men depended upon for sustenance. Sensitive by instinct to changes in the ecology of a pond, kingfishers stocked those waters in which certain species seemed endangered, thus introducing new blood and improving the breed's chances for survival.
One early spring day, so the Raggie story goes, a gigantic kingfisher was seen hovering over the Twin Lakes. So large was the bird that it darkened the sun, small birds retired to their roosts and the owls at Owlsbury (Dudleytown) appeared to make the hills echo with their mournful cries. A few brave Raggies who dared look up at the kingfisher reported that it appeared very tired, and that its long beak was splintered and worn stubby at the end. Finally, the huge bird lit in a giant oak tree near a cranberry bog, bending the tree like a small bush under its enormous weight.
As several Raggie observers watched, the monster kingfisher was joined by a native bird of the same species and the two cousins seemed to engage in an animated conversation. Some of the bird language was overheard by a retarded youth who smiled in seeming understanding. But when questioned about the kingfishers' chat, all the boy could offer was a prediction: "There'll soon be good fishin' in the lakes!" At that, the giant kingfisher flew from the oak tree and, on wings which again darkened the sun, flew westward.
Many months later, according to the legend, the huge kingfisher returned to Twin Lakes, but this time he stayed a little longer than before, attended by numbers of local birds which seemed to be helping him in some task. According to old man Wilcox and other Raggies who happened to be picking cranberries nearby, they saw great numbers of sockeye salmon dropped into the Twin Lakes by the fisher birds that day. And within a year, they say, the boy's prediction had come true. Raggie fishermen were pulling all the "golden trout" they could eat from the Twin Lakes, although several more years would pass before outsiders caught the fish and revealed its presence to a wondering world.
The giant kingfisher was never seen again after the day of the great sockeye stocking. But a short time later, Raggie berry-pickers on Bear Mountain, Connecticut's highest peak, reported the discovery of a massive swath of fallen timber half-way up the mountainside. When they examined the area closely, they said, they found large bundles of blue and white feathers "with quills as thick as a man's wrist" scattered among the fallen timbers. They reckoned that the big bird must have miscalculated his altitude and crashed in a fog, as he tried to wing his way back to Oregon or Alaska for another load of sockeye fingerlings to stock the waters of Twin Lakes.