The Damned Story: Near the center of Connecticut in the unassuming town of Hebron sits Gay City State Park, offering streams, a scenic pond and over 1,500 acres of woodland teeming with hiking trails, recreational opportunities and . . . ghosts, according to some.
Gay City was a once-thriving 18th-century village that was primarily inhabited by the Gay family; the park is particularly named after John Gay, one of the settlement’s founding fathers. Remnants from the former town, including the remains of abandoned mills, stone foundations and other structures, can still be found here. It’s these ruins that have helped to foster the creepy vibe that some people attribute to the park.
The town was originally settled in 1796, when Elijah Andrus led a group of persecuted Methodists out of Hartford to a quieter space along the Blackledge River where they hoped they would be left alone by the regional Congregationalists to live and worship as they pleased. Under the guidance of Rev. Henry Sumner, the faithful—including many members of the Gay family—attended services twice a week, which included imbibing generous amounts of “spirits” in the hope of finding higher spirits. Apparently, such dedicated alcohol consumption caused a host of social issues, but the settlement continued to thrive.
In 1811, a textile mill was built, and soon other mills, shops, homes and even a distillery followed. The town was soon known as Factory Hollow, and had its ups and downs over the next few decades—the main mill burned down twice, the second time in 1885, and the town never really recovered.
According to one story from the Bolton Historical Society, it was claimed that the water in the settlement “ran uphill” from the pond to the mill, which spooked a few residents.
Factory Hollow also suffered other problems, including two alleged murders, both of which pre-date the Civil War. According to David Philips’ Legendary Connecticut, the first one involved a jewelry peddler, who may have been robbed and murdered by the village charcoal-burner, although the actual perpetrator was never brought to justice; the unfortunate merchant’s skeleton was discovered in a charcoal pit near the edge of town, damning evidence for some. The second untimely death involved a blacksmith’s apprentice—the story goes that the young lad showed up late to ye olde shoppe one day and ye olde blacksmithee took extreme exception, stabbing the tardy assistant to death, and then beheading him. (What would’ve happened if the apprentice had played sick for an entire day?!) As with the other murder, no records exist of the crime, no was anyone apparently ever arrested for it.
Grisly stories aside, like what happens to many towns when the main employer burns to the ground and is no longer viable, the residents of Factory Hollow started leaving. By the end of the 19th century, the town was essentially abandoned, and then was slowly swallowed up by the surrounding countryside. Finally, the land was sold by Emma Foster (one of the last descendants of those who lived there) to the state in 1943, with the stipulation that the area be renamed Gay City. A year later, Gay City officially became a state park.
Despite the decades of neglect, a few of the original structures still stand and can be explored, including house foundations, stone cellars and the walls of an old paper mill. Gay City is now more like Ghost City, which is just fine for those who love to explore such locations.
For years, visitors supposedly saw the spirits of the murdered victims wandering around the forests that have now grown up through the village. Up until recently, the story was also told that someone long ago had drowned in the pond at the park, although there hadn’t been any documentation of the event. Tragically, in May 2010, a New Britain teenage did drown in the pond while swimming, so that event can now be considered true.
What is not confirmed are the dozens of stories, rumors and reports alluding to the supernatural activities in Gay City. Like many purportedly haunted locales, the abandoned town is home to all sorts of otherworldly phenomena. As mentioned, there have been alleged sightings of specters and spirits—one is allegedly the blacksmith’s apprentice, running through the woods with his head in his hands! In addition to other disembodied voices (including one that murmurs “The hollow”) and mysterious footsteps, spirit mists and other odd manifestations have been supposedly observed. Paranormal teams who have investigated her claim to have recorded EVPs and taken orb photos as well as having had other unusual experiences.
Gay City may have been abandoned, but it doesn’t mean that its story is over.
Our Damned Experience: We visited Gay City in Summer 2014 and explored a bit of the park.
The remains of the old mill and town are easy to find as the trail to all of it is marked clearly at the southern end of the main picnic area, at the far end of the pond’s beach area (in the direction of the spillway). It’s a fairly short walk to the mill site, maybe a few hundred yards at most. It’s on your left just as you reach a small wooden bridge.
As you can see, there isn’t much left to the mill than the stone foundations.
If you continue along the main path, you can see some of the remains of the stone foundations of the other buildings that were here.
The foundations are only a few yards off the main path, although they’re not marked. You just have to be looking for them.
We explored the foundations a bit and although they were interesting, we really didn’t notice anything particularly unusual about the rest of the area—just your standard forest with plenty of trees, plants, scurrying woodland creatures and birds. There are also plenty of stone walls meandering through the woods, a reminder that a century or so ago all this land used to be cleared fields.
Lots of stone walls, actually, which helped us maintain our bearings when we wandered from the main path.
So there was plenty of flora, fauna and such, and it was all pretty uneventful until we went off the main path a bit in search of more foundations and sort of stumbled upon this.
Okay, we’ve heard stories about hikers wandering in the woods and coming across “fairy rings“—and then ending up at bad ends courteous of ill-willed wee fairy folk! Granted, this was more of a random circular patch of grass than what people might consider to be a true fairy ring, but it still struck us as pretty odd just having grown like that out in the middle of nowhere. The image really doesn’t do justice as to how the circle, which was about 30 feet across, stands apart from the rest of the landscape.
Tempting “fate,” we walked around the circle, went into it and even danced around in it a bit. Apparently our fairy-summoning skills weren’t up to par as nothing happened and no otherworldly folk appeared. It wasn’t any different from the rest of the area aside from the grass—no cold spots, weird vibes or absence of woodland noises.
The rest of our visit was pretty uneventful—no unusual experiences or supernatural sights, but it was the middle of a sunny day. No doubt if we return under the cover of night, it may be a different experience …
Not that there’s anything wrong with it.
If You Go: Like most state parks, Gay City State Park is open year-round, daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, although the official parking lot is only available from April through Columbus Day. (Winter parking is available.) In addition to hiking and exploring the abandoned ruins, visitors can also bike, fish and swim, among other recreational activities. The area around the pond makes for a nice little picnic area, so feel free to pack a lunch when you visit!
The park entrance is located on Route 85 in Hebron.