Mystery Hill


January 7, 2008 — As of 1982, the official name of this Salem, New Hampshire, oddity was changed by its owners from “Mystery Hill” to “America’s Stonehenge” for marketing purposes. I guess it was inevitable, but it doesn't seem quite apt.  Not because I hold the original Stonehenge sacred in any way.  I’m not a druid, after all, even though I keep having to deny it for some reason. I’m just not a big fan of the over-sell, especially for something that’s pretty cool intrinsically. And I think Mystery Hill is pretty cool for what it is.

The earliest known records of the Mystery Hill site go back a few hundred years. Mostly just people purchasing and selling the 30-acre property on which the large-but-far-from-Stonehenge-large stones reside. There are rumors, however, of it being a stop on the Underground Railroad and that a visit to it by H.P. Lovecraft helped inspire him to pen his short story The Dunwich Horror.

Mystery Hill gets the Stonehenge comparison because it’s made of rocks, it’s older than anybody who’s alive today, and its origins are unclear. But that’s a lot like saying that your house and the Kremlin are similar because they're both made of bricks. Architecturally, there’s no comparison.

Another vague similarity is that some people claim Mystery Hill is an observatory for keeping track of solstices and other such astronomically based events. I’ve never been a big proponent of the giant stone calendar idea, though, even with the actual Stonehenge. It just seems that there are better ways to keep track of time. If ancient Egyptians could come up with a way to make ice in the middle of the desert, then ancient Europeans can at least come up with a more manageable way to track stars and seasons.

As I’ve already implied, no one really knows how old it is, so that makes people attribute its builders to a wide range of people from Native Americans to pre-Columbus Europeans to Colonial-era settlers.  Strangely, no space alien theories. Adding to the difficulty is that the site’s been contaminated multiple times in its history by people moving and removing stones, some out of chicanery and others for practical reasons.  Markings have also been found in the stone that some claim are ancient runes and others say are scratch marks from gardening tools and tree roots.  I love situations where somebody is definitely wrong.

One drizzly weekday afternoon in autumn, I visited Mystery Hill.  It’s located at 105 Haverhill Road in Salem, New Hampshire, in the southeast corner of the state. Once you arrive, it’s the usual procedure. You enter the visitor’s center, wander through the gift shop, view a scale model of the site, purchase your tickets and receive some literature for a self-guided tour, sit for a bit in a small theater and watch a movie involving...well, I don’t quite know.  I skipped the movie. Directly behind the visitor’s center are a few alpacas and some activities to occupy kids. And there were actually quite a few kids there at the time I visited.

However, as we took the path away from the visitor’s center and into the woods toward the actual stones, the sound of kids died behind us. Read those last four words again. By the time we got to the outer wall of the site a couple of minutes later, it was empty of people.

And that's a great thing about the site. It’s separated enough from the main entrance that you feel like you’re in the middle of a primeval forest, but not so far that you have to actually do anything close to hiking. It’s more like you pleasantly stroll to the site.

Inside this outer wall of stones is the main part of Mystery Hill.  Fences, chains, and signs show you exactly how to enter, navigate, and exit it. Spray-painted symbols show you what they believed the purposes of the individual rocks are. Numbered signs correspond to explanations listed in the literature we received when we bought our tickets. All told, the literature lists 32 different points of interest on the site (in addition to the 15 more astronomical points of interest). I have no idea how they wrung that much blood out of these humble stones.

The stone arrangements include a table-like set-up; various cairns, monoliths, and bivouacs; a number of random walls and wells; and a short tunnel.  At the end of it all is a wooden observation tower that elevates you a short distance above the site. My pictures of the place don’t do a good job of encapsulating it at all.

Overall, the site looks exactly like what somebody who’s cynical would describe it as: a jumble of stones. I prefer to describe it more as a stone playground. Very Bamm-Bamm. It made me want to clamber.

If you think it’s literally America’s Stonehenge, you’ll probably be disappointed. It’s not awe-inspiring, its history and claims at distinction are controversial, and no outstanding finds have been discovered among its ruins. However, if you’re looking for an interesting place to be occupied for a bit, you’ll be happy.