On My Own Recognizance: Rutland Prison Camp Ruins

August 16, 2013 — I’d love to present this post as evidence of intrepid exploring, casual scofflawing, and deep obscurity-unearthing on my part. Truth is, I drove right up to a few abandoned buildings that used to be part of a prison project and are now publically accessible in a watershed where anybody can fish, hike, or hide bodies. Actually, I’m assuming the hiking and fishing part.

Also, I took my three-year-old. That should give you the most context.

But that doesn’t really make the site less cool. I mean, it’s the graffitied ruins of a 110-year-old prison camp in the middle of 23,000 acres of wilderness. Let’s talk about it.

In 1903, Massachusetts created a prison camp in Rutland, right in the center of the state. Its purpose was put its less law-abiding to constructive work in a section that was basically a no man’s land. So the inmates went from Jailhouse Rock to Farmer in the Dell.

The area was converted into a self-sustaining farm where they grew vegetables, milked chickens, harvested cow eggs, and reflected on the crimes that got them there. Which is what I assume happens naturally in a life of grabbing udders and pulling ovoids from chicken butts. Stop it, I know how chickens work.

The camp contained prisoner dormitories, staff housing, coops, barns, silos, a water tower…even a tuberculosis hospital. There are some good pictures of it at its prime here, as well as a hand-drawn map of the camp.

In 1933, they tanked the whole idea and it became a watershed region for the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs, which hold the drinking water for Boston and the surrounding area. People don’t want prisoner in their water, I guess, so most of prison camp structures were torn down.

But not all of them. From what I could determine online, there were four main sites of interest still left, and I wanted to find them all, three-year-old in tow or not.

Going into this place, I had more information than I usually do. Again, it’s a pretty accessible site. Cross-referencing the abovementioned hand-drawn map with Google Maps, I was able to set my GPS right for the place...and even see the structures on Satellite View. Heck, one of the roads is called Prison Camp Road. It’s harder for me to get into a pair of pants than it was to get into this place. Man, I wish that wasn’t a joke.

I headed for the square formed by Intervale, MDC, and Prison Camp Roads. These roads, as my GPS had earlier alerted me with bright red panic, were all dirt. However, they turned out to be well-maintained. My Civic had no problem, to give you more context and to slightly emasculate myself.

The first structure rose up like the hollow hill it is to be unmissable even in its most overgrown state. The only exterior evidence that it was man-made was the stone entrance, which was also man-trashed with graffiti. Inside was a relatively large space supported by pillars and carpeted in rocks and detritus. This was the prison vegetable cellar, which is admittedly an absolutely anticlimactic reveal for what’s otherwise a pretty cool building.

Somehow I never grew out of the habit of looking for a clubhouse for me and my friends (mostly imaginary), and this would’ve made an ideal one once cleaned up. Old pictures show that back when it was filled with perishables instead of penis graffiti, the hill was by itself on a plain. Today it’s swallowed by the wild and just generally seems to dare entrance.

Right before the vegetable cellar was a turnoff and, within walking distance down that turnoff, was the second building. Now, this structure seemed less clubhouse-worthy than the vegetable cellar. Small, exposed, and divided into six small stalls, each with only one entrance…not counting the gaping hole in the roof. However, this is an actual prison remnant…all that remained of solitary confinement, now itself solitarily confined.

Each cell was no bigger than a closet, and part of the metal lock could still be seen embedded in the doorway. If I were to name each cell by its predominant graffiti, they would be: Night Shad, Pizza God, Meat Monster, Deki, [obscenity deleted], and Christopher Theodore Sinclair III.

Behind the cellblock, I noticed a four-foot-tall freestanding wall that extended into the forest. There wasn’t much to it, but when I passed its far end, I soon found gaping holes in the forest floor that seemed to drop ten feet down into a mess of rebar, concrete, and rubble. After some poking around I found that we had been walking atop the third site, an intact drainage tunnel.

The end had collapsed somewhat, but it was big enough to enter and I could see relatively far down it thanks to the patches of sunlight that skylighted through those rents in the ground. That said, filled with water and trash, tetanus and brain-eating amoebas as it was, there was no way I was going to explore it further than sticking my head in and playing with the echoes.

For the final site, I had to get in my car and leave the dirt roads of the watershed proper for the paved road that was Charnock Hill. Right on that road, close to where we entered the watershed was Goose Hill Cemetery.

We pulled over to the side of the road and walked up that hill of a death plot. The ground was disconcertingly spongy with moss, and if felt like I was walking on the softening dead. The gravestones dated back to the 1800s.

I was looking for a cemetery, but not this one.

Beside it was a dirt track marked with an unobtrusive wooden post labeled Rutland Historical Site 9. We walked down the track until it disappeared, and then just followed the opening wood until we stopped at a large clearing. All told, we walked much less than a quarter of a mile. Also much less than ten miles.

There in the undergrowth was a rectangular stone with a bronze plaque. According to that memorial, we were standing on what was once the prisoner cemetery. Beneath our feet were the remains of 59 inmates. The ground wasn’t spongy there.

And that was it. We raced the mosquitoes back to the car and took off. Everything was easy to find, completely legal to access in the daytime, and—even though it doesn’t look or seem like one—pretty much a family outing of a place.

That is, if you’re one for outing your family.