(One of) Leatherman’s Caves (Watertown)

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Leatherman’s Cave, Watertown

May 18, 2009

Note: Please see comments for more info.

LeathermanEvery so often, perhaps once in every 40 or 50 posts I do, I come to write one for which I’m both excited and scared. This is such a post.

The story of the Leatherman is so crazy, so awesome, and so well done by others far more qualified than I that I’ve been sitting on it for months. But the Leatherman’s time has come. So sit back, relax and prepare to learn all about one of the most mysterious and enigmatic characters to ever leave his footprint in Connecticut. Quite literally.

There are several books on the Leatherman and his portrait hangs in museums and libraries from Derby to Granby and points went into New York. Hartford’s PBS station produced an interesting half-hour show on the Leatherman – I really wish they’d pop it back into rotation. It’s time for something new, no matter how old. Regardless, the links to that show are at the bottom. I highly recommend you watch it. Not just for the content, but the narrator/host guy is awesome and there’s a history nerd in a turtleneck-sweater-sportscoat combo that recalls some difficult fashions of days gone by.

lcb

Several historians, hikers, writers and the merely curious have researched the Leatherman, culling together old newspaper articles from the 1800′s and compiling eyewitness accounts. And yet, to this day, he remains as mysterious as ever.

Giving him even more cred, Pearl Jam is apparently enamored with the Leatherman as well. Here is their song, “Leatherman,” which isn’t very good, but check out the lyrics. I heard they had a song about the Charter Oak, but it didn’t get recorded.

So what makes him so cool? The Leather Man was a legend in his own time. He walked a clockwise circuit of 365 miles every 34 days between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers. He died on March 20, 1889 in Mt. Pleasant N.Y., and is buried in the Sparta Cemetery just south of Ossining, N.Y.

lcfFor many years after his death, his identity was unknown. Then, for just as many years, he was identified as Frenchman Jules Bourglay. However, recent research by Dan DeLuca (who has recently published a book on the Leatherman) has confirmed that he was not Jules Bourglay. But perhaps it’s best we don’t know who he was.

He was a vagrant and a tramp. His home was the woods of Connecticut and eastern New York; sleeping in caves and crude huts, living off the kindness of strangers. According to the legend (which has also been slightly debunked), his impossibly rigorous 34-day cycle was uncanny. He’d arrive at the same doorstep, pantomiming for food every 34 days.

If the town was too populous, or if someone startled or upset him at some point, he’d never return to that spot. The Leatherman almost never spoke, but rather grumbled and gestured his needs.

His name comes from his clothes, of course, He wore a self-made sixty pound suit of leather winter, spring, summer and fall. You know what? I’m just going to excerpt some bits from an older article found here.

He traveled in a clockwise direction, never once retracing his steps. From Harwinton his route took him to Bristol, Forestville, Southington, Kensington, Berlin, Middletown and south along the westerly side of the Connecticut River to the shore towns, thence westerly to Westchester County in New York state and without crossing the Hudson, turned easterly into Connecticut near Ball’s Pond. From Danbury he went northerly to New Milford, to Roxbury, Woodbury, Watertown, Plymouth and back to Harwinton, thus completing his cycle.

lcThe Leather Man era covered almost a third of a century. It began before Lincoln was president and continued until 1889. To some he appeared to be going all the time when actually he traveled only ten miles a day taking ample time for rest and refreshment. Little children, to whom the Leather Man was pointed out on his first trips through, became of age and had families of their own and in turn may have pointed him out to their children. He became know as the “old” Leather Man because it seemed as if he traveled on forever. In time, the weight of years was noticeable. The blizzard of 1888 was too much of an ordeal even to one as hardened to the road and the weather as he and for the first time in memory of any one living he fell four days behind schedule. The rigors of that winter were such as to slow his ardor for travel and the following March he passed away on the George Dell farm in Briarcliff, New York. One of the parkways leading out of New York City is within sight of the last cave that sheltered him.

Anecdotes of the Leather Man are rich in flavor and run the whole gamut of human emotions. Pathos is often substituted by humorous situations but a strong desire to help the needy and unfortunate is evidenced by the guardianship of hundreds for this homeless itinerant. A statement concerning his regularity of travel was, “housewives set their clocks by him.” The truth of it is constantly challenged by the skeptical and yet the statement, coming from many sources, persists. How can people believe that one so carefree and apparently irresponsible could be so regular in his daily routine as to outshine the village chime that has to be regulated on occasion? The fact remains, he was regular and people knew the very day to expect him; the exact hour and almost the exact minute. Even the Leather Man could not have known the effect he had on the lives of people in scores of communities that adjusted their activities to his whims.

lcaThe Leather Man knew how to take care of himself and where to get what [he] wanted. He made all of his utensils and looked to kind friends for food, tobacco and matches only. A man of the out-of-doors, he knew every vagary of nature and how to deal with it. Never did he accept an invitation to sleep indoors, regardless of the inclement weather but made himself comfortable through his own ingenuity and handicraft. The question is frequently asked, “How did he keep warm in winter?” A number of people observed carefully his cave-keeping methods and took particular note of his heating [method]. Before leaving his cave each day an inverted “v” of small dry sticks would be placed on the “hearth” or large flat stone in the center of his shelter, needing only to be lighted on his next arrival. Additional dry wood was stored in the rock crevices within the structure. With such preparation little time was lost in starting a fire after a day’s journey and soon the small area was comfortable and warm. When enough coals had accumulated to warm the hearth thoroughly, they were swept outside and the Leather man lay down on his improvised “soapstone” to sleep in a warm, if not soft, bed. Additional warmth radiated from the low overhang of rock and the sensation must have been like sleeping in a hot oven. It was sufficiently warm for him to come through every winter in good health.

Some people have not given the Leather Man due credit for intelligence but he seems to have been endowed with enough sense to establish an itinerary in a strange land, make friends of hundreds of residents and win to his heart several score of housewives who took pride in feeding him. His welcome never wore out because he sought no lcemore than one meal in thirty-four days from any household. He had more people concerned about his food, his health and his comfort than anyone else in Connecticut. He made his tools which he carried in a great leather bag of his own make, his outfit of leather patches and sometimes did his own cooking…

From all indications the Leather Man story will be perpetuated and remain with the best of our New England folklore. It is revived each year by the press and featured not less than six or eight times annually in western Connecticut. Only recently have libraries, museums and historical societies undertook to gather and preserve Leather Man material but the quantity accumulated thus far indicates that at some future date we shall have a voluminous record of this remarkable man in our Connecticut folklore.

Did you get that part about how he survived the Blizzard of 1888? Outside (in Southington, apparently)! I love this guy.

lcdMany towns have their own “Leatherman’s Caves,” but the one that most people know – and the one I know with that actual name – is along the Mattatuck Trail in Watertown, very near its intersection with the Jericho Trail. It’s a safe bet that if there’s a cave along the route mentioned above, this guy slept in it.

It is worth noting that the cave in Watertown, which lies beneath the beautiful Crane’s Lookout, is by far one of the more habitable “caves” in the state. I put quotation marks around “caves” because our caves aren’t true caves at all, but rather rock overhangs.

Anyway, this fake cave is downright palatial. It’s easy to climb into and at about 6’3″ tall, I can just about stand upright in it. I’m sure the Leatherman considered this his Four Seasons.

It was remarkably clean for my visit. Usually, these types of places are havens for high school kids to party – and I’m sure this cave is no different, I just happened to walk through on a lucky day. Yes – walk through. The Mattatuck Trail is blazed right through the cave-like-thing, which is really cool.

I was happy to finally get out to see the cave myself and being inside it, and knowing the story of the man who gave the cave its name, it was fun to revel in my solitude and realize again why I enjoy hiking so much.

But also to know that I was going home to a warm meal in a warm house with a warm wife.

Below is Part One of the PBS show, “The Road Between Heaven and Hell” about The Leatherman. It’s excellent and you can continue on to parts 2 and 3.

Return to Rocks, Cavse & Dens

The Leatherman
Buy Dan DeLuca’s book, “The Old Leatherman”

31 responses to “(One of) Leatherman’s Caves (Watertown)”

  1. Brad G says:

    I read Dan Deluca’s book this summer & really felt bad for this poor old guy. I will definitely put the Mattatuck hike on my “to-do” list so I can see a real “cave” (as opposed to say Judge’s “Cave”) Deluca’s book mentions a Leatherman cave in the Hanging Hills of Meriden. I’ll let you know if I find anything

  2. Tony L says:

    I was lucky enough to grow up in this area and my cousin and I have the best memories of exploring this area in the 1950′s. It is not really a cave though. It was formed from large chunks of rock which have broken away from a cliff located directly above. These large chunks have formed the ceiling and walls making it a place that can be used to hide from the weather. It’s easy to imagine the leatherman resting here with a cozy campfire. The cliff directly above is a high point on the trail and there is a nice view of Thomaston. This entire area has very similar rock formations with similar type hide-aways that hikers could use for shelter. I remember some of the stories we used to hear about this guy, nothing bad, but you know how things go through your head as a kid. This is worth seeing and short of a few people who leave there trash around, its a great way to spend time with your family. My daughter (28) just asked me last Saturday to take her and my 8 year old granddaughter there. I showed them places along the trail that it seemed like yesterday, I saw for the first time. It felt good to pass this along to them and hopefully they’ll share with their families.

  3. Shirley Sutton says:

    Nice hike and story. The Leather Man most likely slept here, but this is not the true Leather Man cave in Watertown. The real cave is just yards from Cranes Lookout (and much easier to get to) according to early maps and the Connecticut Walk Book of 1940.

    The cave at Cranes Lookout would have been impossible to heat in winter months.

    See “Connecticut Curiosities” Campbell/Heald, 2002 for good directions.

  4. Steve says:

    I’m in shock over Shirley’s comment. Although MANY sources note the “cave” I wrote about as being the Leatherman’s Cave in Watertown, the directions in the book Shirley cites may lead to a very nearby, but different “cave.”

    Crazy – this is one of my most read pages on CTMQ and the thought that the information herein is wrong is killing me.

    Not sure when I’ll get out to Thomaston again, but I certainly will.

  5. walt says:

    Don’t know how and why i found this sight. Halloween is close by i guess. Grew up on Thomaston Rd. by the V.F.W. in the sixty,s. Used to party all the time at Leathermans. Ran trail bikes all around that area. Used to go to the cave at Twin Lakes also in Salisbury. Can’t remember who i went with, maybe someone on this site. We all were at Watertown High at the time. Thanks Walt in Florida

  6. Shirley Sutton says:

    Steve,

    I was lucky to catch pieces of your broadcast on Colin the other day. I want to go to the website and hear it all.

    It has been written in many places that the Rock House IS the LM cave in Watertown, so don’t beat yourself up! The CT DEP Letterbox site sends hikers to this location also.

    As I stated before, my info comes from the Campbell book, early editions of the Connecticut Walk Book and also from The Connecticut Guide and second generation accounts passed from eyewitnesses. (Google The Connecticut Guide – Watertown for not only LM but other mysteries to search for.)

    To go to the shelter mentioned in the Campbell book is just over a 1/2 mile round trip along level ground from the access at the “S” curve on Park Road.

    Once you see the location of this shelter it is easy to see why the LM would stay here as it is a much easier access. Also, I have just received info about a home he stopped at on what is now Rt. 6, in Watertown, not far from this shelter.

    P.S. I have some very strange (ghost?) pictures taken at the Rock House that I can send you on a secure email address.

  7. Dan W. DeLuca says:

    The Old Leather Man had three or more cave-rock/shelters in Watertown & most likely Thomaston CT.

    Hello to Steve & Shirley

    The Rock House Cave was one of the three in that area that has been documented by the famous LM researcher Leroy W. Foote. For over 40 years Mr. Foote interviewed over 500 people who saw him and was taken to many of the cave-rock/shelter that he used. Some shelters are on private property.

    Three years ago Wayne the son of Leroy Foote gave me his father’s research.

    Any cave-rock/shelter that the Old Leather Man used is a “True Leather Man Cave”

    Great Site, “Keep The Legend Alive”

    P.S. If any anyone has and information or question about the LM please email me at danwdeluca@aol.com

  8. devin says:

    Steve… Gotta say I like your site… I grew up exploring that whole area…In fact just over the hill and along the next ridge of the mattatuck trail… Is a very real cave… You use to have to use a chain to climb up to it… also there is a very large rock overhang known locally as the “half c”… I partied all over that place and hiked and explored…. Only thing I will say though is that the cave there by jericho wasn’t the cave we all knew as Leathermans… If you go almost all the way down Park Rd. coming from Eylematic… In one the last curves in the road is a turn out… Used to have a railing across what was/is a dirt road… And there is a lone house up to your right a good few paces… Any way, follow this until you get to a place where you could take a jog right or stay with the “road”…

    Take the jog right… Walk another 50 100 yards… leathermans is on your left… At the end if this ridge is a towering rock…If you climb to the top of this, it is a great view… Someone carved a star into the top of this… Looks to be along time ago… This rock is widows peak…But at any rate That is the real Leatherman’s… You can feel it

  9. Wendy says:

    I am on a journey to see all the caves the Leatherman used. My father always told me about his grandfather who lived in the Wilton/Ridgefield area.I think his last name was DeForest He said that he fed him and he stayed on their property. Also my dad (Ralph Knapp) grew up on Knapp lane in New Canaan and also told me there was a cave that the Leatherman used somewhere off that road. My dad wrote a story about the Leatherman when he was I believe in 2nd grade in a one room school house on Weed St. in New Cannan and it was published in the local paper. My dad passed away last year and I have this need to connect with this. Any help or info would be most appricated. I have ordered Dans book which I read lasy year and read all that I can find online. I have been to the cave under Cranes lookout in Watertown and have great pics with tons of spirit orbs and I went today to his cave in Poundridge and also his grave at Sparta cemetary. No orbs at either spot. The cave in Watertown was very active had alot of feelings there. FYI Sparta cemetary was very active on the side by the house. I had something go right through me and made me jump. That spirit wanted to let me know he was still there! There are graves in there from the 1600s. Thanks in advance for any info.

  10. Steve says:

    Wendy,

    Your quest is a noble one and I wish you all the luck. You’ll be better served to focus on the itinerant man’s journey and the history along the route than wasting time with “spirits” and “orbs” and other such nonsense.

    It’s a CTMQ rule that anytime anyone posts stuff about ghosts and spirits and orbs and other related garbage, I must reply.

    Your “spirit orbs” are water droplets in the air. When you camera flashes, they reflect light. I have dozens of such pictures from early morning hikes and caves, but since I’m grounded in reality, I don’t attribute some fanciful preteen nonsense to them.

    “Spirit orbs?” What will people imagine next?

  11. Wendy says:

    Wow Steve, I guess you told me. Thanks for your rudeness. I am so sorry that you are so closed minded and truly sorry that I somehow offended you. I am very passionate about this man’s incredible journey and I also feel a very strong spiritual connection to him. My mind is always open to anothers opinion. And I don’t judge you for yours.
    In light and love,
    Wendy

  12. Steve says:

    You misunderstood me. I love the Leatherman and his journey. Dan Deluca’s book is great and seeking out his route is an awesome goal.

    Matters of simple physics are not open to “opinion.” That was my only point. Reflection and optics are well-understood concepts which easily and elegantly explain your “orbs.” As for your spirtitual connection, I’m in no position to argue that.

  13. walt says:

    Hey Steve; And gas is not an unreal $4.00 + a gallon. The destruction through out the world can’t be real because we see most of it thru the lens of a camera on the news. Give the girl a break! Had to vent, i’m not sorry. I must be imagining things. Oh well

  14. SageAlum says:

    Steve, update from a friend, check this out…
    http://www.charter.net/news/read.php?rip_id=%3CD9NEOUC01%40news.ap.org%3E&ps=1020

  15. Harv says:

    Ahhs, Steve–

    A friend sent me the link to this site and I read it with interest. Then I moved on to the comments. That was a needless trashing of “Wendy.”
    I suspect that you are a very religious man in some faith and are convinced that everything is known in the area of physics, and thus, reality as well. ‘Tis sad. Yes, Wendy’s “orbs” are probably dust particles due to the short focal length of today’s small cameras, then, maybe not. If you are a religious man, than you undoubted must believe in spirits, even if they are tailor-made to conform within your belief structure and by necessity must exclude spirits that don’t fit your belief structure. Anway, be careful, that type of putdown response to reader is not good for business, is it?

  16. Steve says:

    Harv,

    Thanks for reading. Your suspicions, however, are incorrect. I am not a religious man at all. I do not believe in “spirits” of any sort. I do not believe in anything supernatural at all. I do not believe in any “higher power” or “god” or ghosts or goblins at all.

    I also do not believe that “everything is known in the area of physics,” nor any branch of science. No scientist does. I DO believe in evidence. To date, there is no evidence that “orbs” are anything more than dust or water particles in the air caught on flash photography. This phenomenon is, in fact, one of the simplest in the world to demonstrate as it has been time and time again. There is no need to “respect” beliefs when said beliefs are demonstrably wrong. Period.

    This is not “sad” at all. This is reality and reality is a beautiful, wondrous, fascinating thing. Far more beautiful and fascinating than fantasy world – simply because it’s REAL.

    As for my attitude “not being good for business,” this website is (at this time, 6 years in) wholly non-commercial. There are no ads at all. Of course, if there were, my attitude would not change one iota. I don’t need readers who foster woo-woo nor would I need advertisers that revel in it.

    For real.

  17. shirley sutton says:

    Steve, THX for all the great info on your site. Last time I was at Cranes Lookout some hikers pointed out a large underground rock shelter that would hold 20 people. Very cool!

    I would like to spread the word about thoughtless destruction at sites like this. The rocks near Tory’s Den have been degraded by spray paint and people have painted some of the inscriptions at Hospital Rock – “for better viewing” – to name a few.

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE people! Enjoy yourself w/o leaving behind your presence with paint, cans, bottles, D.D. cups, cigarette butts (learn to filed strip butts), and more. Respect these special places. Act as a positive role model for those who may follow you on the trail.

    THX for taking note.

  18. Mike Caouette says:

    I agree 100% Shirley. Yesterday, I brought the Bristol Youth Service’s Middle School Climbing Team to explore Dead Man’s Cave at Sleeping Giant State Park. It was sad to see all of the spray painted graffiti in the passages and chambers in this one of a kind historic site.

  19. Jim says:

    Devin, thanks for very easy & good directions to the Leatherman’s “real” cave. I agree that this is a much more plausible hangout for the L-Man. The end of it is a snug den, which would have been much easier to heat than the large “Rock House”. Apparently, it is STILL used by partiers, since I carried out a whole boxful of beer cans. I wanted to leave a chastising note, but I didn’t have a marker to write it with.
    I did not, however, find the “very real cave” you mentioned. I walked about a half mile further on the mattatuck trail from the intersection of Mattatuck & Jericho trails. I came to the bottom of a steep hill where the woods cleared out a little. I saw several overhangs, but no cave. Was I close?

  20. The Hermit Cave | Stone Wings says:

    [...] calling it the Hermit Cave. Maybe it gave shelter to a passing vagabond, someone like the famous Leather Man who wandered through western Connecticut and New York. However, I think even a hermit would have [...]

  21. East Thompson, … | Stone Wings says:

    [...] the Hermit Cave. Maybe it gave shelter to a passing vagabond, someone like the famous Leather Man (http://www.ctmuseumquest.com/?page_id=6343 ) who wandered through western Connecticut and New York. However, I think even a hermit would have [...]

  22. melanie says:

    was trying to find the entrance in plymouth, can anyone help me out?

  23. someone says:

    sad to read the comment section. steve you are just a jerk, plain and simple. even being correct doesnt make you any less of a jerk. i hope you can get down off your pedestal and put away what you believe just be a decent human being instead of someone who boasts about how great he is doing and is completely rude to people who have similar interests. smh

  24. Steve says:

    Sigh.

    Four things… one, you wrote, “and put away what you believe” – Why in the world would I do that? I believe in many things. I believe the Leatherman story is fantastic and is one we should all explore. I believe that science teaches us many incredible things. For example, Curiosity, the Mars Rover exploring the red planet as I write, is amazing. Hiking is amazing. Exploring historical caves is amazing. Ascribing woo-woo nonsense on top of already great stories is pointless and childish and diminishes the work of folks like Dan DeLuca who devote much of their lives to the Leatherman.

    Two, “instead of someone who boasts about how great he is doing” – you said you read the comments. Please go back and do so again where I freely admit I am wrong about this being the “true” Watertown Leatherman Cave and then go read some more on this site. A site which has a whole disclaimer explaining that I don’t know much about anything and that this site is more or less a chronicle of my learning about all the great stuff in CT.

    Three, “is completely rude to people” – I wasn’t rude to Shirley. I was merely helping her.

    Lastly, this is my site. I write it all and take all the crappy pictures. I can admonish adults who believe in children’s campfire stories all I want. Again, there are enough fascinating true stories in CT to not waste my time with such silliness.

  25. Shirley Sutton says:

    Interesting update on the LM. About 18 months ago the location of his supposed burial plot was dug up to move him to a safer location w/in Sparta. Since the location was not marked, according to historical information, until decades after his death it was a best guess situation. One hope was to obtain a wisdom tooth with DNA and identify his actual death age, ethnicity, and resulting causes of his death. Alas, not body was found! And so the mystery of the OLM continues.

    Still enjoying your site. It is a great exploration for me as I’ve had to give up hiking until after knee surgery – so my outdoor LM research is on hold.

    Thanks for hiking for me!

  26. Mike Caouette says:

    I finally got out to this area this past Sunday. What a beautiful area! What wasn’t beautiful was the amount of garbage. I returned yesterday with a 4500 cu inch backpack and hauled out enough trash out to fill the pack. I found a lot of nooks and crannies in this cave while searching for trash with my headlamp. I couldn’t get to some of the trash because I couldn’t reach it, some folks are quite ambitious in their means of disposal.

  27. The Leatherman | English College English Panel says:

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  28. rachel says:

    Wow! I stumbled onto this site because, as a Rhode Islander I was sick of traveling on rt 90 and 95 to get to a nice hike. (Not that RI doesn’t have nice trails, but it is somewhat limited). Last weekend I spent time at Indian Council Caves and nearby trails and am planning a trip to Jericho this weekend. Thanks for the site! I am always wondering how to find historical information about the abandoned houses (foundations) and walls on the trails- very cool.
    And it’s totally weird and kind of depressing that people consider truth rude and trash talk, even when it’s a bare statement of fact. Sorry about that on behalf of humanity.
    Of course, if anyone was really trying to be rude, they’d undoubtedly be late to the party on that one, HL Mencken’s got us well beat: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” Yeah. He was a jerk, but a not wrong one.
    In any case, I’ve taken to tying a canvas trash bag to my backpack to carry out actual trash from trails… I was also an obnoxious teenager once, trying to beat back that karma.
    Thanks for the site! Looking forward to spending some part of this summer on CT’s trails.
    cheers.

  29. Robert says:

    Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your article seem to be running off the
    screen in Ie. I’m not sure if this is a formatting
    issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I figured I’d
    post to let you know. The style and design look great though!
    Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Kudos

  30. Julian Gregory says:

    My family property at the time of the leatherman stretched over 500 acres. My dad told me stories about him and how he camped on our property . Very cool

  31. Julian Gregory says:

    A little more on this he took me to a cave on our property and told how the family would leave food out for him. They invited him in but he always refused. I always thought dad was feeding me bs but after reading all this memories flooded in and another addition to family history/lore as we still own the property.

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