AUTHOR’S NOTE: This website started from wandering the hills known as Mount Misery and of course, Sweet Hollow below. Over time my thoughts changed on the subject, and I went from believer to hard core skeptic. Something happened there, absolutely, but I’ll be damned if anyone can figure out what.
Having been gone from there for nigh on a decade, my thoughts have changed again. From a distance, echoes from the past ring out and you can catch a glimpse of what served as the seed for today’s urban legends.
I get into this shit, I can’t help it. Some of these pieces are boring, even by my standards. But if you’re like I was, and hooked on the mystery, these are the facts you want to know.
The rest is a story about someone walking in the woods and wanting to believe, even if we never really pin down what.
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The first time I hiked up Mount Misery, I had ducked into into the woods across the road from the parking area off Sweet Hollow Road. The infamous sense of gloom which is said to haunt the area settled over me almost immediately, and I was hooked on the place.
I hadn’t heard the legends yet, so I was visiting the woods without preconceptions. I had assumed this was a pretty short trail, but as sunset approached, the shadows in the forest grew darker and longer. “Just how long does this trail go on?” I wondered aloud. “I’m in the middle of Long Island for Christ’s sake. How far can you walk without running into a convenience store?”
I came upon a building just off the trail, the two windows darkened like blackened eyes. The grass leading to it was mowed fresh, and yet there were no houses in sight. I approached it – not more than a garage really, but for what? I had a strong feeling I should go back. After a few more hesitating steps, and a look towards the sun which had now set below the tops of the trees, I did.
When I got home I looked up the West Hills, Sweet Hollow Road and then Mount Misery. And like the trail I’d been on, I found the folklore of that area goes on and on, into some strange, dark places.
Sweet Hollow Road and Mt. Misery Rd: A tale of two woods
It could be argued, it should be argued that the mythology of this area is a tale of two roads. Sweet Hollow is nestled into the West Hills, and has its own collection of legends, separate from Mt. Misery Road, just up the hill. Sweet Hollow was the original name for Melville, but most of these tales are centered along Sweet Hollow Road, which leaves Melville and cuts through the hollow as it has for centuries.
Mt. Misery Road runs through the West Hills as well, just to the west. But its southern part actually lies in Mannetto Hills. There is no Mount Misery. It was originally just a section of a settler’s road that was particularly rough going, due to the terrain. Utterly miserable. I’m of the opinion that this section lives on as a trail, at the terminus of Gwynne Road, forested in West Hills County Park. It eventually hooks up with Mt. Misery Road at the infamous 666 log.
I wonder if it still has that painted on its side? There is a time and place for graffiti and I always found that one appropriate.
By 1930, when paved roads finally made it up here, the windy bit that ends at Gwynne Road was left to rot in the woods, and Mt. Misery Road ran straight north and south for a few years, till the Northern Parkway was built and severed its length.
Jayne’s Hill, also known as High Hill, particular during the early settlements was near the northern most edge of West Hills, further down and to the east of Sweet Hollow Road. Some claim this whole area, including Jayne’s Hill is Mount Misery. But that’s a modern fiction.
West Hills was the white man’s name. Mannetto Hills is a rough translation of the native American name. There’s long been a rumor that the area of Mannetto Hills including Mount Misery was considered taboo to the original peoples, and perhaps the home of the Thunderbird.. But it’s just that, a rumor. Very little is known about their history here.
The trails on Mount Misery, encompassed by West Hills Preserve and the western part of West Hills County Park are transportation trails to a large extent. People have walked these trails since the nineteenth century at least, when they were considered roads. A lot of history has gone down here. It soaks through till one can feel it.
What we do know about the native American era points to their most revered hill, Manitou, being located within the modern day town of Plainview, and their sacred swamp covered by a football field.
It’s also believed that Mount Misery was cursed, that it was impossible to farm and therefore worthless, when the settlers traded the native Americans for it. But again, I can find no evidence of this in the historic record. Just the internet record. And a look at early maps of the area showed it was indeed farmed. Do you think Walt Whitman’s ancestors lived on Mount Misery and commuted into the city? They were farmers.
A lot of history went down in West Hills, but except for echoes in the folklore, you never hear about that. You hear the tales which used to grace the pages of fringe magazines of the sixties. Today we’d talk about how their readers likely wore aluminum foil hats.
And yet West Hills Park is swarming with people of all ages, looking for the foundations of the secret military hospital, which is believed to have stood here in the twentieth century, practicing mind control experiments on its patients. They’re looking for UFOs, Men in Black, devil worshippers, and of course, Mary.
How the Mothman came to roost on Mount Misery
One of the reasons Mount Misery has grown in folklore stature, is it played a part in the book, The Mothman Prophecies, which became a major motion picture. Its author, John Keel became known as an expert overnight in many of the same things Mount Misery is known for. Despite the fact that up till then, and indeed in his later career, he freely admitted he was a storyteller, a writer trying to make a living. He wrote great stories we wanted to believe. And so people do.
Part of The Mothman Prophecies takes place on Mount Misery. Though from Keel’s geography, one would be hard pressed to believe he ever set foot there. Or take the advanced being that writes to Keel, this person who can peer into other people’s thoughts, who seemingly can’t spell. His letters are full of typos – not like those generated by someone who is attempting to convince people he’s human – but those made by people who just have bad spelling and grammar.
Perhaps the story sprung from a handful of cranks looking for someone to listen, and Keel just correlated their stories into something coherent. Or perhaps the area still echoed with legends now lost, which predated the age of the internet. The tin foil hats picked up the transmission, but the details were lost in the static.
There are plenty of facts about the area, but they never make it into Keel’s book or research notes, and you seldom find them online. What you do find are secret conspiracies, which in the internet age have spread to include the people who live there.
You can find out a lot at the library at Melville. They’ll happily talk to you about the history of West Hills. When you ask about military bases, they can’t tell you a thing. People online say that’s because the locals don’t talk about it. People who live there, and who study the place say it’s because it never existed.
They’re both wrong. It did. Part of it is still there, or rather was last time I wandered Long Island. You just have to know where to look, and what it was called. And take everything you read on the internet with a grain of salt. This isn’t history. It’s folklore, storytelling and sensationalist journalism that gave birth to most of these legends.
The burning schoolhouse and asylums of Sweet Hollow
Until the wealthy moved in, Mount Misery and Sweet Hollow were rural communities, and those were ripe with folklore. There was a school which burned in Sweet Hollow, just as the legends say it did. You can go there today even. That story still echoes down, till it became the story of the headmaster who locked the doors from the outside and set the building and his pupils ablaze.
Then there are the asylums of Mount Misery. As the story goes, the first was built very early on, in the 18th or nineteenth century. It burned, killing the staff and patients alike. A few years later it was rebuilt, and suffered the same fate. Which explains the screams sometimes heard in the woods at night, along with the pungent stench of burned flesh.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were ripe with epidemics. Water from the spring was sent to Montauk for Teddy Roosevelt’s soldiers, who were being treated for Yellow Fever, brought back in 1898 from the Spanish American War.
If there was a hospital around here during those years, it likely would have been called a sanitarium. Today we see that word and think an asylum, for the insane. But at that time, it essentially meant hospital. Could there have been a sanitarium here and over the years people have mistakenly taken to calling it an asylum? Absolutely.
In fact, there was a sanitarium down the road in Amityville, which did burn. Just not as tragically as the tale.
The important thing is when you walk these hills, you can believe the stories are true. For if you can muster a chill on a warm day in a dark woods, you’re recapturing how it likely felt to be an early settler, taking a short cut through these haunted woods.
The West Hill’s Lady in White … Mary of Sweet Hollow Road
One of the most famous ghostly archetypes is the lady in white. You find her all over the world, in all ages. In the West Hills, that role is filled by Mary. Mary fills many roles in the folklore of area, from the modern day back to the stories of asylums on Mount Misery.
While there was likely no sanitarium on Mount Misery, or Sweet Hollow Road, there very well have been a quarantine house, maybe just a family which were locked in because they had whatever disease was terrorizing the countryside. And it might have burned, either by accident or by a neighbor, who didn’t want the disease to spread.
This is a horrific thought to us today, as we wait behind locked door for a cure to the latest pandemic. In that era, there was no cure forthcoming for the death that spread throughout a community. With fear spreading faster than the disease, people sometimes found more macabre solutions.
And just maybe, that family which was locked away from society had a Mary in it. Perhaps that Mary was loved by the community, perhaps she was feared. But for some reason, that name has been attached to a lot of folklore on Sweet Hollow Road. It shouldn’t be surprising, as there is folklore about Mary in several places on Long Island, and throughout the world.
Going all the way back to the Bible as a matter fact, Mary pops up quite a lot, and frequently at wells. And the haunted spring in Sweet Hollow is just down the road from the burned schoolhouse.
The legends of Sweet Hollow Road from the modern era
Sweet Hollow Road is known for beauty and urban legends. Here, Mary is a 20th century figure, tragically killed under mysterious circumstances. Here she’s the Long Island version of a folk tale nearly 400 years old, the mysterious hitchhiker who turns out to be not of this world. The tragic victim of an auto accident still waiting for her lover to return to pick her up. The mysterious grave with only the name Mary carved on it, where if you call her name she appears.
Just up the road is Northern State Parkway overpass, where legend has it that a busload of children skidded off the icy road, killing several, if not all of them. Another legend has it that six teenagers hung themselves from the overpass in a suicide pact. If you stop below the overpass, and put the car in neutral, you’ll be pushed to safety by invisible hands. If it sounds familiar it probably is. It’s a story told all over the country, wherever the illusion works. It’s the local color which adds flavor.
And then there’s the police. One driver reported that after being pulled over, as the cop walked back to his car to check his driver’s license, the boy looked in his rear view mirror and saw that the back of the cop’s head was missing.
Then there’s the black dog with red eyes. If you see him at night, expect disaster to come down on you soon.
Or perhaps you take the wrong trail and end up high on Mount Misery, and come face to face with the Mothman.
It’s through the mothman, and John Keel’s book that I found my own answer to the mysteries of Mount Misery and Sweet Hollow. You see, stranger things happen all the time in this world. Some are stranger, far stranger than others. It doesn’t mean they’re impossible. But unless you’re there, and see it with your own eyes, you never know the truth.
In the end it comes down to whether you choose to believe. In some places it’s easier to believe than others. On Mount Misery, or down below in Sweet Hollow, it’s easier to believe, than not.