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Notes from the Curator's Office:

Haunted chruch and reverse gravity - Just an urban legend?

The Haunted Church of Gravity Hill

Bucks County Pennsylvania, were I live, is a beautiful place, but not much of an area for strange anomalies. The town of New Hope, about 20 minutes from my house, does boast a few haunted buildings and a little further north at Ringing Rocks Park there is a bit of a geological mystery. Beyond that, however, the only connection we have with the weird is through Hollywood: Several years ago M. Night Shyamalan's film, Signs, was filmed here and the Boro of Newtown, less than a mile from my house, was the scene of an alien invasion. I long to explore a real mystery, however, so when I came across a little topographical anomaly just a few miles up the road, I decided to check it out.

Every once in a while we get a question for our Ask the Curator column about a place where gravity seems to go awry. Objects roll up hill. Water runs the wrong way, etc. Sometimes the locations become commercialized like Santa Cruz's Mystery Spot or Oregon's Vortex, but often they are only commemorated by a simple roadside sign. While researching these, I came across an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled The Legend of Gravity Hill. The author, Eric Strong, recounts a legend he heard in high school about a haunted church and a place where cars roll uphill if left in neutral, defying the laws of gravity. (A copy of the article is posted at http://endeavor.med.nyu.edu/~strone01/gravity.html). The location of the story is nearby Buckingham Mountain. According to the article, the mountain is topped by an old African Methodist Church no longer in use. The church is of historical interest as it was built by freed slaves and once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. According to Strong, somehow the church got associated with devil worship, at least among the high school students of his generation. A tradition developed that you could race around the church "against the devil" and if you won, you'd have good luck for a year and if you lost, well, not so good luck. The legend was strengthened by the death of a high school student in the early 90's after he had apparently lost a race the night before.

This is all pretty standard, urban legend stuff. As far as I can tell, there has never been devil worship associated with Buckingham Mountain. The student in question actually died, but he was attempting to breath fire by huffing in propane, then blowing it out over a flame. Of course this is an incredibly dangerous practice, and you certainly don't have to lose a race against the devil to lose your life while trying this stunt. The student apparently breathed in when he should have breathed out, fatally scorching his lungs.

Haunted churches and devil races aside, the part of the story about the cars rolling uphill greatly interested me. The location seemed to be within five miles of my house, so with the first break in the winter weather I decided to set out on my bicycle - why shouldn't I get some exercise at the same time - to see if I could prove this part of the story true or false.

Road Trip!

My first task was to find the exact location of this church and the section of the hill where gravity apparently fails. Strong had avoided giving driving directions so that the neighbors of the church wouldn't be bothered with visitors, so I had to do a little detective work. Finding Buckingham Mountain was easy - well, it is a mountain - but finding the name of the road on which the church was located was a little harder. I won't divulge it here, for the same reasons cited by Strong, but if you really are interested you can locate it in about 10 minutes using internet sources and clues from his article.

I hopped on the bike and within a half hour made my way to the base of the mountain, which is a long ridge flanked by two roads. Upper Mountain Road runs north of the ridge and Lower Mountain Road runs south. The road the church is on connects the two by running right over the top. Coming from my house, I reached Lower Mountain first. My plan was to ride along the south side of the mountain till I reached the road the church was on, and then turn to ride up across the mountain, checking as I went to see if my bike was mysteriously pulled uphill at any point. As soon as I turned off Lower Mountain road, I immediately became aware of at least one flaw in my plan: I was riding on a bicycle and the road was crossing a mountain. Not a good combination. Fortunately my membership at the YMCA was not a total waste and I was able to huff and puff myself up over the peak in a few minutes. If I was expecting any help going uphill from some ghostly presence, I certainly didn't get it. Gravity seemed to be at full force - perhaps even more than full-force - on that section of the road.

As I came over the top of the ridge, I immediately saw the church mentioned in the legend. A small, rectangular stone structure that I might have mistaken for an old farm outbuilding if it hadn't been for the graveyard behind it. Though it was deserted, it seemed to actually be a rather pleasant place. The graveyard area was cleared of trees and this gave a good view of the valley on the north side of the mountain. The church and yard were not in very good repair and the building's windows boarded up, but the place was not at all scary - at least not on that sunny Wednesday afternoon. So much for the haunting part of the legend. I took the bike down the other side of the mountain and found no gravity anomalies along the way.

The gentle rise of gravity hill - or is it a rise after all?

So what now? The article had mentioned that the location of the gravity-defying section of the hill was on the side of the mountain opposite the church. There was the definite possibility I'd missed it because it was further down the mountain than where I'd turned onto the road that crossed the mountain. Rather than going over the peak of the mountain again, I decided to go around the base, traveling west until I could get back on the southern side.

About half-way around the mountain I spotted a Buckingham Township police car parked off the road and decided to see if the local constable might be able to give me better directions. The officer confirmed that the supposed location of the phenomena was indeed the section I missed, but gave me the warning "it doesn't work, though." I thanked the officer and when I noted it was on my way home anyway so I would ride by it. He remarked again, with a definate tone of annoyance in his voice, "You can if you want to, but it doesn't work."

Less dedicated researchers might have just gone home at this, but I felt a scientific obligation to check the location out despite this warning, so I proceeded back to where I had turned off Lower Mountain road and this time went the opposite direction. Within a couple of hundred feet I found the section mentioned in the stories. The road there didn't descend the mountain at a constant slope, but apparently went through a series of small hills (see diagram 1). When I stopped my bike at the trough of the first of these then released the brakes, the bike started rolling up the smaller of the hills.

 

I'm not sure why the policeman said that it didn't work. Perhaps he was looking for a more obvious anomaly. The effect here is clearly pretty subtle. The hill you are being pulled up appears to be just a few feet higher than the trough where you started. It could also be that, being charged with the security of the church and the surrounding houses, he likes to steer people away from the area. According to Strong's article, the church had suffered some vandalism as a result of the legend.

Things are Seldom What They Seem

Having finally found my "gravity hill" I started to look for an explanation. As with other locations of this sort it wasn't black magic, or even a weird magnetic field, but a simple optical illusion. The road only appears to be going up and down. The actual slope is always down here and never up. It is just steeper in some sections than others (See diagram 2). On this section of the road any view of the horizon is cut off by the mountain itself and the trees on either side of the road. Without these clues it is hard to tell when things are exactly level or not. I think the effect is also enhanced by expectations of what we think the geography is supposed to look like - much of this area consists of small hills with small depressions in between. This looks like just another case, but it really isn't.

The hill illusion is strongest at position C and A, though from position B looking toward the trough it seems almost level. I suspect that at different times of the day and year the strength of the effect becomes greater or less since things like the amount of light and the density of the surrounding foliage might impact an observer's perception.

This "gravity hill" is just one of hundreds around the world, so there is a pretty good chance you might be able to find one that you can explore within a few minutes of your house. (Wikipedia has quite a few listed - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_hill) Most of them seem to also come with an associated legend. In fact some additional research has led me to the tale of a burning farm house and a ghostly farmer that pushes cars away from his property. The location of this mystery is just across the river in New Jersey, again not more than five miles from my home. Good! I expect it is going to make for another interesting, little expedition just as soon as the weather is good enough to take the bike out again.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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