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The tale of Gungywamp

August 10, 2018

This a tale about Gungywamp, a wild place in the middle of development, a swampy woods, an archeological puzzle. Sit back around the campfire and listen.

Though the story is long and windy, like the trails that must be cleared if Gungywamp is to open as the state’s newest park, this is no spoiler alert. We don’t yet know the ending, after all. Of the beginning we know only the last few centuries, and not everything about those. The story seems to be much, much older than that.

We don’t even really know why this land in the northern part of Groton is called Gungywamp — only that it has been known to European settlers since 1654, when colonial Governor John Winthrop was informed of the discovery of a stone wall and fort.

But was it a fort as we understand the concept? And were those just stone walls? Or are those standing stones the relics of long-ago people — Vikings or people of the glacial period or even, some say, Celtic monks of the sixth century, whose ruined structures in Ireland and the British isles bear resemblance to Gungywamp? Who constructed the Gungywamp structure to let the sun stream in on the spring and autumn equinoxes, and only then? And when did they do that?

As State Archaeologist Brian Jones said, “The debate about it is now part of its history.”

For a while, until 90 years ago, Gungywamp was a 400-acre woodlands and farm. Then Clarence Latham bequeathed it to the YMCA of New London (later the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut) on the condition that it remain a farm. If that could not be, Gungywamp would still be a place for people to visit and explore as a state park.

Children were able to sit around the campfires for some time, but by 2011 the Y could no longer stay in business. There were 270 acres left. At last, this spring, the transfer of title to the state went forward. But as you will see, nothing about Gungywamp escapes the sinewy trails of history and mystery.

A challenger has come forward. A descendant of Clarence Latham says he and his family may be rightful owners of Gungywamp, based on a 1960 quit claim deed that he argues relinquishes the state’s title to the land. Charles Gates has filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, which the state says it will review.

As befits a place of mystery, Gungywamp has had many visitors, stewards and storytellers. Bank robbers have fled from police into its woods. The former campers once hiked its acreage. The stalwart Gungywamp Society, a nonprofit group now disbanded, kept its history alive as long as they lasted. Now the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, based in Stonington, serves as an able steward for the state, running guided tours several times a year and answering inquiries from around the world.

Jones, the state archaeologist, has his professional doubts about some of the theories, but he would like other experts and researchers to examine Gungywamp’s structures in light of their own special areas of knowledge. Designation as an archaeological preserve within a park would continue to save what has persisted for centuries until someday, someone solves the mystery.

Or perhaps the history will always be a mystery. Maybe there’s something about Gungywamp that resists explanation even while it beckons the curious and makes staunch friends of skeptics.

We do know this: Clarence Latham was right in making his generous gift to the YMCA, and right again when he specified that if the Y couldn’t keep it, the common good would be best served by putting in the hands of the state as a park. We hope his descendants will see it the way he did.

Because, really, can anyone own the mystery of Gungywamp?

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