BENNINGTON — "I'm going to hike on the Long Trail." Hardly words from which legends are born. Except that these words were the last that anyone heard from Paula Welden, the now-legendary Bennington College student who disappeared mysteriously 60 years ago today. Her story is without a doubt Bennington's most infamous unsolved mystery, and one that continues to appear in New England authors' histories of the occult and unexplained.
Dec. 1, 1946, began like any other day in Bennington for Paula Welden, an 18-year-old sophomore at the college. She worked two shifts at the school's dining hall, came back to her room and conversed for a while with her roommate, Elizabeth Johnson. Then, she told Johnson, "I'm all through with studies, I'm taking a long walk," and headed out around 2:45 p.m., according to Johnson's recollections. She was wearing a distinctive red coat with a fur collar, jeans and lightweight sneakers.
Given that it was a cold, though snowless day, and the temperatures were predicted to be subfreezing by nightfall, she seemed either underdressed for a walk in the woods or was only planning to be out for a short while. That is only one of the unsolved mysteries surrounding Welden's appearance and behavior that fateful November day.
Shortly thereafter, a blond, slight, red coat-clad young woman was seen by Danny Fager, the owner of a gas station that at the time was across the street from the college gates. Fager said the girl ran up the side of a gravel pit near the college entrance, then ran down it again. Then she went out of view. Later, search parties would call in a bulldozer to sift through the gravel pit on the off-chance that she had been buried alive. No evidence was found.
Just before 3 p.m., Louis Knapp of Woodford picked up a girl hitchhiking on Route 67A just outside the college entrance. His description of her matched Welden. When climbing into his truck, the girl nearly slipped, and Knapp warned her, "Be careful." No further words were spoken between them until Knapp let her off near his driveway, which was on Route 9 near the Long Trail, where the girl had told him she wanted to go. After thanking Knapp for the ride, Welden headed for the trail.
The next sighting of the girl was roughly 45 minutes later in Bickford Hollow, where several residents reported seeing her headed to the trail. One was Ernie Whitman, a watchman for the Banner, who warned her about heading up into the mountains dressed so lightly and at such a late hour. She continued on anyway, into the woods, and out of sight forever.
Night fell, and there was no sign of Welden anywhere. Johnson, her roommate, was reportedly very nervous, but chose not to inform college authorities until the next morning, when college President Lewis Webster Jones was notified of Welden's disappearance. He in turn called Welden's parents to see if she had gone home for the weekend. Welden's mother reportedly collapsed from shock and was confined to her bed, while her father, W. Archibald, headed straight for Bennington from their Stamford, Conn., home to commence a search for their missing daughter.
Welden's father arrived in Bennington and immediately organized a large group of volunteers from all corners of the community, including local residents and members of both Bennington College and Williams College. Classes at Bennington were suspended so that all students could participate in the search. By the evening of Dec. 2, however, the college students had reportedly become frustrated with what they saw as an incompetent search, and they shared their criticism with Welden's father and President Jones.
Welden, an engineer who was well-known in his home state, used his influence to call in State Police from New York and Connecticut. At the time, Vermont did not have its own state police force, and the search for Paula Welden was unfortunately disorganized and lacking in resources.
Vermont did have a state investigator by the name of Almo Franzoni, and within days of Paula's disappearance, he was put on the case. He, along with representatives from the New York and Connecticut police departments, took over the search. Those who had been volunteering to comb the Glastenbury wilderness for Paula switched their efforts to raising money for a reward. Collectively, they raised $5,000.
Their efforts would be to no avail, however, as the days went by and there was still no trace of Paula. There were a number of tantalizing and unquestionably strange leads that kept investigators looking, such as the claim by a waitress in Fall River, Mass., that she had served dinner to an agitated young woman at a table who matched Paula's description. This lead struck her father as so promising that he disappeared for 36 hours in order to follow it, without telling anyone of his whereabouts until he returned to Bennington. This led some to point to Welden as the prime suspect in his daughter's disappearance, a theory made even more compelling by the facts surrounding the week before Paula's disappearance.
Apparently, Paula was expected to go home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, but she called her parents and told them that she would be staying in Bennington. Apparently, according to Johnson, she and her father had had a falling-out not long before her disappearance, and Johnson retracted her original statement that Paula was "not distraught" to say that, in fact, she had been quite depressed.
Many speculated that Paula's depression was centered around a faraway boyfriend, and her father at one point posited a theory that his daughter had a boy from her hometown who "wanted to call on her," and could have been a suspect. Mr. Welden could never provide any evidence to substantiate his claim, however, though he claimed that a clairvoyant from Pownal insinuated a man's involvement in Paula's disappearance.
On Dec. 16, Paula's father packed up his daughter's belongings and returned to Connecticut, but not before lambasting Vermont for its lack of a professional police force. He deplored the alleged irresponsibility of those heading up the search, especially the fact that there had been no records kept of the first 10 days of the investigation. This was not overlooked by the small army of reporters from across New England who had descended on Bennington to cover the story, and the negative press the state received in the weeks following Paula's disappearance helped lead to the creation of the Vermont State Police in a legislative session in July 1947.
As soon as Welden left, the out-of-state reporters also bid Vermont adieu, although the Banner continued to cover the story as front-page news until late December. Volunteer search parties would continue to make expeditions on the Long Trail, but by early January harsh weather conditions and lack of hope ended their efforts. Any evidence of Paula Welden, if it ever existed, was buried under snow and the passage of time.
Or was it?
In 1955, a lumberjack who had been in Bickford Hollow near the Long Trail where Paula had disappeared said he had followed a girl fitting Paula's description into the woods. More importantly, he told a friend that he knew where Paula's body was buried. After interest in Paula's case had been revived and the man had been extensively questioned by then-village attorney Reuben Levin, the man admitted that he'd been joking and had no knowledge of Paula or her whereabouts.
The case remained unsolved and was nearly declared cold until, 13 years later, an unidentified skeleton was found in Adams. Investigators excitedly awaited the results of an analysis on the bones, only to find that they were too old to have possibly been Paula's. Closure once again proved elusive for the Weldens and investigators of the case.
After the Adams skeleton, no significant leads were ever uncovered, leading people to formulate their own theories as to what became of the girl. Speculations have been widely varied, from the more practical — she ran off with a boyfriend, she died of exposure in the wilderness — to the paranormal. The most intriguing of theories in the latter category is one that is raised by New England author and occult researcher Joseph Citro. He coined the term "The Bennington Triangle" to describe an area of southwestern Vermont within which five people disappeared between 1945 and 1950, including Paula. He links these disappearances to a special energy that inhabits the Glastenbury wilderness area that attracts visitors from outer space, who most likely snatched up Paula and the subsequent missing persons.
For his part, current Director of the Vermont State Police, James W. Baker, has no particular theory on Paula's disappearance, saying that "since I wasn't directly involved, I can't speculate on the case." However, one thing he can say definitively is that the Vermont State Police came into existence because of Paula, and since their inception in 1947 they have been responsible, by statute, for all wilderness search and rescue missions.
Noting that states like Maine and New Hampshire have wildlife agencies do wilderness rescues, Baker said that Vermont State Police's mandated responsibility to coordinate wilderness search and rescue efforts comes directly out of the Paula Welden case.
He also said that just two weeks ago he was talking with the head of the State Police Search and Rescue Committee and she had expressed interest in researching the case, to put, as Baker put it, "a new set of eyes on the case."
So is the case of Paula Welden cold? Technically, yes, says Baker, but it still remains open, should any leads come up. Whether or not any new information emerges, it is unlikely that anyone familiar with Bennington history will be able to head up the Long Trail and not think of Paula Welden's ill-fated journey 60 years ago.