Friday, May 27, 2022

A matter of historical record: Nature’s Staircase – curious geologic formation in Windham is one of only two in the state

Dennis stands atop the basalt staircase,
located on his property in East Windham.
Myths and legends have surfaced over
the past two centuries regarding the
origin of this unusual anomaly ranging
from man-made stairs created by early
settlers to the site of a Native American
religious ritual. In modern times, 
geologists have determined it is
a natural geologic formation, one
of only two found in the state of Maine.
By Walter Lunt

History has many influencers. Among them are imagination, hearsay and truth. Imagination is historical fiction; hearsay is historical fiction that contains a kernel of truth and has a storyline that changes from time to time, much like the so-called “whisper circle” where a message is changed and embellished once it travels from one ear to another. This source is often referred to as “tradition.”

Truth, on the other hand, is the accurate portrayal of a person or event, and is the aspiration of historical storytelling. Entertainment value, however, is sometimes lacking.

The discovery several hundred years ago of a set of steps seemingly chiseled into sheer ledge prompted someone’s imagination in explaining how it could possibly have been formed. Eventually, more embellishments were added until it became accepted truth. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the real truth was discovered. Chock one up for the local historical society.

The rock staircase, embedded into a 15-foot-high hill of solid ledge, contains over a dozen steps with risers ranging from a few inches to over a foot. It is located in a wooded area off Albion Road in East Windham on private property. Understandably, the owners wish to maintain privacy and are identified only as Dennis.

Common among the early stories about the “the steps” were those associated with Native Americans. Supposedly, the stairs were connected with a death ritual involving a Native princess whose last rites were proclaimed at the top of the ledge just beyond the steps where she was buried.

Another scenario maintains the steps led to a lookout tower at the top of the ledge, although it’s unclear who was looking out or for what.

Windham resident Kenneth Cole, Jr., writing in the former 302 Times newspaper in 1990, recounted that “…romantic believers envisioned a ceremonial ground facing the setting sun where Red Men had worked for months, carefully fitting stone steps in a twenty-inch crack in the outcropping ledge. They can “see” an Indian Sachem with headpiece and flowing skin robes climbing those steps to pray to the Gods of the East for good weather so the summer crop of corn would reach the sky.”

Records at the Windham Historical Society indicate one former owner of the property sincerely believed in the Native American connection and conducted musical and mystical ceremonies on the steps.

Such fables and stories, enhanced by embellishments generation after generation persisted well into the 20th century until the late Kay Soldier, historian at the Windham Historical Society, contacted geologists at the state and college levels and requested a scientific investigation of the site. The answer she received indicated the rock formation was entirely natural, with little or no evidence that human hands were ever involved. Associate Professor of Geology Irwin Novak, Ph.D. of the University of Southern Maine wrote, “The ‘Indian Steps’ is a naturally occurring geologic formation call a basalt dike… similar to lava. (It) was injected into the surrounding schist deep within the earth about 200 million years ago. The schist, known as the Windham Formation, is even older…about 400 million years old…The work of water and ice acting on naturally occurring nearly horizontal weaknesses (called joints) in the basalt formed the step-like appearance…”

Novak went on to explain that another famous set of steps exist on Bailey Island near South Harpswell. Known as the Giants Staircase, the steps are greater than six feet wide, formed by the work of sea waves.

Novak concluded by saying “Paleo-Indians would have been attracted to the site just as we are…and may have camped there since the cliff provides a measure of protection.”

Interestingly, others have surmised the hand of man may have contributed to the steps following nature’s inception.

In 1988, the American Journal newspaper reported on a visit to the Windham site by the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) and noted, “Remarkably, tool marks (from early stone cutters) are absent from the steps, yet they are fitted with a great degree of precision.”

In 1990, Woody Thompson of Maine’s Department of Conservation wrote, “I would suspect that differential weathering scooped out the basalt to create the ‘stairway,’ and probably it was improved as a whim by early settlers…”

And so, in the words of the Ken Cole, Jr., mentioned earlier, “You take your choice as to what to believe.”

Few Windham residents have had the privilege of a close-up view of the rock phenomenon. However, in 2014 during their study of Windham history, several third-grade classes from Windham Primary School took a field trip to the site as guests of the property owners who were the parents of three of the children. Their names were Max, Alex, and Blake who, prior to the trip, bushwhacked a trail through the heavily wooded area leading to the steps, making a path better suited to accommodate the nearly 200 young history scholars. Teachers noted a high degree of fascination among the kids, who loved the somewhat challenging ascent to the top of the ledge. And while they understood it was formed from nature, they enjoyed the myths and legends better.

Dennis, the current owner of the step property, says he and his wife did not know about the peculiar set of rock-bound steps until after they moved into their house. “We moved here not knowing something so special was in our back yard.” Their realtor later sent them information about it. As to its origin, Dennis thought for a moment and mused, “…it seems to be geologic and eroded over time (but) the way the rocks (fit) side-by-side I do wonder if humans helped create the final shape of it.”

So now, dear reader, what do you think: imagination, hearsay or truth. Most think there’s a little of all three in this 400-million-year-old history mystery. <

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