The Lost Girl of Vermont's 'Bennington Triangle'

Vermont has been home to a strange series of disappearances.
Vermont has been home to a strange series of disappearances. / northlightimages/Moment via Getty Images

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Louis Knapp saw the girl in the red parka and decided to stop. It was roughly 3 p.m. on Sunday, December 1, 1946, and Knapp was driving along Route 67A in Bennington, Vermont. A building contractor by trade, he was headed for home a few miles away. He asked the girl where she was going.

To hike the Long Trail, she said. It was a reference to a path that climbed five miles up Glastenbury Mountain, one well-known in the area. She didn’t seem dressed for it, though. It was late afternoon, and the weather, already cool, would be getting colder.

Knapp figured she was a student at Bennington College, which was right near where he had stopped. He thought her a little clumsy—she had tripped climbing into his truck—but otherwise unremarkable.

The two said little as Knapp neared his driveway on Route 9 toward Glastenbury. Down the road roughly two miles was the entrance to the Long Trail.

“Thanks, that’s swell,” the girl said, and headed in that direction.

A few minutes later, Knapp’s daughter went outside. Route 9 was flat, and you could see a considerable distance of up to a half-mile either way. She would later tell police that there had been no sign of the hitchhiker, even though she still should have been within view. No one could walk a half-mile that quickly.

The girl’s name was Paula Welden, and for the next several weeks, she was the biggest story to hit Bennington in a long time. Her fate would lend credence to the growing belief that this part of the Long Trail was home to an area that seemed to harbor one story after another of people who simply vanished. So many, in fact, that it came to be called the Bennington Triangle.

The Vanishing

Though hers was arguably the most prominent vanishing, Welden wasn’t the first person to disappear. On November 12, 1945, a 74-year-old hunting guide named Middie Rivers told his son-in-law, Joe, that he was going to go off by himself but that he’d be back in time for lunch. The group was in Bickford Hollow, near Glastenbury Mountain. The region is near the Long Trail, a more than 270-mile-long hiking path that runs along Vermont’s Green Mountains from Massachusetts toward the Canadian border.

The entrance to Bennington College is pictured
Paula Welden was a student at Bennington College. / John Greim/GettyImages

Rivers didn’t make it for lunch. At 3 p.m., the hunting party went looking for him, hollering and shooting their guns to draw his attention. Over the next week, the search grew to include 300 civilians as well as soldiers from Fort Devens. Then snow began to fall. The only thing recovered was a single unspent rifle cartridge. Rivers was never seen again.

Though he was a woodsman, it was reported that Rivers wasn’t very familiar with Bickford Hollow and could have gotten lost. Nor was a lone disappearance cause for widespread alarm. But with Paula Welden, a pattern seemed to emerge.

Welden, 18, was a sophomore at Bennington College who came from an affluent Stamford, Connecticut, family. By all accounts she was a typical young adult, possessed of neither a mischievous streak nor any interpersonal drama that could boil over into something troubling. Two weeks before being picked up by Knapp, she had been to an area near the Long Trail as part of a botany class. It’s possible that’s when Welden developed an urge to explore it further.

On December 1, Welden told her college roommate, Elizabeth Johnson, that she wanted to go hike the Long Trail. It was about 2:45 p.m. (Another account has Paula leaving before Johnson returned to their room.) She donned jeans, a red parka with a fur collar, and what a newspaper would later describe as “a pair of light shoes known as sneakers.” It would be subfreezing by nightfall. The clothes hinted that Welden expected to be back well before then.

Police would later piece together Welden’s movements. The owner of a gas station across the street from the college said he saw a woman matching Welden’s description playfully running up and down a gravel pit. The owner thought little of it.

Not long after, Welden flagged down Louis Knapp in his truck and rode with him as far as his house. She reportedly popped back into sight about 45 minutes later, when a number of people reported seeing a woman hiking the beginning of the Glastenbury portion of the Long Trail. One man, Ernest Whitman, owned a nearby cabin and said Welden had stopped to speak to him.

“How far can you go on this trail?” she said.

“It’s four miles to the fork,” he said, referring to an area close to the top of the mountain.

Whitman cautioned her about her light clothing. If Welden replied, he didn’t hear it.

Evening came and went, with Welden’s roommate thinking little of her absence. It was possible, she later said, that Paula was studying late in another part of the college. But when morning arrived and Welden hadn’t returned, she informed the faculty. The college’s president, Lewis Webster Jones, phoned Welden’s parents and asked if Welden had returned home. It was a chilling question. Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s disappearance, Welden’s mother fainted from shock. The only thing to do was begin a search.

It would soon become apparent that the biggest obstacle to finding Welden was a lack of infrastructure. At the time, Vermont had no state police force, which could have provided valuable—and organized—resources in the way of people to lead a search. Instead, Jones and Welden’s father, Archibald, arranged for an impromptu search party, recruiting some 370 faculty members and students. Jones canceled classes and dispatched groups of 20 on the Long Trail, each dispensing fistfuls of confetti so other groups would know what territory had already been covered.

Still, the students knew the search was haphazard. So did Archibald, who phoned state police in New York and Connecticut for assistance. A $5000 reward was raised. If Welden had gotten lost or caught in the cold, surely she would turn up. Or, in the worst case, her body would. There were at least five three-walled shelters on the mountain where a hiker could go to help protect themselves against the elements. Each had some food. None had any sign Welden had been there.

Further inquiry of cabin and campground owners in the area revealed another strange wrinkle. One owner told police that three men had hiked up the trail around noon on Sunday. They asked him to keep a suitcase. Inside there were articles of clothing with names written on them: J.W. Carrol, William Watts, and M. Golder. The men said they were in the service, though they didn’t say why they were there. Like Welden, they didn’t appear to be dressed for a long hike. Nor did they ever return for their belongings. If they were involved in any foul play, it would have been quite foolish to leave their names behind.

But this was the issue with the Bennington Triangle. Nothing seemed to make sense.

Into the Void

The Welden case continued to unspool over a period of months, and then years. In that time, authorities grappled with several more disappearances in and around the area of Glastenbury Mountain. It seemed eager to swallow visitors up whole.

A helicopter is pictured
Air and ground searches were conducted for those who went missing. / rbkomar/Moment via Getty Images

In December 1949, James Tedford, 68, boarded a bus in St. Albans after visiting relatives in Franklin, Vermont. The retired Army soldier was returning to the Vermont Soldiers’ Home in Bennington. The bus stopped off in Burlington, where Tedford ran into an old friend. The two spoke for a bit before Tedford continued on.

When the bus reached its destination in Bennington, Tedford was nowhere to be found. His belongings remained, along with a bus schedule. Relatives later told police Tedford seemed sad at the prospect of ending his visit. His whereabouts were never determined.

The following year brought a rash of missing persons. In October 1950, an 8-year-old boy named Paul Jepson was at the Bennington town dump with his mother when he wandered away from their pick-up truck. When she realized he was missing, she phoned police. Bloodhounds picked up his scent and followed it to the highway, where it vanished practically in the middle of the road near Glastenbury Mountain. Police believed that rainfall could have washed away the trail. Jepson was never found.

Just weeks later, Freda Langer, 53, was camping with her family when she and a cousin slipped into a stream. Langer left, intending to go back to their campsite for dry clothes; her cousin remained at the ravine. But when the cousin returned to the campsite, Langer was nowhere to be found. She, too, had vanished.

Ultimately, Langer became something of an anomaly: Seven months later, her body was found near water. The cause of death was likely accidental drowning—Langer may have tried taking a shortcut and suffered a seizure, fallen, and drowned.

Then, in November 1950, 16-year-old Martha Jeannette Jones was reported missing after hitchhiking to seminary school in Manchester, Vermont. For an entire month, her absence went unnoticed. The school assumed she was back home with family; her family assumed she was at school.

In the span of five years, six people had disappeared under unexplained circumstances. All were in the vicinity of Glastenbury or Bennington. It was, by any measure, unusual. But there were at least indications of what might have happened: Jepson and Jones could have been kidnapped. Tedford could have dropped out of sight to avoid returning to the soldier’s home. Langer’s body was found.

Paula Welden, however, remained the most prominent and the most perplexing. More than the others, it was Welden’s case that dominated local and sometimes even national headlines thanks to a series of twists and turns that kept raising new questions.

Including the seeming reemergence of Welden herself.

A Promising Lead

Within days of Welden’s disappearance, a waitress in Fall River, Massachusetts, told police a remarkable story.

A restaurant bill is pictured
The search for Paula Welden involved a waitress. / Oscar Wong/Moment via Getty Images

The employee, Ora Telletier, said that a customer matching Welden’s description had come into the Modern Restaurant accompanied by a man. He was older, Telletier said—maybe around 25 years old. He appeared inebriated and a little angry.

When he got up to pay the bill, the woman asked Telletier how far away she was from Bennington.

“Bennington where?” Telletier asked her.

“Bennington, Vermont,” the woman replied.

Telletier directed her to the nearest bus depot. Bennington was about 200 miles or so. The woman asked where she was, and then told Telletier she was out of money. That was the extent of their conversation. The woman, Telletier said, seemed dazed.

Telletier also insisted the woman was Welden—she had seen her photo in the newspapers. Police conducted a house-to-house search in Fall River, to no avail. If the woman had been Welden, she was long gone.

Archibald Welden fielded tips like these often. People believed they saw his daughter boarding a bus, or in a car. For a time, he was concerned a young man who lived in Stamford and was infatuated with Paula had something to do with her disappearance—possibly even the man seen in Fall River, though that was never proven. A newspaper in Stamford hired a private investigator, who turned over little new information but eventually came to believe the outlook was grim. Though there was no physical evidence, the investigator, Raymond Schindler, assumed she was a victim of foul play and almost certainly dead.

Schindler did have one alternative theory. Welden had been dropped off by Knapp near the entrance to the Long Trail. Just 50 to 60 yards beyond lay another trail also named the Long Trail. In fact, the road sign near Knapp’s home would have directed Welden to the second trail of the same name, this one wholly unfamiliar to her. But heavy snow in the winter of 1946-47 prevented any extensive search in that area.

The Weldens never gave up. In December of 1947, one year after her disappearance, a woman arrived at a tourist campground in Charleston, South Carolina. Staff there believed she looked a lot like Paula Welden. Stranger yet, she signed her named “Mary Welden.” Police were dispatched to question her, but she was uncooperative other than to say she hailed from Missouri.

They finally managed to get her on the phone with Paula’s mother. There would be no mistaking her daughter’s voice. But as they spoke, Mrs. Welden’s hopes dimmed. Whoever “Mary Welden” was, it was not Paula.

In 1950, a Western Union messenger insisted he had delivered a package in New York City to a woman who signed her name as “Paula Welden.” The messenger believed she fit Paula’s description. His belief seemed intertwined with the reward, now up to $8000, that was being offered for information leading to her return. When contacted for comment, Archibald vowed to look into it, but remarked that roughly 200 other tips had come to naught. Asked if he held any remaining hope Paula was alive, he was succinct.

“No,” he said.

The Triangle

In the years following the rash of disappearances near Bennington, everything from Bigfoot to UFOs has been blamed. Vermont author Joe Citro coined the phrase Bennington Triangle in 1992, a nod to the Bermuda Triangle and its similarly mystifying events.

The Long Trail is pictured
A portion of the Long Trail. / Calebhsimone, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In Welden’s case, the truth may be far less sensational than flying saucers. In 2008, the Bennington Banner reported on Robert Singley, a 27-year-old composer who decided to tackle the Long Trail. His point of entry was near where Welden had last been seen.

It was, he said, a disorienting experience. Though he felt he was sticking to the path, he became confused. His car, which he thought to be less than a mile away, turned out to be six or seven miles out. Retracing his steps, he found that the trail appeared entirely different, with fallen trees and other markings he didn’t remember being there previously.

“Right before I lost the trail, everything like crescendoed [sic] into this weird sort of dizzying confusion,” Singley said. “It just suddenly got dark, and then it was like, ‘Where am I? What's going on?’ I was totally lost.”

Singley’s hike turned into an all-night excursion. His fiancée phoned police, who found him the following day. The Long Trail could be mercurial and confusing. As the temperature neared zero on the night of Paula Welden’s disappearance, it’s easy to imagine the student losing her way. In light clothing and encroaching darkness, she may have wandered to a point beyond the eyes of a disorganized search party.

Or perhaps she had never made it to the Trail at all. Perhaps that long stretch of road near the Knapp residence was the site of an abduction. It would explain why Knapp’s daughter saw no sign of her. As for those who insisted they had seen her on the Trail? Police were never convinced their accounts were accurate. A lot of people would claim to have seen Paula in the days, weeks, and years to come.

Welden and Singley are linked in another way. Welden’s case was a major factor in Vermont assembling a state police force in July 1947, one which would be more responsive to missing persons. It was state police who located Singley some 60 years later.

That Paula Welden’s body was never recovered remains puzzling, and a fact that likely led investigator Schindler to suspect someone was responsible for her disappearance and took care to bury her body. But it remains speculation. For Paula and others, the Long Trail and the area around it is a path without an end.