I‘m standing atop a large boulder on the east bank of the Swift Diamond River, hoping to find answers to an intriguing question. I’m at the “Hand on the Rock” site in the northern New Hampshire township of Second College Grant. This enduring mystery has been shared with me a few times, so I decided it was time to see it firsthand. A good mystery story will typically reveal the answers of “whodunit” and “why,” but with this mystery, nothing is solved. Nor can I answer the “how” and “when.”
I can answer some of the “what” element in the story though. The “what” is an unusual hand carved into a rock. More specifically, a left hand, and more than just the hand. The hand includes a forearm, and an index finger pointing at something. Beneath the forearm are the letters “WMDOW,” or “W M Dow,” or perhaps “WM Dow.” Beneath these letters is a heart. Some observers say there are small Roman numerals carved at the bottom of the forearm which translate to 1871, perhaps a significant year. Others believe it is the arm of a woman and the Roman numerals are actually a lace decoration on the cuff of her sleeve. Some believe the finger points to the sky, some say it points into the river, others say it points southwest. As subjective as all that may be, it is the best answer anyone has given for the “what” in this mystery.
As for the “where” component, I can answer a little better. It is located in the Second College Grant, an unincorporated township of almost 42 square miles owned entirely by Dartmouth College. Back in 1789, the state of New Hampshire gave the college a grant of land in what is now Clarksville to encourage the college’s development. Most of the land in this first college grant was quickly sold off to raise funds to keep the new college operational.
In 1807, the New Hampshire Legislature gave Dartmouth College a second grant of land. This time, the college opted to use it for timber production and recreational purposes rather than sell it for funding. Today, this mostly undeveloped township, appropriately named Second College Grant, consists of nearly 27,000 acres. There are no stores, gas stations or post offices. There are no permanent residents and only a few dirt roads. These roads are privately owned by Dartmouth College, and are kept gated and locked much of the year. Vehicle access is restricted to Dartmouth-affiliated visitors and guests, but I knew a guy and gave him a call.
We met at the gate, where he let me in and then locked the gate behind me. He hid the key under a rock and told me to lock up when I left. I drove for hours on unmapped dirt roads exploring the area, and I was only somewhat lost when I came to a sign that read “Hand on the Rock.” I parked the truck and hiked the steep slope down to the riverbank searching for the mysterious legend. What struck me first when I found it was the skill of the craftsman. This was no casual etching done on a whim by some passing graffiti vandal. Whoever carved this hand into the rock had the tools, time, passion and talent to sculpt it, rather than just chisel a scar onto the rock face. The heart, forearm and fingers are rounded, shaped and smoothed like a park statue or ornate gravestone.
There is no documentation or consensus explanation for who carved this, or when and why. My inquiries discovered three theories thrown out for discussion and argument. The first being that the Vikings did it. It was suggested that perhaps Vikings landing on the coast had also sailed up the rivers and carved this rock. Seems unlikely to me. I’m doubting that an ocean-going Viking ship could have made it that far upriver through the falls, narrows and shallows. If they did, I suspect they would have left more evidence behind, rather than just a lady’s hand on a rock. There is also the matter of the initials; “W M Dow” doesn’t seem like a Viking name to me, but I’m not familiar with ancient Viking script, so maybe it means something like “turned around here.”
A second debated possibility involves a minister by the name of William Wallace Dow who attended Dartmouth College and graduated in the class of 1861. Dow then served in the Civil War and returned to New Hampshire, becoming a minister in Portsmouth for many years. He died in 1911 and is buried in Portsmouth, which is a long way from the Second College Grant. Perhaps when William Wallace Dow was a young man at Dartmouth, he explored the Second College Grant and staked a claim to his favorite fishing spot. Or perhaps later in his life, the Rev. Dow, mindful of the Biblical passage Job 28:9, “He putteth forth his hand upon the rock,” journeyed back to the College Grant and carved this monument with a hand pointing toward heaven at a spot that was spiritually important to him. But this theory has flaws. If it was the Rev. William Wallace Dow, you might expect the engraved initials to read “W W DOW” and not “W M DOW.” And if the Roman numerals do indicate the year 1871, then William Wallace Dow would not have been a student at Dartmouth, nor does it represent the year of his death.
The final suggestion floated about this pointing finger theorizes that in the days of the great spring river drives — when sawlogs and pulpwood choked the rivers drifting downstream to the mills — perhaps a log jam occurred and an unfortunate river driver lost his footing, slipped off a log and drowned in the swollen, frigid snowmelt fast water. If the body was never recovered for burial, then maybe his companions or family carved this monument as a headstone for the lost river driver named “W M Dow” in 1871.
We’ll likely never know exactly whodunit, how, when or why anyone would go through so much effort to sculpt a hand, a name and a heart onto a rock in this lonely remote location, but one thing can be answered with a degree of certainty: Whoever W M Dow was, someone thought enough of him to want to give him a hand.