New England Trails Through History: Phineas Gage Walking Trail

 

By Carla Charter

CAVENDISH, VT.- On September 13, 1848 Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman, was working with his crew excavating rocks in preparing the bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Cavendish.  An accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew his tamping iron through his head. It entered under the left cheek bone and exited through the top of the head. The rod was found approximately 30 yards from the site of the accident.

Sitting on the back of an ox cart, Gage was brought to the boarding house where he was staying on Main Street in Cavendish. Dr. John Harlow treated his wounds, along with Dr. Edward H. Williams. The large wound at the top of his head was closed with adhesive straps and a wet compress covered the opening. No surgery was involved.

Within days of the accident, an infection developed and Gage lapsed into a semi-comatose state. Fearing that he was about to die, a local carpenter prepared a coffin for him. Two weeks after the accident, Harlow released 8 fluid ounces of pus from an abscess under Gage’s scalp. By January 1, 1849. Gage was functional. “He had a flap that never closed. Today a plate would have been used. He lost his left eye and was brain damaged.  It is remarkable that Gage survived this accident, let alone lived for 11 more years,” according to Margo Caulfield, Coordinator the Cavendish Historical Society. The Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston houses Gage’s skull and the tamping rod.

In Cavendish today,  visitors can walk the sites linked to this remarkable story of survival against all odds. The Phineas Gage Memorial, created from a trust fund of Dr. Harlow’s, sits on the Cavendish Town Green.

While the precise location is not known, the alleged site of the accident took place 0.75 miles south of Cavendish along the track of the Old Rutland and Burlington Railroad.  In 1936, Walton H. Green relayed information given to him 30 years prior by Christopher Goodrich, the ox-cart driver who drove Gage to his boarding house. Goodrich was 82 at the time. Green said, “The accident took place at the second cut south of Cavendish …near where Roswell Downer built his lime kiln later.”   If you are visiting the approximate site of the accident stay off the railroad tracks as they are active with trains using them on a regular basis.

   After the accident the ox cart brought Phineas Gage to the boarding house where he was staying. The site  of the boarding house can be found by walking west from the town green on Main Street, standing by the War Memorial in front of the Cavendish Historical Society Museum. The Boarding House building was located across the street from the Memorial.

Sites of the homes of the doctors who treated Gage can also be seen. Dr William’s House was located on Depot Street in Proctorsville. The house would have been on the right hand side of the road, as you head from Route 131 to Route 103, after crossing the railroad tracks.  Dr. Harlow’s house, on Main Street but east of the town green, was located next to the Stone Church. All that remains is the cellar hole.

Dr. Harlow and Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, a professor of surgery at Harvard University, tracked Gage as much possible,after the accident,  thereby documenting one of the first cases of traumatic brain injury in medical science. It was also the first understanding that different parts of the brain have different functions. With this knowledge, the first brain tumor removal operation became possible in 1885.

According to Gage’s family and friends, his behavior was significantly altered by the accident. In 1868, Harlow wrote in the “Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society” His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

Not able to work as a foreman, Gage held a variety of jobs. He worked in the livery stable at what is now known as the Hanover Inn in New Hampshire. In 1852, he boarded a boat in Boston and sailed to Valparaiso, Chile.  While he was there for approximately seven years, and was thought to have driven coaches and cared for horses, although little is known about what he did there. There is not a huge amount of information on him in Chilie, Caulfield said. .According to Gage’s  mother, many ill turns while in Valparaiso, especially during the last year, and suffered much from hardship and exposure.”

Rumors circulated that Gage appeared at Barnum’s American Museum in New York. It would take another Cavendish doctor, Dr. Gene Bont, almost 160 years later to find proof that Gage did in fact promote himself as a curiosity. Bont found a poster advertising Gage’s appearance at Rumford Hall.

Gage also promoted himself in New York and Vermont he arranged promotions.  “He’s an interesting character.  Life was very challenging and difficult for him,” Caulfield said.

Around 1859, in failing health he went to San Francisco to live with his family.  He worked on a farm in Santa Clara County but returned to his family when he started having seizures. He died May 21, 1860 from epilepsy.

The historical society the Sunday Closest to his accident in September has a Phineas Gage Walk and Talk. “This year we had 40 people, Caulfield said.

More information on the Phineas Gage walking trail can be found at www.cavendishhistoricalsocietynews.blogspot.com/2013/05/phineas-gage-walking-tour.html

Anyone with information about Gage, including his time in Chile can contact Caulfield at margocaulfield@icloud.com