Symmes’s Hole

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Symmes’s Hole



Bibliographic Citation

W. L. Alden, “Symmes’s Hole,” Stone, an Illustrated Magazine 17 no. 5 (October, 1898): 343-346

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Symmes’s Hole.


I was sitting in the smoking room of the hotel one afternoon. I was not quite alone, for on the opposite side of the room, reclining in a rocking-chair, was a small, sharp-featured man, who was smoking cigarettes. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and he was drumming on the arms of his chair with the fingers of both hands. Suddenly he turned and said to me:

“Great thing, electricity! The day is coming, sir, when we shall do everything by electricity.”

I replied that he was probably right, for it was obviously necessary for me to say something.

The man got up, and crossing the room, sat down in a chair quite close to me, and leaned forward as if to make a confidential communication.

“People think that the electric light is a greet invention,” he remarked. “So it is, but there have been greater inventions that nobody knows anything about.”

“Indeed?” I said coldly, for I was not anxious to be talked to death, and I feared that I had met a man who was entirely capable of committing such a crime.

“I like your looks, sir,” continued the man, “and I’m going to tell you about one of the biggest electrical inventions that has ever been made, or that ever will be made. I’m going o tell you about my electric drill, which I invented three years ago. I can promise you that it will interest you some, and astonish you considerably. However, I don’t want to intrude, and if you’d prefer to have me shut up, all you’ve got to do is to say so.”

I am weakly good-tempered, and I sadly resigned myself to the coming infliction, saying to the man: “Go on! I shall be very glad to hear about it.”

“Three years ago,” he went on, “I was living in Wisconsin, in a farm house that my father had left me, with no neighbors within two miles. I had been educated for an electrician, and had invented two or three little things that weren’t calculated to attract much attention, but were mighty useful in the electric installation business. I had considerable money at the time, and I used to spend most of my time working in a laboratory that I had fitted up in the farmhouse.

“What I was working at especially was an electric drill. Drilling an artesian well, or an oil well, or anything of that sort, is a slow business, and fully half the time is occupied in scooping out dirt that is made by the drill. My idea was to make a drill to be operated by electricity, that would just burn its way down into the earth. You can burn anything provided you can get heat enough, and you can get any amount of heat you may want out of electricity, provided you know how to do it. I wanted to make a drill that would be so hot that it would just sink down into the earth, consuming everything in its way, just as a hot needle sinks into a piece of wax.

“Well! I don’t want to trouble you with all the details of the thing. So I will just say that I invented the drill, and proved to my satisfaction that it would do everything I wanted it to do. It didn’t look much like a drill, for there was no sharp-pointed cutting tool about it. There were just two stout insulated wires, that terminated in a sort of disk that was heated by the electric current hotter than anything was ever heated before on the earth. I had, of course, a dynamo to furnish the electricity, and a donkey-engine to drive it, and also to wind a reel on which the wires were coiled, so that I could lower the disk as it made its way into the earth, and could pull it up again in case I should want to do so.

“I started to drill my hole in the yard back of my house, where what I was doing wouldn’t be noticed by any one who might pass along the road. For that matter there wasn’t very much to be seen; nothing but a small derrick, over which the wires ran, and which stood directly over the place where I was boring. Where I lived you can strike granite rock almost anywhere by digging from one to three feet. I cleared away the earth till I reached the granite, and then I started my drill. Sir! as sure as I’m sitting here, that drill sank into granite as easy as a knife would sink into butter on a hot day. There was no noise about it, nothing except the humming of the dynamo. The drill made a clean hole of four inches in diameter, out of which a thin column of smoke went up. In ten minutes’ time that drill had sunk a hundred feet below the surface, and I saw that I had made the biggest success that an inventor could dream of making. I had started the thing with a thousand feet of wire attached to the drill. It was clear enough that a thousand feet would not last many hours. In fact, it had all been used up long before the morning was over. So I shut off the electricity, and leaving my drill nearly a thousand feet below the surface, I drove into town after a new lot of wire. This time I brought back with me ten thousand feet of steel wire, and ordered two miles more of it to be sent to meat once. I attached my ten thousand feet to the drill, and set it to work again. Everything went as smoothly as possible. There wasn’t the slightest hitch in the drilling apparatus, the engine, or the dynamo. The drill went at a perfectly regular rate, showing that whatever sort of rock or earth met it was all one to it. The only thing that surprised me was that it didn’t appear to meet with water. That is to say, it didn’t strike any stream powerful enough to interfere with its action; though now and then I could see that steam was coming out of the hole as well as smoke.

“How deep did I calculate to go? Well! I hadn’t any definite notion. My idea was to keep the drill going as long as my supply of wire. I wanted to find out what there was deep down in the earth. Most folks say that the interior of he earth is melted rocks and such, but I never took much stock in that story. Anyway, I had a fair chance of finding out the truth of it, for so long as my drill kept sinking at a uniform rate, it meant that it was working its way through solid matter, and in case it should stop working, that might mean that it had reached the central fire and been melted, or had nothing more to work on. Of course, I calculated to draw the drill up to the surface and examine it if anything should seem to be going wrong, but I was pretty well convinced that I could drill clean through to Chin , provided my supply of wire should hold out.

“I kept the drill going night and day, for the only superintending it needed was the feeding of the donkey-engine. In the daytime I used to sit in a chair alongside of the drill and watch the wires descending into the ground, and the smoke curling up out of the hole. All of a sudden the wires stopped. First there was a dead stop. Then I could see a sort of trembling movement in the wires, and then another dead stop. I cut off the electricity, and stopped the engine. The register showed that a mile and a third of wire had been run out, which, of course, gave the depth of the hole. I began to think that I had struck the central fire after all, but then I noticed that there was no more smoke coming out of the hole, which did not look much as if the drill had reached anything that was hotter than itself. I reversed the engine, and started to wind up the wire, and bring the drill to the surface.

“It was slow work, but the inside of the hole was so smooth and true that there was nothing to prevent the drill from being drawn out. I kept the engine steadily at work, and finally it had gathered in all the wire, and I was looking to see the drill reach the surface, when out came the two ends of the wires, with never the trace of the disk. I stopped the engine and examined the wires to see whether the disk had been burned off, or had simply been lost in some other way. What I found was, that the wires had been cut clean across with some sharp instrument, and when I saw that I sat down on the ground, feeling as faint as if I had been hit over the head with a club.

“You see yourself what the cutting of the wires meant. Wires can’t be cut by a sharp instrument unless somebody holds that instrument, or directs the machinery to which it is attached. Down a mile and a third in the bowels of the earth somebody had seized my disk and cut the wires which held it. There was no getting away from that conclusion: You may say that what I took to be a cut made by an instrument might possibly have been a bite made by the teeth of some animal; but it was as easy to suppose that there were men at that depth below the surface as to suppose that there were animals that fed on steel wire. Besides, if animals could live there, why, it followed that men could live there too. Did ever you happen to hear of Symmes’s Hole? Well! Captain Symmes was a fellow-countryman of mine, and he wrote a book to prove that the inside of the earth is hollow, and is inhabited by men; and that there is a hole at each pole which communicates with the place where these men live. Everybody laughed at Symmes’s Hole, and the poor man died brokenhearted, and people have pretty near forgot all about him. But I know now that Symmes was right, for it was nothing more or less than Symme’s identical hole that my drill had dropped into.

“I put my ear to the mouth of the hole I had drilled, but though I fancied I could hear a dull sort of heavy sound, as if there were a lot of heavy traffic, or an enthusiastic political meeting going on below, I couldn’t really say that I could hear anything of consequence. Having made up my mind that there were people below that had caught hold of the idea that I was at the other end of the wires, I went to work to open communication with them. I got a bottle of whiskey that I had in the house, and first-class whiskey it was, too; the sort of thing that would prove to anybody who opened it that it came from a gentleman, and a man of culture— and I tied the bottle, together with my card, to the end of one of the wires, and lowered it into the hole. I said to myself, that when the people in Symmes’s Hole should get hold of that whiskey they would say to themselves that the man who sent it was worth knowing, and would send back a line of thanks, and a request for further acquaintance.

“When the bottle reached Symmes’s Hole the wire stopped running out; then it trembled a little, just as it had done at first, and then it hung quiet again. Judging that everything was all right below, I started the engine to haul up the wire, and I was mighty anxious to see the end of it, and to find out what the folks down in the bowels of the earth had to say to first-class whiskey. It seemed to be years before the wire was all reeled in. Then I saw the bottle was gone, and in place of it was a square bit of metal something like bronze, though it was not the kind of bronze that we have here. There was a message of some kind written on the bit of metal, though I couldn’t make head or tail of it, not knowing the letters, let alone the words. Here is the thing, if you’d like to see it. That is, I supposed it was here, for as a general rule I carry it in my pocketbook, but I see that I have left it up in my room. I don’t suppose there is a more interesting curiosity in any museum than that piece of metal. I showed it to a scientific man in Chicago, and I calculated that he’d say it was worth its weight in diamonds; but scientific men are a jealous lot, and never think much of anything that they haven’t done themselves.”

“What did this scientific man say about the piece of metal?” I interrupted.

“He said that I had better see a doctor, and that he hadn’t time to spend in looking at scraps of tin. I told you he was jealous. They all are, and that’s the reason why I never showed the thing to any other scientific man. Though I couldn’t read the message that had been sent to me, I know well enough what it must be. Just put yourself in place of the people that had received that bottle of whiskey, falling, as you might say, from the heavens. What would they naturally do? Why, they’d sample the bottle, and then they’d write a note, expressing their thanks, and asking for more. When I had studied the thing out, and had come to the conclusion that this was what was written on the piece of metal, I felt that it would be only polite to comply with the request, so I got another bottle of the same brand, and sent it with my compliments tied onto the neck of it, down into Symmes’s Hole. It went down all right, but it afterward appeared that there was a misunderstanding about the affair.

‘T let down the second bottle, as I was saying, and in due time I pulled up the wire again. Just as the end of it reached the surface, my cat, who was an inquisitive sort of beast, as most cats are for that matter, went up to the hole and put his nose into it, with a view to finding out if it held out any hopes of mice. Just at that minute something came up that hole and hit that cat on the head, and that was the end of the poor beast.

“Whatever it was, and so far as I could find out, it wasn’t a bullet or anything of that kind, it killed the cat as dead as a door-nail, and there isn’t the least doubt that it was meant to kill me. That taught me two things. One was that the people in Symmes’s Hole hadn’t any manners, or any gratitude; and the other that the neighborhood of the hole I had made wasn’t particularly safe. I hate to slander folk that I have never seen, and especially to slander them behind their backs; but I can’t help believing that the Symmes’s Hole people are no better than so many fanatics. Instead of appreciating good whiskey—and the whiskey I sent them was something that they had never tasted before, and will never taste again—they appear to have got mad, and tried to kill me by sending some sort of deadly vapor up to the surface. If I had been at the mouth of the hole instead of the cat, I shouldn’t be here at this identical moment, but should have been a victim to ingratitude and fanaticism. I had hoped that the people down below would prove to be some superior kind of beings, something in the line of underground angels, you understand; but I was satisfied when I saw my dead cat that they weren’t the sort of folks that I wanted to make friends with.

“I got a couple of buckets full of dirty water and poured it into the hole, just as a sort of hint that I wasn’t the sort of man to lie insulted with impunity. Then I drove a big wooden plug into the hole, and covered it over with earth and sod, so that nobody would find it. When the job was finished I went into my house, and -at down to write out a full account of the whole affair, intending to send it to some big society, and make a first-class reputation as a discoverer. But that night I was taken with a sort of fever, and kept my bed for I don’t know how long. When I was well enough to walk around again, the doctor and all my friends said I must travel for my health, but I can’t see as I have got any good by coming away. I have a headache pretty near all the time, and having to be continually on my guard against people that want to poison me, I don’t get my rest as I should get it.”

At that moment a gentleman entered the room. He evidently was quite unconscious of the existence of the discoverer of Symmes’s Hole, but the hitter turned pale when he saw him, and hurriedly whispering to me, “There’s one of them,” left the room. As I afterward ascertained, he left the hotel that night, and I have never seen or heard of him since.—W. L. Alden, in Nickell Magazine.


W. L. Alden, “Symmes’s Hole,” Stone, an Illustrated Magazine 17 no. 5 (October, 1898): 343-346.



Alden, W. L., “Symmes’s Hole,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed October 18, 2019,