The Day Kurt Newton Disappeared
The Newton family was camping at Coburn Gorge in northern Maine over Labor Day weekend in 1975 when Kurt, age 4, disappeared. What followed has been termed “the most extensive woods search in the history of Maine.” But all the thousands of volunteer searchers ever found were unanswered questions.
Excerpt from “’The Day Kurt Newton Disappeared,” Yankee Magazine, September 1979.
Even now, four years later, Ron and Jill Newton will sometimes let their minds drift back and silently relive that Labor Day weekend, hour by hour, trying to snatch it all back and hold it still at 10:00 A.M. Sunday, August 31, 1975.
It had been a grand weekend, camping with their children, Kimberly, age six, and Kurt, age four, and three other families from their home in Manchester, Maine. Natanis Point Campground was small and remote, its fifty-eight sites cut from a paper-company forest 1,300 feet above sea level in Chain of Ponds, a wilderness township six miles below the Canadian border at Coburn Gore. Campers fished from two ponds that were deep and cold. When a fisherman landed a salmon from the small wooden bridge below the thread of beach, he would yelp with pleasure and a crowd would gather. Mountains loomed over the ponds, and when at night a loon wailed and the forest pressed close on all sides, you knew you were away.
That Friday the Newtons arrived first. It was their first trip with the recently acquired secondhand tent trailer, what Jill called “our luxury.” They gathered wood along an abandoned logging road nearly a mile from their campsite. “It isn’t camping without a bonfire,” Kurt said happily. On Saturday their friends arrived, and Kimberly raced her bicycle through mud puddles while Kurt furiously pedaled his big-wheel tricycle after her, trying to keep up. It was the end of a summer, and there were huge meals and laughter and quiet, chilly nights by a roaring fire. To Jill Newton things felt “just right,” which was not unusual.
“We’d been married eight years,” she would say later, “and everything just seemed to work right. We got along so well. We had saved for four years to buy a house, and when we were ready, there was our house across the street from the elementary school. From before we were married we always said we’d have two children and no more. We had a girl and then by a stroke of luck we had a boy, just what we wanted. It became a sort of joke between Ron and me. We’d say, ‘How did we get so lucky? ”
Sunday broke with a heavy mist over the ponds. Ron took the bite off the morning, using the last of the wood to light a fire. Kurt slept until nine, fighting off a cold; when he awoke he shivered. “I’m so glad Daddy built a bonfire,” he said. Ron dressed Kurt for the damp, chilly morning: red jersey, navy blue sweatshirt, speckled red and black corduroys. Kurt tugged on dark brown shoes over mismatched white socks and topped off his outfit with a favorite navy blue jacket decorated with baseball emblems.
Jill called Kurt “a head-turner,” a striking child with an impish sweet face, bright blue eyes, and platinum blond hair. “The loveliest, sweetest towhead kid you ever saw,” said a neighbor. Though he was rugged, Jill I worried that Kurt was “tied to my apron strings.” He was painfully shy and afraid of being alone, even for a few moments. “Sometimes when grocery shopping, I’d walk around the corner and he’d stand there, and I’d come back and find him almost in tears,” Jill said. “I could put him outside to play all day and he would never leave. He always made sure I knew where he was.”
Kimberly would often spring into the shallow woods behind their house and implore her brother to join her climbing the trees or playing hide-and-seek. As Kurt quivered on the edge of the lawn, she would tease, “Kurt’s such a baby.” Once Jill asked him why he wouldn’t go with Kimberly into the woods. “Momma, there’s monsters in there,” he answered.
After a hearty camper’s breakfast — fried potatoes, ham and eggs, toast, and juice — Kurt put a doughnut on a stick and warmed it over the flames, then threw the paper plates into the fire. Jill gathered the mud-soaked sneakers from the day before and with her friends walked to the bathhouse fifty yards away to wash them. Kim began playing a game and assumed Kurt would ride his tricycle around the campsite. Ron climbed into his Bronco, ax in hand, and drove off to get firewood. This is where their minds halt, confused and troubled, where Ron and Jill Newton try to snatch it all back. For then a friend from her trailer heard a plaintive “Daddy, Daddy,” as Kurt apparently ran to his tricycle, a determined little boy trying to catch his father, and pedaled away — into a mystery as deep as the forest that seemed to swallow him without a trace.
From the campground, a rut-strewn logging road runs north, parting the forest, which gives way reluctantly. An abandoned horse hovel sits back from the road, nearly obscured by undergrowth, about a quarter-mile from the Newtons’ campsite. Here, twelve-year-old Lou Ellen Hanson, returning from a walk, was startled to see the small boy churning past on his tricycle. “Hey,” she called out, “do your parents know where you are?’ but the boy made no reply as he pedaled on, and she turned toward the campground.
The road continues another quarter-mile, then forks. To the left it leads to a small campground dump on a knoll, past a shaky bridge over a stream. To the right it continues for a mile, then gives way to heavy undergrowth. For the next several miles leading to Route 27 the road is nearly impassable to all but four-wheel-drive vehicles. The road and its “back-door” access to his campground was a source of irritation to campground owner Lloyd Davidson. Fishermen would use it to fish his waters, or to use his showers. He would grumble that if it were his land and not leased from the paper company, he would have bulldozed it long ago. It was on this road, about a half-mile past the fork, where Ron Newton went to chop wood, the sounds of his ax barely audible from the dump.
Jack Hanson, Lou Ellen’s father, who served as a volunteer caretaker for the campground, found the tricycle just before the steep rise leading to the dump. It was off the road, at the edge of the woods, a position that reminded a state police investigator “of a little boy who’s been told never to leave his things on the road.” Thinking it had been discarded, Hanson carried it over the rise and heaved it atop the trash heap, then drove back to the campground.
“We hung the sneakers on the line,” Jill Newton recalls. “We’d been gone at the most ten minutes. We saw no Kurt and no tricycle, so we started walking around asking campers if they’d seen a blond boy on a big-wheel tricycle. I began to think he must have gone with the men to get firewood, but then they rounded the comer and no Kurt. We met Jack, and he told us he had found the trike at the dump. We raced to the dump, and there was Kurt’s big-wheeler, but no one in sight, not a sound to be heard.
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