The Devil’s Tramping Ground

The Devil's Tramping Ground is a clearing in the Chatham County woods where nothing has grown for as long as anyone can remember. The mysterious lack of plants in the area has inspired the legend that the Devil comes to that spot in the night and paces in a circle while planning how to tear down the hearts of men, trampling all the plants in the process. Scientists have yet to determine exactly why nothing grows there, including soil scientist Rich Hayes, who has run several tests on the soil chemistry of the site.

Can soil science help solve a Chatham County mystery?

Take a walk through the woods and look at all the trees, grasses, ferns and shrubs around you. Plants will grow all over the place and just keep growing. Growth, it seems, is one of the great forces of nature.

But there is a place in the southwest corner of Chatham County, west of Harper’s Crossroads, where something opposes that force: a small circle in the woods where nothing grows. That place is called the Devil’s Tramping Ground.

“People believe that the devil comes to Chatham County and walks in a circle,” explains Tommy Edwards, a folk musician and Chatham County native. “He comes to the circle at night and plans all sorts of menace and mischief.”

Tommy Edwards grew up in Siler City and has heard stories of strange things happening at the Devils Tramping Ground since he was a boy.

“I won’t call them urban legends,” he says. “I guess they’re rural legends.”

The classic rural legend of the Devil's Tramping Ground goes like this: The devil comes to Chatham County in the night and walks in a circle 40 feet in diameter, trampling with his fiery hooves any plant audacious enough to grow there.

Edwards says both the Tramping Ground and the legend are as old as Chatham County, which is why he wrote a song about it for his album, North Carolina: History, Mystery, Lore and More.

One of the lyrics to that song helps explain why this bald patch in the woods is so remarkable.

There’s a circle on the forest floor where nothing green will grow. No Earthly science has yet explained just why that this is so.

Practitioners of “Earthly science” have been stumped by the Devil’s Tramping Ground. In 100 years, no one has been able to figure out why nothing grows in this one little forest clearing.

Rich Hayes, a soil scientist and Chatham County resident, has tried to find a non-devil-related reason for the lack of plant growth there.

“When I first investigated the site over 15 years ago and collected the data, I was theorizing that there was some natural cause that would have done that.”

To find what that natural cause might be, Hayes compared soil from inside the circle to soil from outside. He was looking specifically at the salt and copper content of the soil, as large amounts of either substance will kill plants.

“What we found out here last time was that we had some elevated readings of certain things inside here,” Hayes says. “But none of the readings, none of the data we got showed us that plants couldn’t live there."

In fact, those tests raised more questions than they answered. The soil in the circle has a higher sodium, copper, zinc and pH level than the soil from the woods a few yards away. None of those changes, however, is drastic enough to make the soil toxic.

Also, at certain points in the circle, a compass will skew by about five degrees. As if that is not strange enough, compasses usually only do that around soils with a high iron content, which this soil does not have.

Despite all the mysteries, one feature of the Devil's Tramping Ground immediately gave Hayes a few ideas: the ash pile at the center of the circle.

“I would judge that this many ashes would have some effect on vegetation’s capability of growing in here,” Hayes says.

The charred logs, burnt plastic and broken glass in and around the central fire pit all hint at the Devil’s Tramping Ground’s secondary use: party spot. According to Hayes, the higher pH of the barren soil likely comes from potash in the ashes. The abnormally high zinc level could be due to people burning tires, which are loaded with zinc.

Also, if you’ve been to a popular campsite, you’ve probably noticed that the constant foot traffic and intense heat from frequent camp fires keep the surrounding area more or less devoid of plant life.

At this point then, you might be ready to dismiss the mysterious spot in the woods where nothing grows simply as a product of human overuse. You might say the only fiery footsteps wiping out the plant life come from revelers, and the only mischief being planned there is how best to kill the 12-pack.

Hayes says he would agree with you, to a point. Campfires and parties might be pushing back the vegetation today. That said, Hayes says he thinks there is more to the story of the Devil's Tramping Ground.

“The fact that there are written accounts going back hundreds of years about this spot being barren of vegetation makes me think something else is going on here besides people camping and burning big fires,” Hayes says.

So until scientists figure out exactly what that 'something else' is, maybe it's best to take the advice of Tommy Edwards’s song.

Now don’t go near that evil spot where Satan walks around, in the heart of Carolina, at the Devil’s Tramping Ground.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.

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