Those magnetic magic hills


Saturday, January 31, 2015

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AN article I wrote several months ago drew attention to an unexplained mystery at the foot of the Spur Tree Hill on the border of Manchester and St Elizabeth. The story surfaced many years ago when a driver, who had parked on the level, suddenly found his car drifting backward up the hill on its own volition, with the gear in neutral and the engine switched off.

On one occasion, while returning to boarding school at Malvern, I remember the owner of the car stopping at Gutters, where the road continues east to Santa Cruz and branches south to Alligator Pond, to test the verification of the story. Nothing dramatic happened. But, as it turned out, he had parked at the wrong location. As we later discovered, the phenomenon was known to occur in front of the Pepper Elementary School a couple of miles down the road.

Parris Lyew-Ayee of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute asked me to do further research into this story as he also had memories of the reports of the phenomenon in the 1950s. The first published account of this experience appeared in The Gleaner in 1956 as related by Walter Fletcher, then president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce. Fletcher said that, while this extraordinary phenomenon seemed to be well known to residents in and around Pepper, few other persons had heard of the mysterious hill.

His story was amazing. While motoring one day from Montego Bay to Mandeville, his wife, who was obviously up to something, asked him to stop the car at the foot of a hill in front of the Pepper school. He put the gears in neutral and then, at that moment, and to use his own words, "I was flabbergasted to feel the car reversing uphill".

Not believing what he was seeing, he returned to the foot of the hill, stopped, put it in neutral, and the car started its slow journey back up the grade. During all of this experience, Mrs Fletcher was laughing at her husband because she had told him of a similar experience she had years ago and he had brushed her story aside. What happened in Mrs Fletcher's case was that she was driving her mother from Montego Bay to Mandeville and had stopped at the school gate to take snapshots of the children. She switched off her engine and to her amazement the car started to reverse uphill.

Her mother, of course, was alarmed, and Mrs Fletcher herself puzzled, because she had never experienced anything like this in her life. She drove back to the foot of the hill and turned off the engine. Again the car started to reverse uphill. The two women must have had the fright of their lives.

Well, now convinced that his wife was telling the truth, Walter said that he related the bizarre incident to a visiting friend -- a Colonel Sprague, the president of the Home Insurance Company. The good colonel, on holiday with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it, took off with his wife and a chauffeur to test the story. Without telling the driver his reason, he asked him to shut off the car at the spot marked X. The colonel said that when the car commenced its reverse journey uphill "my driver nearly fainted".

On their return journey they tried it again with the same finding: that a car whose ignition is switched off and whose gears are in neutral travels uphill at Pepper!

Fletcher quickly saw the business opportunities and lost no time in making a recommendation to the tourist board. "We have in Jamaica something that would excite people from all over the world," he told an audience at the formal opening of the new Motor Vehicles Depot on Queen's Drive a few days later.

"It's such an unusual experience to find yourself in a car moving by a power you don't expect. I am sure this phenomenon could be a tourist attraction. I hope the tourist board will make use of it." Well, as it turned out, the board did not. Perhaps it was the perennial lack of imagination, too far off the beaten track, or obviously a duppy was in the mix.

But it was not unique to Jamaica. The newspaper report on Fletcher's experience also disclosed that at least two other places in the world were known to be magnetic; one in California, the other at a village in the south of Scotland.

Shortly after that publication, a letter to The Gleaner from one Mrs Myers informed that there was a similar and famous hill at Moncton, New Brunswick, in Canada. The writer said her son had introduced her to the road and she had actually driven on it herself. The letter included a tourism postcard advertising the attraction and inviting visitors "to drive your car to the bottom of the hill, stop at the white post, put your gear in neutral, and your car begins to back up the hill, gathering speed to the top, without any power".

Back to Moncton later; but have a look at what they are doing with a similar magnetic hill at Ladakh in India:

The spot boasts a sign that says "Magnetic Hill -- the phenomenon that defies gravity. Park your car in the box marked with white paint on the road".

According to the brochure, "any car parked will roll up the steep road on its own accord, moving at up to 20 kilometres per hour. This supernatural phenomenon is called the 'Himalayan Wonder' and people from around the world go there to witness nature's hidden mystery."

But not so fast -- literally. It turns out that the secret behind the magnetic pull is an optical illusion created by the peculiar geography of a place. This may explain the mystery of the magnetic hill at Pepper.

According to Wikipedia, a magnetic hill, otherwise known as a gravity hill, or sometimes a mystery hill, is a place where the layout of the surrounding lands produces the optical illusion that a very slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope. Thus, a car left in neutral seems to be going uphill against the forces of gravity.

The most important factor contributing to the illusion is a completely or mostly obstructed horizon: without a horizon, judging the slope of a surface is difficult as a reliable reference point is missing. Objects one would normally assume to be perpendicular to the ground, such as trees, may actually be leaning, offsetting the visual reference.

So did we miss the tourism boat as recommended by Walter Fletcher in 1956? Moncton in Canada, referred to by the letter writer, has built up an impressive list of entertainment, commercial, and sports centres around the magnetic hill adjacent to the town. The hill is one of Moncton's and Canada's prime tourist attractions and historic properties. There are Magnetic Hill water parks, Magnetic Hill stadiums, a Magnetic Hill Zoo, and all the trappings of a tourist town that pumps millions into the economy. The auditoriums have boasted concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band, and Tom Cochrane and his aggregation.

Jamaica lost out, obviously, although we may not have been able to maintain the illusion at Pepper as, over time, the topography changed and the magic went astray. However, this is a classic example of the kingdom going to waste as magnetic hills all over the world (there are at least 100 sites) have been reordered to attract tourism and pull in big bucks. "I am sure this attraction could be a tourist attraction," said Fletcher in 1956 -- Don't hold your breath!

Jamaica is rich in mysterious happenings, events and legends. We have failed to capitalise on most of these, with, of course, Rose Hall and a few others being the exception. But think what one good sighting of a mermaid at Martha Brae could do for development; rivalling the Loch Ness monster used by visionaries and dreamers who saw the potential for large tourism investments in their Scottish countryside backyard.

Creative ideas have always paid off. Someone in Negril makes dollars out of selling the sunset. Chukka Cove adventures, Mystic Mountain, and Dolphin Bay are pulling them in. But there are many more opportunities for us to make money and to make Jamaica the number one tourist attraction -- ahead of Cuba if you please. Bizarre incidents like the Pepper story, the mad murderer Hutchinson of Edinburgh Castle in St Ann, the duppies under Tom Cringle's cotton tree, all in their different ways open doors into the intriguing unknown that pulls visitor interest. A tourism documentary of the 1960s said: "An island without mountains gives up all its secrets immediately."

Jamaica still has mountains to climb.

Lance Neita is a public and community relations consultant. Comments to the Observer or to

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