This week’s Remember Hudson When … article is by Stephen Kopiski. He has an interest in our town’s history and personalities like Nick Connell.
Hudson’s Nick Connell, East of Echo
Consider around 1900, the Merrimack River would freeze over and permit winter recreation from NH to MA. Forty years later, with industrial and municipal development, the water warmed and the freeze was only a memory. True except for a nineteen year-old Hudson boy who decided on January 31, 1940, to lace up and skate to Lowell. Despite some harrowing watery encounters, he made it to Pawtucket Falls, 14 miles in a little over two hours. Not to be outdone, six days later, he skated another 14 miles from the Hudson bridge to Manchester. Too tired to skate back, he attempted hitchhiking, but ended up walking 9 of the miles in borrowed galoshes. The young man’s name was David Wesley “Maurice” “Nick” Connell, and he was just getting warmed up.
That’s a lot of names and nicknames. A favored choice was “Nick,” so this story moves forward as such. Born September 21, 1921, Nick Connell was a man who saw goals and drove towards them his way, and with focus. A lot of claims are hard to verify; married 4 times, Nick maintained he’d had over 40 jobs; trapeze artist, elephant handler, policeman, railroad man, stone mason, vaudevillian and more. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of newspaper accounts and first-hand recollections of his exploits, for a glimpse into his extraordinary life.
Nick joined the Navy in 1943 and served as a corpsman in WWII. Always a fitness enthusiast, the Nashua Telegraph archives offer multiple mentions of weightlifting meets and matches, many featuring his breaking numerous city and state records. One such meet had him breaking every record in the competition for his weight class (181 pounds in this case.) He even bested some of the heavyweights on that particular night. Along the way, Nick won the title of Mr. New Hampshire in 1948. This dominant heyday lasted from the early 1940’s until the mid 1950’s, but he maintained his bodybuilding and strength training discipline all of his life.
A high school dropout, Connell was self-educated with a lifelong interest in the religions of the world. A heavy reader, he wrote and spoke with natural intelligence. In the mid 1950s, he dedicated himself spiritually and joined The Church of Latter Day Saints, The Mormons, and became the church’s State Commander (NH) in 1956. He remained a Mormon for life. Into the 1960s, his vocation had him living in Arizona and Salt Lake City, Utah where he performed his missionary service. Newspaper accounts from this period describe Nick as a researcher, a writer, even a lecturer for the church. But as this decade of cultural change and upheaval began to unfold, not being one to follow any crowd, Nick was headed for his own real-life revolution.
As the 1970s dawned, Nick took to commuting between Hudson and San Diego, CA with the change of seasons. San Diego’s Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a protected environment for rare flora. Hikers and nature lovers are welcome, but only on the permitted trails. Predictably, Connell was far afield when he encountered a sandstone indentation in the cliffs, well off the trails. Here, allegedly in a vision, a white-haired man invited him to dig into the cliff, all the encouragement he needed. So with a Bowie knife and a screwdriver, and later a pickax and hatchet, he fashioned a tidy, comfortable two-room cave complete with carved-in bookshelves, window and sleeping platform. It was here, sheltered from New Hampshire winters, that Nick continued his studies of the world’s religions with the intention to write a book of life’s philosophy. Nick called his excavated refuge “East of Echo.”
Here, two accounts collide, Nick had claimed that, even as a young boy, he felt the allure of solitary living. Much later, a soon-to-be-former wife suggested he go live in a cave…
Unfortunately, he was dubbed “The Torrey Pines Hermit” (Nick always welcomed and entertained any visitor who could find him.) Over the years, he adorned the cave interior with impressive paintings and relief sculpture of religious and ancient symbolism. His visitors ventured off the permitted trails in the protected reserve to see the hermit in his unlikely lair. And even though it took 17 years, the park rangers eventually found the cave, and the hermit. There was reluctance on all sides concerning what to do. The cave and the artwork were splendid but even Nick agreed that a lot of laws had been and were being broken. His support reached all the way back to friends and well-wishers in Hudson, but in the end, 1991, East of Echo was filled with concrete and permanently sealed. Characteristically undeterred, Connell pursued various legal and physical means to resurrect his cave and his art. He even started new, more secret cave-carving in the reserve. For a while, the 70 year-old was hard to catch on the sandstone cliffs, but the rangers never gave up and he was repeatedly shooed off. Of note, towards the end of this period, Nick would write an occasional article in what was then known as “The Hudson News” entitled “View from the Cave.”
Meanwhile back home, apparently restless while away from his cave, we have “1987 – Connell VS. Town of Hudson.” Nick risked arrest for photographing police activity at an automobile accident outside his home. He protested formally and finally received a written apology from the Chief of Police for his treatment at the scene. He sued anyway, and won (One Dollar, plus court costs.)
With the cave adventure done, and confronting the relentless onslaught of old age, Nick stayed primarily at home in Hudson, but still visited the West Coast when he could. Not driven by material wealth, or notoriety, Nick Connell was an example of singular individuality and effort, even with occasionally dubious accomplishment. It was while in California that David Wesley Connell passed away on December 5, 1994. His remains were returned, here, to his hometown, where he rests. No doubt his gaze and his reach are finally infinite, like the imagination of the boy who braved the ice.