On July 20, 1942, Dorothy Sparks went for a cookout with friends in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The plan was to grill some steaks and beat the heat with some hiking and some swimming.
As the group walked along the banks of the Swift River, in Albany, near the Kancamagus Highway, one noticed that Dorothy was not with them any longer. After they waited, thinking she was bringing up the rear, the group retraced steps back up the river bank to Rocky Gorge, where they had last seen her.
Not only had they not found Dorothy Sparks, the group quickly began to share a grim hunch. Even in deep summer, water pours over the 15-foot falls at Rocky Gorge with a deafening thunder. Water at the foot of the falls churns ferociously as it sends the Swift River on down its way.
After a couple of probing attempts to see if Dorothy was injured or perhaps washed up on the banks, the group dispatched a party to town to summon help.
Dorothy Sparks Goes to College
In 1942, Dorothy was 24. She had a newly minted degree from the University of New Hampshire. From the suburbs of Philadelphia, Sparks had been active in the Alpha Xi Delta sorority. In college she stood out as an athlete. She swam, skied and was active in the Blue Circle, the university’s outing club. She had joined the club in a hike to the top of Mount Cardigan.
Unfortunately, Dorothy and the outdoors didn’t always get along, and she was a bit of a daredevil. In 1940 she had shattered her leg skiing in the White Mountains, in the women’s slalom race. That accident put her in the hospital for a week and triggered a lengthy recovery. But it looked like her misadventure on the Swift River would be even worse.
It took nearly two hours to get help to the Rocky Gorge. State Trooper Kenneth Hayward arrived along with the deputy coroner, a group of forest rangers and utility workers who had been in the area. The local undertaker also made the trip.
After quickly scouring the area, the rescue team reached the same conclusion as Dorothy’s friends. She was most likely submerged in the roiling waters at the foot of the falls.
Trooper Hayward probed at the water and struck on something solid. Then a piece of cloth emerged. It was pink, the same color as Dorothy’s bathing suit. Someone else thought they saw a hand in the churning falls.
Now the group of rescuers was certain Dorothy Sparks was dead in the water beneath the falls. And they were just as certain that they weren’t going to leave her there. The river, however, was too strong to let them fish Dorothy out.
To retrieve the body, the rescue party concluded they would have to move the river. And that’s what they did. Working upstream, the rescue team built a makeshift dam and forced the river to overrun its banks and bypass the falls.
With the waterfall held back and reduced to a trickle, Trooper Hayward again went to work with a grappling pole. After some effort, he hooked something. He saw a hand coming to the surface of the pool beneath the falls. Hayward reached into the water and grabbed the hand. To his amazement, the hand grabbed him back.
A Grateful ‘Corpse’
Finally, the rescuers and Dorothy’s friends would find out what had happened. Three hours earlier, Dorothy said, her daredevil nature had gotten the better of her. She had bet herself that if she took off her shoes she could skip across the rocks in the river above the falls and come out on the other side.
Midway across the river, Dorothy slipped and fell in. Before she had any chance to act, the Swift River, true to its name, shot her over the falls. But beneath the falls she managed to position herself at the rear of a cave behind the falls that held a tiny pocket of air. There she waited until rescuers found her.
As she entered the ambulance for a trip to the hospital, Dorothy gave trooper Hayward a thank you hug. It was the only time, he would later recall, he had been hugged by a corpse. After her recovery, Dorothy would go on to become a teacher and then a school principal. She died in 2017.
Thanks to: Readers Digest, The Riddle of Rocky Gorge, UNH The Magazine of the University of New Hampshire and The New Hampshire. This story was updated in 2023.