This is a story about lost love; about isolation in a mountain dwelling 12 miles from the nearest townl and about a lantern set by an old woman in a weathered window every night for 39 years, awaiting the return of a husband who no longer cared.
It was a fall day in 1891 that Thomas Colbath stood before the cabin in the Passaconaway Valley and told his wife, before slipping down the hillside, that he would be back "in a little while." That "little while" proved to be 42 years, and when he returned in September 1933, Colbath learned he was three years too late.
With his youth behind him, Colbath stood before the then deserted house, and heard the story about a wife now dead and a light that each night had shone in the darkness surrounding the cabin. Shaking head again and again, the now slightly deaf old man listened as a neighbor, Ben Swinton, told him how his wife, Ruth Pricilla Russell Colbath, always expected his return, but never lived to see it.
Colbath was told his wife lived alone all those years in the cabin, located off what is now the Kancamagus Highway and directly within view of Mt. Passaconaway. While he was off wandering in Cuba, California, and Panama, she kept a vigil, refusing to leave the cabin even at the height of winter. People said she was crazy and that her husband must be dead, but according to Swinton, "She always put the lamp in the window no matter what they said."
Born in 1850 in the house built by her great-grandfather in 1810, Ruth Priscilla Russell was of pioneer stock, as her ancestors had been among the first settlers of the Passaconaway Valley. In her younger days, she recalled seeing Indians in the fertile valley as they often stopped at her father's store to trade for snowshoes and other supplies. Her father, Amzi Russell, at one time owned most of the valley, and operated a lumber mill on the neighboring Swift River where boards were hauled by ox teams and driven to Portland, where they found a ready market.
Of the five Russell daughters, only Ruth remained at home, as the others married and went on to distant homes. Attending school at what later became Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, she was much better educated than most girls of her era, which when coupled with her exceptional natural intelligence, "made her an unusual woman," according to those who knew her.
When Amzi Russell died in 1877, Ruth, then 27, carried on the activities of the farm. From her doorway, she could enjoy a panoramic view of mountains, fields, and forest, dominated by the peaks of Passaconaway, Hedgehog, Potash, Paugus, and other elevations of lesser note. Marrying Thomas Alden Colbath sometime after that, Ruth and her husband became sole proprietors of the farm when her mother deeded the property to her in 1887.
Except on rare occasions, Ruth very rarely left the farm on which she was born. One by one, she saw her beautiful valley lose a good sized populations of lumbermen, farmers, trappers, and woolgrowers, yet she stayed. In 1878, the family sawmill was burned, farms were deserted, and the region became an area less traveled by, as it was 12 miles from Conway in the middle of nowhere.
The region became popular once again as a summer resort at the turn of the century, but in the interim, things were slow. Whether it was the area's hard economic times, isolation, or some other more personal factor, no one knows. But in any event, Thomas Laden Colbath evidently decided he'd had enough of his life in the valley, and he made his break in the fall of 1891.
Left on her own and somewhat crippled by an injury suffered as a child, Ruth lived a frugal life, but was by no means poor. Inheriting her father's timberlands, she sold sites for more than 30 hunting camps, but refused all offers to part with her home when the region was rediscovered as a summer resort in the 1900s.
Serving as postmistress from 1882-1907, Ruth developed friendships with the summer people who came in ever increasing numbers. In time, as more people learned of the off-the-beaten path valley, her story and that of the lamp placed in her cabin window every evening caught the attention of numerous newspaper men. Before long, she was known as the "Hermit Lady of Passaconaway Valley."
Described as being a "pleasant-faced old woman" well posted on the topics of the day, Ruth was an expert on the history of the region, and spent most of her summers recounting to visitors one tall tale or another. As one writer of the 1920s noted, "In summertime, when mountain climbers penetrate this wildest stretch of New England, Mrs. Colbath's life is symbolic of the sunshine that warms the Indian valley. For then," he continued, "pilgrims come to see the 'grand old lady of the mountains' and hear her repeat the legends of the redskins."
Ruth's life was far different in the months from November to May, when the valley was deserted and her solitude was broken only by the occasional visits of Ben Swinton, the area's only other wintertime resident. A faithful woodsman who lived in a cabin a mile away, Swinton trekked through the snow to the house two or three times per week, chopping wood and looking after her fires.
Asked by a writer about the hardships of living in the isolated region in winter, Ruth replied that it was neither very difficult or lonely. "In the winter, it may seem lonesome to some, but I am not lonesome. The mountains are grander than ever," she said, "and sometimes I aid a wanderer." At the time of the interview, the then elderly woman had not be out of her valley for more than 10 years, and, crippled by her various ailments, hadn't stepped across her cabin's doorstep for months. "But still I am very happy," she told the writer. "I was born in this very house," she continued, "and I am still here. I love it, and I hope never to be obliged to leave it."
Whenever summer visitors inquired about the lamp in the window, Ruth usually refused to discuss the subject. It was clear she still cherished the thought of her husband's return, however, as she once revealed to a visitor in 1925. Bowing her head at the question, she noted, "I have tried for years to find him; he may still be alive. If he is, perhaps some day he will come back to me."
Her wishes came true, but Ruth never lived to see them fulfilled. Becoming seriously ill and even more crippled in the last years of her life, she was taken off the farm by Swinton one last time in November of 1930 and brought to Memorial Hospital, where she died shortly thereafter. She was buried in the Russell cemetery located beside the house she called home for all of her 81 years.
Three years later, Thomas Colbath returned to the dwelling. Vague about where he'd spent the past 42 years, he had hoped to live in the house once again. He was to be disappointed, however, as his wife's estate--to which he would have been legal heir--had been divided between her other relatives in the belief that Colbath was dead.
The house was sold to a couple from Lowell, Massachusetts, who used it as a summer home from 1932-'38, after which it was purchased by the federal government. As for Colbath, he was reported to have gone to live with his sister in Wolfeboro for a few years, and then--just as mysteriously as before--he left her home and never returned.
Fifty years later, the isolated cabin where Ruth Colbath lived is now used as an information center and historical building by the Saco District of the U.S. Forest Service. Renovated over the years, the house is staffed by Forest Service personnel who, in addition to dispensing information about the region, give craft demonstrations throughout the summer. Popular as those demonstrations are, the staff notes the story of the "lady with the lamp" continues to be the dominant attraction at the house.
"People don't remember the cabin as the George House; they remember as the place where the old lade put the lamp in the window every night awaiting her husband's return," said George House supervisor Ann Croto, a member of the Albany Historical Society and a school teacher in Conway. Despite her extensive research, Croto says that other than hearing an unfounded rumor here and there, she's never been able to determine just why Thomas Colbath went on his notorious 42-year sojourn.
"I've heard talk," Croto said, "but nothing I'd ever dare say in print. I just warn people, when they hear their husband say he's 'going out for a bit,' to not let him out of their sight."