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  • Jane Golden

Mt. Washington: An Arctic Island in a Temperate Zone

It’s the first sight you see when you pull into town. Looming high above the horizon, majestic, awesome, snowcapped all but two months of the year, Mt. Washington is the apex of the White Mountains’ sprawling Presidential Range. Few sites can compare with its history and inexhaustible ability to each year send out new challenges to would-be conquerors. From its 6,288 foot summit, the highest in the Northeast, one can capture a glimpse of 1,000 miles stretching from the Canadian border to the Atlantic.

”The second greatest show on earth, “ was the way P.T.Barnum described the view, but he was no doubt lucky to find his way to the top on a clear day. The White mica schist cone that tops the 1,200 feet above timberline may name the N.H. range “White” but it also represent what geologists call “an arctic island in the temperate zone.” The summit which sees the sun less than 60 days a year has been credited with having the most severe weather conditions in the world. The world’s highest recorded wind velocity, 231 miles an hour, was measured on Mt. Washington in 1934. Why the weather on top should differ so much from that at the base is explained in part by the scientific calculation that every 100’ rise in altitude is equal to traveling 10 miles due north. That places the summit 500 miles north in the same temperature zone as Labrador, Siberia and other arctic countries.

Despite the severity of its climate, the Mt. Washington mystique has lured thousands to its peak. Darby Field was the first to make the climb in June of 1642, accompanied by two Indian guides. The Indians of the area believed Agiocochook was the abode of the gods and that climbing it meant certain death to the intruder. According to journals kept by Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, Field survived their wrath and climbed it again that year in the latter part of the summer.

There were few attempts to equal his feat in the next 150 years until Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford of the legendary Crawford family that settled in Crawford Notch cut the first path in 1819, signaling the start of American mountain climbing as a sport. The first path started near the site of the present Crawford House and went up Mt. Clinton nearly to the summit. From there it followed the southern peaks (PLeasant, Franklin, Monroe) to the Lake of the Clouds and then ascended the cone. Eight years later, Ethan Allen build a bridle path to the summit after earlier attempts at constructing a carriage road were destroyed by rain. Hayes and Dolly Copp settled the eastern side of the mountain.

Among the characters drawn to the mountain, few are more colorful than John Coffin Nazro who was given a fake deed to the summit as a joke by Thomas Crawford, owner of the Crawford House. Nazro set up gates at the bridle path and charged one dollar tolls. A strange looking religious fanatic, he called for a solemn congregation of all religious people to climb to the summit and build a temple. On the day of the great gathering, July 4, 1851, the expedition was troubled by bad weather and Nazro’s inability to collect fees. He shortly thereafter disappeared and returned a number of years later to collect past rent.

Building has always been a major preoccupation on the summit. Mt. Washington was the first and perhaps the only peak in the world to have a carriage road, railway, commodious hotel, daily newspapers, telegraph office and telephone service, weather bureau, research laboratory for the armed services, and a fully equipped radio and TV station. The first summit house was built in 1852 with heavy stones that had been blasted from the mountain top and other materials that were dragged up the bridle path. The Tiptop House, which is still standing, was added in 1853, the same year the Honorable Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War and later president of the Southern Confederacy visited the peak, The summit house served 100 dinners daily, and a perched roof was added to the Tiptop House that added 17 more small bedrooms. Construction on the carriage road began in 1853 and after many weather, financial, and legal problems, was completed in August of 1861. The survey done in 1854 located the road almost exactly where the present Auto Road is today.

Sylvester March, a Chicago entrepreneur, who invented meat packing machinery, overcame a great deal of ridicule, money and mechanical problems in setting up the Mt. Washington Cog Railroad. He received a charter for the venture in 1858, but the project wasn’t finished until 1869. Ulysses S. Grant was the first president to make the ascent while in office in 1967. He was followed a decade later by Rutherford B. Hayes accompanied by his family and members of the cabinet. Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire’s only president, visited the site on a number of occasions. The more famous Mt. Washington summit House was built in 1973-74 under the auspices of Walter Aiken and stood 2 ½ stories high with a dining room large enough to seat 150 people. Most of the materials were not only brought up the newly built carriage road but manufactured and sent to the base from various locations throughout New England.

No doubt one of the mountain’s most romantic stories involves its daily summer newspaper “Among The Clouds” that was published for 31 years, some seasons two times daily, from the top of Mt. Washington. Henry Burt, founder and for 22 years editor and publisher of the paper that carried news of the summit and surrounding resorts, commented one day: “There ought to be a newspaper here for those who have to wait for the clouds to life.” A major objective of the paper which was printed in the tiptop House was to arrive via the cog railway before the big city newspapers hit the towns of North Conway and Bethlehem. The printing office, like most of the other buildings located on the summit was destroyed by the great fire on June 18, 1908.

Most of the work accomplished in this century on Mt. Washington, besides the Appalachian Mt. Club’s extensive trail network and hut system, has been of a scientific nature. The Army and Air Force testing labs, the Weather Observatory and the television and radio stations have contributed greatly not only to our knowledge of New Hampshire but also the weather, plant and animal species of the less studied arctic regions.

Mt. Washington, the center point for the eight towns in the Valley that bear its name, continues to inspire hikers, poets, and artists and that relic of each that resides in all of us. From its first explorer Darby Field to the Alternative Energy Regatta and Auto Road Race and Bicycle Hill Climb, Mt. Washington, draped in tragedy, romance, and mystery, encourages conquest “because it’s there.”

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