Mt. Washington has lured explorers to its slopes since the first white settlers inhabited the forests of New England. The Indians of the region referred to the peak as Agiochook, and believed it to be the abode of the gods, dooming any trespasser to death. Such legends did not deter Darby Field, however, the Exeter resident who made two ascents in 1642, giving the peak the distinction of being one of the first major mountains in the world to be climbed.
During the century that followed adventurers continued to be drawn by the mysterious “White Hills.” Although pioneers had settled the Connecticut River Valley west of the range, no known route existed through the northern White Mountains until the late 1700s. It was not until 1771 that a Lancaster hunter, Timothy Nash, discovered quite by chance a little used Indian trail that descended the rocky pass known today as Crawford Notch. Nash struggled down the notchway and continues south, seeking out the Royal Governor John Wentworth News of Nash’s discovery spread rapidly.
The significance of a direct path between the farms of the upper Connecticut River and the seaboard towns was immediately apparent, and use of the rough route through the notch increased at a great rate. Following the Revolutionary War, travel and commerce grew dramatically, and the roadway was gradually improved, though it was not until 1803 that the New Hampshire Legislature chartered it as an actual “highway”.
During this period the White Mountain wilderness began to fascinate your Abel Crawford. In 1790 Crawford, then 25, married Hannah Rosebrook, and left the security of the family farm in Guildhall, Vermont to seek a home in the rugged hills to the east. The first people to settle the western slopes of Mt. Washington were squatters who built their small log homes near Fabyan, some four miles north of the gateway to the notch. Hearing of this, Abel Crawford sought them out and bought their claims. Busying himself with the construction of a house for his young family, Crawford spent late 1791 alone in the notch, and in the early winter of 1792 moved his wife and two small sons to their new home.
It was not long after that his father-in-law, Eleazer Rosebrook, came for a visit. Rosebrook decided the notch was the ideal spot to spend his elderly years, bought out Abel, and transported the rest of his family from Guildhall to the rugged homestead.
When the in-laws moved in, Abel moved out, heading south down the notch, and settling on a site in Harts Location, twelve miles below the Rosebrooks and eight miles above Bartlett. The spot was close to the present day Inn Unique on Route 302, and well suited to farming since it was situated on a fertile plain on the banks above the Saco River. Also, the waterway supplied power for a sawmill and gristmill, and the Crawfords flourished.
With the growing flow of traffic through the notch, travelers were soon stopping over at both the Crawford and Rosebrook farms, and the families quite naturally evolved into the region’s first innkeepers. The road being the main route to the seacoast, their guests were farmers carrying goods to market in Portland and Portsmouth, and returning with food and supplies. There were also inevitable adventurers, traveling north to explore the mountains.
As the years passed, Abel’s son, Ethan Allen, grew into a tremendously powerful young man. Ethan’s wanderlust eventually drew him out of the hills to explore the rest of the country, but in 1816 his grandfather Rosebrook with health failing, offered him his farm if Ethan promised to carry on the family traditions there. Ethan agreed to return from Upper New York State where he was working and in 1817 married Lucy Howe, of Lancaster, and settled into life in the notch.
The Presidential Range continued to occupy a great deal of Abel and Ethan Crawford’s attention, and both grew intimately familiar with the mountains surrounding their farms. In 1818 a party of travelers approached the Crawfords to hire them as guides to the summit of Mt. Washington, and during the ensuing years, they, in addition to being innkeepers and farmers, acted as guides for numerous other expeditions.
In 1819 the pair decided to cut a footpath to the summit from the top of the notch, and once completed they actively advertised its existence. The path started near the site of the Crawford House and went up Mt. Clinton. From there it followed the southern peaks, Pleasant, Franklin and Monroe, to Lakes of the Clouds, and then ascended the cone of Washington. Ethan vastly improved upon the route in 1821, eliminating many of the steepest pitches.
One of the first groups to make use of the path was Samuel May, the abolitionist, Caleb Cushing, a famous jurist of the era, and George Emerson, author of the classic work, Trees and Shrubs of Massachusetts. Following them the likes of William Oakes, well known New England botanist for whom Oakes Gulf on the southeasterly slope of Washington is names, The first exploration of Amonoosuc Ravine was made by two young men of a famous Boston family, John Lowell, Jr. and J.Amory Lowell, both patrons of Ethan Crawford’s Inn.
The Crawfords were kind people and often put the sake of others above their own. Their hospitality and honesty became well-known, and visitors to the mountains took special interest in them. Pioneers of vision, the Crawfords’ ambitions sometimes exceeded the families’ earning capabilities, however. The roadway through the notch needed constant maintenance, and very rarely did the state allocate funds for the necessary work. Realizing that the roadway was their lifeline, Abel and Ethan hired men to keep the highway open, regardless of whether they could afford it or not, and thus they were continually plagued by financial difficulties. In actuality, it was the natural forces of the mountains they loved so that proved the most disastrous. The rains of 1826 raised havoc with their farms, killing livestock, washing away crops and ruining fields. It was one of many such occurrences, and still they endured.
Traffic on the notchway continued to grow, though, and the hotel business flourished. In 1828 Ethan and his father built another inn at the gateway to the notch, installing younger brother Thomas in the position of manager. The new hotel did quite well, and the three inns became the first chain of hotels in the mountains owned by one family.
In the end, the mountains consumed Ethan Allen Crawford. In 1833, while riding down the Cherry Mountain Highway, his horse slipped, and Ethan suffered serious internal injury. Though he recovered in part, general poor health and financial woes eventually cause him to lose his farm and tavern to creditors, and in early 1837 he and Lucy moved back to Guildhall, Vermont. Ethan returned one more time to the notch that bears his family name, and died there in 1846.
Abel Crawford survived his son, and remained vital until the end of his 85 years. At 80, Abel could walk with ease the miles to his son’s house, and at 82 he was in regular attendance as representative of his district in the New Hampshire Legislature.
By the time Abel Crawford died in 1851, trains were climbing their way up through the notch, and the tourism trade had changed dramatically. The region had passed from the era of a buckskin clad pioneer living in a log cabin, providing lodging for the occasional passerby, to catering to the fashionably dressed city visitors staying in comfortable summer hotels.
The conveniences and comforts of the Twentieth century allow many to overlook the hardships that existed when the area was opened by these early pioneers. It took people of unusual fortitude to withstand the vicissitudes of nature and still derive a living in the wild land west of Mt. Washington. Such people were the Rosebrooks and Crawfords, who became the first innkeepers in the mountain and initiated what was destined to become a long standing heritage of summer tourism.