The Willey Slide of August 1826
Recalling an Infamous White Mountain Tragedy
“Alas! They had quitted their security, and fled right into the path of destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain in a cataract of ruin ... Long ere the thunder of the Great Slide had ceased to roar among the mountains, the mortal agony had been endured, and the victims were at peace."
— from “The Ambitious Guest,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote those words over a century ago in a fictional short story based on the now legendary Willey Slide of Aug. 28, 1826 in Crawford Notch.
Though many other articles, stories, and verses of homespun poetry have been written about the tragedy, which took the lives of the pioneer family living in one of the more desolate sections of Crawford Notch, the facts of the disaster hardly need any fictional ornamentation.
Other deaths have occurred since in the White Mountains, but none have ever equaled in interest the fate which befell Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Willey, Jr., their five children, and two hired men on that stormy Monday 179 summers ago, when mountains moved, the Saco River swelled from the heavy rain, and the family perished.
Life for early pioneers was one continuous struggle against the elements, and nowhere was that more apparent than at that stretch of the Notch called the “Narrows,” the location of the Willey house.
The wind blows so hard at times through this section, bordered by the steep cliffs of Mt. Webster and the forest-clad flank of Mt. Willey, that in the words of 19th century mountain giant Ethan Allen Crawford, “It requires two men to hold one’s hair on.”
Considering the harsh conditions and the isolation of the house site, it is hard to understand what led the Willey family to leave the security of their Mt. Washington Valley farm to move into the dilapitated, 1793-built cabin in October 1825.
The Willeys’ nearest neighbors were four miles to the east and eight to the west. In front of the house was a small clearing, across from which flowed the Saco, which was normally a trickle in summer, and a mud-boiled torrent in spring when the rains melted the snow.
The road leading up through the Notch, now Route 302, was long, rough, and steep. The area also is somewhat gloomy, as night comes early to the Narrows due to overhanging Mt. Willey, which was later named after the doomed family.
The family received a fore-warning of the fate that awaited them on June 26, two months prior to the great slide. Abel Crawford, after whose family the Notch is named, was at work with a crew of men on the turnpike which bisected the area, when a heavy rainstorm broke out and forced the men to take shelter with the Willey family.
Looking out a window, the Willeys saw a cascade of rocks and earth crashing down the mountainside in back of their home, taking all in its path. Whole trees were thrown down, standing upright for distances of ten rods or more before tipping over, and the mass finally stopped on a level surface across the road.
Mrs. Willey was frightened by this initial warning, and urged her husband to harness the horses so that the family could go to Abel Crawford’s. Willey felt that the road would be full of washouts and obstacles from the slide, however, and that the family was much safer in the cabin, so they remained.
After the storm, he looked for a better house site, but eventually decided that the family would be safe staying where they were. As a precaution, though, he placed a good cart body away from the house so that the family could find shelter should they need to escape in the event of another slide.
The two-month long summer drought ended on the morning of Aug. 28, 1826, with one of the heaviest downpours ever to strike the White Mountains.
Samuel Willey's brother Benjamin, the Congregational minister in North Conway, had been preaching on the 27th the day before the storm, in a town to the south. While driving home that Monday, he noticed that the clouds were blacker and greater in volume than he had ever seen before.
In his book, “Incidents in White Mountain History,” Benjamin wrote that the clouds “reminded one of some heavy armed legions moving slowly and steadily into battle ... covering the mountains ... fold after fold with their solemn dark drapery.”
The rain lasted until midnight, and then, just as suddenly as it had developed, the storm cleared. Down in the Valley, Benjamin noted the next morning the destruction that had occurred overnight, with uprooted trees, displaced rocks, and gouged tracks where the water had flowed.
On that Tuesday morning, he and the rest of the Valley were unaware of the terror that had occurred sometime during the previous night high in Crawford Notch.
A man named Barker was the first person traveling down through the Notch that Tuesday, heading on to his home in Effingham or to Bridgton, Maine.
Barker had received help from Ethan Allen Crawford late in the afternoon in crossing the river, which, by 4 p.m. had dropped after the heavy rain of the night before. The road down through the Narrows was blocked in places by 15 to 20 foot craters and fallen trees.
He reached the Willey House about dark; the structure untouched but deserted. The barn in back was destroyed by the slide and two horses were dead, but two cows pinned under the collapsed timbers were still alive, as was the family dog.
Inside, the lone walker found the house in disarray, with clothing and belongings scattered. On a table lay the Bible, opened to the 18th Psalm which reads, “The Lord thundered in the heavens ... Then the channels of water were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke ..."
After spending an unbearable night in the deserted cabin listening to the moaning of the pinned cows trapped in the barn, Kirn Barker on Wednesday morning set out for Bartlett with news of the tragedy, although not until he was able to free the animals.
The word soon spread all over the Valley, and in the late afternoon, parties of searchers began to converge at the house.
Ethan Allen Crawford, and a Rev. Mr. Wilcox started down the Notch early Wednesday, first by wagon, and then by foot due to the gutted condition of the road. Near the Willey House they found the freed cows, their bags filled, not having been milked since Sunday, the day before the storm and slide. Crawford, realizing what had probably happened to the Willeys, wanted to keep moving on down the Notch to his father’s, but Wilcox felt he must return to Ethan’s at the top of the Notch, and Ethan guided the minister back.
Ethan returned later in the afternoon and found the neighbors from the Valley and the lower part of the Notch waiting at the Willey House.
No trace of the missing nine occupants of the house had been located. Ethan, uncomfortable with the thought of staying at the house during the night, traveled back over the dangerous roadway to his lodge at the top of the Notch while the others stayed.
On the next day, Thursday the 31st, the searchers found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, the hired man David Allen, and the youngest child under a pile of floodwood.
The mangled bodies were taken up and placed in coffins, and were interred the next day near the house. They remained there for the winter before being removed to the family burial ground, situated behind the former Carriage Inn in North Conway, behind Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery.
The Rev. Mr. Benjamin Eastman and the other hired man’s younger brother, George Nickerson, continued the search and on Sunday, while gathering material for a raft, found a straw-mattress floating along the wreckage in the river. Next they uncovered the bottom of the youngest child’s foot, aged 5. A few minutes later, poling the raft into mid-stream, they found the body of the eldest child, 12-year-old Eliza Ann. No bruises or marks were found on her body, and it was generally assumed that she had drowned.
None of the other children were found, swallowed by the rubble or swept away by the rain-swelled river sometime during the night of the storm. The other hired man, David Nickerson, was finally found by his brother on Thursday.
Perhaps the tragedy plays so on the minds of all familiar with the story because much of it remains a mystery.
If, as in Hawthorne’s telling of the tale, the family was rushing out of the house to avoid a slide tumbling down the mountain, why was a straw mattress taken from the house? How did it happen that Eliza Ann drowned?
A brother of Samuel Willey’s claimed he had a dream in which his dead brother told him that the family had feared that the rising waters of the Saco would sweep away the house, so they left it for higher ground, right into the path of the slide.
How the house was left standing was explained by the Rev. Mr. Eastman. The slide, he said, uncovered a huge boulder on the slope above the house. The front of the slide floated over the embedded rock and against the building, while the rush of water and mountain debris made channels on each side of the rock tumbling down around either side of the house.
Willey had placed a large log near the foot of the mountain to protect the house from falling stones. According to Eastman, the log lay high above all the other debris accumulated against the house. Had it not been for the uncovered boulder diversion of the water and slide, the 25-foot log would have hit the house like a battering ram.
The Mt. Washington Valley has experienced a number of wild, rainy days the past few weeks as the month of August rolls on toward September. Never, though, has there been a storm in the intervening 179 years equal to the one which hit the North Country on that Monday morning in 1826.