top of page
  • Karen Cummings

Mt. Washington - Its Magnetic and Enduring Presence

New Hampshire as a vacationland is known for its lakes and streams, forests, hills and meadowlands, exquisite summer days and sunsets, crystalline fall weather and excellent skiing. At the hub of all this activity and accessible to any city in the Northeast is Mt. Washington.

Rising 6,288 feet above sea level, Mt. Washington is the summit and center of the region of New Hampshire known as the White Mountains. It is also the highest peak in the Northeast, as well as being one of the loftiest east of the MIssissippi. Only Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina and several of its southern neighbors loom higher.

Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range are among the oldest mountains in the world, some 260 million years older than the coastal ranges in the far West. Mt. Washington had reached a vintage age when these younger, larger mountains were still being formed. Besides, it is not mere height alone which draws thousands of visitors to the summit each year. On a clear day, the white mica schist cone, 1,200 feet above timberline, affords a view encompassing 1,000 miles, stretching from the Canadian border to the Atlantic. Such clear days are regrettably rare, however. The summit sees sun less than 60 days a year, and has been credited with having the most severe and changeable weather conditions in the world. The highest wind velocity ever recorded [when this story was published in 1978], 231 miles per hour, was measured on Mt. Washington in 1934.

The disparity between the weather on the summit and in the valley below the range is explained by the scientific calculation that every 100 foot rise in altitude presents a climatic difference equal to traveling 10 miles due north. Conditions on the summit, therefore, are very much like those in Labrador, 500 miles north of the latitude of its base. Such an unusual set of circumstances represents what scientists term an "artic island in the temperate zone."

Despite its unpredictable nature, Mt. Washington has lured explorers to its slopes since the first white setters inhabited the forests of New England. John and Sebastian Cabot sighted the White Mountains while perusing the coast of Maine and New Hampshire in 1497. The Indians of the region referred to the peak as Agiocochook, and believed it to be the abode of the gods, dooming any trespasser to death. Such legends did not deter Darby Field, however, an 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 150 years that followed Field's venture, very few parties attempted to match his feat. In the 1790's, however, the legendary Abel Crawford settled his wife and young family on the rugged west slope of the Presidentials in Hart's Location, eight miles above Bartlett Village. Crawford farmed, built a sawmill and gristmill, and provided lodging for the ever increasing number of travelers through the notch which was to eventually bear the family name. In 1819, Abel and his son Ethan Allen Crawford cut the first path to the summit of Mt. Washington, signaling the beginning of mountaineering in America. Eight years later, Ethan Allen succeeded in completing a bridle path to the top of the peak, and in the years that followed the two men guided many climbers to the summit.

It was not until 1827 that the first hardy souls attempted to settle the eastern slope of the mountain. In that year Hayes Copp built a shelter north of Pinkham Notch, and in 1831, married Dolly Emery, a young woman from Bartlett. That the area was eventually named after her was due apparently to Dolly's effervescent nature, since Hayes was reputedly a dour sort. During their years together they built a prosperous farm enterprise and raised a large family. After their fiftieth anniversary, however, Dolly gathered her belongings and left the notch to live with a daughter in Auburn, Maine. "Fifty years is long enough for a woman to live with any man," she claimed.

As the roadways through the notches were gradually improved, inns were constructed in the shadows of the mountains to accommodate travelers and prospective climbers. Buildings also became a 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, plus a weather bureau, research laboratory for the armed services, and a fully equipped television and radio station. The first summit house was built in 1852 with massive stones that were blasted from the mountain top, and other materials that were hauled up the bridle path on horseback. The Tiptop House, the only one of the original structures still standing today, was added in 1853. The summit house served 100 dinners daily, and a pitched roof was added to the Tiptop House to provide 17 extra bedrooms.

Construction work on the carriage road up the eastern ridges of Mt. Washington began in 1853. Difficulties with the weather, legal and financial problems delayed the project, but it was completed in August of 1861. The course of the original carriage road coincides almost exactly with the present day Auto Road.

Sylvester Marsh, a Chicago entrepreneur and inventor, weathered a great deal of ridicule, financial and mechanical difficulties in setting up the Mt. Washington Cog Railroad. Marsh was granted a charter for the venture in 1858, but the project took 11 years to complete. The train, which still operated on a regular schedule during the summer months, ascends the path of the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River on the western side of the mountains to the summit.

The more famous Mt. Washington Summit House was built under the auspices of Walter Aiken during the years 1873-74. The building stood 2 1/2 stories high with a dining room large enough to seat 150 people. The foundation stones were blasted from the mountainside, but the rest of the materials for the substantial structure had to be dragged up the newly built Carriage Road.

By 1877 there was such great activity on and around the summit of Mt. Washington that Henry Burt established a newspaper which was printed daily on top of the peak during the summer months. "Among the Clouds," which Burt edited and published for 22 years, carried news of the mountain and surrounding resorts. A major objective of the paper, which was printed in the Tiptop House, was to arrive via the Cog Railway before the big city papers reached North Conway and Bethlehem. The printing office, like most other buildings located on the summit, was destroyed by the great fire on June 18, 1908.

Most of the major accomplishments on Mt. Washington during the twentieth century have been of a scientific nature. The Army and Air Force testing labs, the Weather Observatory and the television and radio stations have contributed not only to our knowledge of New Hampshire, but also the weather, plant and animal species of less studied arctic regions. The other outstanding effort has been the work of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which, through its extensive trail network and hut system, has promoted safety in the mountains and increased the public's awareness of the fragile nature of its backcountry.

Tourists and local residents alike continue to be drawn to the peak every year. The majority of the visitors to the higher reaches of the White Mountains still make the ascent on foot. Anyone unfamiliar with the terrain, however, should obtain maps and information before attempting such a venture. A good source is the Appalachian Mountain Club's facility on Route 16 in Pinkham Notch. Others use the Cog Railway, drive the Auto Road in their own cars, or catch a ride with the present day "stages," which are chauffeured vans that leave from the Glen House on Route 16. Each summer less conventional vehicles attempt the journey to the summit during the Alternative Vehicle Regatta. There are also annual foot and bicycle races up the Auto Road.

Mt. Washington is the focal point for the eight towns in the valley that bears its name. It is impossible to live for any time within reach of the Presidential Range without it becoming an integral part of one's consciousness. Its history, strength, and the challenge of its rugged beauty continue to inspire visitors from afar and local citizens alike.

bottom of page