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  • by Chris Stewart

The road to the summit

Looming 6,288 feet above sea level, Mount Washington dominates the landscape of northern New Hampshire. Early explorers felt the mountain’s attraction and sought to scale its heights, invading what local Indians call “Agiocochook,” the Home of the Great Spirit. A more recent visitor, P.T. Barnum, proclaimed it “the second greatest show on earth.”

Today its unparalleled scenery lures thousands of summer vacationers to its top where on cloudless days, visitors scan the horizon from Vermont’s Green Mountains to the 100-mile distant coast of Maine.

To reach the summit you choose among three routes: by foot, walking on one of a dozen or more hiking trails; by train, taking the Cog Railway from the Marshfield Base Station on the western side of the mountain, or by automobile, driving on the Carriage Road, “the oldest man made attraction in America,” according to Doug Philbrook, Carriage Road manager starting in 1964.

The Carriage Road—more popularly known as the Mount Washington Auto Road—climbs 4,600 feet from Pinkham Notch in its eight-mile ascent along a grade averaging just less than 12%, rising roughly one foot for every eight traveled. Since 1861 visitors have taken this route, first as passengers in horse-drawn mountain carriages and, in more recent times, relying on the automobile Yet without the persistence of General David C. Macomber, the man who organized the Mount Washington Road Company 127 years ago, the road might never have been built.

Many dreamed of a carriage road to the “Top of New England,” particularly after Ethan Crawford carved out a bridal path from his family’s inn to the summit in 1819. If a horse path could be built; they reasoned, then surely a carriage road would follow. Still, almost 40 years passed before someone took action. The arrival of the railroad in 1851 changed the picture. When, the railroad connecting Montreal and Portland passed through Gorham, plans for a summit road seemed much more realistic. The railroad meant not only direct access for visitors to the Northern Peaks, but it made transportation of construction materials vastly more simple.

General Macomber seized the initiative. In 1857, Thomas Starr King, an early historian of the White Mountains, described Macomber as “the soul of the enterprise that is engineering a wagon turnpike up Mount Washington.” A transplanted native of Middletown, Connecticut, Macomber convinced the New Hampshire Legislature to approve his plans for a toll road to the summit in 1853. They granted permission for him to issue $50,000 worth of stock in order to finance the undertaking. With the aid of four men from Portland, Maine, Macomber quickly sold the stock and the project moved forward.

The following year a team of surveyors mapped out the line of the road and construction began at once. The path selected for the road proved to be so sound the “no one has yet suggested an improved route over what was done then,” according to Philbrook, “not even a team from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Macomber and his associates allocated $8,000 for every mile to be built‑--an extraordinary sum in those times‑--because now they faced unique obstacles. Mount Washington boasts the worst weather in the world: its slashing rains, gale force winds and mercurial temperatures challenge any who venture on its slopes. The summit’s permafrost and world record winds—weather observers recorded a gust of 231 miles an hour in a 1934 storm—attest the severity of construction conditions.

The weather, however, was only one difficulty hampering the project. Although the railroad passing through Gorham carried building supplies close to the site, all material still had to be legged eight miles uphill through winding Pinkham Notch just to reach the base of the Carriage Road. From that point, men and packhorses hauled gravel, cement, shovels, picks and other necessary apparatus piece by piece up the Road. Because dynamite was unknown, all blasting required the use of black powder, a far weaker explosive. Each charge had to be planted in holes hand drilled into the bedrock.

Despite these unusual complications, workmen completed four miles of the Road by 1857, moving halfway up the projected route to a point known as “The Horn.” Here, all work ceased. Money ran out and so had General Macomber. Discouraged by the financial collapse of the Road Company, Macomber ignored urgent letters from his associates and departed New Hampshire never to return.

Macomber may have lost his grit, but others saw great possibilities for the project. Though he never witnessed the fruits of his labors, Macomber’s efforts demonstrated that a road could indeed be finished. Money, it seemed, proved the only stumbling block. Two years elapsed before work resumed, new investors finally ventured forward to complete what Macomber had begun.

Recapitalized with an additional $100,000, and reorganized under a new charter, The Mountain Washington Summit Road Company—the same group operating the Road today—pushed the road forward. Beginning in 1859 an 80-man crew toiled for two seasons, finishing the final stretch near the summit in the summer of 1861. On August 8th of that year, 200 well wishers gathered on top of Mount Washington, and amid the roar of a cannon salute and the snapping of group photographs, the Company declared the Carriage Road officially open for business. Macomber, wherever he was, must have smiled at the news.

The Carriage Road proved to be an immediate and popular success, drawing the curious and adventuresome from throughout New England. This success delighted not only the Summit Road Company, but gave much satisfaction to valley innkeepers as well. The growth of the Glen House, situated at the head of the Carriage Road, illustrated the dramatic impact the Road made on the local economy.

From humble beginnings as a country inn catering to a handful of guests, the Glen House expanded to accommodate 500 lodgers in the 1870s, an expansion made possible by its proximity to the Road. Just after the road opened, carriages from the Glen House alone carried from 30 to 60 passengers a day to the summit during the summer. Other North Country inns and hotels prospered as well, particularly after the completion of the Cog Railway on the western slope of the mountain in 1869. A fashionable visit to Mount Washington was incomplete unless a visitor rode up the Carriage Road, traveled down the mountain on the Cog Railway, and returned to his hotel via mountain carriage, a service provided by almost every innkeeper.

Owing to the lack of public transportation, each hotel and inn maintained its own livery for the convenience of its patrons. The coaches used in this service came from the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire, makers of the world famous ‘Concord Coach’ seen in countless Hollywood Westerns. John Wayne and Randolph Scott might not have known it, but the stages they rode were first designed and manufactured specifically for use on the Mount Washington Carriage Road. Two popular models, having three or four wide seats, carried eight and eleven riders respectively in addition to the driver. Four horses pulled the smaller stage while the larger model harnessed six. These coaches were heavier than normal carriages, had extensive braking systems and, in select models, were equipped with flexible seats tilted to ride level in uphill and downhill travel. Having demonstrated great efficiency as mountain coaches, these carriages gained widespread popularity as traveling coaches throughout New England.

Well after the turn of the century, horse-powered travel ruled the Carriage Road and staunchly fought the coming of the automobile. Although Mr. and Mrs. F.O. Stanley drove the first car to the top of Mount Washington in 1899, most innkeepers as well as the Summit Road Company hesitated to accept this change. Yet the handwriting was on the wall. Mr. and Mrs. Stanley completed their uphill journey in slightly over two hours, a time almost halving the length of a horse-drawn trip. The loud engines and unfamiliar sight of the automobiles spooked many a horse, which presented a hazard to travelers on the Road, but gradually the Company accepted the change. In 1908 it opened the Road to automobiles; five years later it purchased its own motorized ‘stage’, a second-hand Thomas Flyer. “By 1913,” manager Philbrook noted, “the horse-drawn wagon died out completely on the Road.”

Aside from attracting more than 100,000 visitors every summer who wish to ride to the summit and take in its majestic vistas, the Carriage Road has served as the site for various races, competitions and outright bizarre events. Even before the completion of the Road, men and women began to match themselves against the mountain‑--and each other—in tests of skill and endurance. In 1855, when the Road was barely half finished, a 230-pound woman accepted the wager of $1,000 that she couldn’t hike to the summit and back. Not only did she accomplish the feat, making the round-trip in one day, but, after her return she danced the night away, celebrating her triumph at the Glen House.

Men were not far behind in seeking out unusual ways to show their prowess. Harlan P. Amen, the principal of Phillps Exeter Academy, ran down the road in the record time of 54 minutes in the summer of 1875. Not to be outdone, Mr. C.E. Heath made his descent of the Carriage Road riding a tricycle in 1883 in the time of 55 minutes. In 1913, three Dartmouth Outing Club members achieved another ‘first’ on the Carriage road when they skied to and from the summit, a difficult task with even the most modern equipment.

The more traditional races with horse-drawn carriages and automobiles speeding to the summit have created the most sustained interest over the years. Joseph Thompson, owner of the Glen House, won the distinction of being the first to drive a carriage to the summit, a feat he accomplished on July 13, 1861, three weeks before the Road’s official opening. Hoping to beat rival driver John Hitchcock, owner of the Alpine House in Gorham, Thompson took a single-horse wagon up the road and, with the help of two companions to steady the wagon over the last few hundred yards of unfinished road, he earned a place in Carriage Road history.

After Thompson, a race for speed began. Since drivers couldn’t claim to be ‘the first’ they eagerly sought the title of ‘fastest’. On August 22, 1882, James W. Brown drove his six-horse mountain coach along with a crew of passengers, to the summit in record time of two hours and three minutes. The next year he shattered his own record, making the trip in the amazing time of one hour and 17 minutes, this time traveling without companions. However, the all-time record belongs to Charles O’Hara who guided a six-horse coach to the top in one hour and nine minutes, a time he set in the summer of 1887.

After the introduction of the automobile, competition for the fastest time up became more heated. Although the ongoing improvement of the roadbed and refinements in auto design encouraged greater speed, the 99 turns over the eight mile course demanded each driver exercise caution as well as daring when racing. Mr. And Mrs. Stanley’s two-hour-and-10-minute record stood only a short time. At the First National Auto Hill-Climbing Competition in 1904, Harry Harkness cut the Stanley’s time by more than a quarter by racing to the top in 24 minutes and 37 seconds. The following year, that record fell to W.H. Hilliard, who sped the distance in 20 minutes and 58 seconds at the wheel of a Napier Racer. By 1934 the record stood at 13 minutes and 20 seconds. The all time record, though, belongs to Bill Rutan who set the mark driving a car made from Volkswagon and Porsche parts. On July 9, 1961, he completed the course in 9 minutes and 13 seconds, a speed slightly less than 60 miles an hour. Because of the rising number of competing autos required by the Sports Car Club of America, sponsors of the event, the race was discontinued after that year.

More recently the carriage Road hosted the Mount Washington Alternative Vehicle Regatta, an event that sought to focus attention on technological innovations in energy engineering. “It was an effort to bring together individuals who built transportation achieving greater efficiency than normal highway vehicles,” Philbrook said. He recalled that some entrants displayed cars that had refined internal combustion engines making for better mileage or less pollution, but not all autos were merely an improvement on an old design. Electric, coal, methanol and—in one instance—animal fat-powered vehicles came to the Regatta. “Its goal was to provide a place for group competition and comparison, and to show the public the latest technology,” Philbrook pointed out, “but because of the dwindling number of entrants over the past few years we decided not to continue it.”

While interest in the Alternative Vehicle Regatta has faded, the spirit of friendly competition lives on in Mount Washington’s “Race To The Clouds.” Beginning with a handful of hearty runners in the 1930s, this footrace now attracts runners from all over the world. This year’s field of 575 athletes vied in the 20th running of the race, which Bob Hodge won for the fifth consecutive time. The current record, set by Hodge in 1979, stands at one hour, two minutes and eight seconds. The race’s widespread popularity means, according to Philbrook, that “the future looks good” for this event.

More remarkable than the record times for carriage, auto or foot races to the top, the Carriage Road’s standard of safety stands as a testimony to the careful work of its owners and staff throughout its history. Only once in its 127 years of operation has it witnessed a fatality. In 1880, a drunken driver lost control of his carriage on the down hill journey. The carriage flipped over, a woman passenger died as a result. Considering that annual trips up the Carriage Road have increased from 3,000 people in 1898 to more than 100,000 visitors today, the Road’s safety record shows unequaled excellence.

Paramount in the continued safety of all travelers is the maintenance of a well kept road, a task made more complicated by rising gasoline costs and recent severe weather. “Very few people have seen the Road after a typical spring melt,” Philbrook noted, “when 25% of it is washed out. This spring we found a very unusual build up of ice, particularly in the culverts and ditches. In a normal year we might find that one third of the 100 culverts in the Road are iced over; this spring ice filled all of them.”

Anticipating this year’s heavy damage, Philbrook sent his road crews to work two weeks earlier than scheduled, a wise precaution considering what they discovered. Ice four to five feet thick covered several hundred yards of the upper Road. Luckily, the Summit Road Company owns a truck equipped with a special high volume, low-pressure steamer, which bores holes in the ice, permitting water to drain off the Road. Without this equipment and the constant attention of a five-man road crew working seven days a week, the road might long ago have washed away.

Philbrook explained that the constant erosion from wind, rain and the ceaseless pounding of automobile tires exacts a heavy toll even in the mildest weather. “This year we used 6,000 cubic yards of fill to repair the road because of the harsh winter, but in a normal year we still use anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 cubic yards just to replace worn out stretches.”

While road repair is never an easy job, the ongoing rebuilding of the Carriage Road proves particularly difficult. To lay down a surface, which adheres to the 12% grade of the mountain, special attention is paid to a proper mixture of fill material. Philbrook uses a combination of crushed gravel with clay and glacial till added. Into this he mixes “a freight car” or so of calcium chloride, which lasts as a stabilizer, penetrating the road surface and pulling in moisture to better bind the dirt together.

To keep the Road safe and smooth, the Company owns eight trucks, a road grader, backhoe, loader and various pieces of smaller machinery, which it employs throughout the summer in a program Philbrook describes as “a constant upgrading and improving of the road.” In a perpetual race against the wear and tear of man and nature, the road crews repair culverts, rebuild retaining walls and widen the narrower sections of the roadbed to insure safe travel. Philbrook calls this part of the operation, “the more demanding one,” but his work does not end here.

Doug Philbrook also supervises the operation of the ‘stage’ service, which provides transportation for those who do not wish to drive their own cars to the summit. A separate entity known as The Glen and Mount Washington Stage Company, this sister of the Summit Road Company employs nine drivers who also act as tour guides for the passengers they take. Although the late model vans used as ‘stages’ seat 12, only eight passengers at a time make the trip. Philbrook believes that this makes each rider more comfortable and allows the driver and his passengers to enjoy a more convivial tour.

When hiring drivers for the stages, Philbrook looks for young men who want more than “just another summer job.” “We select young men who have a fondness for the mountain and who enjoy their work,” he added. Because of the seasonal nature of employment, many drivers work in the ski industry during the winter months, and thus become more familiar with the mountains. “We stress that our drivers become knowledgeable with the area so they’ll be able to make the hour-and-a-half trip up and down the Road a memorable one for their passengers. We look for men who are skilled, confident and conversational,” Philbrook elaborated.

The majority of those who go up the Road, however, prefer to drive it on their own. Philbrook believes that, in part, people derive a sense of satisfaction from being able to drive themselves. Although the rising cost of gasoline has convinced many to drive smaller cars—a trend visible on the Auto Road for the past several years—Philbrook believes that as long as people own their own automobile they’ll want to take them to the “Top of New England.” While last year’s gas shortage somewhat hampered the flow of summer visitors, signs thus far show a return to normal. “It’s too early in the season to see real trends,” Philbrook warned. “but, use thus far points to a good summer.”

In explaining why he has returned to the Carriage Road for 16 seasons, Philbrook speaks for thousands of others who come back time after time for a drive to the summit. “I just love it,” he said. “It’s that simple.” If he ever finds free time, Philbrook hopes to build a Carriage Road Museum where the colorful, remarkable and, at moments strange history of the Road will be on display for all to see.

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