- By Ed Parsons
Back in Tip Top Shape
To live well in the present, men need links to both the past and the future, and on the summit of Mount Washington, both of these can be enhanced. One's vision of the future can become more optimistic by admiring the ever-changing prospect of New England at your feet, and also by seeing how the modern Sherman Adams Summit Building, with its wide windows and low profile, affirms man's ability to cope with any harshness of environment or spirit.
To step back in the past, look south of the Summit Building to the old stone Tip Top House, the oldest surviving structure on the peak. Built in 1853, it has withstood some of the worst weather the planet can offer, a devastating fire in 1908 that destroyed every other building on top, and in 1915, a fire that gutted the Tip Top House itself, but left its stone walls intact for rebuilding.
It is a direct link to the past, and this summer, through an appropriation of $100,000 by the state legislature, is being revitalized so it can be appreciated by future generations. To better understand what is being done, a short history of the Tip Top House and early summit community is in order.
Man-made structures have sheltered people on the summit of Mount Washington for 161 years, starting with three stone cabins built by Ethan Allen Crawfoid in 1823. These, and other primitive shelters built for people who came up on the bridle path from Crawford Notch, were successively abandoned, or simply disappeared because of the mountain's infamous winds and weather.
The need for more dependable shelter on top was increasingly evident as the "golden age" of the White Mountains began. In 1852, the first hotel or Summit House was built from stone found on top, and lumber brought up the peak on the strong backs of both horses and men. This structure withstood the winter storms for more than 30 years. The commercial success of the Summit House led to the immediate erection of the famous Tip Top House, built to the south of the geographic summit. It opened in August of 1853. Samuel Spaulding of Lancaster, N.H., was the builder, while his nephew, John Spaulding, managed the hotel.
The stone and wood building measured 84 by 24 feet, and had a deck roof for observation. On calm days, a telescope was placed there for everyone's use. A visitor to the Tip Top House that first summer best describes its interior: "It was then believed that no person could stand the 'rarefied air' of the summit unless he indulged in frequent libations. As you stepped inside the outside door, there stood the affable bartender, backed by various decanters from which he dispensed at once to all the newcomers the health-giving elixir. It was in those days hard work to bring up the supplies of food, and many brought their own, buying some tea flavored with goat's milk (the goats living upon the mountain grass at the summit) to aid its digestion. The Tip Top House was finished inside and partitioned with cotton cloth. The bedsteads were berths above each other, as in a steamer, and made of fir poles brought up on horseback. The beds were filled with moss."
In the remainder of the 1853 season, competition was keen between the two hotels on top. But the next year, the owner of the Summit House sold his interest to the Spauldings, who then managed the two buildings for nine years. Because tne Carriage Road would not be cornpleted until 1861, all supplies were brought up on horseback. Luxuries such as fresh meat, potatoes and cow's milk were absent from the menu unless brought by the guests themselves, and supplies kept on hand ranged from bacon, ham, and tripe to rice, johnny cake, and hot biscuits. The number of guests for dinner was very uncertain. One method used by the employees was to go to the rock promontory on the southern end of the summit, then called Point Lookoff, and count the ponies coming along the bridal path from Crawford Notch.
After the Spauldings left, Charles Cavis, an engineer for the carriage road, managed the two hotels for one year. His wife kept cows in a corral on a flat plateau a mile below the summit, which has since then been known as the Cow Pasture. For 10 years, Colonel John Hitchcock of Gorham took over the mountain houses. To accommodate increased guests when the carriage road was completed, he added a peaked upper story to the Tip Top House with 17 small rooms, and an enclosed walkway to the other building. When the Cog Railway was completed in 1869, it was obvious that a larger hotel was needed. Requiring 250 train loads of construction material, the hotel was opened four years later, leaving the old Tip Top House for employee sleeping quarters.
A fascinating period had begun in the history of the mountain, which then boasted a carriage road, railway, a first-rate hotel, and both a post office and telegraph office. One Henry M. Burt, who was a highly successful newspaper publisher, while visiting the summit on a storm-bound day in the summer of 1874, remarked to a friend, "There ought to be a newspaper here for those who have to wait for the clouds to lift." As a man of action, who loved the mountains, he formed a plan, and three years later, set up a hand operated printing press in the front room of the Tip Top House. The daily summer paper was called Among the Clouds. Eventually, news from the entire White Mountain region was gathered by three reporters. In 1884 a new building was constructed and equipped with a steam-powered press, and the Tip Top House was again abandoned. By 1908, two editions of Among the Clouds were printed daily.
That year, though well into the new century, marks the real transition of Mount Washington into the modern world. But, as is true with all too many beginnings in history, it was precipitated by tragedy and temporary regression. On the evening of Thursday, July 18, 1908, a fire swept the summit, returning the peak to the desolate conditions of 50 years previous. The Tip Top House was the only building to survive intact, and to partially compensate for that summer's lost trade, it was restored and used as the hotel, remaining so for seven years.
On a desolate spot like the summit, the work of providence is expected. Perhaps it was a reminder that the old gods of Agiochook (Mount Washington) still valued their home, when in 1915, only one week after the opening of another summit hotel, the Tip Top House was gutted by fire. Though it was caused by a defective chimney and nurtured by stored paint, it hints of the reluctant acceptance of a new age. The Cog Railroad restored the building rather than let it stand in ruin and disappear from the landscape.
Thus ends an era worth remembering. From that time until now, though the building has been used for sleeping quarters, storage, a lounge called the "Mount Washington Club," and as a lab in the 1940's when the Air Force and Northwest Airlines studied wing icing, it has remained as the only reminder of the past.
This summer the Appalachian Mountain Club has been working on the first step in the restoration of the Tip Top. Following the plans of architect John Dudley, who also participated in designing the Sherman Adams Building, they have removed the old peaked roof and all exterior material exept the original stone, and have begun to seal off both ends of the building, the roof, and the windows before the snow flies. By October 15, the exterior will be restored, and a recent decision of the Mount Washington Commission, which was created in the early '70s to oversee the summit (and is chaired by Sherman Adams himself), indicates that the restoration will continue on the interior next year.
Authenticity is a priority, though some modern methods will be used to protect the structure from the wear of today's plentiful tourists. The original roof, as shown in the accompanying photo, was nearly flat for viewing the landscape. The restored roof will be similar, with a 14" rise from the outer edge to the middle. Not visible from the ground, the roof will be concrete tiles placed loosely over a rubberized seal. This method has proven adequate on the Sherman Adams building, not only because of the wear of many feet, but to hold the roof down in winter storms when an airfoil (and consequently a vacuum) is created over a flat surface. The weight of the loose tiles is sufficient to hold it down.
To hold this heavy roof up there will be not only the ancient stone walls, which have been topped with a new concrete sill, but also a heavy frame of large pressure-sealed timbers. Ten heavy poles will support the ridge beam. Originally, these were also to be pressure treated timbers, but Doug Philbrook, president of the Auto Road, reminded those involved that for a proper restoration, some timely materials should be used. The 10 peeled spruce logs were chosen to enhance the authenticity of the interior.
The entire back end of the building will be reframed and equipped with a new door, window, and covered with cedar shingles. Also, the front will be shingled and the door replaced. The stone-bound side windows have proven a challenge for the crew, as all of the wooden lintels that support the-top of each opening have had to be pulled out and replaced. Somehow, this has been accomplished without the stones above crashing down.
Work is coming along, and soon it will be time for the modern roof to be laid. This particular job will be done by G & E Roofing of Maine. But everything else is the responsibility of the young and enthusiastic AMC Construction Crew, including the work of Tom Bindas, a carpenter from Gorham who is prefabricating the doors and windows down at the AMC's Pinkham Notch Camp. The summit, known by carpenters and masons for its "bothersome" working conditions, is the site of all other efforts.
Paul Cunha, a 24-year-old college graduate from Rochester, N.Y., is the on-site foreman. With an energy level that is complemented by his rugged, yet aware demeanor, he talked about the project. "This job is great because of the unique building and surroundings. Sometimes, though, we don't come up to work because of the winds. Every morning," he said, "I call the Observatory. If the winds are over 40 mph, the working conditions are too dangerous, and we work on projects at Pinkham."
Bearded Bill "The Wookie" Corbin and Mike "Tiny" Brockman are his crew chiefs. Thus, with a split crew, and a number of projects being tackled, progress is fast. Laura Colton, 21, with her enthusiasm for the outdoors and rugged work, is a great asset to the crew, as is Jessica Donnell, 23, of Randolph. Jessica cooks lunch for the ravenous crew in the State Park quarters of the Summit Building, then works all afternoon on the Tip Top. "I'm learning to cook meat up here, because that's what they want," she sighs, but then flashing an unforgettable smile. Upon sampling one of her dishes, it's obvious that the skills of her vegetarian background have carried over.
Two or three nights every week, the crew stays on top in the Yankee Building, having set up bunks amongst the wilderness of microwave relay equipment in operation there. This proved especially convenient at the start of the project when they were cutting down the old peaked roof of the Tip Top with a chain saw, and burning it in the parking lot. Those late night marshmallow roasts are over, the smoldering ruins were especially memorable. Of course, they had to alert all local police that, in fact, the Tip Top House was indeed burning again, but in a harmless way.
On those bright blue Whtie Mountain mornings, with the day's work under way, they have been regularly visited by the Observatory's blonde Tabby cat. Later, the tourists arrive, also with an insatiable curiosity. "What's it gonna be?" a red-cheeked boy would ask. "We don't know yet," answered the crew. "How long has it taken so far?" inquired the father. Eyes would meet in a brief search for the best answer and the crew would reply, "Oh, about 130 years."