The following is an account of the White Mountains region of northern New Hampshire from Harper's Magazine in 1877. You'll find the grammar and some of the spelling a little odd, as well as some of the wording. The prices look a little different than those of today. I have changed nothing to help you taste the real flavour of the area over a hundred years ago.
SUMMED up in the briefest way possible, the White Mountains are the highest elevations of land east of the Mississippi, next in altitude to the Rockies themselves; they are situated in Northern New Hampshire, and extend about forty miles north and south, and nearly the same distance east and west. The peaks cluster in two groups, the eastern being known as the White Mountains proper, and the western as the Franconia. They rise from a plateau about forty-five miles long, thirty miles wide, and sixteen hundred feet above the level of the sea. Several flashing rivers wind among them, passing through four of the prettiest valleys in Americas--the Saco, the Connecticut, the Androscoggin, and the Pemigewasset. Their constitution is a conglomerate rock resembling granite. Every school-boy knows that Mount Washington is the highest, and next to this are Mounts Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, all of which are in the main range. The highest peaks in the Franconia group are Mounts Pleasant, Lafayette, and Liberty.
Few visitors are ever disappointed in these mountains, however great their anticipations may be, and thousands of tourists of the most fashionable class, who are wearied of nearly all other pleasure resorts, from the blue waters of Lake Como to the tropic walls of St. Augustine, from the Mammoth Cave to the valleys of Iceland, and from the Garden of the Gods to Mount Desert, and who are as much "used up" as air Charles Coldstream in Mathews's farce visit them again and again, and always go away satisfied. There is a peculiar and inexhaustible beauty about them; Which is best attested by the number of artists who frequent them year after year. Nowhere else do we so often find the picturesque gentlemen of the easel. The sketch-book and the brush recur with such astonishing frequency that we are at first inclined to believe the whole area must have been transferred to the portfolios of these indefatigable lovers of nature but a further experience teaches us that each day, each hour, the atmosphere transforms every object, bringing this knoll into greater prominence, subduing that, transmuting the purple into blue, the yellow into gold, lighting crimson fires here and spreading a gloom there, until it seems that a whole lifetime spent in portraying one abject only would still leave the task unfinished.
Nor does the variety of the scenery depend on the evanescent effects of the atmosphere alone. The more tangible influences of geology have produced a wonderfully varied conformation of rock in pinnacle, curve, and ravine, while each feature is softened by an indescribable charm which makes the most violent convulsion of nature appear sweet and calm.
The steady increase of visitors to the mountains has developed many ways of reaching them from New York, Boston, and Canada; but one of the pleasantest routes, if the tourist has time and has the seagoing qualities Of good sailor, is that by steamer from the metropolis to Portland which involves a voyage of two days along the New England coast, with many glimpses of sunny beaches and surf-beaten cliffs.
Early on the second morning you are landed in the quiet harbor of Portland, and conveyed by rail to Conway - that pastoral spot which has been fervidly painted in water and oil So often that people who have never been there know it almost as well as its inhabitants. What pen can translate the exquisite beauty of this Arcadia - the fragrant exhalations of the meadows in autumn, the deep repose of the hazy hills, the rural perfection that delights the eye everywhere? The White Mountains found their truest interpreter long ago in a Thomas Starr King who had an intimate a knowledge of them and as subtile a sympathy as Herrick had with the English country lanes, and Irving with the quaint New Amsterdam; but vivid as his utterance is, it fails to completely grasp charms that present themselves -- a fact that he himself appreciated. "Varying with each hour," he has written, "the favored visitors will have the full range views, the anthology of a season into a portion of a single week. The mountains seem to overhaul their meteorological wardrobe. They will array themselves by rapid turns in their violets and purples and mode colors, their cloaks of azure and of gold, their laces and velvets, and their iris scarfs. One day it will be so clear that, for the eye, space seems to have been half annihilated. Every sharp ridge lies in the sky like the curving blade of an adze, and the pinnacles tower sharp as spears. The few shadows that spot the slopes seem engraved upon them. Then will come a day sacred to clouds. Or perhaps the south fills the air with dusty gold and makes each segment of a district that was prosaic enough a week before, seem a sweet fraction of Italy. Possibly it tries its hand at mists. Then what mischief and frolic! It brindles the mountain-sides with them; or it stretches them across their length as it meant to weave all the vapors which the air could supply into a narrow and interminable web of fog. Now, again, the mist around their necks; then the peaks with them, and soon tears them apart to let the grim heads look out; and before long, in more serious mood it bids them steam up and off, like incense altars."
And here, while we are still at Conway, which is both a rendezvous and a starting point for all explorers of the mountains, let us look at some of the social characteristics of the region, which are not less interesting the topography. In the months of July and August the flood of fashion is overwhelming of course, and the dialect of Boston or New York falls oftener on the ear than the nasal drawl which answers for speech with the native. But the native is there, the indigenous Yankee lineally descended from the early pioneer and mountaineer, whose forefathers trapped and hunted among the pines when the summit of Mount Washington was a white mystery to the oldest and hardiest--an odd, homespun mixture of shrewdness, wit, thrift, and good nature. You find him under the portico of the country store, with a crowd of boon companions, who, like himself are gaunt, freckled, and sinewy, and whose limbs appear to be hung together on wires. The visitors, constantly coming and going in the train of pleasure make the summer lively for them; but when these birds of passage are flown, and the mountains are wrapped in snow from summit to base, they will fall into the quiet routine of primitive life in the old farm-houses.
The expensiveness, of the hotels excludes the semi-fashionable element from the visitors. To "do" the White Mountains fashionably means an expenditure of fifteen or twenty dollars a day, for the charges of the leading hotels, high as they are, form only a small item compared with the grand total of "extras," incurred for guides, drives, and other inevitables. The railway fare up Mount Washington is three dollars, and the fare down Mount Washington is an equal amount, an additional sum being charged for any bag or bundle that can not be carried in the hand. The mildest drink costs twenty-five cents. Nearly as much is asked for carriage hire as would buy a respectable horse and buggy. And while the rate for board is four or five dollars a day below the summit, the price at the summit is six dollars a day.
The society is so select, and the accommodations are so excellent, however, that no one who can afford it will complain of the cost. The polite young gentleman who attends to your wants at table, bringing you a dish of fresh eggs and a glass of creamy milk, if they have been in your order, is a Sophomore at Harvard, and he is not the victim of any bitter reverse in life, as you may be inclined to think. The servants at many of the hotels are college students, who, by service of this kind, are enabled to pay their fees; and the girls in attendance - modest New England girls, with honest, intelligent faces and neatly braided hair are likewise students. The polished, noiseless, profoundly attentive waiter of good restaurants in Europe may be able to talk with you in three or four different languages, but where else in the world than the White Mountains can you find a garcon to whom Plato and Darwin, Gibbon, and Euclid, Latin hexameters and the whole of theory of evolution, are matters of such ready tongued familiarity as they are to this bright eyed youth who inquires whether have your potatoes stewed, boiled or mashed?
As I have said, the semi-fashionable element is excluded, and there are comparatively few cheap boarding-houses. The inmates of the hotels belong principally to the best class of American society - the unostentatious representatives of wealth and intellect. And before going farther, I pay the frequenters of the White Mountains an immense but just compliment.
If I wished to show an Englishman best part of American society, I would not take him to Long Branch, for a few diamonds and silks form the line of demarkation between that resort and a much cheaper one--Coney Island. I might take him to Newport, but I would prefer, anxious that his impressions should be, favorable, to introduce him to the company that often gathers, as the weather grows cold before the big wood fires in the White Mountain inn. The divinity that hedges in a king is not easily analyzed, and the charm of good-breeding evades a closer definition than the words "courtesy" and "intelligence" express. There is that within the assemblage of White Mountain travellers which places them on a plane and in an atmosphere of their own, and which is peculiarly grateful to the stranger admitted.
Next to the artists, the most frequent travellers met by a pedestrian on the road are students or clerks who are "footing it", with an infinitesimal quantity of baggage and an infinite degree of zeal good temper. "Give me youth and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous!" With a stout stick, a knapsack, and a boyish capacity for enjoyment, these ruddy fellows make the sybaritish occupants of hotels and carriages appear miserable. You meet them swarming Up the face of the mountains by short-cuts, resting by the bubbling springs and brooks, and puffing their short curry or brier-wood pipes, chatting with the harvesters in the meadows, and taking Nature in at the pores, as Joey Ladle would say. The other travellers seem to be suffering under the lethargic blight of overrefining; a little more of the rough-and-ready element in their pleasure-seeking would make them happier.
The village of North Conway lies on a fertile upland, surrounded by hills and mountains, and overlooking the reaches of the Saco, at the head of which, apparently, is Mount Washington, a monarch among the regiment of giant forms which cluster about it. To the east is a range of hills, with Mount Kearsarge predominant, and to the west of the river is Moat Mountain and the peaks of Chocorua. These four mountains are the most noticeable, but many others loom up in the north, mantled with depths of purple, blue, and gold in the changing light of the day. There is a very ecstasy of color in the morning and evening, a passionate intensity that will not admit of description, and it is not easy to say whether the mountains are most beautiful in the amber daybreak, when watery wreaths of clouds lie upon them, or in the pathetic twilight, when the foliage hangs blackly against the tender gray sky, and the last gorgeous rays of sunset are swallowed up in the victory of night. But it is certain that they are beautiful at all times--beautiful with a beauty of their own that is incomparable to any thing in the Alleghanies or the Rockies.
The neighborhood of Conway contains many natural features of interest, including the Artist's Fall, a picturesque cascade set among forest trees and rocks, and Echo Lake, at the foot of White Horse Ledge, The "White Horse," which can be seen from the village, is the figure of a horse impressed upon the perpendicular sides of a range of cliffs, which extend four or five miles along the banks of the river, and vary in height from a hundred to eight hundred feet At one point a natural cavity, called the Cathedral, has been formed in the solid granite, With walls about eighty feet high, and an arched roof. The floor is strewn with large blocks of granite, and several full-grown trees spring up between the crevices.
Another picturesque spot is that which is romantically called Diana's Bath. This is a little farther north than the Cathedral, and is reached by a shady woodland path leading over some granite ledges to a rivulet, which trickles and breaks in silver and white until it tumbles over another ledge about ten feet high. The action of the water has worn several basins in the rock the largest being about nine feet in diameter, and the pools thus formed are indeed fit for as chaste a goddess as Diana.
As we leave Conway we get another view of Mount Kearsarge, which may be ascended by a bridle-path, and our next hostelry is the Crawford House, which is reached through the famous White Mountain Notch. The valley gradually narrows, and the hills inclosing it become more abrupt as we travel northward. The road winds by the flank of Bartlett Mountain, and over many turbulent brooks. From the Willey House to the gate of the Notch, the walls by which we are inclosed increase to a height of 2000 feet, and at the gate the river flows between sheer cliffs, with harebells and ferns drooping from their faces.
The Willey House is the monument of that disastrous land-slide which has been commemorated in both prose and verse. Here, in 1896, was a little tenement occupied by Samuel Willey, Jun., and his family, and we are told that his hospitable kindness and shelter were as much sought by travellers in wintertime as the shelter of the monks of St. Bernard. One bright June morning, says Starr King, the little meadow farm; flecked with the nibbling sheep, and cooled by the patches of shadow flung far out over the grass from the thick maple foliage, must have seemed, to any one passing there and hearing the pleasant murmur of the Saco, as romantic a spot as one could fly to for security from the fever and perils of the world. Late in that peaceful June, Willey, looking out of a window, saw a large mass of the mountain sliding down, sweeping rocks and trees before it, and hurling its frightful burden across the road. At first the family were greatly terrified, and resolved to move from the Notch; but Mr. Willey, on reflection, felt confident that such an event was not likely to occur again, and was satisfied with building a strong hut or cave, to which the family might fly should another avalanche seem to threaten their home.
Later in the summer there was a long drought. By the middle August the earth to great depth in the mountain region was dried to powder. Then came several days of south wind, betokening copious rain. On Sunday, August 27 the rain began to fall. On Monday it increased, and the clouds around the White Mountain range seen from a distance, were heavy, black, and awful. Valleys were flooded, bridges swept away, live stock drowned, and farm buildings demolished. In the little settlement of Gilead thousands of tons of earth and rock were detached from the overhanging hills, and the roar of these slides was far more frightful than the thunder, and the trails of fire from the rushing bowlders were more awful than the lightning. For several hours the Willey family were in constant terror. The father and mother, anxious for their young children, recalled the land-slide of the previous June. In every pause of the thunder they strained their ears to catch the sound of another grinding avalanche, and at last they heard the moving of a loosened ridge, heard louder and louder its increasing roar, heard--and saw, perhaps--that it was rushing in the line of their little home, and, unable to command their nerves, they ran out of the house into the Storm.
The next morning was cloudless, and the air was remarkably transparent, revealing the far and wide devastation caused by the storm. A traveller found the little house in the Notch still standing, but surrounded with desolation. The mountain behind it, once robed in beautiful green, was striped for two or three miles with ravines deep and freshly torn. The meadow in front was covered with wet sand and rocks and the branches of green trees.
The traveller entered the house, and went through it. The doors were all ajar, the beds and clothing showed that they had hurriedly left, and a Bible was lying open on the table, as if it had been read just before the departure of the family. Neither Willey, his wife, nor children could be found, and it was at first supposed that they had retreated to a neighbor's house; but a search discovered them, some days later, buried in the drift.
An ordinary storm in the mountains is terrible enough to a lowlander. It sweeps upon one with the unexpectedness and violence of a tornado. The day may be clear and warm, and the azure expanse of the sky checked only by a few patches of white cloud; but suddenly the mutterings of thunder pro claim a coming tempest, and before a refuge can be found, the whole earth and the whole heaven are enveloped in a vaporous gray, which distorts or completely blots out every surrounding form with its cheerless monotone.
The first drops of rain fall on the leaves heavily, and the leaves themselves are violently disturbed. Though little wind can be felt by the spectator, the trees seem to shake at their very roots with apprehension, and before long the bravest human heart is appalled by the unusual and terrific force exhibited by the rain, lightning, and thunder.
When the storm breaks, a compensation for this terror comes in the enhanced beauty of the scene. Every cliff and peak, streaming with moisture, has the appearance of a mass of burnished silver, the foliage becomes a prism, and the rainbows seem to rise from one's feet.
From the Crawford House we go on to Fabyan's, and thence ascend Mount Washington. There are three ways of doing this -- by the railroad, the carriage road, or afoot The railway might have suggested Jules Verne's Journey to the Moon, and is such a miracle of engineering that it will be a pity if any visitor to the mountains misses a ride over it. The work of construction was begun in 1866, and was completed three years later. The route follows the Ammonoosic Valley, and from the Fabyan House to the end of the friction rail is six and two-third miles. For two and a half miles the grade is two hundred and ninety feet to the mile, or one foot of perpendicular height to eighteen feet of horizontal distance. Besides the usual rails, there is a central rail of peculiar construction to receive the motive power, consisting of two bars of iron, with connecting cross-pieces placed four inches apart. A central cog-wheel on the locomotive plays into this rail, and secures a sure and steady mode of ascent and descent.
The locomotive, as it first comes out of the engine house has the appearance of being ready to fall over. The driving-wheel is geared to a smaller wheel, which connects directly with the crank, and four revolutions of the latter are required to make one of the driving-wheel. The locomotive is not connected with the car, but simply pushes it up in the ascent, and allows it to follow gently in the descent. A wrought iron dog constantly plays into notches on the driving-wheel, so that should any part of the machinery give way, the train may be immediately stopped. The car is also supplied with friction and atmospheric brakes. The seats are placed at an angle that brings them almost on a level in the ascent and all of them face down the mountain. The time occupied on the journey up is about an hour and a half, the engine having to stop several times on the way to take in water. The fare as I have stated, is three dollars up the mountain, three dollars down, or four dollars up and down on the same train.
The railway has by no means superseded the carriage road, which is still a favorite route to the summit of the mountain. For the first four miles it winds among a dense growth of forest trees; and thence passes through a ravine and over the eastern side of the mountain. The grade is easy, and the road bed excellent. Each turn discloses some new prospect--a wide valley, faintly green, with a brook or a river flashing through it; a deep dell, with a swaying sea of foliage; an overhanging cliff that seems to render impossible any further ascent; or a wonderful array of peaks.
It is singular that, according to the writer's impressions a White Mountain summit gives a fairer idea of the immensity of space than the highest of the Rocky Mountain peaks. The height of the latter is so great that only the pinnacles surrounding them have a distinct shape. All below is drowned ill a yellow mistiness. But the downward glimpses you get in the ascent of Mount Washington reveal so varied an extent of country that it is possible to realize how great your altitude is. Now it is the valley of the Saco that opens before you, and then a wider reach still, with the peaks of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison wedged in, and the other ranges in the blue distance. From the highest of the Rocky Mountains the view unfolded resembles a desolate ocean; from the White Mountains it is an earthly paradise.
Before the construction of the road the ascent of the mountain was attended by many perils, and grim stories are told of people who have lost their lives in attempting to reach the top without guides. A pile of stones on the road marks the spot where a Miss Bourne died from exhaustion, in the presence of her uncle and cousin, one september night, twenty years ago. The party had started from the base in the afternoon, and were overtaken by night and fog. Under a shelving rock near by, the remains of an elderly gentleman who had attempted to ascend the mountain alone, were found two years later. His watch and some bankbills in his vest pocket were uninjured but, beyond these, nothing remained of him but his skeleton. A little farther below, an unfortunate Bostonian passed two nights and days, in the snow and sleet of an October storm without food or covering. No one who exercises any care, however, need be lost in the mountains, the carriage road and bridle paths offering as distinct a way as the least experienced of travellers could desire. Nevertheless the scene of the hotel portico a few minutes before the departure of the stage for the summit is one calculated to impress an observer with an undue sense of the importance of the expedition that is about to be made. The passengers are all wondrously weather-wise, and among them is sure to be one who is an oracle of the mountains, with a surprising fund of anecdotes about the perils of the journey. You are regaled with numberless bear stories and thrilling descriptions of storms, until it seems that you are to enter a terrible and fatal land, on the brink of which all hope must be left behind, instead of ascending by a smooth road the majestic peak that looms in the distance. But every one is in good spirits, as even the surliest misanthrope can not help being on a bright White Mountain morning. The young men puff away their impatience in clouds of cigar smoke. The ladies are wrapped up in shawls, which, however thick they are, can not imprison the exhilaration that is generally felt. A crowd of natives stand by, sometimes quizzing the dresses of the tourists, but usually watching every movement with great awe and astonishment, although they may have seen the same things a hundred times before. That, by-the-way, is one of the distinctive characteristics of the New England bucolic--his unlimited capacity for wonderment. He is always curious to know; he is always surprised; but he is never thunder struck. His greatest surprise is cloaked in a certain stolid reserve, and one surprise never prepares him for another.
By-and-by the coach appears, and when the passengers have taken their places, or, to speak more exactly, when they have wedged themselves together, the driver cracks his whip, and the merry party are off for the summit.
The view from the top has been described by a graphic writer as a map of New England poetically expressed. If the day is clear, Monadnock may be seen, in a pale blue film, a hundred miles to the southwest; in the east is Mount Katahdin; in the north, Canada; and in the west, the Catskills. Nearer are the Franconia ridge, the twin peaks of Stratford Mountain, the radiant surface of Lake Winnipiseogee, Mounts Crawford and Kearsarge, and the Bartlett Hills. Could the eye reach so far, it might comprehend nearly six hundred miles of country, but its limit is in an area of about one hundred miles.
Descending Mount Washington, we take the stage to Bethlehem, ten miles from Fabyan's, and thence proceed to the Franconia range, where we "put up" at the Profile House, which is situated in a region of wonders. In the woods to the north of the hotel is the beautiful Echo Lake, which is of great depth and transparency, and is rounded by densely wooded hills. A voice, a bugle blast, or a sound of any kind, is repeated from hill to hill with such marvelous distinctness and sweetness of intonation that Tennyson's exquisite lines are at once recalled to the listener's memory:
"O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O sweet and far from cliff and scar, The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying: Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying."
Overhanging the hotel almost on the north is Eagle Cliff, an immense columnar crag separated from the crest of the mountain, and apparently held together by thread; and as you walk down the road to the south of the hotel, a guide-board with the simple legend "Profile" painted upon it indicates that you are approaching that strange conformation of rock so familiar to every body through the means of photographs and engravings. The exercise of a little imagination often enables people to find the resemblance of the human form in a mountain, although without that imaginative effort no resemblance would be seen; but Profile Rock is really fashioned after the head of an old man, and the truth of the likeness makes it a most interesting sight.
We have exhausted our space, and yet we have not exhausted our subject; for to even enumerate all the "points of interest" in the White Mountains would occupy an entire Magazine. The angler, the lover of nature, or the prosaic business man can each find a tranquil charm in this region which will make the granite fastnesses of New Hampshire memorable to him for a lifetime.
Copyright 1997 by Ed Sanders