Willey House, Hart’s Location, New Hampshire

The Willey House in Crawford Notch, probably around the 1860s or 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2018:

The one-and-a-half-story building in the center of the first photo was built in 1793 in Crawford Notch, a long, narrow valley through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The notch was, at the time, the only east-west route through the mountains, and this was evidently the first building to be constructed here. Known as the Notch House, it served as a tavern for travelers through here, and it was operated by several different innkeepers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the fall of 1825, the Notch House was acquired by Samuel Willey, who moved into the house with his wife Polly and their five children, who ranged in age from 2 to 11 years old. At the time, the property had been abandoned for several months, so Samuel spent much of the fall repairing the house, enlarging the stables, and making preparations for winter. The tavern was ready in time for the winter, and, despite its modest size and appearance, it was a welcome shelter for cold, weary travelers on their way through the mountains.

Willey continued to operate the tavern throughout the spring and summer of 1826, and a description of the house was published in the August 11 issue of the New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper. The writer, in describing a journey northbound through Crawford Notch, included the following account about the Notch House:

At the conclusion of this six miles, the eye is greeted with the appearance of a small but comfortable dwelling house, owned and occupied by a Mr. Willey, who has taken advantage of a small, a very small intervale, – where the bases of the two mountains seem to have paused and receded, as if afraid of coming in contact and amalgamating into one impassible pile, – to erect his lone habitation. Rude and uninviting as the spot appears, he has contrived to gather around it the necessaries if not conveniences of life. We observed a large flock of sheep in one of his inclosures; other domestic animals in the barn-yard, and several flocks of ducks and geese in the little meadow which fronted the house. We were furnished with a dinner of ham, eggs, and the usual accompaniments to such a meal in a country tavern. – The interior of the house exhibited a neatness that might well become some inns that we have seen of more frequent resort, and the faces of parents and children were the pictures of content. Can philosophy or conjecture account for or explain the motives that can induce a man thus to plant himself at a distance of six miles from the habitation of any of his race, and in a spot where it is next to impossible he can ever have a nearer neighbor?

Despite this bucolic description, though, there were more hazards to life here in Crawford Notch than simply its isolation. The house was situated at the base of a steep slope, on a narrow plot of flat ground between the mountain in the back, and the Saco River in front of the house on the other side of the road. As a result, this location was vulnerable to landslides, and its occupants would have no viable way to escape its path if one was to occur.

This reality became very clear to the Willey family in June 1826, when they survived a close call from one such landslide. The slide, which came within less than 200 feet of their house, covered about an acre of land by Samuel’s estimate, and it traveled nearly a mile in a matter of minutes. An account of this event was published in the New England Galaxy, and it subsequently appeared in The Farmers’ Cabinet on August 12, 1826, in an article that included the following description:

Just before our visit to this place, – on the 26th of June, – there was a tremendous avalanche, or slide, as it is there called, from the mountain which makes the southern wall of the passage. an immense mass of earth and rock from the side of the mountain was loosened from its resting place and began to slide towards the bottom. In its course it divided into three portions, each coming down with amazing velocity into the road, and sweeping before it shrubs, trees and rocks, and filling up the road beyond all possibility of its being recovered. 

The article went on the describe the Willey family’s reaction:

The place from which this slide or slip, was loosened, is directly in the rear of Mr. Willey’s house; and were there not a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow, and had not the fingers of that Providence traced the direction of the sliding mass, neither he nor any soul of his family would ever have told the tale. – They heard the noise when it first began to move, and ran to the door. In terror and amazement, they beheld the mountain in motion. But what can human power effect in such an emergency? Before they could think of retreating, or ascertain which way to escape, the danger was past.

According to Samuel’s brother Benjamin, who discussed the event in a book many years later, the Willeys had initially planned on moving away after this near-disaster, but upon further reflection they decided to stay. Benjamin related a conversation that Samuel had with another person after the incident, with Samuel supposedly explaining, “Such an event, we know, has not happened here for a very long time past, and another of the kind is not likely to occur for an equally long time to come. Taking things past in this view, then, I am not afraid.”

Over the next two months, the region experienced a severe drought that dried the soil to a much greater depth than usual. However, this drought came to a sudden end on the night of August 28, when a severe storm passed through here. The torrential rainfall destroyed nearly all of the bridges in the notch, and it also soaked deep into the dry earth, making the ground particularly susceptible to landslides along the steep cliffs. One such slide occurred here at the Notch House, but, as in the June slide, the building was narrowly spared. It stood right in the path of the landslide, but the falling debris struck a low ridge just above the house, causing it to split into two streams. As a result, the landslide passed on both sides of the house, destroying the stables but otherwise leaving the building miraculously intact before reuniting into a single stream just below the house.

Over the next few days, though, the nearby residents of the notch could find no sign of the seven members of the Willey family, or the two hired men who lived here. Inside the house, there was evidence that the occupants had left in a hurry, suggesting that they had tried to flee to safety in advance of the landslide. Subsequent searches of the area uncovered the badly-mangled bodies of Polly Willey and one of the hired men, David Allen, in the debris below the house. Samuel’s remains were soon discovered as well, along with those of their youngest child, three-year-old Sally. The body of David Nicholson, the other hired man, was found five days after the disaster, and a day later the body of twelve-year-old Eliza Willey was found far from the house, on the other side of the Saco River. However, the other three children—eleven-year-old Jeremiah, nine-year-old Martha, and seven-year-old Elbridge—were never found.

In the aftermath of the disaster, there were many theories as to exactly what happened here on the night of August 28. The most likely explanation, which Benjamin Willey provided in his book, is that Samuel stayed up during the night to monitor the storm and watch for signs of a landslide. As he heard the slide approaching, he awakened his family, and as they were leaving they heard the sound of the stables being destroyed. This caused them to flee in the opposite direction, and in the darkness and pouring rain they unknowingly ran directly into the path of the other side of the landslide.

Regardless of the actual sequence of events, though, the news of the disaster quickly spread across the country. Within just a few months, curious sightseers were making their way up to Crawford Notch to see the house and the devastation caused by the landslide, and over the next few years many more continued to arrive. This helped to fuel a nascent tourist industry here in the White Mountains. At the time, the eastern United States was becoming increasingly industrial and urbanized, and many were drawn by the primeval wilderness of the area and the destructive forces of nature that were demonstrated in the Willey disaster. Local innkeeper Ethan Allen Crawford—for whose family the notch is named—enjoyed brisk business in the aftermath of the tragedy, and in 1828 he constructed a new hotel a few miles away from here at the gates of the notch. Even Samuel’s brother, Benjamin Willey, capitalized on the influx of tourism by charging visitors for a guided tour of the house.

The tragedy also inspired noted artists and writers. Painter Thomas Cole visited here in October 1828, and he described how “[t]he sight of the Willey House, with its little patch of green in the gloomy desolation, very naturally recalled to mind the horrors of the night when the whole family perished beneath an avalanche of ricks and earth.” Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School art movement, and his paintings typically featured dramatic landscapes that emphasized both the beauty and the dangers of the untamed American wilderness. This setting in Crawford Notch, combined with the Willey disaster, was perfect subject matter for Cole, and he subsequently painted this scene. The painting, titled Distant View of the Slides that Destroyed the Whilley [sic] Family, is now lost, but there are several surviving lithographic reproductions, including the one below, which is located at the Library of Congress.

In addition to Cole, author Nathaniel Hawthorne also incorporated the disaster into one of his works. In 1835, when he was still a young, relatively obscure author, he published the short story “The Ambitious Guest,” which was based on the event. The story does not mention the Willey family by name, and there are some differences in the ages and composition of the family, but otherwise it is largely a retelling of the commonly-accepted theory about the Willey family’s demise. However, Hawthorne embellishes it by adding a character—the eponymous ambitious guest—who arrived at the house on the night of the storm. In the story, the young man talks with the family about his desire to leave a legacy so that he will be remembered after death. In the end, though, he dies along with the rest of the family, his body is never found, and there is uncertainty among the locals as to whether or not there had even been a guest in the house at the time.

In the meantime, the Willey House continued to be a popular attraction. By the mid-19th century, the White Mountains had become a major tourist destination, thanks in large part to the publicity surrounding the Willey disaster. A number of new hotels were constructed around this time, including one right here at the Willey House. In 1845, local hotelier Horace Fabyan purchased the property and constructed a new hotel directly adjacent to the old house, as shown on the left side of the first photo. It was named the Willey Hotel, and it stood three stories in height and measured 40 feet by 70 feet, with a capacity of 50 people.

The hotel and house were still standing here when the first photo was taken around the 1860s or 1870s. By this point, some 40 to 50 years after the disaster, there was little visual evidence of the destructive landslide, but the house remained an important local landmark. It survived for several more decades, but ultimately met the same fate as so many other White Mountain hotels when it was destroyed by a fire in September 1899, evidently as a result of a defective chimney.

Today, more than 120 years after the fire, the house is long gone, but the story remains an important part of local lore. The site of the house is now marked by a small stone monument in the center of the first photo, and immediately to the left of it is a visitor center and the park headquarters of the Crawford Notch State Park. Further in the distance, the only landmark left from the first photo is the mountain itself, which looms more than 2,000 feet above the floor of the valley. At 4,285 feet in elevation, it is the 29th-tallest mountain in the state, and it is, appropriately enough, named Mount Willey.

Crawford House, Carroll, New Hampshire

The Crawford House at Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, seen from across Saco Lake, around 1891-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The first photo shows the Crawford House, one of the many large hotels that were built in the White Mountains during the second half of the 19th century. It stood just to the north of the gates of Crawford Notch, one of the most important mountain passes in the region. The location of the hotel was near the high point of the notch, at the divide that separates the watersheds of the Ammonoosuc and Saco Rivers. In the foreground of this scene is Saco Lake, which forms the headwaters of the Saco River. From here, the river flows southeast through Crawford Notch before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Portland, Maine. Less than a half mile to the north of here, on the other side of the hotel, is Ammonoosuc Lake, which ultimately drains into the Connecticut River and then to Long Island Sound.

This site was an ideal location for a hotel. At the time, this road was the only east-west route through the mountains, and this area to the north of Crawford Notch was relatively broad and flat, unlike the long, narrow valley to the south of here. The first hotel in this immediate vicinity was the Notch House, which was built in 1828 by Ethan Allen Crawford. He was the son of Abel Crawford, the first white settler to live near the notch, and his family operated several taverns in the area. Ethan’s brother Thomas became the manager here at the Notch House, and he ran it until 1852, two years before it was destroyed by a fire.

The Notch House was located near the spot where these two photos were taken, but around 1850 Thomas Crawford began construction of a new hotel nearby, on the site of the hotel in the first photo. However, he ran into financial problems before it was completed, and he had to sell the property in the early 1850s. The new owner finished the hotel, which became known as the Crawford House, but, like the Notch House, it fell victim to fire, burning on April 30, 1859.

Such fires were not uncommon in large resort hotels of this period, which were generally made almost entirely of wood and lacked effective fire suppression systems. Despite this setback, though, the hotel was quickly rebuilt. The work began on May 10, 1859 and it was completed in just two months, with the hotel holding a celebratory dinner here on July 13. This new Crawford House, which was still standing when the first photo was taken, was three stories high and originally measured about 200 feet in length, with two wings that extended back about the same distance. Overall, it was much larger than the old building on the site, and a July 1859 article in the Boston Evening Transcript declared it to be the largest hotel in the state.

Another New England newspaper, the Independent Democrat of Concord, New Hampshire, published a letter around the same time that the hotel opened. The letter described a journey through the White Mountains, and it paid particular attention to the new Crawford House. The writer commented on how quickly the hotel was built, and also provided a glowing description of its interior, writing:

It is not too much to say that the “New Crawford house” is an advance upon any other at the Mountains. Its dining hall is of magnificent proportions, measuring 85 feet by 40, and 14 feet high. The principal parlor is 60 feet by 40. The general reception room is large and airy; while the sleeping rooms, of which there are some 120, are large, high, and thoroughly ventilated, leaving nothing, in these respects, to be desired. Then, the whole house is to be furnished in the most elegant and substantial style, and the whole is to be lighted with gas.

Guests at the Crawford House could enjoy a variety of outdoor activities. There were short hikes to places such as Ripley Falls, Arethusa Falls, and the summit of nearby Mount Willard, and for the more ambitious there was the Crawford Path, which led 8.5 miles to the summit of Mount Washington. This trail, which began here at the Crawford House, was created by Abel and Ethan Crawford in 1819, and it was eventually incorporated into the Appalachian Trail, making it probably the oldest active hiking trail in the country today. Guests could hike these trails on their own, but the hotel also had ponies that they could ride, along with experienced guides to accompany them.

In 1870, the Crawford House was purchased by brothers Asa T. and Oscar F. Barron. At the time, they also operated the nearby Twin Mountain House and Fabyan House, and their hotel empire would subsequently include the Mount Pleasant House and the Summit House, which was located at the top of Mount Washington. Oscar died here at the Crawford House in 1879, and Asa died eight years later, but the Barron family would continue to run these hotels for many years.

For the first two decades of its existence, the Crawford House was not directly served by railroads, but in 1875 the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad opened through Crawford Notch, making the hotel far more accessible to visitors. At the time, it was the only hotel in the vicinity of the notch, and it received a glowing review in the 1887 Chisholm’s White-Mountain Guide-Book, which included the following description:

[T]his is a good hotel of the first class, 1,900 feet above the sea, with broad and almost interminable piazzas, cool and airy halls, post-office, telegraph-office, livery-stable, bowling-alley, gaslights; environs which the landscape-gardener has justly approved; and a dining-room where even Epicurus or Uncle Sam Ward need not famish….

Near the front of the house is the pretty little Saco Lake, the cradle of the Saco River, and so far widened and deepened by art as to give a reason for being for the boats which float on its crystal tide. The rugged forest between the lake and the overhanging mountain has been combed and brushed and perfumed, and otherwise adorned for a summer pleasaunce, so that it has won the happily suggestive name of Idlewild.

In 1888, not long after this description was published, the rail line through the notch was acquired by the Maine Central Railroad. Three years later, the railroad built a new station here at the Crawford House, which is visible on the left side of this scene. It was built of wood, and it featured an ornate Queen Anne-style design, complete with a small tower on one corner of the building. Most hotel guests and other visitors to Crawford Notch would have arrived here by way of the station, and the building also served as the local freight house and post office.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the Crawford House was owned by the firm of Barron, Merrill, & Barron. This partnership was comprised of Asa Barron’s sons, Oscar G. and William A. Barron, along with Cardenio H. Merrill, and the trio also ran the other Barron hotels here in the White Mountains. Merrill died a few years later in 1908 at the age of 68, and Oscar in 1913 at 62, but William continued to operate the hotel until 1947, when he retired and sold the property. He died in 1964 at the age of 96, only a week after the death of his son, William A. Barron Jr., who had served as a brigadier general in the Army during World War II and as chairman of the board of Gillette after the war.

The Crawford House outlasted most of the other 19th century grand hotels in the White Mountains, but it ultimately closed in 1975, nearly 120 years after the building was constructed. It was destroyed by a fire two years later, on November 20, 1977, and the property was subsequently acquired by the Appalachian Mountain Club, which constructed the Highland Center on the site. This building, which serves as a lodge and an educational center, stands in the center of the 2018 photo. Today, the only surviving building from the first photo is the railroad station on the left. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and it remains in use as a railroad station, serving as the northern terminus for most tourist excursion trains on the Conway Scenic Railroad.

Crawford Notch, Hart’s Location, New Hampshire (2)

The view looking north through Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in greater detail in the previous post, Crawford Notch is one of the major mountain passes through the White Mountains region. It was first discovered by European settlers in 1771, and a road was built through here a few years later. However, the notch was already known to Native Americans long before then, and they had a trail that passed through here.

Crawford Notch is several miles in length, consisting of a narrow valley through the mountains, but its narrowest point is here at the northern end of the valley, near the divide between the watersheds of the Ammonoosuc and Saco Rivers. This spot, with steep rock ledges on either side, became known as the gates of the notch, and it was originally just a little over 20 feet in width. Over the years, though, it has been steadily widened, as a result of improvements to the road and the construction of a railroad through here in 1875.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, at the start of the automobile era, but the road through the notch still looked very primitive at the time. Despite its appearance, though, this road served as a vital corridor through the mountains. Prior to the construction of the Kancamagus Highway in the 1960s, it was the only east-west road in the White Mountains, linking northern Vermont with the coastal region of southern Maine.

In addition, Crawford Notch also provided tourists with access to the White Mountains region, and many began arriving here during the first half of the 19th century. In fact, the notch itself is named for the Crawford family, who ran several different hotels in the vicinity of Crawford Notch during this period. They also blazed a trail, later known as the Crawford Path, from the notch to the summit of Mount Washington, and provided guided tours for visitors. This trail is still in use today, as the oldest segment of the modern-day Appalachian Trail.

Probably the most famous hotel here at the notch was the Crawford House, which is visible in the distance of the first photo. This property had previously been owned by the Crawford family, and in 1850 Tom Crawford began construction on the hotel. However, he soon ran into financial problems, and he had to sell the unfinished hotel. It was subsequently completed by a different owner, although the building was destroyed by a fire only a few years later, in 1859. The Crawford House was rebuilt later in 1859, though, and this second hotel building was still standing when the first photo was taken.

Today, more than a century after the first photo, Crawford Notch remains an important route through the mountains, although this scene here at the gates of the notch has undergone some significant changes. The narrow road from the first photo, with its wagon tracks visible in the dirt, is now the much wider U.S. Route 302. Further in the distance, the Crawford House is gone. It stood here for many years, but the hotel ultimately closed in 1975 and the building burned two years later. The site of the hotel is now the Highland Center, a lodge and educational center that is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The only surviving building from the first photo is the railroad station, which is barely visible in front of the left side of the hotel. It was built in 1891, and today it is still in use, serving as the northern terminus for most trains on the Conway Scenic Railroad.

Crawford Notch, Hart’s Location, New Hampshire

The view looking northwest through Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, around 1860-1875. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The same view around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Crawford Notch is an important mountain pass within the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Until the completion of the Kancamagus Highway in the 1960s, it was the only east-west route through the mountain range, and over the years it has served as a major link between northern Vermont and the coastal region of southern Maine. The notch consists of a narrow valley that is several miles in length, but the actual mountain pass is here at the northern end of this valley, at a gap in the mountains that was originally barely 20 feet wide. This spot came to be known as the gate of the notch, because of the high rocks that stand on either side of the pass.

The highest point of Crawford Notch is just to the north beyond the gates, in the distance of this scene. At 1,900 feet in elevation, it forms the divide between the Ammonoosuc River, which flows west to the Connecticut River and then to Long Island Sound, and the Saco River, which flows east through Crawford Notch and then to Maine, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Portland. To the northeast of here is the Presidential Range, which begins here at the Notch and reaches its highest point, Mount Washington, about 6.5 miles from here. In the opposite direction, to the southwest of the notch, is the Peimgewasset Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the state.

The first recorded discovery of Crawford Notch occurred in 1771, when Timothy Nash and Benjamin Sawyer came across it while hunting. As the story goes, Nash had become lost while tracking a moose. He climbed a tree in order to get his bearings, and in the process he sighted the gates here at the northern end of the notch. The notch had long been known to Native Americans, but Nash and Sawyer were evidently the first Europeans to find it, and within a few years there was a rough road through here.

The notch was ultimately named in honor of the Crawford family, who became the first permanent settlers of the area. Around 1790, Abel Crawford built a house a little further to the north of here, where he remained for several years before selling it to his father-in-law, Eleazer Rosebrook. Crawford then moved to the southern end of the notch, around the site of the present-day town of Hart’s Location.

Both he and Rosebrook operated inns for travelers, and Crawford helped to pioneer tourism to the White Mountains region. After Rosebrook’s death in 1817, Abel’s son Ethan Allen Crawford inherited the property here at the notch. Two years later, the Crawfords constructed an 8.5-mile trail from the notch to the summit of Mount Washington, and provided guided trips for visitors. Now known as the Crawford Path, it is considered to be the oldest continuously-used hiking trail in the country, and it has been incorporated into the Appalachian Trail.

One early visitor to this region was Timothy Dwight IV, a prominent author and theologian who served as president of Yale from 1795 to 1817. He came to the Notch on at least two separate occasions, and provided a description of it in his book Travels in New England and New York. In this particular visit, he approached the notch from the north, facing the opposite direction of these photos, and he wrote:

The entrance of the chasm is formed by two rocks, standing perpendicularly at the distance of twenty-two feet from each other: one about twenty feet in height, the other about twelve. Half of the space is occupied by the brook, mentioned as the head stream of the Saco; the other half by the road. The stream is lost, and invisible, beneath a mass of fragments, partly blown out of the road, and partly thrown down by some great convulsion.

When we entered the Notch we were struck with the wild and solemn appearance of every thing before us. The scale, on which all objects in view were formed, was the scale of grandeur only. The rocks, rude and ragged in a manner rarely paralleled, were fashioned and piled on each other by a hand, operating only in the boldest and most irregular manner. As we advanced, these appearances increased rapidly. Huge masses of granite, of every abrupt form, and hoary with a moss which seemed a product of ages, recalling to the mind the “Saxum vetustum” of Virgil, speedily rose to a mountainous height. Before us, the view widened fast to the south-east. Behind us, it closed almost instantaneously; and presented nothing to the eye but an impassable barrier of mountains.

The first photo was taken more than a half century after Dwight wrote this account, but the notch still had much of the same rugged appearance that he would have seen. The road had been improved somewhat over the years, starting in 1806, when the Tenth New Hampshire Turnpike opened through the notch. By the late 1820s, the road was suitable for stagecoaches, but when the first photo was taken around the 1860s or 1870s, this section of the road still looked like a narrow dirt path through the wilderness.

Aside from the road, the only sign of civilization in the first photo is the Crawford House, which is barely visible in the distant center. The original Crawford House was built here in the early 1850s, but it burned in 1859. The hotel was quickly rebuilt on the same site, reopening later in 1859. This new building can be seen in both the first and second photos, and it stood here until it too was destroyed by a fire in 1977. The site of the hotel is now the Highland Center, a lodge and education center operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in this scene occurred shortly after the first photo was taken, when a railroad was constructed through here. The first railroad across the continent had been completed in 1869, and by this point there was even a cog railway to the summit of nearby Mount Washington. However, it would take several more years for railroad engineers to conquer Crawford Notch. The project required several long trestles and deep rock cuts, along with the widening of the gap here at the gates of the notch. The grade of the railroad was also a challenge, with northbound trains having to ascend 1,623 feet in just 30 miles, but the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad was ultimately completed through the notch in 1875.

In addition to improving transportation through northern New England, the railroad also provided passenger service to the heart of the White Mountains, making it easier for tourists to visit the region. Several of the grand hotels along the route even had their own stations, including the Crawford House, whose station is barely visible in the distance on the right side of the tracks in the second photo. This particular station building had been constructed in 1891, several years after the Maine Central Railroad acquired the Portland & Ogdensburg, and it is still standing today as the only surviving structure from the second photo.

In more than a century since the second photo was taken, the road through the notch has been widened and straightened. It has come a long way since the dirt path of the first photo, and it is now designated as U.S. Route 302, which runs from Portland, Maine to Montpelier, Vermont. Today, it remains as important a route through the White Mountains as it had been when the first road was constructed through here in the 18th century. In that sense, the road has actually outlived the railroad, which was abandoned by Maine Central’s successors, Guilford Transportation, in 1983. However, this section of railroad was ultimately acquired by the Conway Scenic Railroad, which operates excursion trains for tourists. The railroad also owns the station here in the distance, and it serves as the northern terminus for most of its trains.

Today, the White Mountains are still a popular tourist destination, and Crawford Notch is still a major focal point within the region. Most of the notch is within the town of Hart’s Location (population 41 as of 2010), but the northern border of the town is here at the gates of the notch, so the buildings in the distance are actually within the town of Carroll. The land on the Carroll side of the border is still privately owned, but the Hart’s Location side is part of the 5,775-acre Crawford Notch State Park. This park is, in turn, mostly surrounded by the much larger White Mountains National Forest, which covers more than 750,000 acres in New Hampshire and Maine.

Old Man of the Mountain, Franconia, New Hampshire

The Old Man of the Mountain, seen from Profile Lake at the base of Cannon Mountain, around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The Old Man of the Mountain was previously featured on this blog many years ago, in a post that showed a closeup of the rock formation, before and after its collapse. Unlike that view, however, this scene here shows not just the rock formation, but also its surroundings, including the east side of Cannon Mountain and Profile Lake at its base. This is, more or less, the view that most visitors would see of the Old Man from the ground, without the aid of binoculars or telephoto lenses.

The iconic granite profile was formed at some point after the last ice age, as a result of erosion at the top of the cliff. It stood 1,200 feet above the surface of Profile Lake, and it was on the side of Cannon Mountain, which rises a total of 4,080 feet above sea level. Cannon Mountain forms the western side of Franconia Notch, an important mountain pass through the White Mountains, and by the early 19th century the Old Man of the Mountain had become a notable landmark for travelers passing through here.

The first recorded mention of the rock formation came in 1805, when a pair of surveyors observed it from near this location. As the story goes, they arrived here at dusk and camped along the shore of the lake. When they awoke in the morning, one of the surveyors looked up from the lake to discover the sun shining on the east-facing cliff, illuminating the stone profile.

Over the next few decades, the Old Man of the Mountain drew the attention of writers and other prominent people. New Hampshire native Daniel Webster famously declared, regarding the rock formation, that “God Almighty had hung a sign out to show that here He makes men.” Although originally from Massachusetts, poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote extensively about the White Mountains, and he made reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in his 1850 poem, “The Hill-Top,” which includes the following lines:

Beyond them, like a sun-rimmed cloud,
     The great Notch mountains shone,
Watched over by the solemn-browed
     And awful face of stone!

Also in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published a short story, “The Great Stone Face.” It was one of several stories that Hawthorne set in the White Mountains, and it included the following description of the formation:

The Great Stone Face, then, was a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness, formed on the perpendicular side of a mountain by some immense rocks, which had been thrown together in such a position as, when viewed at a proper distance, precisely to resemble the features of the human countenance. It seemed as if an enormous giant, or a Titan, had sculptured his own likeness on the precipice. There was the broad arch of the forehead, a hundred feet in height; the nose, with its long bridge; and the vast lips, which, if they could have spoken, would have rolled their thunder accents from one end of the valley to the other.

In time, the Old Man of the Mountain became probably the most recognizable symbol of New Hampshire. Its rugged features paired well with the state’s “Live free or die” motto, and over the years it has appeared on everything from license plates to state highway signs to the 2000 New Hampshire state quarter. It has also appeared in countless paintings, postcards, photographs, and other illustrations over the years. The first photo was one of these, having been taken around the late 19th century by the Detroit Publishing Company, which produced postcards of landmarks across the country.

For more than a century after the first photo was taken, this scene remained essentially unchanged. However, as early as the 1870s, geologists has begun expressing concerns that the same forces of erosion that created the Old Man of the Mountain might soon destroy it. The many cycles of freezing and thawing had caused large cracks to form within the rocks, leading the state to secure it with chains in the 1920s. Then, in 1958, the formation was further reinforced with cement and steel rods. However, these measures ultimately proved to be only temporary solutions, because it finally collapsed on May 3, 2003, nearly 200 years after it was discovered here by the surveyors.

Today, with the exception of the loss of the rock formation, the rest of this scene still looks the same as it did when the first photo was taken. In fact, it is largely the same as it would have appeared in 1805, when the surveying team first spotted the Old Man of the Mountain from near this location. This area is now part of the Franconia Notch State Park, and it is surrounded by the much larger White Mountain National Forest, which preserves most of the land here in New England’s highest mountain range.

Halfway House, Mt. Washington, NH

The Halfway House on the Mount Washington Carriage Road in New Hampshire, around the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Mount Washington Auto Road.

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The scene in 2016:

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Mount Washington is the tallest peak in the northeastern United States, and it has been a popular tourist destination since the mid-19th century. By the end of the 1860s, the mountain had a hotel at the summit, along with both a cog railway and a carriage road to bring visitors to the top. The nearly eight-mile long carriage road opened in 1861, and this small building along the side of the road served an important purpose for early travelers. Known as the Halfway House, it was located about four miles up the road, hence the name, and it was used as a toll house. It was also a good resting place during the four-hour carriage ride up the mountain, and when necessary its location just below the treeline made it a refuge from the unpredictable and often dangerous weather in the alpine zone.

The building in the first photo was later replaced with a more substantial two-story structure. This one served the same purpose as the original, but over time it suffered from vandalism because of its isolated location, and it was finally destroyed by a fire in 1984. Today, the carriage road is now the Mount Washington Auto Road, and aside fro cars replacing horses, not much has changed about the road, which still follows the same route that was laid out in the 1850s. The drive to the summit now takes about 30 minutes, and while the Halfway House no longer stands here, the site is still used as a stopping place. It is no longer necessary to rest horses here, but the climb is still taxing for cars, so the site here is used by drivers heading up the mountain to cool their radiators, and by those heading down to cool their brakes.