Feb. 24, 2022

Iconic Locations: Mount Washington

Today's Iconic Location takes us up north to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, to the summit of Mount Washington which is known for the most terrible weather in the United States.


[Music begins]

MILLS KELLY: Welcome to the Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host. 

KELLY: In between our main episodes we are doing a series of short segments on iconic locations up and down the Appalachian Trail. Previously we’ve looked at the Washington Monument in Maryland, McAfee Knob in Virginia, and the Lemon Squeezer in New York. Today we’re going uphill, to the highest point in the Northeast – the summit of Mount Washington.

[Music fades]

KELLY: When Benton MacKaye first proposed the Appalachian Trail in 1921, he wanted it to run from the summit of Mount Mitchell – the highest point in the Southeast – to the summit of Mount Washington – the highest point in the Northeast. There would be subsidiary trails to places like Mount Katahdin in Maine and Cohutta Mountain in Georgia, but the Mitchell to Washington route was to be the main trail. 

KELLY: The Appalachian Trail Conference met for the first time in 1925, and already Mount Mitchell was off the agenda. Conference members from the Southeast argued successfully for routing the trail through the Smokies instead of to Mount Mitchell. And Katahdin had displaced Mount Washington as the northern terminus. But the trail that they agreed upon at that first meeting was still routed over the summit of Mount Washington.

[Wind sounds, quietly fade in]

KELLY: If you haven’t been to the summit, you may still have heard that Mount Washington has some of the most extreme weather in the lower 48 states. In fact, on April 12, 1934, the weather observatory on the summit recorded a world-record wind speed of 231 mph, a record that stood until 1996.

[fade out wind]

KELLY: Humans have been hiking on Mount Washington for centuries, but the Abenaki and Algonquin peoples avoided the summit for religious reasons. They believed that the summits of the tallest mountains were the abodes of the gods and so should be avoided out of reverence. European settlers were not so reverent and were already climbing the mountain in the 17th century. 

[Bird sounds]

KELLY: The Crawford Path, built from Crawford Notch to the mountain’s summit in 1819, is considered to be the oldest continuously maintained hiking path in the United States. And in 1901, the Appalachian Mountain Club built their Lakes of the Clouds Hut just below the summit. We have some historic photos of that hut in the show notes. That particular hut has a tragic backstory.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Mount Washington, 1937, Flickr.

BECKY FULLERTON: It’s the biggest AMC hut out of all eight of our backcountry high mountain huts. It’s by far the most popular because of where it is.

KELLY: That’s Becky Fullerton, the archivist of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

FULLERTON: It’s beautiful up there. But it was actually born out of a tragedy. In June of 1900 William B. Curtis and Alan Ormsbee, both of New York City, were on their way to what was called a field meeting with the Appalachian Mountain Club, and it was being held at the summit of Mount Washington. So they decided to hike up the Crawford Path which leads from Crawford Notch all the way to the summit. It’s about eight and a half miles and the weather was okay the morning that they set out, but it deteriorated as they got higher up. By the time they reached say Mount Pierce and Mount Eisenhower, which was known as Mount Pleasant at the time, it was raining and it was starting to turn cold. They met another party on their way down that said we’re turning around, we suggest you do the same and they did not.

FULLERTON: Curtis seems to have collapsed somewhere right around where the Lakes of the Clouds are. Ormsbee went a little bit farther up the trail, probably in hopes of saving himself and Curtis by reaching the summit and reaching help. It was only about a mile and a half away further up the trail. But he too eventually collapsed and they probably both died of exposure. So the following year, the club put up this little rescue shed. Essentially it’s just a little sort of triangular shed.

FULLERTON: By 1915 and it was clear of it, maybe some kind of more elaborate building should be put there and we had two other huts by that point as well, so it made sense. So in 1915 and they built the hut it had room for about a dozen people, it was made of stone that was native on the site and that’s kind of how it got started. And actually when it opened in August, they started running the hut they had a caretaker there and not too long after a small party of people were snowbound there for four days, so it was really fortunate moment when they when they first opened the hut it probably save some lives, rather than poor Curtis and Ormsbee who didn’t make it.

KELLY: Obviously, Mount Washington can be a dangerous place, even in the summer. When we think back about MacKaye’s initial proposal that the trail should cross the mountain’s summit, one puzzle remains unanswered. MacKaye was an ardent advocate for the AT being a wilderness trail and it was this insistence on a wilderness experience that led to his falling out with Myron Avery in the 1930s. We covered that dispute extensively in our first episode, by the way. But the summit of Mount Washington, for all its wild weather, was definitely not a wilderness experience. 

FULLERTON: By the time that the trail was being laid and kind of coming through that area, there was a lot going on on the summit of Mount Washington. There was a hotel up there continuously from the 1800s onward. There, eventually, there was a huge visitor Center built. The Observatory that started there in 1932 had all of its own observation equipment and towers and buildings. So when you you’re hiking up Mount Washington if it’s kind of a foggy day and you can’t really see that far ahead of you on the trail and you’re going up the Crawford Path you’re just surrounded by this, you know rocky slope with grasses that are just being whipped by the wind and it seems really wild and kind of desolate and strange and eerie, but as soon as you sort of crest the very last bunch of rocks around the summit you’re faced with huge metal radio towers and cell phone towers and all these other kinds of things, and then you see this enormous building, you can walk in and buy a slice of pizza if you want to. So it’s and then, on a nice day when it’s busy there’s the car railway that’s bringing up train fulls of people riding up on the train, which is a really amazing experience, there are people who are driving up on the auto roadside there are tons of other hikers. You tend to end up waiting in line to have a picture of yourself taken next to the official summit sign.

Train to the top of Mount Washington, 1926, Appalachian Mountain Club Archives.

KELLY: Clearly, a far cry from the wilderness experience MacKaye always insisted on. 

KELLY: Why he could overlook all those tourists on Mount Washington while fighting tooth and nail against Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park will just have to remain a mystery.

KELLY: That’s it for today. Our next episode – on the history of the trail shelters – will be out shortly. Be sure to come back and give it a listen.


[Fiddle music begins]

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me. Abby Mullen is our Executive Producer and Jeanette Patrick did the sound design for this episode. A special thanks to Becky Fullerton of the Appalachian Mountain Club for her insights about the old AMC huts..

KELLY: Before you go, be sure to go to our website and sign up for our newsletter – 5 Million Steps. It contains additional material we just couldn’t fit into our episodes. On the website, greentunnel.rrchnm.org, just click the “Become a Member” link at the top right and you can sign up. 

KELLY: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon.

[Fiddle music ends]

Becky Fullerton

Becky Fullerton is the Archivist of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a role she has filled since 2005. An avid trail runner, Becky grew up in Vermont and has been hiking in the mountains most of her life and has been working with the AMC in one capacity or another since 1999.