The mountains may be the same as they were in the 19th century, but the trip there has changed immeasurably. Once tourists, mountaineers, laborers, and botanists climbed aboard their passenger cars at the Boston and Maine Terminal north of Haymarket in Boston or at the old Union Station in Portland, Maine or Springfield, Massachusetts, and they steamed past the fields and forests of central New England (in those days, far more fielded than forested) on their way to the White Hills. If the trip was slower than today’s ride up the interstate, passengers did not have to deal with traffic jams or tolls, and they could pass the time in conversation or a book. The railroads made the White Mountains accessible to urban populations, ushering in an era of genteel tourism punctuated by the grand hotels that sprang up around the region. While tourism is now an enduring feature of the White Mountains, its character has always been molded by how people get there. The era of railroads was indeed distinct.
Early American industrialists quickly recognized railroad’s potential after it was first developed in England. Trains could move freight and passengers more cheaply and quickly than horses or canal boats, so Yankees strained to complete their first locomotive. The Tom Thumb, as it was named, began operating on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830, only five years after the first English train began regular operation.
States began issuing charters for railroads even earlier. The northeastern seaboard was the site of the first tracks, as the mines, mills, and ports fueling the Industrial Revolution were growing enormously and needed better integration. In the early days, state governments subsidized much railroad development, as investors lacked confidence that the new system would become profitable, but by 1850, interest on railroads had risen enough that private money was assured.
Several regional railroads soon sprang up to connect the White Mountains with northeastern cities. Chartered in New Hampshire in 1835, the original Boston and Maine Railroad was one of a half-dozen lines built to link Boston with Portland. After a series of mergers with an alphabet soup of short-lived, regional lines, the B & M became the dominant coastal company, and from this regional base, it spun a web of tracks across northern New England, stretching from Massachusetts into Canada. While none of the lines that originally reached the White Mountains belonged to the B & M, it consumed almost all of them by 1895, save for the Maine Central Railroad.
The first thread of track to enter the White Mountain Region belonged to the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which connected Gorham with Portland in 1851 after five years’ labor and $2,800,000. For $4.50, Bostonians could now catch a Boston and Maine train north, change at Portland, and arrive in Gorham in nine hours.
Rail access to the southern side of the mountains came more slowly. The Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad built a route extending through Laconia and Plymouth on its way to Woodville in 1853, but one still needed a stagecoach to penetrate beyond the Lakes Region. In fact, from The Weirs, just beyond Laconia, one could take the “Lady of the Lake” across Lake Winnipesaukee to Centre Harbor, where the stagecoach waited to make the journey’s final leg. By 1873, the B, C, & M extended as far north as Littleton.
The Portland and Ogdensburg was chartered in 1867 to run from Portland to Crawford Notch, where the owners planned for it to join their “Vermont division,” a western branch line. The task of construction was immense, as the tracks climb nearly 1,400 feet through the Notch, an average of 116 feet per mile between Bemis and Crawford House Stations. Along the way, engineers built both the remarkable Frankenstein Trestle (named for a painter whose name was attached to the nearby cliff) and the Willey Brook Bridge, which both rise precipitously above the conifers. “No other railroad in this region traverses such wild gorges, or looks out on such majestic peaks, close at hand,” wrote James Osgood in his 1884 guidebook Sweetser’s White Mountains. The line was not complete until 1875, and shortly after the western branch was finished in 1877, the Portland and Ogdensburg went bankrupt. In 1888, after a succession of short-term leases, the Maine Central, itself the product of a merger, took over the line, evocatively christening it the Mountain Division.
New Yorkers had a difficult time getting to the White Mountains, but they could choose among three routes: either travel first to Boston and then north; follow a series of small railroads up the Connecticut River Valley; or travel first to Saratoga Springs, itself a tourist mecca, and then east past the southern tip of Lake Champlain and across the Green Mountains—a rather more arduous journey that depended on steamship and stagecoach as well as rail. Many chose simply to remain in the more accessible Catskills or Adirondacks.
The 1860s and 70s were a heady time in the railroad industry, when tens of thousands of miles of track were laid, often without economic rationale. Speculators overreached, creating a “railroad bubble” similar to the recent internet and housing boom and busts. The railroad frenzy was such that although the US had fewer than 100 miles of track in 1830, the Union Pacific railroad spanned the continent by 1869.
The new industry was exploding at the same time as Americans began to take an interest in the wilderness they had once feared. By the mid-1800s, attitudes toward the outdoors were changing quickly, as the last mountain fastnesses were explored. Even before the railroads arrived, taverns and tourist sites were springing up to serve outsiders with an interest in the mountains’ recreational amenities or natural resources.
Crawford Notch, a key pass through the heart of the White Mountains, was a microcosm of the greater region’s evolution. It still retains a great deal of physical evidence of its railroad history, especially now that the Crawford Scenic Railroad has been revived. Mostly unknown to European settlers until the end of the eighteenth century, the Notch was opened in the 1790s by the family whose name became attached to it. Abel Crawford, his father-in-law Captain Eleazar Rosebrook, his son Ethan, and Ethan’s wife (and cousin) Lucy, used state money to spearhead the widening of the road through the notch, meanwhile constructing a chain of inns along the notch floor. The new route made travel between Portland and the Upper Connecticut River far quicker, and traffic increased considerably, with the tourist industry showing its first stirrings. The Crawfords blazed the first hiking trails in the region during this period to drum up business for their inn trade.
As railroads began to snake around the edges of the White Mountains, making them accessible to city dwellers, the influx of people drastically altered the region’s human geography. A tiny village before 1850, Gorham’s population quadrupled in the decade after the Atlantic and St. Lawrence’s completion. The railroad company built a $20,000 White Mountain Station House, which was both hotel and railroad station, with 165 rooms and capacity for 250 guests, while two other large hotels, the Alpine House and the Mount Madison House were soon to follow. Hiking in the Presidentials, which had previously focused on the range’s southwestern flanks, suddenly shifted east. The Crawford Path nearly went extinct, though it was later revived by the extension of the Portland and Ogdensburg to Crawford Notch.
The Crawfords themselves became obsolete even before the railroad arrived. Although they played the part of mountain men to the hilt, they could not satisfy the appetite for elegance and professionalism among the newer, more urbane customers. In 1837, a professional hotel manager from Portland, Horace Fabyan, acquired their inn and renamed it the Mount Washington Hotel (not to be confused with the far grander, surviving hotel of the same name, opened in 1902). After fires destroyed the expanded hotel and its successor in 1854 and 1858, it was left to a Colonel Cyrus Eastman to open a new Crawford House. In 1874, Sylvester Marsh and colleagues opened the magnificent 500 room Fabyan House, the largest hotel built in direct response to railroad construction. Its design maximized efficiency rather than style, and it was criticized for its industrial appearance, resembling, to one critic, “a cotton factory.”
Railroads irrevocably changed the experience of traveling to the mountains, which had hitherto occurred via stagecoach and boat, as Guy and Laura Waterman describe in their history of northeastern hiking, Forest and Crag.
Railroad trips were faster, thus occupying less of the traveler’s time. Train trips were more hectic, certainly noisier, and involved less social interplay among travelers or between travelers and drivers. On the other hand, railroad travel had a new kind of excitement and bustle. For many travelers, trains seemed to have a personality of their own in ways that perhaps steamboats and coaches did not, and that surely today’s airplanes and buses do not.”
The relationship between the trains and hotel companies proved lucrative for both sides, as the more people were caught up in the new interest in the outdoors, the more both industries stood to gain. Many hotels, like the Fabyan House, had their own train station, or at the very least a livery to collect patrons from the nearest station. The Profile House, named for its excellent view of the Old Man of the Mountain from its site just north of Franconia Notch, was accessible only by stagecoach for the first twenty-five years of its existence. In 1878-79, its owners built a nine-and-a-half-mile spur to Bethlehem Junction, which the Boston, Concord, and Montreal had reached several years earlier. The Profile and Franconia Notch Railroad, as the little line was called, allowed the Profile House to expand on a truly grand scale, ultimately reaching a guest capacity of 600 by 1905. Guidebooks of the era noted the integration of rail and hotel and devoted considerable space to describing the various rail routes to the region. The subtitle of the 1888 guidebook Ticknor’s White Mountains reads, “A guide to the peaks, passes, and ravines of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and to the adjacent railroads, highways, and villages…”
The hotels were a sturdy anchor to summer communities, often attracting people who preferred the seclusion of a woodland cabin rather than a hotel’s bustle but who appreciated some of its creature comforts and chose to build nearby. In some places, the summer communities have outlived the hotels. Randolph, a few miles of west of Gorham, still survives as an unobtrusive but tightly-knit summer community, perhaps best known for the labyrinth of trails on the northern side of the Presidentials maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. This group’s roots extend back to the 1880s, when most summer residents stayed at the Ravine House, the Mount Crescent House, and Kelsey Cottage, all of which lay along the road now named Route 2. Most had ridden the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad to Gorham before switching to coach for the last few miles. A few of the more industrious vacationers joined with hotel owners and a few local woodsmen to build the first trails in the region, returning each night to their families at the hotel, where dances, charades, and communal suppers awaited them. “Here in Randolph we have met with the most charming hospitality I ever knew,” wrote Carolyn Morse Rea to her mother during her honeymoon in July 1904.
The RMC continues to maintain most of the old trails; Lowe’s Path and The Watson Path are two survivors named for hotel owner/builders, but they are now rarely used because they begin on the sites of the old hotels instead of the current departure point at the Appalachia parking lot. The Northern Presidentials still have the densest network of trails of any region in the White Mountains, and they would never have been constructed had the railroad not reached as close to Randolph as Gorham.
If a full day of trail clearing and trimming was not for every tourist, there was plenty of less robust amusement back at the hotel, perhaps peering at the sublime landscape from a rocking chair on the hotel veranda or finding refreshment in the cool woods and streams of the valley. For those who wished to experience the mountains without compromising their gentility, a short-lived network of bridle paths and summit houses grew up, allowing tourists to reach summits such as Moosilauke, Lafayette, Washington (which had five paths passable by horse during the 1850s), and even Moriah (just south of Gorham) before a bridle path reached Washington’s peak. Like horses, the summit houses, which varied from little more than a rude shelter to fully outfitted hotels, soon disappeared from every White Mountain summit save Washington and Moosilauke. Many foundations remain, however, as do the gentle inclines of some of the old horse paths, now trodden only by grateful hikers.
The railroads continued pouring people into the mountain resorts throughout the boom and busts of the late nineteenth century. The Civil War did not slow the White Mountain tourist industry, and a cholera outbreak shortly afterwards was little more than a hiccup. Industrialization allowed many American to attain new standards of living with leisure time and disposable income. While certainly many a Captain of Industry sent his wife and family north for the summer, only to visit on weekends, the size of the White Mountain tourist industry is most of all a testament to the emerging American middle class. The period has guided American attitudes toward leisure and tourism ever since. In his book, Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains, Bryant Tolles writes, “This concept of escape came to fruition during the 1860s in the White Mountains…the quest for success, while embraced by many, became an all-consuming preoccupation that large numbers of people sought to avoid through the new summer vacation ritual. Ironically, for many the selection of a vacation site, in turn, constituted a form of competition in itself.”
Economic recession in the mid-1870s slowed tourism for a few years, but the symbiosis between railroads and hotels that underlay the first period of growth persisted, and tourism soon recovered. The Boston, Concord & Montreal pushed on to Twin Mountain and Fabyan in 1874, where two years later it finished a seven mile connector to Marshfield, the base of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway in 1876. Meanwhile, the Portland and Ogdensburg pushed up to Fabyan from Crawford Notch, where the mammoth feat of construction generated a burst of national attention for the local tourist industry.
It was now possible to travel entirely by rail from Boston to the top of Mt. Washington. Designed by Sylvester Marsh who, legend has it, conceived the idea while lost on a hike to the summit, the Cog, as it is now known, has an average grade of 25% and was understandably scoffed at when Marsh approached the State Legislature for funding. After trains began successfully climbing the mountain in 1869, however, Marsh’s innovative rack railway system for climbing was studied by Swiss engineers harboring similar plans for their native Alps. Along with the Mount Washington Auto Road, the Cog continues to ferry thousands of passengers to the summit every summer, and it is perhaps the premier tourist destination in northern New Hampshire.
Like the other railroads in the White Mountains, the Cog stimulated commerce at its destination, particularly in the hotel trade. Summit buildings existed atop Washington before the Cog; Ethan Crawford had built three stone cabins in 1823, while the Summit and Tip-Top Houses, competitors, went up in 1852-53, but when the Cog arrived, pressure increased to provide better lodging. A new Summit House, accommodating 150 guests, was constructed in 1872-73 at the cost of $70,000. It took freight trains (one car per train) 250 trips to bring up the 596 tons of building materials. Meanwhile, Marsh was soon busy putting up the architecturally uninspired Fabyan House in the valley, where it was ideally situated to take advantage of the new rail traffic to Mt. Washington itself.
By the 1880s, nearly all the major rail construction in the region was complete. The last decade of the nineteenth century was a golden era for White Mountain tourism, with around 200 hotels, inns, and boarding houses accommodating 12,000 people. The region held the country’s greatest concentration of grand hotels.
Grace Herreshoff, a 27 year old Bostonian, captured the spirit of the era in her journal account of a February 1908 trip based at the Iron Mountain House in Jackson. “Took train (leaving hotel about 9) up the [Crawford] Notch, but did not get much of a view on account of snow flurries.” After an exhilarating day snowshoeing up Mt. Clinton, she and several companions returned.
“Singing and dancing we proceeded down—waved to an engineer as we crossed the treacherous icy meadows in the valley, and broke in on a big crowd at the [Crawford House] station. We had fine views going back thro’ the Notch—a glimpse of Washington, and looks up the precipitous cliffs of the west side of Frankenstein. It had been a gorgeous day—full of exercise and vigor—great beauty and fury of weather. We rode up in the pung [sleigh], warm tho’ stiff! After an extra “spread” we had our dance—a great pleasure to me, for I had no lack of good partners, and was treated with almost too much attention in our extremely festive Virginia Reel!”
Even before the First World War, however, the relationship between rail and hotels began to fray. Driven by fierce competition, the hotel industry became ever more professionalized and large-scale, requiring greater operating capital. “In a curious, almost perverted way,” writes Tolles, “the grand hotels were victims of their own fantastic success…Their appeal remained for a selected few, but their broader, largely upper-middle-class clientele gradually slipped away to engage in other leisure-time life patterns and pursuits.”
There were a host of reasons to seek out an alternative summer vacation. The invention of the car allowed vacationers a new measure of freedom, and while it took decades for a modern road system to develop, especially in northern New England, the middle class enjoyed the flexibility of road trips, especially as motels began to spring up along roadsides. Fashionable ocean liners and, eventually, airplanes, made travel to exotic destinations much more feasible and fashionable for the rich. Those who did spend the entire summer in the lakes and mountains began to favor private cottages rather than hotels, and as more women entered the workplace and summer camps became mainstream, the function of hotels as summer refuges for wives and children became obsolete. Finally, unlike the Civil War, the Depression and the World Wars severely depressed the national economy, devastating the hotel and railroad industries while they were locked in fierce competition with new technologies and social values. Many hotels, built of wood, were replaced when they burned down during the nineteenth century, but in the new era they were simply abandoned after destruction. Only four survive: The Mount Washington Hotel—“the most ambitiously conceived, elaborately appointed and conspicuously palatial,” according to Tolles—The Balsams at Dixville Notch, and Wentworth Hall Resorts and the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson.
Ironically, White Mountain passenger trains enjoyed a brief but memorable renaissance during the height of economic trauma during the 1930s and 40s. At the instigation of the AMC, the Boston and Maine Railroad began running “snow trains” to carry skiers north from Boston. Skiing did not achieve mainstream popularity in America until after World War II, but it became popular in the late twenties among some New Englanders who observed the sport in Europe, where it was blossoming in the Alps.
American ski infrastructure lagged behind that of France and Switzerland, but many northeastern outdoorsmen and women were intrigued, organizing through college groups such as the Dartmouth Outdoor Club or Harvard Mountaineering Club. In Boston, the Appalachian Mountain Club was the impetus for many skiing adventures.
Joe Dodge, the legendary AMC Huts Manager, led a few friends into Tuckerman’s Ravine in 1926, where they skinned some ways up the bowl before descending (Dodge’s son, Brooks, was known in the late forties and fifties for his daring in the Tuckerman couloirs). The cirque quickly developed into the most exciting ski scene in New England, and the Boston ski club Hochgebirge organized the Inferno, a blistering race from summit to base, including the ravine headwall. An AMC member, Hollis Phillips won the first race, in 1933, while in 1939 the young Austrian Toni Matt completed the run in a reckless six and a half minutes. Matt took the several thousand foot descent of the headwall without turning, a feat that continues to win him the highest accolades in skiing circles. Elsewhere, AMC members began scouting and clearing ski trails, often assisted by the CCC. Mt. Cardigan’s Duke, Kimball, and Alexandria ski trails were cut in 1934-35 (the name of the first honors a Russian émigré nobleman who taught skiing at the base cabin), while the notorious Hell’s Highway was cut by the DOC on Mt. Moosilauke in 1933.
Snowplows were scarce and winter roads dangerous, so trains were the most reliable method of winter transportation. At the AMC’s instigation, the Boston and Maine ran a train from Boston to Warner, New Hampshire in January 1931, pitched specifically to skiers. “You’ll have a glorious Sun-Day,” read the B & M poster. It was a popular idea, and the snow trains continued to run during the holidays throughout the thirties and forties.
George Macomber, now 81, rode the snow train while on winter vacation from high school. Up at 5:30, he would take the bus to Newton Corner, near Boston, where he caught the MBTA trolley into the city. After changing at Park Street, he arrived at North Station, where the train began to roll north.
“All ages were on the train,” Macomber told me when I visited him in his Boston apartment. “Everybody getting ready for a good time, lugging their skis and boots.” The train ran quickly, reaching its destination within two and a half hours. They were long, he said, “16 cars, must have had a couple thousand people on them. We’d get off at North Conway and parade down to Cranmore,” a resort that still exists, though it is now overshadowed by larger ski areas such as Wildcat, which Macomber later helped found with Brooks Dodge and two others.
The ride home was often high-spirited. “On the way back, the college kids and twenty year olds were having a good time. A lot of liquor, beer. A lot of trying to smooch. As a naïve 15 year old, I enjoyed watching all of that.”
Macomber’s wife, Ann, took some of the same trains, though she did not yet know George. Her family went as far north as Intervale, where a car from the Glen House picked them up to stay for a week and also took them to Pinkham Notch, where they could begin the skin up to Tuckerman’s Ravine.
Skiing’s popularity soon skyrocketed as former members of the 10th Mountain Division returned to fan out across the country and cheap surplus military gear flooded stores, but the snow trains were short-lived, doomed by the societal shift toward cars. The Boston and Maine steadily cut passenger service through the fifties and sixties and only continued freight service through a series of state subsidies and bankruptcies. Finally, Guilford Transportation Industries (later Pan Am) purchased the remnants in 1983. The Maine Central, after a similar decline, had succumbed to Guilford three years earlier.
Gas prices will need to increase far beyond $4.00 per gallon to bring back regular passenger service to the White Mountains, but nostalgia for the era of railroad and grand hotels has surged over the past couple of decades. The Cog continues to haul thousands of people to Washington’s summit in the summer months, while the Conway Scenic Railroad has refurbished the old Mountain Division tracks running through Crawford Notch. Beginning at the North Conway Station, built in 1874 for the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad, the train travels eleven miles north to Fabyan Station. From there, it is but a short shuttle ride to the Mount Washington Hotel, now a National Historic Landmark and in good financial health, having emerged from foreclosure in the early nineties. Passengers can disembark at Crawford’s Station by the AMC Highland Center, whose gables faintly echo the old Crawford House, on which site the new eco-friendly building stands. The CSRR and Cranmore Mountain even sponsored a “Snow Train Weekend” last January.
While the methods of transportation to the White Mountains are vastly different today, the cultural and structural legacy of railroads and the hotels they helped build still stands. How will technology and social values of the next century affect the White Mountain landscape?
Illustrations, in order: a B & M snow train poster, a B & M railroad bill, Frankenstein's Trestle, The Crawford House, The Profile House (twice), Winslow Homer's "The Bridle Path, White Mountains," a 1914 map of the New England railways, another B & M poster, and Tuckerman's Ravine in its heyday.