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Little Giant

July 2024
2min read

Mount Washington ranks high among America’s most popular peaks, even though there are scores of others (nearly all of them in the West) that are far higher in altitude. Its New England location, its ease of ascent, and the stunning view from its top have given it a longer and fuller history than perhaps any other lofty American mountain. Today its most learned chronicler is Frank Alien Burt, of Brookline, Massachusetts. Grandson of the man who in 1877 started Among the Clouds , the daily summer newspaper published at the summit for thirty-one years, Mr. Burt has gathered all of his Mount Washington lore into an absorbing book, The Story of Mount Washington , published by Dartmouth Publications in 1960. AMERICAN HERITAGE is grateful to him for the use of his book as a basic source for the accompanying article on the cog railway, and for the compilation of the following sampler of Mount Washington history.

Long a playground for tourists, hikers, and skiers, Mount Washington in the last century has also been an important natural laboratory for the study of cold-weather phenomena. Despite its generally delightful weather in other seasons—though there are sometimes sudden snow squalls even in summer—winter brings the mountain summit a climate more closely approximating polar conditions than any other equally accessible spot in the world. Winds blowing above 150 miles per hour are no surprise, while the thermometer quite casually drops to forty degrees below zero. This makes it something of a paradox that the mountain has, besides the cog railway, a good auto road to the top, and for many years boasted a large, comfortable hotel, the Summit House, that entertained thousands of happy summer visitors who were scarcely mountaineers. More distinguished Americans have probably ascended Mount Washington than any other mountain anywhere, not excluding Pikes Peak.

Here is a somewhat capricious selection of Mount Washington’s notable events across three and a quarter centuries: 1642 : Darby Field, of Massachusetts Bay Colony, made the first ascent by a white man. 1784 : The Reverend Jeremy Belknap, D.D., climbed the mountain, named it Mount Washington, and estimated its height as above ten thousand feet (it actually measures 6,288). 1821 : Three young ladies from Jefferson, New Hampshire, were the first females to climb the mountain. 1849 : An English hiker named Frederick Strickland became the first of some thirty-five persons to die from exposure or climbing accidents on the slopes of Mount Washington during the last 119 years. 1855 : A. S. Walker of Boston walked to the summit barefoot. 1861: The eight-mile carriage road (later called the auto road) was completed to the summit. 1869 : The cog railway was finished and began regular service. 1874 : The U.S. Army set up a weather station for winter observations at the summit which was operated regularly until 1887. 1873 : The Summit House (over 3 hundred beds) was built. 1877 : Among the Clouds , a daily summer newspaper, began publication. The same year, the first of several marriage ceremonies was performed at the summit. 1887 : Charlie O’Hara, stage driver, drove a carriage-and-six to the mountain top in one hour and nine minutes, and was then arrested for cruelty to animals. 1892 : A huge electric beacon, visible a hundred miles away, shone briefly from the summit to prove the power of the dynamo. 1899 : Freelan Stanley made the first motor ascent of the mountain, in his Stanley Steamer. 1900–07 : After arduous liquid training at the summit, Edgar Welch of Hiram, Maine, ran eight miles down the carriage road every year, wearing a tall beaver hat and endeavoring to beat his own record of forty-five minutes. 1908 : The Summit House burned down. 1932 : Mrs. Florence Clark drove her team of Eskimo dogs to the top singlehanded, just for the sport of it. 1934 : Wind velocity of 231 miles per hour was measured—the highest ever recorded anywhere. 1937 : An experimental FM radio station began broadcasting from the summit. 1939 : Toni Matt, skier, “schussed” (came straight down) the hcadwall of Tuckerman Ravine, a fifty-degree, thousand-foot snow bowl near the summit. 1942 : The U.S. government began tests—which are still going on—of cold weather equipment.

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