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Trailblazers: Book retraces the history of hiking in New Hampshire

By Tom Eastman
INTERVALE — Outdoors author Mike Dickerman's many hiking travels in the White Mountains over the past 30 years will lead him to Theater in the Wood Sunday night, July 14, as he will be the featured guest writer on the next live “Cold River Radio Show.”
  7-12-hiking-history-2Author Mike DickermanAt the musical variety show, Dickerman will discuss with host Jonathan Sarty his latest book, published by The History Press: “White Mountains Hiking History: Trailblazers of the Granite State.”
 Each Cold River Radio Show features Sarty accompanied by the Cold River Radio Band, who are joined by visiting artists. The July 14 show will feature gifted singer-songwriter Tom Pacheco; storyteller Lynne Cullen and musician/composer Kurt Kish; and the music of Bushrod Washington.
 Visit www.jonathansarty.com/coldriverradio for further information.
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As the book advance to “White Mountains Hiking History: Trailblazers of the Granite State” notes, since the time of pioneer settlers Abel Crawford (1766-1851) and his son, the towering Ethan Allen Crawford (1792-1846), “explorers and adventurers have been lured by the stunning peaks and lush valleys of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.”
 In the nearly two centuries since the Crawfords constructed their first crude footpath onto the heights of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range in 1819, the White Mountain trail system has evolved into an intricate network featuring more than 1,400 miles of marked paths.
 In his book, which is likely to appeal to hikers and lovers of White Mountains history, Dickerman retraces the steps of such other early mountain guides such as Charles Lowe and Allen “Old Man” Thompson. He tells how these pioneering pathmakers made New England’s most popular and extensive mountain trail system possible, focusing on the century between 1819 and 1920. During that century, the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 eventually led to the creation of natonal forests in the East, including the White Mountain National Forest in 1918.
 The week prior to his scheduled upcoming appearance in Intervale, Dickerman — founder of the Bondcliff Books Publishing Company in 1997, “Off the Beaten Path” newspaper columnist, anthology editor, and author — stopped by The Met Coffeehouse in North Conway for a brief interview about the latest book, the first of two he is to produce this year on the White Mountains for The History Press of Charleston, S.C.
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Q: Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford are legends in the White Mountains, with their Crawford Path the oldest continuously used trail in the nation, built in 1819. You write in one of the chapters about how  Abel's younger son Thomas and hired hand Joseph Hall in 1839 and 1840 converted the hiking route into a bridle path, with Abel, then 75, making the first horseback ascent from Crawford Notch to the top of Mount Washington in August 1840. Tell us how you found documentation for that ascent.
MD: I glossed over most of the histories, but by chance, I was looking at the first Geological Survey of New Hampshire, written in 1844 by Bostonian Dr. Charles T. Jackson (after whom Mount Jackson in the Southern Presidentials was named in 1848).  Someone had found a copy at the Alton Recycling Center — it was being discarded, but someone had the forethought to grab it and bring it to the Littleton Library, where my wife Jeanne is a director.
She showed it to me and wanted to know if it was worth anything. It's not the Holy Grail of White Mountain Books, but it's very rare.
I started going through it, and lo and behold, it contains the only account of this actual horseback ascent. It was the first time anyone had ever ridden a horse to the top of New England. It's a really interesting story, and I had never read any of the particulars until I read this account. I later found my own copy on eBay.
Also, in doing all this research, going through newspaper, I also came across a story in the Littleton paper of probably the last horseback ascent by two women from a Littleton riding club in 1932, also along the Crawford Path. So, there’s the first and last.
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Q: What is it about Ethan Allen Crawford that calls to you through the centuries as you pass through and over these mountains that he and Lucy Crawford once knew, and in which she wrote about in “Lucy Crawford's History of the White Mountains” (first published in 1846)?
MD: Ethan’s [relatively short] life was full of triumph, tragedy and misfortune.
He was a horrible manager of money; he was always short on money. Any business that he was involved with was always on the brink of going under. Yet, he is still considered  “The Giant of the Hills,” strong as an ox, with the strength of four men, able to wrestle with bears, and standing some say 7 feet tall.
I became very familiar with the Crawfords' stories when I wrote “Guide to Crawford Notch” in 1997 — they left their mark, not just on the trails, but in early hospitality in that neck of the woods. They were the first to offer infrequent travelers a place to stay.
Their role was to introduce the traveling public to Mount Washington.
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Q: What fueled the early interest in hiking in the White Mountains?
MD: A big part was the formulation of the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1876 in Boston [after the devastation caused by many of the logging railroads and timber barons in the 1870s]. The coming of the railroads [first to Gorham in 1851, and to North Conway in 1871 and finally through Crawford Notch in 1875], spawned the hotels, which gave people who wanted to explore the mountains a place to stay.
Probably the greatest impact was the Willey Slide of August 1826, which killed the members of the Willey family in Crawford Notch. The artists of what became known as the White Mountain School of Art began coming and painting scenes of the region, so it all worked together. But it was the AMC which really sparked the interest in exploring the mountains and building hiking trails — the concentration of the new trails really didn't begin until the AMC started.
Local trail clubs also sprung up — Steve Smith [of the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store of Lincon, and co-editor with Dickerman of the 29th edition of the AMC White Mountain Guide] and I are working on an exhibit that will be shown in 2014 at the Museum of the White Mountains in Plymouth on the history of trail clubs in the Whites. There were more than 25 different trail clubs over the years that existed.
 The coming of the hotels also led to the development of new trails, because the hotels had to offer their guests something to do.
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Q: What impact did the logging railroads have on the trails, and how did logging lead in time to the Weeks Act and the creation of the national forest?
MD: It was the logging, of course, that sparked an outcry to preserve the forests of northern New Hampshire and ultimately led to passage of the Weeks Act. I'd say the impact on the trails was mixed. Certainly ongoing logging activity impacted existing trails back in the late 19th century. This was especially so on the lower slopes of the Northern Presidentials in Randolph, where exisiting trails were obliterated. If you look at the bio of J. Rayner Edmands, you'll read that he was so discouraged by the logging activity in that part of the Whites that he moved his base of operations from Randolph to Bretton Woods. The logging railroaders, who would on occasion run excursion trains into the interior Whites, also introduced a lot of people to the remote corners of the region via these excursions, and may have inadvertently created an interest in conservation as these passengers got to see first hand what logging was doing to the mountains.
Obviously once the logging trains stopped running, the old railbeds offered a unique opportunity for backcountry wanderers and explorers to easily access places like the Pemi Wilderness and Zealand Valley. I'd say their lasting legacy is that they helped spur conservation efforts in the Whites, while also providing visitors with a lasting pathway into the heart of the region.
As for the Weeks Act and the creation of the WMNF, their impact was that they introduced to the region a government agency that oversees a federal reserve that is both a recreational and working forest. Under the guidance of the Forest Service, with input from many local and regional trail clubs, an intertwined network of footpaths was established and more or less finished by 1930. This trail network has endured over the years, despite natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, and during certain periods of time when federal funding for maintenance was greatly reduced.
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Q: What are you most proud of in this book?
MD: The last chapter is a compendium of trail guides and trail builders — it encapsulates the building of trails, and also the names of guides I had come across in my years of writing and from old guidebooks. It was sort of hit or miss … I love that last chapter!
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Q: Why do you think the White Mountains resonate the way they have and do?
MD: Early on in the 19th century, people were visiting the White Mountains, before the westward expansion. People were visiting the Rockies in the mid-1800s, but it was for mining and whatever else, not for hiking. Recreationally, I would say the White Mountains were the birthplace of recreational hiking in North America.
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“White Mountain Hiking History: Trailblazers of the Granite State” features 53 black-and-white photographs and 144 pages. It will be available at White Birch Books of North Conway and other local stores. For more information, contact The History Press or call White Birch Books at 356-3200

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