BRETTON WOODS — A small but festive gathering to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Crawford Path to the summit of Mount Washington was held under sunny skies on Friday afternoon, Aug. 9.
The Crawford Path is the oldest continually used mountain trail in the United States.
Organized through the ongoing partnership of the White Mountain National Forest and the Appalachian Mountain Club, the celebration featured speakers who discussed the path’s unique history as well as an initiative designed to improve trail stewardship and maintenance in the White Mountains while maintaining the legacy of many existing individual organizations.
Both White Mountain National Forest Ranger for the Pemigewasset Ranger District Brooke Brown and AMC senior vice president Walter Graff of Randolph welcomed everyone to a parking lot that overlooks Route 302 adjacent to the Crawford Path trailhead.
Graff said he has climbed the Crawford Path more times than he can recall since he came to the area in 1974 — 45 years ago — to work for the AMC. All four members of New Hampshire's Congressional delegation sent representatives to read congratulatory statements.
AMC archivist Rebecca “Becky” Fullerton gave a well-researched overview of the Crawford Path’s history.
“Before the grand resort hotels of our region there was the humble inn: the farmhouse on the side of the single road through the pass where the rare, weary traveler was welcomed to a simple table of what the family could provide and a bed of some variety tucked into a corner,” Fullerton began. “In the 18th century, that house was the home of Abel Crawford, his wife Hannah Rosebrook Crawford, and their seven children. The couple came from Guildhall, Vt., settling first in what is now Bretton Woods before moving deep into the foreboding valley known only as ‘The Notch of the White Mountains’ at Hart’s Location.
“Abel’s son, Ethan Allen Crawford, would be an innkeeper, too, piling on numerous, industrious endeavors: hunting, trapping, transporting trade goods, helping stranded travelers, capturing poor forest creatures to have on display at his inn … and guiding people up the tallest mountain in New England,” she continued.
He and his father cut what is now known as the Crawford Path, creating a trailhead south of Saco Lake.
“After just a few parties requested his assistance in guiding them up the trackless Mount Washington, he decided to cut a trail there in June 1819,” she said. “He and his father Abel cut a route as far as ‘treeline’ on Mount Pierce and then proceeded to take out newspaper ads to promote it.”
Despite all his efforts, Crawford was chronically in debt and died essentially broke in June 1846. He and Lucy had moved back to Vermont in 1837, but returned to the mountains in 1843.
“The influx of visitors hoping to witness the sublime beauty and terror of the magnificent White Mountains … surely benefited the Crawford family,” Fullerton said. “They would continue to aid Ethan’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Crawford, who inherited the care of his family’s magnificent trail and ran the inn at its trailhead. He was the one to formally improve it to a bridle path (for horse riders) in 1839 and 1840.
“The path originally cut by Ethan Allen was likely not much different than a poorly maintained yet highly overused trail today,” she explained. “Mount Pleasant — today named Mt. Eisenhower — was the only summit traversed until Mount Washington itself.
“By the 1860s and 1870s, riding on horseback up Washington over a rough path was no longer in vogue,” Fullerton noted. “The Mount Washington Carriage Road (now named the Auto Road) opened in 1861 and the Mt. Washington Cog Railway in 1869, both making for an easier, quicker and more comfortable rise to the top. Sometime in the 1880s the last horses are said to have passed over the Crawford Path. Hiking on foot was coming into fashion, and people have been hiking the trail ever since.”
Today the Crawford Path, from Mount Pierce to the summit of Mount Washington, makes up a portion of the Appalachian Trail — one of the first two trails designated as National Scenic Trails under the National Trails System Act of 1968.
“AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, built as a tiny shelter in 1901 and as a full-fledged hut in 1915, lies directly on the Crawford Path about seven miles from its trailhead on Route 302,” she said. Lakes now can sleep 90 paying guests and 10 crew members.
“Surely the original trail builders would have been astounded to see such things, but likely thrilled to find their path still in use 200 years on,” Fullerton said. “And, so the Crawford Path remains, ironically outlasting most of the hotels that helped to keep its popularity alive through the decades.”
In remarks printed in the “Congressional Record,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen pointed out, “The White Mountains are now a thriving, well-known, four-season tourist destination, where travelers in numbers Abel and Ethan could not have imagined come to observe unparalleled natural beauty.” Both day and AT thru-hikers traversing the Crawford Path are “instantly connected to 200 years of experiences and adventures,” she said.
Matt Coughlan of Conway, Crawford Path project manager for the 2-year-old White Mountain Trail Collective and owner of Recon Trail Design, was the day’s last speaker.
“This special moment in the history of the White Mountains … marks a new way forward in how we care for our trails. The collective was started because of the increasing need for serious restoration work on the trails that surround us,” he explained. “There are large-scale erosion and human-impact problems that are beyond the capacity of any one organization to manage. But together we’re starting to make a difference, and the 2-year-long Crawford Path project has brought together new partnerships and new funding sources that are increasing our capacity to make a meaningful difference.”
Coughlan emphasized that many benefits have come out of this new regional approach besides the much-needed restoration of the Crawford Path, including providing 3 levels of skills trainings to several trail crews. “The White Mountain Trail Collective plans to continue to offer joint trainings to enhance the collective knowledge of trail restoration practices and to continue to develop working relationships between trail-workers,” he said. “The collective will be tackling several projects in the Mount Washington Valley over the next two years, including work on hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and backcountry ski glades that will extend our reach beyond the White Mountain National Forest and into conservation properties managed by other organizations and with a variety of recreation issues.”
He thanked the 13 different trail crews who’ve worked on the Crawford Notch project including the AMC professional crew, AMC Camp Dodge and Volunteer Vacations crews , U.S. Forest Service White Mountain National Forest crews from Pemigewasset, Androscoggin and Saco Districts, the Armed Forces Conservation Corps, Randolph Mountain Club and Student Conservation Corps-NH.
Coughlan thanked the many funders who’ve stepped up with substantial financial support and volunteer workdays.