Many years ago, when I had small children, was still married, and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my intrepid spouse and I decided we should go camping over the Fourth of July weekend. Newly handy with Google (or Altavista, or whatever it was back then), I found us a campground that still had vacancies up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which I’d once visited on a high school ski trip.
We went to check out the hotel at Bretton Woods during the course of that trip, and on the way drove through a small crossing called “Fabyan’s,” which intrigued me. My dad’s mother’s maiden name was Fabyan, and it’s one of my middle names.
I was bored last week and started Googling dead relatives, and ended up finding out a bit more about an ancestor named Horace Fabyan, the namesake of that little White Mountains spot. He did indeed come from the same family in Maine that my Boston-born Grandmama Read derived from, but there was a whole other passel of info I stumbled into because I’d Googled old Horace, which I will relate below…
A random disaster in the early 1800s near Crawford Notch in these mountains, it turns out, launched not only the first serious wave of American tourism, but a school of landscape painters, a number of American poets and fiction writers, the concept of “artists-in-residence,” two of America’s first artists’ colonies, and even a bit of scary slang that’s still with us.
A hunter named Timothy Nash discovered Crawford Notch while tracking a moose over Cherry Mountain in 1771. He made a deal with the then-governor of New Hampshire–if Nash could get a horse through the pass, he’d be given a large tract of land in exchange, along the route of a proposed road at the head of the notch. Nash and a friend managed to get an old farmhorse through, at times having to lower it over boulders by rope. In 1775, the first official road was opened–a turnpike used to bring goods from Vermont to the ports of Maine.
Small houses along the way started putting up travelers for the night, turning a decent profit.
In the fall of 1825, a man named Samuel Willey moved into a house at Crawford Notch with his wife, five children, and two hired men. The three men spent a year enlarging the building into a serviceable inn for passing travelers.
According to http://www.nhstateparks.com/crawford.html:
During the night of August 28, 1826, after a long drought which had dried the mountain soil to an unusual depth, came one of the most violent and destructive rain storms ever known in the White Mountains. The Saco River rose twenty feet overnight. Livestock was carried off, farms set afloat, and great gorges were cut in the mountains. Two days after the storm, anxious friends and relatives penetrated the debris-strewn valley to learn the fate of the Willey family.
They found the house unharmed, but the surrounding fields were covered with debris. Huge boulders, trees, and masses of soil had been swept from Mt. Willey’s newly bared slopes. The house had escaped damage because it was apparently situated just below a ledge that divided the major slide into two streams. The split caused the slide to pass by the house on both sides leaving it untouched. Inside, beds appeared to have been left hurriedly, a Bible lay on the table, and the dog howled mournfully.
Sixty years later, an elderly man named Ebenezer R. Tasker, who’d been an eyewitness among the first group of neighbors to arrive at the scene related what they found to the Lewiston, Maine, Journal. His account was reproduced in The New York Times on August 20th, 1894
I was a young boy then, and I suppose the events of that fearful period when the mountains echoed for days with the noise of rumbling slides, are impressed more strongly upon my mind than they otherwise would be….
On the 28th of that month it began to rain, and many of the farms in Bartlett, Carrol County, were damaged with landslides that covered the loam with gravel and rubbish in great tracts. At Judge Hall’s tavern in Bartlett the next day the farmers were sitting around the hearth when in came a man named John Barker, who told us about the fearful slide at the Willey farm.
Barker had visited the Willey farm, and not finding the family, concluded that they were safe at the home of a neighbor, Abel Crawford. But others among us thought differently…. [that night a group including Tasker and his father started for the farm]… All night we were struggling up through the notch toward our destination. At last we arrived and as soon as day broke we commenced our search.
The course of the mountain slide presented an appalling spectacle. Its track had reached to within three feet of the house and had carried away one corner of the barn. Rocks, trees, and broken timber laid piled up and ended over all the track. The avalanche seemed to have suddenly stopped, for the lower end was more than perpendicular. The upper crust hung over the lower part and formed several large caves. Great crownds had arrived, as the story of the missing family had spread far and wide. No sign could be found of the bodies, until at last, noticing a cluster of flies about the entrance of one of the caves, my father called the attention of Mr. Edward Melcher to it, and the latter crawled in. He came out with a white, drawn face that scared me, boy that I was, nearly out of my wits. He told the crowd he had seen the hand of a man jammed between two logs, and indicated where to dig.
Three men took spades and soon revealed the body of David Allen, a hired man. Directly behind the body and clasping the hand of Allen was the body of Mrs. Willey. The remains of the rest of the family were recovered in like manner with the exception of three of the children, whose bodies were never recovered….
I suppose the family had started to escape from the house upon hearing the avalanche bearing down upon them, and had been overtaken in flight…. the house was saved by a big rock deeply imbedded in the ground, which first stopped a hemlock tree and then turned the course of the avalanche.
The tragedy, described as an “almost-miracle” (the house untouched, its inhabitants crushed) was reported nationally. As historian Randall H. Bennett reports in his book The White Mountains:
“Soon after the Willey Disaster, hundreds of tourists began to flock to the scene of this great catastrophe. To accommodate these visitors, Horace Fabyan of Portland, Maine, built a hotel…”
The drama of the location drew dozens of writers and painters.
According to http://www.aannh.org/heritage/primer.php:
During this period artistic appreciation of the mountains reached its apogee. Nature poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Lucy Larcom brought forth cascades of verse.
Winslow Homer, “Artists Sketching in the White Mountains”
Many of 19th century America’s best-known landscapists worked in the White Mountains: Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, John Frederick Kensett, Benjamin Champney, Homer Dodge Martin, Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and photographer William Henry Jackson.
Two of America’s first art colonies sprouted in the valleys of West Campton and North Conway. Painters’ works drew tourists to the mountains, and souvenir-hungry tourists eventually drew more painters.
We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains. . . . The site of the Willie [sic] House standing with a little patch of green in the midst [of] the dread wilderness of desolation called to mind the horrors of that night. . . when these mountains were deluged and rocks and trees were hurled from their high places down the steep channelled sides of the mountains. . . .
Dave Thurlow of the Mt. Washington Observatory wrote of the Willey slide:
...Although debate over the significance of the Willey slide disaster continues to this day, most historians agree that the tale struck a chord with 1820s Americans because of what it suggested about the relationship between human beings and nature. The Willeys, while regarded with sympathy as “amiable and respectable” victims of an unfortunate tragedy, were considered to have suffered as a result of abandoning their allegiance to and faith in nature’s beneficence. Had the Willeys trusted that nature would observe the safety of their home and preserve it, and endeavored to face the slide in harmony with nature rather than in conflict with and fear of it, they would have escaped unscathed. Their story serves as a warning not only to those who remain ignorant of nature’s power, but also those who might foolishly attempt to subdue it… showing that when nature’s power, human frailty, and abandonment of faith are compounded, the result is disaster.
Such sentiments burgeoned into preservationism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thomas Cole documented his thoughts on the subject in his “Essay on American Scenery”: “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away — the ravages of the axe are daily increasing — the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”
In Out of Nowhere, Eric Purchase examines the surprising connection of this disaster to the rise of tourism in America, investigating developments that ranged from land speculation to new interpretations of the meaning of nature and landscape. The Willey tragedy, widely recorded in literature, art, travel writing, newspapers, and scientific journals, was the first natural disaster in the United States to capture national attention. Nineteenth-century Americans were intrigued with nature’s sheer perversity in destroying an entire family while leaving its house untouched. They marveled at such dramatic evidence of the natural world’s vastness and power. Suddenly the White Mountains became, in the public’s imagination, a mythical place where nature was preserved in its original, potent state.Hundreds and then thousands of tourists, including artists, scientists, and writers such as Thomas Cole, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Charles Lyell, began traveling there every summer to take vacations amid the romantic landscape. The Willey’s undamaged house became one of the area’s most popular attractions-fittingly, Purchase notes, since Samuel Willey was among the first entrepreneurs of White Mountain tourism. It was businessmen, after all, not artists or intellectuals, who were the first to exploit picturesque notions of untamed nature in remote landscapes to lure wealthy tourists to their inns. Ultimately, the fame of the Willeys’ gruesome deaths only enhanced the tourist trade they had helped launch.…Traces the rise of tourism in the White Mountains from the 1826 landslide which killed nine and garnered national attention. Arguing that this event marks the beginning of a new American awareness of landscapes, the author explores the European notion of the sublime (an appreciation of one’s insignificance in the face of the forces of nature) as it became harnessed by businessman wishing to bring wealthy travellers to their inns.
What a wonderful historical adventure story. A historical adventure that happened within your own family!! Too cool. Makes me want to sit evenings at campfires to hear all of the other details that you have edited out about your fabulous Fabyans.
You mentioned a "sense of needing to seek an explanation for the unexplainable".
While it does not specifically have anything to do with tragedy, I have often pondered a landscape phenomenon that we see everywhere and many have offered reasons for, yet no real scientific explanation seems to cover the event. The phenomenon is called ‘paths of desire’. It is a long, interesting and common story in itself. I have taken photos of this occurrence, wherever I have traveled, for years now.
…ah fuck it…………too complicated to go into now…….( I am laughing at my laziness and randomness)
Your story is delicious. Another peak into the Amazing Ludlam Fabyan Read Circus Maximus Greatest Show on Earth!
Love this post……..as always.
I LOVE the origin of phrases like ‘give you the willies’! What an amazing story. And it reminds me of people who abandon boats in wild weather, only for the boats to survive intact and their liferaft to be lost.
That’s really fascinating. I want to read "Out of Nowhere" now. Thanks for sharing this!
Amazing. I can’t say that any of my many endless Googling sessions have ever been so productive. Thanks for writing it all down for us.
Now just imagine the riches to be discovered when your descendants start Googling you!
I think you’ve got it right that people may be in awe at the power of nature and the destruction it create at random. We think we can control everything in our surroundings but truly we cannot. A most recent example is the flooding in the campground in Arkansas. Or here in Montana is the 1959 Yellowstone Park earthquake which created a big landslide causing 28 fatalities and the commemoration of it is now a tourist attraction there.
The other side to this is the story of our ancestors. It is the reason why I have a preference for historical mysteries, I think. We see pictures or hear the stats of a figure from the past and there is a great, flat distance that they don’t even seem real but they had a life day in and day out and their present was a "now" to them. I love that and my mind just wants to know what that experience was like and the closest I can get is an author recreating it for me.
HI anon, thank you!
Zoe, I was thinking of all your wonderful word derivations posts when I saw that about "gives me the willies." So glad you liked this one!
Merc, I think it’s out of print, but I want to find it too.
Alafair, I’m glad you liked it. It’s kind of a term paper, here–I hope I made it at least a little as interesting as it all seems to me.
Louise, you rock.
PK, I absolutely agree with you about historical fiction–the good stuff has a wonderful ability to make the distances of time melt away.
I’m also fascinated by older disasters that were widely known in their own time, but that are a complete surprise to us to hear about. I knew about Pompeii, for instance, but not this slide. It’s so amazing to me to find out about something that was such a seminal event in the entire nation’s culture, but that’s faded from the common memory almost entirely, except for that one phrase.
Those paintings are gorgeous.
What an amazing discovery. Your own history ties you to the land. No wonder you find yourself back in New England.
I’ve never tried to research my family. My family tree only goes back a few generations. Before that it goes something like this…"we ran from the Turks and hid, and then we ran from the Cossacks and hid, and then we ran from the Germans and hid, and then we took the boat to Ellis Island." And throughout the journey we changed our family name ten times or something. You wonder why there are two billion Schwartzes? We can’t ALL be related.
Beautifully rendered, Cornelia. The Kodak camera is often credited with opening the Southwest to tourism. Interesting stuff.
The bummer part about being tied to New England and NY so far back, Stephen, is that the family history goes something like "and then we massacred the Pequot, and then we bought more slaves, and then we fucked over the Irish/Italians/Democrats and then we were just generally anti-Semitic misogynist shitheads. Oh, and voted for Nixon." Mucho ancestral guilt.
Sandy, that’s SO COOL about Kodak and the southwest. Sort of following in Curtis’s footsteps? I love stuff like that…
What a wild and woolly history you have, Cornelia. It’s so neat that you can find your lineage so easily.
You would’ve been a great history teacher. When I was a kid, I resented the hell out of American history because it was about a bunch of boring, dead people. Who weren’t even dead long enough for their lives sufficiently exotic.
Have you thought of turning this into an article and sending it to a regional magazine?
JT, thank you. It’s great fun to Google people who have unusual surnames, but a lot tougher with my mom’s family–the Smiths. I can find lots of stuff about Ludlams and Seamans and Townsends and Hickses on Long Island, but Smiths are rough going anywhere.
Shizuka, glad you liked it. I’m new enough to New Hampshire still not to know how many people here know the Willey story, but that’s a great idea of trying to make it into an article. Thank you!
Fabulous story, Cornelia, and all the more fabulous for being true. It reminds me that a good story, well told, can be either fiction or fact, or even a blend of the two, as long as the writer puts it all together in a way that engages the reader. Which, of course, you did here.
Love the idea of an article…..
Cousin Cornelia – I am writing this before reading your blog et al. I see that you correctly stated that the large Fabyan House was never run or owned by Horace or his son Abbott. Abbott ran one hotel for a time and then moved to Vermont to run his own hotel.
I will read the blog to see what can be added to the Fabyan Genealogy wih your permission of course.
When I am bored Googling (Is the right term borgoogling, borgling?) I wind up on recipe or stupid celebrity gossip sites! I had never heard this bit of history before. Thank you for making it come alive! It’s amazing when looking back you can see how the threads of time all weave together. I grew up one town over from the "Amityville Horror" house and people always flocked to it. I think it never became a cottage industry in the area because locals knew there was no truth to the haunting stories and also had a respect for the family that was killed there. I now live in the town where the final scene of "The Sopranos" was filmed and each weekend there’s a bus tour that goes through the area. It’s odd what fascinates people.
Another wonderful story, all the more so because it is true. I have spent a lot of time in the White Mountains, camping, and such, and never heard this before. Now googling it will be a pleasure. I really like your blogs and how you illustrate them-they really satisfy my love of history, art, and beauty in general. Thank you.
The last name "Tasker" used early in your story leapt at me because as a kid I knew a Jack Tasker, a farmer on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. An uncle by marriage, he was also a no-swearing, no-dancing, no-smoking and especially no-drinking religious nutcase. His frequent rants were about the Evils of Drink. Then one day, some Heathen had tossed an empty beer can onto his front lawn. He kicked it and somehow cut his foot on the can. While he had great Faith, he had none in doctors or medicine so the gash was never looked at or treated. Soon after the "Kick", he died of ptomaine poisoning.
Perhaps there is a god and she is good !.
Thank you so much, Cornelia. I love history and even small histories even more. I was always fascinated by the Johnstown flood, now I will add the Willies to my list.
You recall there was the question of potential cousinhood between us– well, I did some research and pulled some records. Here’s what I found:
My Fuller was John, who came in 1634 on the Abigail, along with Winthrop. I can run his line back to St. Mary Haddonfield, where your Fullers come from, but I cannot connect them. I think I need to take it back one more generation to get common parents.
Samuel and Edward Fuller’s sister Susanna was also aboard the Mayflower, along with her husband William White and son named Resolved. Resolved married Judith Vassal, sister to my Frances Vassal, married to James Adams.
That at least makes us ‘kissin cousins’ <G>
Rae, thank you so much–I’m glad you liked it!
Cousin Buzz (Howland), I am so sorry I missed the Fabyan reunion. I should email you as well, in case you don’t come back to look at comments here. I was still kind of recovering from losing Dad when you guys all met. Very much hope to be there in 2011.
Barbara, I totally get what you mean about it being odd what fascinates people. I can understand being intrigued by the reactions to this landslide (I mean, I certainly am, even almost two hundred years later), but I can’t imagine building a HOTEL onto the original house, nor wanting to stay in it. I hear they have really good ice cream at that "last scene of the Sopranos" place, though…
lil, my favorite part of blogging is getting to pick out illustrations. I guess it satisfies my frustrated inner art director? Thank you!
john, you crack me up in the best possible way. And how odd that you should’ve known a Tasker…
Cousin mary lynn, we should ask Howland Davis about the Fuller connection–he’s the family authority on all things Fabyan, though he and I have never met in person. I’m not sure which of the Fuller brothers we descend from. Grandmama was Edith Fabyan Read, her mother was Edith Westcott Fabyan (I still have her Mayflower Society certificate, but it’s in storage in California.) We were related to Winthrops, as well. That’s all my dad’s family stuff, through the maternal line. On Mom’s side I think we came over on the Fortune? I should get it all written down somewhere.
I have odd fascinations as well and have followed certain criminal cases for many years. In fact, my novel in progress, "The Things That Haunt Us." deals with that issue.
The restaurant, Holsten’s, actually added onion rings to the menu because that’s what Tony Soprano ordered. The ice cream is quite good and they have delicious homemade chocolates as well. I live in a great part of NJ filled with culinary delights. I love it, but it definitely contributes to our obesity issues!
My pal Ariel lives in Montclair, and whenever I visit we discuss Holsten’s. Haven’t been there yet, though. I’m rather fond of "Toast" on Bloomfield Avenue, though. Great corned beef hash.
from above: "…was the first natural disaster in the United States to capture national attention."
Really? That just sort of boggles my mind — admittedly not hard to do today, after having to work on a Saturday. I wonder what the people of that time would have thought about Katrina (or any of the other disastrous hurricanes). Or massive deadly tornado outbreaks. Or epic flooding. Or… well, it’s a long list here lately, isn’t it?
I wonder whether the ability to personalize disaster makes it more horrible and memorable. If the focus of this thing happening to one family is "worse" in our minds than if it happened to a hundred or a thousand families. Or whether it’s merely the irony of their escaping the apparent path of destruction only to rush straight into certain death that distinguishes it as memorable. Or maybe, she says cynically, it all depends on the treatment a story is given by the press.
Excellent thought-provoking post, Cornelia. As always.
And MY mother’s maiden name is Smith. I’m ever more certain we were separated at birth. 😉
"Toast" is great, as is "Raymond’s" on Church St. And for ice cream, besides "Holsten’s", there’s "Applegate Farms" on Grove in Upper Montclair. All great. Now I’m getting hungry!
I tried to send a post earlier but I did something wrong so I will try again.
Cornelia, your great grandfather, Francis W. Fabyan married Edith Westcott. Her mother was Abbie Fuller. The Westcott/Fabyan plot is #3459 at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston on Consecration Avenue.
For those interested in the hotels of the White Mountains, I am reading a book now titled "And Then There Was One" by George E. McAvoy. He writes about many of the hotels (and the map inside the front cover shows many more) until finally there is only one, Mt Washington Hotel.
Mary Lynn, we may be cousins by a whole other route. My first name, Howland, comes from John Howland on the Mayflower (he who fell overboard). You mentioned the William White. Four genearions down from him you have Gideon White. Three generations down from John Howland you have Joanna Howland. These two were married. Four genearations down from them is Howland Davis, my great grandfather.
Cornelia, I don’t know the procedure, etc., but can you give Mary Lynn my email address?
Dear Cornelia and Buzz,
Cornelia, I just read your post (thank you–your writing, info, and photos are great!) and then the comments and that’s when I found your comment, Buzz. First, Buzz,please let me apologize for not replying to you yesterday or today–work and family and my son’s sports have been keeping me very busy and my Dad just arrived from Kenya Wed. evening. I had lunch with him today and we talked about the Fabyans. I have more info to give you but will email you directly.
Cornelia, Horace Fabyan is an ancestor of mine, too. One of the things I was really wondering about were the gravestones in the Conway, NH cemetaries. You don’t have a list of last names, do you? My dad and I were talking about Fabyan gravestones in a NH cemetary (he couldn’t remember the name of the town) that also had gravestones for the Farwell family. Buzz, you don’t recall the name of the town(s) that might contain Fabyan family members and have their gravestones still. My dad recollects that the Fabyan and Farwell, etc., gravestones were pretty dilapidated.
My home email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my work email is email@example.com.
Thank you both so much,
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