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.