A BRIEF HISTORY OF PATH MAKING
In 1948 workers building the new RMC Perch shelter on Mt. Adams unearthed a sign in the foundations of the birchbark shelter that had originally existed on this site. "Pioneer Spring, 1873" read the lettering. Who had left this artifact of earlier human occupation at an altitude of 4,313 feet, and why?
The story of the town of Randolph, NH begins in the late 18th century, when settlers first moved into its narrow valley shadowed by the towering peaks of the White Hills. The valley served as the major east-west corridor between the northern Connecticut River and the Atlantic Coast, but farmers had been slow to claim this heavily wooded, isolated northern slope where winter came early and overstayed its welcome. As the land was cleared for tilling, timber was cut and milled on the lower mountain sides, men hunted for game and fished the cold streams, but few people ventured high onto the northern peaks.
For mountain adventurers Mt. Washington, as the highest peak, was the focus of earliest attention. The center of activity was in "the Notch," where Abel Crawford established an inn that welcomed travelers and tourists, botanists and artists during the first quarter of the 19th century. By 1819 Ethan Allen Crawford had opened a hiking trail on which he guided his guests over the southern peaks to the summit. Improvements to the trail by 1839 made it accessible to horses as far as Mt. Clinton, attracting even more trade. Other paths, later improved for horses, were established: a second by Crawford, Fabyan's, in 1821; the Davis Path, in 1845; and the Glen bridle path in 1852. The Reverend Thomas Starr King wrote in the 1850's that "No less than 5,000 persons make the ascent of Mt. Washington every summer, by the regular bridle paths."
The tourists' demands for comfort on the summit served as catalyst for cutting the first path on the northern peaks, which ran from the Highlands in today's Jefferson over the flanks of Mts. Jefferson and Clay to the top of Washington. Known as the Stillings Path, it was used to transport materials for hotel construction (the Summit and Tip-Top Houses), but once the Carriage Road (1861) and the cog railway (1869) opened, it was quickly abandoned and engulfed by vegetation.
Early Exploration on the Northern Peaks. By 1850 a few hardy walkers sought the transcendental glories of nature on the peaks of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. They engaged the services of a mountain guide, notably James Gordon of Gorham. The Reverend Thomas Starr King was among the first adventurers to explore the less traveled ways. The 26-year-old preacher summered in Gorham for ten years, beginning in 1850. Together with Gordon, he ventured onto the northern peaks, writing newspaper articles about his experiences, including their 1857 ascent of the headwall of the ravine we now know as King's. Around 1860 Gordon is credited with having made a path to the summit of Madison over which he guided walkers. Gordon's route was probably a string of blazes (that he alone could interpret) rather than an actual cleared path, and it, too, was nearly impassable by 1869.
In subsequent years, other guides became known for their expertise, among them Charles E. Lowe of Randolph. His son, Vyron D. Lowe, when questioned in 1948 about the Pioneer Spring sign, recalled that his father had "guided parties over Mt. Adams for many years without a trail" prior to 1875, the year that he began clearing Lowe's Path, the first major path on Mt. Adams. Pioneer Spring was probably the spring just to the east of the Perch, famous for its cold, delicious water. But had Charles Lowe put the sign in place?
By 1873 a few rugged explorers had found summer lodgings in Randolph valley. In 1876, Abel Watson and his son Laban, responding to the demand for rooms, remodeled their farm, at the foot of the northern Presidentials, to establish the Ravine House. The hotel became an important base for the newly founded Appalachian Mountain Club's Councillors for Explorations and Improvements, men and a few hardy women who engaged in a veritable frenzy of mountain exploration, trail cutting and mapmaking in the 1880s.
The Pathmakers. The AMC's first Councillor of Improvements was the minister, physician and teacher, William Gray Nowell, who in 1875 had worked with Lowe to blaze and clear the path from Lowe's house to the summit of Mt. Adams, and also built a bark shelter (called "Lowe's" or "AMC camp") at an altitude of 3,250 feet, some 3 kilometers up the path. Nowell first came to Randolph in 1873. Together with his children Gracie and Fred and high school boys he tutored, he spent much of his summers living at the shelter (and from 1889, at the Log Cabin he built on this site). The youngsters helped with trail work and carefully measured the path's length in kilometers, posting the metric distances on signboards at regular intervals. Nowell, had he posted our Pioneer Spring sign, would certainly have followed his habit of listing metric altitudes or distances.
The Ravine House soon collected a group of regular summer visitors, the first of whom, in 1879, was the businessman William H. Peek. An English book publisher who made his fortune from his furniture factory in Chicago, Peek stayed at the Ravine House for twenty-five summers. Peek met his match as both hiker and inveterate punner in Eugene B. Cook. Cook came to the Ravine House in 1882, together with his sisters - the spinster Edith and Lucia Pychowska, Lucia's husband Count Pychowski, and their daughter Marian. George Sargent, a young Boston medical student, as well as innkeeper Laban Watson, Charles Lowe and another Randolph farmer and guide, Hubbard Hunt, all became actively involved in exploring the mountains, scouting and blazing trails. Evenings at the inn were spent recounting the day's accomplishments, planning new adventures, playing parlor games, making music and dancing. Carriage outings to more distant valleys were arranged by Laban Watson, who kept a stable and hired out conveyances to his guests.
The pathmakers were a hardy lot. Marian Pychowska described one September day's ramblings with her uncle Eugene: "The steep path up the side of Madison was filled with [snow], and we sunk in it at almost every step, sometimes ankle-deep, sometimes knee-deep, and once up to our waists." Once they had dried out somewhat (Marian, of course, wore a long skirt), the two bushwhacked down Town Line Brook, exhilarated by their adventure. Establishing a trail also demanded measuring its distance, naming points of interest, and posting informative signs. Marian wrote that she and her mother "employed three afternoons on the Mt. Madison path in measuring it. Mr. Watson supplied us with a surveyor's chain, which we have duly carried over the route to a point midway between the upper Salmacis Fall and the treeline." She also recounted their efforts to find a suitable Indian name meaning "Winter's Home" for what later became Peboamauk Fall in the Ice Gulch. Cook and Peek, acknowledged masters of word games, named places and paths, then posted signs informing the hiking public. A short path between Air Line and Valley Way was named "Intermezzo Rusticano" after the rusty tin can hung on a tree to mark the trail junction. Could they have been responsible for Pioneer Spring's appellation? We will never know.
Other Randolphians provided lodgings: Kelsey Cottage (after 1899, the Mt. View House) took in summer boarders, and a commodious hotel, the Mt. Crescent House, was opened on Randolph Hill in 1883. In addition to the longer summit paths, a new network of trails led from each hotel to scenic points.
Enter the man who would become the premier mapmaker of the northern peaks for the next 60 years, Louis Fayerweather Cutter, who first came to the Ravine House in 1885. In his final year at MIT, the young man spent his first Randolph summer exploring the mountains, surveying for a map of Mts. Madison and Adams that he submitted as his thesis. Cutter mapped the two peaks, detailing their elevations and drawing clear 100-foot contour lines for the area between Howker Ridge and Cold Brook. Four major paths from the valley to the summits are shown, together with a few connecting paths in between. The only existing shelter was Lowe's Camp.
The last early pathmaker, J. Rayner Edmands, came to stay at the Watsons' hostelry following a visit to the mountains of Colorado in 1890. He was a meteorologist at the Harvard Observatory, had long been a summer tramper, and was a founding member of the AMC. In the woods he was known to wear gray knickers and flannel shirt with bright red-topped socks and a red sash, and to carry a ball of twine on a stick with which he could mark a trail. Edmands had been greatly impressed by the gradual ascents of western stock trails and felt that similar paths on the northern peaks would open the mountains' splendor to more walkers (especially women with their cumbersome costumes). Edmands' first project was a series of paths (and three bark shelters, one of which was the original Perch) to access the waterfalls in Cascade Ravine. He employed local axemen to clear trees and provide a smooth treadway. This labor-intensive approach was antithetically opposed to the methods of Cook and Peek, who blazed and minimally cleared trails that gained the summits by the shortest feasible route, steepness be damned. A certain amount of conflict arose between the two schools of pathmaking, with both Cook and Edmands refusing to walk each other's paths. Yet they remained civil to one another in musical evenings at the Ravine House, with Cook on the violin and Edmands at the piano.
By 1900 there was an extensive network of trails leading into the ravines and up the major ridges. Connecting paths ran between the major thoroughfares, and short branch trails reached a profusion of fancifully named viewpoints, such as Montevideo or the Tip o' the Tongue. Around the three hotels there was a proliferation of pleasure paths, as well as short waterfall or woods walks maintained by the individual hotels. Trails led to the Crescent Range, the Ice Gulch and the Pond of Safety.
Mountain Shelters. Six mountain refuges had been built by 1900: The Hut (AMC Madison Spring, 1888), Spur Cabin (built in 1899-1900 by the Torrey and Moore families), the Log Cabin (Nowell's replacement for Lowe's Camp, 1888-9), Edmands' Cascade Ravine shelters (Cliff Shelter, 1891; Cascade Camp and the Perch, 1892), and Camp Crawford on Mt. Jefferson (1883 or 84). Nowell's and Edmands' shelters had originally been used by the pathmakers, but now the camps also served trampers. Cabins were privately owned and were largely restricted to these families and invited guests. In the next decade additional structures were built: Mrs. Evans' Gulfside Shelter (in Edmands Col, 1901), the Hincks-Stearns Gray Knob cabin in 1905, and Nelson Smith's Crag Camp in 1909-10.
Lumbering. The decade from 1900-1910 saw a major new development: logging had come to the northern slopes. Timbering, and its associated slash fires, had long decimated the less steep hills; in the 1880s Marian Pychowska frequently mentioned that views on the Presidentials were greatly obscured by "smokes." By 1898, logging roads already ran into Jefferson Notch with a railroad spur extending to above the 1800-foot level. The pace of timbering on the northern peaks accelerated greatly.
In August, 1905, Charles Torrey sketched a detailed map that showed in red ink encroaching logging "fingers" stretching up into Castle Ravine, onto Nowell Ridge, reaching into King Ravine near Mossy Fall, and climbing up towards Salmacis Fall on Snyder Brook. Torrey was understandably upset. On August 21, 1905 he and his 73-year-old father, Joseph, "crashed & crawled through miles of slash and debris," taking almost three hours to reach Cascade Camp from Bowman Station. Louis Cutter described the pillaging, largely of giant spruce, from the middle and upper slopes: "the ground was denuded. On the steep upper slopes...it was deemed necessary to cut clean, worthless and valuable trees together, in order to extricate the few logs of commercial value." Edmands participated in an intense campaign to save the White Mountains' forests, lobbying with others for their protection, efforts which led to the founding of the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests in 1901 and, eventually, to Congress' creation of the White Mountain National Forest. In 1903 Edmands, distressed by the obliteration of his trails, relocated to Bretton Woods from Randolph, where he continued to build trails and lobby for forest protection.
The lumberjacks left the forests in chaos; trails were destroyed and often the only access for walkers was on lumber roads. Cutter's maps (published by the AMC) often bore notes warning hikers: "the Link and Israel Ridge and Castle paths are said to be impassable" (1904). A trail would be cleared one season, and by the next be totally obliterated. By 1908 the trail system had been greatly reduced. Large segments of major trails (the Link, Castle Ravine, Israel Ridge Path) had vanished, along with many branch paths. Piles of slash made fire a constant threat. The crest of Pine Mountain burned more than once between 1897 and 1903; huge fires consumed large tracts on the Carter Range, and much of the Wild River drainage was also charred. The original pathmakers were no longer active. Hunt had died in 1903, Peek in 1905. Charles Lowe, who had become the proprietor of the Mount Crescent House, died in 1907. Edmands died early in 1910. Cook was over seventy, his sister Lucia also aging, and his niece Marian had become a nun. The trail network's very existence was profoundly threatened.
The Founding of the Randolph Mountain Club. In the spring of 1910, following Edmands' death, Laban Watson's son-in-law, Town Selectman John H. Boothman, "proposed and urged the formation of some agency to put the paths in order." The Randolph Mountain Club was founded that August, "its object to promote the enjoyment of Randolph's forests and mountains; its first task to restore the trails." Its first president was Gray Knob's owner, the theologian Edward Y. Hincks; its officers and 131 members, many already active in the AMC, were for the most part summer residents, either guests at the hotels or owners of vacation cottages that had recently sprung up in the valley and on the hill.
The RMC began the process of reopening trails with both volunteer labor from Club members, and hired woodsmen paid from members' dues. Charles Torrey wrote on August 24, 1910: "Up via Randolph Path, with Elmer Wilson (of Gorham). Hot. Got Wilson started, at Cold Brook, in his work of clearing out and repairing the path (first work of the Randolph Mt. Club)."
Congress passed the Weeks Act in March, 1911, and by the summer of 1911, most of the major paths had been cleared. Boundaries for the White Mountain National Forest were drawn and some 37,000 acres were purchased in 1911. The devastating lumbering on the Presidentials had come to an end. Building private camps within the WMNF was also banned, and those in existence were leased to their builders for 25 years.
The RMC took responsibility for many trails in the Randolph area, clearing them annually with both volunteer work parties and paid labor. By 1912 Cutter estimated that the Club controlled 40 miles of trail. In 1912 the RMC assumed maintenance of its first shelter, Edmands' Cascade Camp. By 1916 Nowell's Log Cabin followed, and soon thereafter, the Perch as well. Club members continued to blaze new trails, some as far afield as the Mahoosucs. By 1920, the RMC's trail system had grown to 74 miles, the Club having adopted many of the existing paths on the northern peaks. Few new trails were opened, although trailheads were eventually relocated to Randolph, Appalachia and Bowman railroad stations. Further changes accompanied the advent of the automobile, with possible parking places now described in guidebooks.
The White Mountain National Forest. After the establishment of the WMNF human activity within the forest was supervised by the Forest Service, which viewed abandoned or decaying buildings as potential fire hazards. The 1921 destructive fire that denuded Gordon Ridge (and exposed Dome Rock) ironically resulted from the escape of the WMNF's own burning of a derelict camp near Snyder Brook. A few years later, in 1929, the WMNF took more care in razing Torrey's Spur Cabin, which had fallen into disrepair.
Over the next half-century the volunteer-run RMC operated each summer to keep its trails cleared and cabins in repair. The Randolph summer community also supported an active social life centered about the hotels. John Boothman, proprietor of the Mt. Crescent House since 1923, also for many years played a major part as a contractor and builder of summer cottages. The floods of 1927 triggered numerous landslides, wiping out Cascade Camp along with many trails. In the early 1930s Louis F. Cutter sparked a brief effloresence of trail building. RMC volunteers cut pleasure paths (the Cliffway, the trails to Dome Rock) on Gordon Ridge, Durand Ridge, and Nowell Ridge. "Dangerous"(by WMNF standards) trails up the steep sides of King Ravine (Chemin des Dames and Great Gully), long used by the adventurous, were adopted by the RMC.
A severe natural disaster, the
1938 hurricane, brought chaos to the White Mountains. Edmands'
frail birchbark shelter, the Perch, was blown down the mountainside.
Many trails were blocked; fallen trees also posed a severe fire
hazard, leading the WMNF to establish new mountain-top towers
to monitor their holdings. In 1939 a fire tower was built on
Pine Mountain, in conjunction with a tractor road that gave the
Forest Service better fire fighting access to the area.
World War II created a labor shortage, and local woodsmen were no longer available to clear the RMC's trails. The Club, led by the indomitable 76 year-old Cutter, marshalled its own volunteers. Individuals took charge of specific trails, much like the current AMC "Adopt-a-Trail" program.
By 1946 abuse by the public made it clear that Crag Camp and Gray Knob needed monitoring. As a stopgap measure, the AMC was given responsiblity for Crag, hiring a caretaker and charging campers. The following year Crag reverted to the RMC, which employed college-student caretakers for the months of July and August. Louis F. Cutter, who had died in 1945, was memorialized in 1948 by a new Adirondack shelter built at the head of Cascade Brook on the site of Edmands' Perch.
A Permanent RMC Trail Crew. The first RMC trail crew was hired for the summer of 1948 to fill in when local labor could not be found, and in 1952 the RMC established a permanent summer crew. Randolph youth vied for trail crew and caretaker positions, often having to "try out" at work parties led by Klaus Goetze, a genial but exacting German musician and mountaineer. One group of volunteers extended the Link from the First Castle to the Caps Ridge Trail in 1955. Work parties also helped maintain the camps, although major repairs were contracted out to professional carpenters. Gray Knob was refurbished in 1964, with massive loads of construction materials packed by Randolph youth, and extensive fund-raising organized by the RMC board; the culmination was a lobster dinner (also a fund raiser) served at the camp.
By 1970 volunteers, mainly drawn from Randolph's summer community, operated the RMC, supervising trail crew and caretaker employees and helping brush paths. In 1971 Klaus Goetze scouted the Emerald Trail's new extension from the Bluff down into Castle Ravine; it was then cleared by work parties.
An Explosion of Hiking and Its Impact. An unprecedented increase in hiking in the late 1960s and 1970s had a direct impact on trails and shelters throughout the White Mountains. The new Vibram-soled boots beloved by the backpacker eroded paths. Camps were overcrowded, and "bootleg" campsites sprang up in the WMNF, creating problems with sanitation and litter accumulation. Winter usage also soared, with chilly climbers cutting firewood indiscriminately around the shelters and even burning the pump organ at Crag. During the winter of 1971-2, the RMC paid a caretaker to visit Gray Knob on weekends, to collect fees and regulate use of the camp's woodstove. By 1976 the RMC employed caretakers full-time, manning both Crag and Gray Knob in the summer, and Gray Knob, which was now fully insulated, in the winter. The RMC had become a year-round operation.
The RMC Today. The trail crew had an additional task, to help minimize the public's impact on the environment. To lessen erosion, rock steps needed to be installed, waterbars set to divert runoff, and bog bridges built to protect marshy areas. WMNF rangers established new protocols for trail maintenance, and the crew received training in these methods at the start of the season. Over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, the RMC trail crew gradually developed into today's highly trained, eight-person, professional crew that strives continually to upgrade the Club's paths. Some basic maintenance is still accomplished by volunteer work parties.
By the late 20th century, the RMC's camps were showing signs of age, and the Club began a program of rebuilding. In 1980 tent platforms were added at the Perch; in 1985 the Log Cabin was redesigned and completely rebuilt on the model of an open Alaska trapper's cabin. In April 1989 Gray Knob was demolished, and a new cabin, echoing the design of the original structure, raised from its ashes. A totally new Crag Camp was built during the summer of 1993, its $84,000 cost financed by donations and foundation grants. In the mid-1990s, in keeping with today's needs, new composting toilets were installed at Crag, the Perch, and Gray Knob.
In mid-January 1998 the northern peaks and, indeed, a much larger region, were hit by an ice-storm which devastated the forest so severely that even hikers who knew the area well couldn't find major trails. The RMC's response to this emergency clearly exemplifies its continuing strength as a volunteer organization. Spearheaded by trails chairmen Doug Mayer and Mike Miccuci, groups of volunteers, as well as a paid crew of four to eight, labored heroically once the snow had melted. On one early weekend, 15 volunteers with 5 chainsaws took a whole day to clear a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Carlton Notch Trail. By one account, crews operated chainsaws for a total number of hours almost equivalent to fifty years of routine patrolling. An appeal for emergency funds raised over $26,000 to support the effort, and by mid-June, RMC trails were cleared and ready to go.
As the RMC has become more aware of the need to protect the environment, educating the public has assumed greater importance. Caretakers, the primary point of contact between the Club and its patrons, have assumed the role of back-country teacher, informing campers of appropriate behavior and safety precautions and inculcating the "Leave No Trace" ethic. Recent efforts to protect the fragile mountain ecosystem have included the installation of an alpine display at Crag Camp, with explanations in both English and French; the development of a Club website where information is posted; the dissemination of educational material about "Leave No Trace"; and publication of a newsletter that "shares the collective knowledge of its members."
The Randolph Community Forest. The 1998 ice storm had an indirect consequence which has affected Randolph's future forest landscape. Roughly 13,000 acres of private land on the Crescent Range, including the area around the Pond of Safety, had been extensively lumbered for years. Ice storm damage drastically lowered its commercial value for logging and created a unique opportunity. A four-year effort, previously begun with the intention of ensuring that the land remained as timberland, culminated in fact with its purchase and, in December, 2001, with the establishment of a 10,000 acre Randolph Community Forest. The remaining acres around the Pond of Safety were added to the WMNF. The effort was spearheaded by the Town of Randolph with support from a coalition of foundations and individuals, from the neighboring Town of Jefferson and the state and federal governments. The Town holds the land under a conservation easement which preserves it from future development. The Randolph Planning Board and Forest Commission manage the Forest for timber harvesting and wildlife and ecological protection as well as for recreational activities. The Town has appointed the RMC as activity manager for hiking trails within the RCF. Two additions to the RMC trail system have resulted: the Four Soldiers and Underhill Paths. Scouted in 2001 and built in 2002, these trails reconnect Randolph Hill and the wild region of the Pond of Safety, replacing an original trail first cleared in 1882.
Over the last 95 years the RMC, which was founded to help rebuild and protect the creations of the early pathmakers, has evolved from a loosely structured summertime operation managed by volunteers into a year-round, multifaceted operation run by a highly professional staff, partly paid and partly volunteer. During this period the Club has remained true to the goals enunciated at its 1915 incorporation of "building and maintaining paths, and building, maintaining, and controlling camps, in and among the White Mountains, in New Hampshire" so that the public could continue to enjoy the splendor of the northern peaks. While this goal has remained constant, the RMC has responded to changing conditions and expanded its mission to play a broader role in the stewardship of the northern peaks and their fragile environment.