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True Tale of Crawford Notch




 
October 5, 2011 - White Mountains -
We now entered the Notch, and felt awestruck as we passed
between the bare and rifted mountains....The site of the
Willie 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...
THOMAS COLE

D uring the fall of 1825 Samuel Willey, Jr. of Bartlett New Hampshire moved into a small house in the heart of Crawford Notch with his wife, five children, and two hired men. The first year the three men enlarged and improved the house which the family operated as an inn to accommodate travelers through the mountains on the desolate notch road. The little cluster of buildings was situated in the shadow of what is now called Mount Willey.

In June, following a heavy rain, the Willeys were terrified when they witnessed a great mass of soil and vegetation, torn loose from the mountainside across the river, slide in a path of destruction to the valley floor. As a result, Mr. Willey built a cave-like shelter a short distance above the house to which the family could flee if a slide threatened their side of the valley.

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.

An account of that night:

"August 28 started like any other summer day. It was muggy and dry. There had been little rain over the last month, but that was about to change. By afternoon, the sky had begun to darken into a most sinister hue. Thunder began to clap, and lightening struck the mountaintops. This was no usual thunderstorm - the rain began to fall in buckets, and the thunder and lightning overlapped in multiple strikes on the peaks. The family held fast, reading the Bible until the last moment, when they heard the deafening rumble of the mountain coming down around them. That was probably when they fled from the house into the ravaging storm."

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 boulder 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 opened to the eighteenth psalm, and the dog howled mournfully.

Mr. and Mrs. Willey, two children, and both hired men were found nearby, crushed in the wreckage of the slide. The bodies were buried near the house and later moved to Conway. Three children were never found.

The true story of the tragedy will never be known. Poets and writers have conjectured many possibilities. Perhaps the family, awakened by a threatening rumble, fled from the house to their cave, and were caught in one stream of the slide. It seems more likely the Willeys started to climb the slope of the mountain to escape the rising floods and were caught in the landslide.

Whatever the circumstances of the tragedy, it has endowed this part of the White Mountains with a legend enhanced by the awesome crags which rise guardians over the site of the former Willey home. Following the tragedy, an addition was built onto the house which was operated as an inn until it burned in 1898.

The Willeys were buried near the Bigelow place at what is now Intervale. The names of the missing children were carved into the headstone as well. Some speculate that the three children might have gone mad and wandered the woods for the rest of their lives. Others speculate the raging waters or landslide carried them away to their death.

Visit the location of the Willey House on Route 302 in Crawford Notch New Hampshire and climb the trail behind the house to see the remains of the slide. Don't venture too far into the woods as an eerie presence may overcome you hastening your return to the visitor center. Be sure to drop by the museum at the Willey House that is filled with history of that fateful day and other interesting stories and artifacts of the region. Cross the road to take a five minute walk over a pond, through the woods and enjoy the views. The Willey House is considered a haunted New England location.

 


Old Willey House, Crawford Notch, N.H.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's inspiration for the Ambitious Guest.

 






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