Mount Washington: One Prodigious Hilltop

Compiled by New Hampshire Magazine staff, with guest editor Dan Szczesny

Each summer, people in way better shape than most of us here at New Hampshire Magazine run up Mt. Washington during the Northeast Delta Dental Road Race. The somewhat disingenuous tagline for the event is “It’s Only One Hill.” That “hill” is 7.6 miles up 4,650 vertical feet with a max grade of 22 percent (translation: wicked steep). As we Granite Staters love to brag, Mt. Washington, at 6,288 feet, is the Northeast’s tallest peak. It is also simultaneously home to the “world’s worst weather” and the observatory that records it, and one of our most popular tourist attractions. It’s claimed more than a few lives, two of them recently, yet thousands ascend the mountain every year on foot, via the Auto Road or the historic Cog Railway. It’s captured the imaginations of artists and poets, helped us better understand climate and weather, played a role in creating the sports of backcountry and extreme skiing, inspired astounding inventions, and generally fascinated folks for hundreds of years. This “one hill” means many different things to many different people, and so we decided to dedicate the June 2019 issue to our famous — and infamous — mountain. The task of covering everything you need to know about Mt. Washington was far too large for us alone, so we asked several of our regular contributors to pitch in. With the additional help of author and journalist Dan Szczesny as guide and guest editor, we’ve compiled 103 facts, photos and quirky items. If there’s ever a Mt. Washington category on “Jeopardy,” consider yourself ready to sweep it.

Editor’s note: The June 2019 print edition features 30+ fascinating pages of photos, facts and stories about Mt. Washington and its history. However, to try and squeeze all of that information into one single page online seemed like a disservice (and visual nightmare), so we have made an attempt to break up the facts and organize them by content categories. We hope you enjoy!

Mount Washington by the numbers

45,000: Number of cars per season that travel the Auto Road.

7.6: Miles in the Auto Road.

6,288: Summit height in feet, making it the tallest peak in the Northeast.

6: Number of states plus one country you can see from the summit on a clear day — Maine, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Canada.

59: Number of acres in Mount Washington State Park, located on the summit.

750,000: Number of acres in the White Mountain National Forest, which surrounds Mt. Washington.

250,000: Estimated annual registered summit visitors. If you factor in hikers, it’s closer to 280,000.

1918: The year that the White Mountain National Forest, home to Mt. Washington, was established.

100+ things you should know about Mount Washington

What’s in a Name?

Presidential Range: The 19-mile Presidential Range is located mostly in Coös County, and consists of 13 mountains all named after US presidents (with one exception — see below). The tallest mountain in the range is Mt. Washington and the next is Mt. Adams.

Mount Washington: The famous mountain was technically named after Gen. George Washington, as he was not yet president when it was designated Mt. Washington.

Manasseh Cutler: In 1784, Reverend Manasseh Cutler made a statement containing the words “the base of the summit of Mount Washington,” and so the name was born.

Washington: This might be the most popular place name in the country, but only two towns are named Mount Washington. Mount Washington (a city) is found in Kentucky, and Mount Washington (a town) is found in Massachusetts.


Namesakes

Tuckerman Brewing Company
Located in Conway, Tuckerman Brewing Company is named for Tuckerman Ravine. Many of their beers reference iconic parts of Mount Washington, including their winter seasonal, the 6,288 stout. A portion of the proceeds from this beer is donated to the Mount Washington Observatory.

The S.S. Mount Washington
The S.S. Mount Washington, or “Old Mount,” was a 178-foot-long wooden side-wheeler steamship. Launched in 1872 by the Boston & Maine Railroad, she ferried both people and cargo across Lake Winnipesaukee. By the end of the 19th century, she boarded more than 60,000 people a year. Eventually, the Old Mount became a tourist attraction, and was ultimately destroyed by fire in 1939.

The M/S Mount Washington
The M/S Mount Washington started as the S.S. Mount Washington II. Launched on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1940, it was originally steam-powered — and 25 feet shorter than its current length of 230. Diesel engines replaced steam in 1946, and she was rechristened as M/V Mount Washington. Then, in 1982, the ship was cut down the center and those extra 25 feet were added, reclassifying her as an official ship by maritime standards. Once again the name changed, this time to the M/S Mount Washington. Today, the Mount is one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions, offering a number of scenic cruises around the state’s biggest lake.

The Omni Mount Washington Resort
Opened in 1902 in Bretton Woods, this is one of the state’s few remaining grand hotels, where you can take in views of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range while surrounded by history, luxury and, legend has it, more than a couple ghosts. When you step inside, it’s easy to imagine the hotel’s heyday at the turn of the century, when the country’s wealthiest families (think the Rockefellers) walked the halls.

More interesting things about Mount Washington and its history:

  • Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first European to see Mt. Washington. He noted seeing “high interior mountains” from the coast as he sailed north in 1524.
  • The first recorded ascent was by Darby Field in 1642, though there is some question about his use of Native American guides, and the likelihood of prior ascents by Native Americans.
  • Showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum gave his highest praise to the carnival of delights offered by Mt. Washington with its “railway to the moon,” amazing views and death-defying inhabitants. After a trip to the top he declared it “The Second Greatest Show on Earth.”
  • Agiocochook is a Native American name for Mount Washington. Today, there aren’t many places you’ll find the name, though one exception is a crag located about 500 feet from the summit on Nelson Crag Trail, near the Auto Road. A hiker named Steve Perry noticed this rocky bump didn’t have a name on any maps, so he petitioned in 2011 to name it Agiocochook Crag, as it is now known.
  • Living in the Granite State, you’d think our tallest peak would be exhibit A on how we got that nickname, but, according the Lee Wilder, the public outreach coordinator for the New Hampshire Geological Survey, less than half the bedrock beneath the feet of Granite Staters is granite. In fact, pretty much the entire Presidential Range (including Mt. Washington) is composed of schist. Granite is igneous rock, the result of volcanic activity that has cooled and hardened. Schist is metamorphic rock with layers of different minerals squeezed together over time. The process produces a variety of tones and textures, which is just one reason that a New Hampshire mountain hike is such a colorful experience.
  • In 1911, the Weeks Act was passed and signed by President Taft. Industrial innovation was beginning to take its toll on the White Mountains region — hills were stripped of trees, and streams were clogged with sawdust and silt. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Appalachian Mountain Club and other New England organizations hoped to conserve the area, and sought the support of Massachusetts congressman John W. Weeks. The eponymous act allowed the federal government to buy private land if the purchase was deemed necessary to protect rivers, watersheds and headwaters. It also allowed the acquired land to be preserved and maintained as a national forest. This ultimately led to the creation of the White Mountain National Forest, which includes Mt. Washington.

Last Word

“If I had my way, the New Hampshire state quarter wouldn’t have shown the Old Man of the Mountain: It would have shown somebody being blown over while standing on Mt. Washington. With the possible exception of border-hugging liquor stores, the “worst weather in the world” is the most New Hampshire-y thing there is. — David Brooks, “Granite Geek,” Concord Monitor columnist and reporter