NH's Mount Washington road celebrates 150 years

May 30, 2011 - 11:27 AM

PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. (AP) — It has been hiked blindfolded and backward. It has seen multiple evolutions of transportation, from horse-drawn carriages to steam-powered automobiles to high-powered race cars to a Segway.

In 1857, one man even counted his steps to the top (16,925). It's been traveled via sled dog team and a camel. In September, motorsports competitor Travis Pastrana zoomed up at 72 mph.

For 150 years, the steep, narrow eight-mile road to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington has been delighting and scaring the living daylights out of visitors, with its lack of guardrails and harrowing sheer-cliff drop-offs.

To celebrate the Mount Washington Auto Road's anniversary this summer, officials are preparing tributes to daredevils, record-holders and drivers whose only claim to fame is a copy of the bumper sticker, "This Car Climbed Mt. Washington."

David Roy recently recalled his first trip as a tour guide on the road in 1974. He had driven more than halfway, reciting the road's history when suddenly his two female passengers disappeared from his rearview mirror. They were lying on the seat, afraid to look out.

"Boy, I wonder if they're all like this," Roy recalls thinking.

Visited by about 250,000 people a year, the road up the highest peak in the Northeast is billed as America's oldest manmade tourist attraction. Mount Washington itself has been dubbed "Home of the World's Worst Weather" for its extreme cold, fog and wind, including a 231 mph gust in 1934 that stood as a world record for more than six decades.

This summer, there will be a car race, horseback- and carriage-only days, in addition to motorcycle climbs and foot and bicycle events.

The anniversary events got started on Saturday with "Alton Weagle Day," who during the 1950s did a series of "firsts": trips barefoot, blindfolded and backward, then one pushing a wheelbarrow with a 100-pound sack of sugar in it the whole way. Participants on Saturday accomplished their own first-time stunts, such as unicycling, roller skiing and backing a car all the way up.

Alton Weagle died in 1984 at age 73. "He was always jolly. There wasn't too much that had got him down," recalled Weagle's niece Barbara Weagle, 62, of Groveton.

The toll road's story begins in 1853, when Col. David Macomber obtained a charter from the New Hampshire Legislature to build it.

The first company to undertake construction blasted a path with black powder — there was no dynamite then — but ran out of money. Another firm, known as the Mount Washington Summit Road Co., took over and still maintains the road.

When it opened in Aug. 8, 1861, the crude, dirt road was known as the Mount Washington Carriage Road. Hikers were charged 16 cents, those on horses or driving carriages more.

Today, the road is about 80 percent paved, but otherwise hasn't changed much in the intervening 150 years.

Visitors can drive themselves or take tours by guides, still called "stage drivers." The rate for driving yourself in a car is $25, plus additional fees per passenger. Guided tour rates are a little higher.

"We've kept it environmentally and aesthetics-wise intact," said Sam Appleton, president and great-great grandson of the original owner. "To me, it's important to keep the integrity of it."

As a business, the road had its early challenges.

In 1869, eight years after it opened, the Mount Washington Cog Railway started bringing passengers to the summit, and ridership in the carriage road started to drop off.

"It was the modern means of transportation" and much faster, notes Howie Wemyss, the road's general manager.

The first automobile was driven up on Aug. 31, 1899, by steam-car impresario Freelan Stanley and his wife, who made the ascent in two hours, 10 minutes.

Not everyone was a fan of the auto access.

In 1904, the first "Climb to the Clouds" car race was held at the mountain. A Manchester Union Leader editorial lamented, "The whole thing is an unmitigated nuisance. The lives and property of perfectly helpless people have been menaced for no reason other than to provide amusement for total strangers. ... If these people think of coming up another year, let 'em stay in jail a couple of days and everyone will be the better for it!"

Car traffic built slowly, but driving up the road didn't really blossom until after World War II, Wemyss said.

Special anniversary events include the return of "Climb to the Clouds" (June 23-26) after a 10-year absence and a Carriage Road Weekend on July 16-17, during which the road for a time will be open only to horseback riders and horse-drawn carriages.

There also will be sunrise drives; a day with hot air balloon rides and pie-eating contests; and a sesquicentennial gala on the weekend of Aug. 6-8.

Roy, 60, of Berlin, is looking forward to an August auto road staff reunion.

"Anybody who drives there and works there — it holds a special place in their heart and mind for all time," he said.

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Online:

http://mtwashingtonautoroad.com/