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The 1826 Willey Slide

Sad to say, but the Willey Slide, more than any other single event, played a large part in bringing fame, and tourists, to the White Mountain area,






“Eyes loose: thoughts close”


Samuel Adams Drake's Trek Through Crawford Notch in the 1880's


For two miles the gorge winds between these mountains to where it is apparently sealed up by a sheer mass of purple precipices lodged full in its throat. This is Mount Willard. The vast chasm glowed with the gorgeous colors of the foliage, even when a passing cloud obscured the sun. These general observations made, we cast our eyes down into the vale reposing at our feet. We had chosen for our point of view that to which Abel Crawford conducted Sir Charles Lyell in 1845. The scientist has made the avalanche bear witness to the glacier, precisely as one criminal is made to convict another under our laws.

Five hundred feet below us was a little clearing, containing a hamlet of two or three houses. From this hamlet to the storm-crushed crags glistening on the summit of Mount Willey the track of an old avalanche was still distinguishable, though the birches and alders rooted among the debris threatened to obliterate it at no distant day.

We descended by this still plain path to the houses at the foot of the mountain. One and the other are associated with the most tragic event connected with the history of the great Notch.  We found two houses, a larger and smaller, fronting the road, neither of which merits a description; although evidence that it was visited by multitudes of curious pilgrims abounded on the walls of the unoccupied building.

Since quite early in the century, this house was kept as an inn; and for a long time it was the only stopping-place between Abel Crawford’s below and Captain Rosebrook’s above—a distance of thirteen miles. Its situation, at the entrance of the great Notch, was advantageous to the public and to the landlord, but attended with a danger which seems not to have been sufficiently regarded, if indeed it caused successive inmates particular concern. This fatal security had a lamentable sequel.


In 1826 this house was occupied by Samuel Willey, his wife, five children, and two hired men. During the summer a drought of unusual severity dried the streams, and parched the thin soil of the neighboring mountains. On the evening of the 26th of June 1826, the family heard a heavy, rumbling noise, apparently proceeding from the mountain behind them. In terror and amazement they ran out of the house. They saw the mountain in motion. They saw an immense mass of earth and rock detach itself and move toward the valley, at first slowly, then with gathered and irresistible momentum. Rocks, trees, earth, were swooping down upon them from the heights in three destroying streams. The spectators stood rooted to the spot.


Before they could recover their presence of mind the avalanche was upon them. One torrent crossed the road only ten rods from the house; another a little distance beyond; while the third and largest portion took a different direction. With great labor a way was made over the mass of rubbish for the road. The avalanche had shivered the largest trees, and borne rocks weighing many tons almost to the door of the lonely habitation.

This awful warning passed unheeded. On the 28th of August 1826, at dusk, a storm burst upon the mountains, and raged with indescribable fury throughout the night. The rain fell in sheets. Innumerable torrents suddenly broke forth on all sides, deluging the narrow valley, and bearing with them forests that had covered the mountains for ages. The swollen and turbid Saco rose over its banks, flooding the Intervales, and spreading destruction in its course.

Two days afterward a traveler succeeded in forcing his way through the Notch. He found the Willey House standing uninjured in the midst of woeful desolation. A second avalanche, descended from Mount Willey during the storm, had buried the little vale beneath its ruins.


The traveler, affrighted by the scene around him, pushed open the door. As he did so, a half-famished dog, sole inmate of the house, disputed his entrance with a mournful howl. He entered. The interior was silent and deserted. A candle burnt to the socket, the clothing of the inmates lying by their bedsides, testified to the haste with which this devoted family had fled. The death-like hush pervading the lonely cabin—these evidences of the horrible and untimely fate of the family—the appalling scene of wreck all around, froze the solitary intruder’s blood. In terror he, too, fled from the doomed dwelling.

On arriving at Bartlett, the traveler reported what he had seen. Assistance was dispatched to the scene of disaster. The rescuers came too late to render aid to the living, but they found, and buried on the spot, the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, and the two hired men. The remaining children were never found.

It was easily conjectured that the terrified family, alive at last to the appalling danger that menaced them, and feeling the solid earth tremble in the throes of the mountain, sought safety in flight. They only rushed to their doom. The discovery of the bodies showed but too plainly the manner of their death. They had been instantly swallowed up by the avalanche, which, in the inexplicable order of things visible in great calamities, divided behind the house, leaving the frail structure unharmed, while its inmates were hurried into eternity.

For some time after the disaster a curse seemed to rest upon the old Notch House. No one would occupy it. Travelers shunned it. It remained untenanted, though open to all who might be driven to seek its inhospitable shelter, until the deep impression of horror which the fate of the Willey family inspired had, in a measure, effaced itself.

The effects of the cataclysm were everywhere. For twenty-one miles, almost its entire length, the turnpike was demolished. Twenty-one of the twenty-three bridges were swept away. In some places the meadows were buried to the depth of several feet beneath sand, earth, and rocks; in others, heaps of great trees, which the torrent had torn up by the roots, barricaded the route. The mountains presented a ghastly spectacle.


One single night sufficed to obliterate the work of centuries, to strip their summits bare of verdure, and to leave them with shreds of forest and patches of shrubbery hanging to their stark and naked sides. Thus their whole aspect was altered to an extent hardly to be realized to-day, though remarked with mingled wonder and dread long after the period of the convulsion.


From the house our eyes naturally wandered to the mountain, where quarry men were pecking at its side like yellow-hammers at a dead sycamore. All at once a tremendous explosion was heard, and a stream of loosened earth and bowlders came rattling down the mountain. So unexpected was the sound, so startling its multiplied echo, it seemed as if the mountain had uttered a roar of rage and pain, which was taken up and repeated by the other mountains until the uproar became deafening. When the reverberation died away in the distance, we again heard the metallic click of the miners’ hammers chipping away at the gaunt ribs of Mount Willey.

How does it happen that this catastrophe is still able to awaken the liveliest interest for the fate of the Willey family? Why is it that the oft-repeated tale seems ever new in the ears of sympathetic listeners? Our age is crowded with horrors, to which this seems trifling indeed. May we not attribute it to the influence which the actual scene exerts on the imagination?


One must stand on the spot to comprehend; must feel the mysterious terror to which all who come within the influence of the gorge submit. Here the annihilation of a family is but the legitimate expression of that feeling. It seems altogether natural to the place. The ravine might well be the sepulchre of a million human beings, instead of the grave of a single obscure family.

wileyHouse1860s and MtWillard.jpg
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FIRST HOUSE IN THE NOTCH. The Willey House is the oldest building erected in the Notch. This was built in the year 1793, by a Mr. Davis, to accommodate the unfortunate storm-bound traveler, who, from curiosity, or on business, might dare the dangers of this wild pass. Then a little grassy meadow stretched along the bank of the Saco; tall rock-maples, and a towering mountain barrier, rose in the background from this little home of the pilgrim. How like a cool shadow of a great rock was this retreat among the frowning crags ! But the thundering avalanche came, and, since August 28th, 1826, the spirit of desolation has brooded over that fated spot. How lonely there is the dirge of the high wind, as it sweeps down that solitary chasm; and the wail of the sunset breeze, with the loud requiem of the on-rushing hurricane, is most mournful, for human bones are there palled in an avalanche's ruins.'

Source: Historical Relics of the White Mountains: Also, A Concise White Mountain Guide By John H. Spaulding 1862.

Website Editor's note: The "Mr Davis" referred here may have been the father of Nathaniel Davis, who was the son in law of Abel and Hannah Crawford.  Nathaniel Davis completed the Davis Path up Mt Crawford in 1845.


The original Willey House as it appeared in  1866.  In 1898 It was destroyed by fire.


"The Ambitious Guest" is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. First published in New-England Magazine in June of 1835, it is better known for its publication in the second volume of Twice-Told Tales in 1835.


[edit] Plot

A man visits a family on a mountain side that is a famous stop for people who travel on the route. The family asks him to stay, then the mountain begins to tremble but the father reassure that the mountain won't go down, and he has a hideaway in the event that it does. The stranger gives them some advice and the mountain became to fall. They ran to the safe house but didn't make it. The snow never hit the house. Some people noticed that they were gone but nobody knew the stranger.


The basis of the story is the Willey tragedy of Crawford NotchNew Hampshire.



Incidents in White Mountain history - by Rev. Benjamin G. Willey › genealogy › records › levi-chubbuck_91882748

"The History of Carroll County", 1889, Georgia Drew Merrill › trees › getperson

Bartlett NH - In the Valley of the Saco - Aileen Carroll - 1990

Lucy Crawford's History of the White Mountains - circa 1860



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