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The Lore, Lure and Legends of Mount Washington
BRETTON WOODS, N.H. - Since the first sea captains spotted its glittering peak from off the coast of New Hampshire nearly 500 years ago, Mount Washington has captured the imagination of all who visit it.
History says it was Giovanni de Verrazano who first reported seeing it while sailing off Portsmouth in 1524. More than a century later, in 1642, Darby Field would be the first man to climb the summit, defying Indian lore that regarded the summit as the sacred home to the Great Spirit, where death would come to anyone ascending the peak.
At 6,288 feet, there are certainly taller mountains in the world than Mount Washington, but there are few with its mercurial moodiness. One moment, the lofty peak can be in the clear, affording views of four states, Canada, and the Atlantic Ocean. In the next, clouds can enshroud it, blown in by hurricane-force winds.
On April 12, 1934, the highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth was clocked at 231 mph by the crew at the then-fledgling Mount Washington Observatory and since that day, the peak and its slopes have been known as having the world's worst weather.
While the towering mountain can look benign on summer's day, it belies the harsh extremes. The average annual snowfall is 177 inches. There is permafrost beneath the summit, left over from the continental ice sheet that once covered it. The lowest recorded temperature was minus 49 degrees (F) and one summer, the mercury reached 74 degrees (F).
By the time the first railroads pushed into the North Country in the mid-1800s, stories about the beauty of the White Mountains and the hospitality of the Crawford and Rosebrook families began luring the adventurous from Boston and beyond to this untamed wilderness.
Hardy men accompanied by women wearing long skirts and carrying parasols took to climbing Mount Washington, but by the late 1850s, enterprising businessmen like Sylvester Marsh developed ways to bring them to the summit faster, where they could stay overnight at the Tip Top House, enjoying mountaintop hospitality.
Legend has it that Marsh was one of those adventurers who set out one day in 1852 to hike to the summit. After being lost in a storm, he set about finding a way to safely reach the summit. Seventeen years later, his mountain climbing Cog Railway reached the top of Mount Washington, in the summer of 1869.
Visitors arriving at the top of the mountain today can find a bustling community with diverging interests, from scientists who man the weather observatory year-round and Appalachian Trail hikers on their way from Georgia to Maine to knowledgeable Mount Washington State Park rangers and even the postmaster of 03589, the local branch of the U.S. Post Office.
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For more information, contact The Cog at 1-800-922-8825
or in New Hampshire at 603-278-5404.