Sign on High on Mount Lafayette

(Originally published in April 2003)

FRANCONIA — As winter recedes from the steep slopes of Mount Lafayette, there are those who say the last remnants of the season cling to ravines, forming for a short time, a cross on the side of the mountain.

 “It’s visible right now,” says Don Eastman, who spotted it from Franconia’s Main Street early last week. “Look at the right shoulder.”

Eastman, who’s not particularly religious, nonetheless watches for it to appear each spring. A former employee at the Cannon Mountain tramway years ago, he said old timers there told him that when the cross appears, it’s about time to go trout fishing.

Once it appears, he keeps a watchful eye on it.

“It’s like foliage,” he said. “I keep thinking it’s going to get better and then one day its not there anymore.”

Postcards from a century ago depict a bold white cross formation on the Franconia side of the 5,249-foot Mount Lafayette. In her “History of Franconia,” author Sarah Welch used as the first photograph in the book a picture of the snow cross.

Image

Mount Lafayette snow cross

“The cross is formed by ravines which fill with snow during the winter,” she wrote. “When the snow melts away in the spring, it leaves for a few days in the deep ravines enough snow to form the cross. The variation of weather and the amount of snow greatly affect the visibility of the cross from year to year.”

There is one man, however, who begs to differ that the snow cross truly exists.

Robert McGrath, professor of art history at Dartmouth College, said the notion that snow forms a cross on Mount Lafayette is something 19th-century tourism promoters came up with to keep travelers from heading west.

McGrath devoted a couple of pages to the Mount Lafayette snow cross in his book, “Gods in Granite: The Art of the White Mountains.” He says that cross was born after the discovery and subsequent 1873 photograph by William Henry Jackson of the Mountain of the Holy Cross in Colorado.

“Those with a vested interest in White Mountains tourism feared that God had gone west,” he said.

At that time, he said, there was a sense that the Old Man of the Mountain embodied God and that He had a “covenant” with New Hampshire.

“It was a devastating photo — the perception was that God had migrated to Colorado,” McGrath said. “Hotels and railroads had to do something to counter it.”

In 1890, photographer H.C. Peabody took a picture of Mount Lafayette in the spring. Figuring prominently on the slope is a cross.

“It’s a doctored photo,” McGrath said.

“. . . Peabody’s doctored photograph of a snow cross on Mount Lafayette suggests a meretricious effort to recoup for the White Mountains the vestigial remains of a relocated cultural ‘sublimity,'” McGrath wrote in his book.

The Mountain of the Holy Cross, located about 15 miles southwest of Vail, had a fabled history. By the 1920s, it was a destination for pilgrims and there were stories of it great healing powers. President Herbert Hoover designated it a national monument in 1929, but by the 1950s, a decline in the number of visitors and erosion on a portion of the cross led to the decommissioning of the monument.

The Mount Lafayette cross never gained that fame, but more than a century later, there are locals who watch for it every year, using it as a harbinger for such things as planting and trout fishing.

“There is not a cross formation,” McGrath says. “It does glisten and hold snow in winter, but it takes an imaginative person to convert it into a cross.”

Lorna Colquhoun

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