This article was published in the July 7, 2009 edition of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
HART’S LOCATION – Early summer in 1826 may have been what it has been like this year in Crawford Notch, with heavy rains falling daily, soaking into the steep slopes of Mounts Willey and Webster, loosening the soil and tree roots.
For the rest of the summer that year, however, conditions were dry until the night of Aug. 28, when, according to White Mountains history books, one of the most violent and destructive storms to ever sweep in set the stage for a cataclysmic event that was both tragic and ironic.
Just about every New Hampshire schoolchild learns about the Willey family, who had moved north from Bartlett into the desolate notch, and established a home and an inn for travelers.
On that night, the family of seven and two hired hands would perish when Mount Willey shrugged off its trees and soil, sending tons of muck and debris into the valley.
The Willeys made a fateful decision to flee their home, and perished. But, miraculously, the house was spared by a boulder that split the landslide and diverted the devastating trail around the house.
In the years that followed, before time and nature began patching up the scars on the land, the boulder was a tourist attraction, a destination for people who wanted to see it for t!hemselves.
In time, the forest would reclaim the boulder and the last memory of it would be gone, until last summer, when one man who is captivated with the history of White Mountains tourism became curious about whatever became of that rock.
“The Willey House tragedy is one of the stories I’ve really been interested in,” said Paul Accomando, a former firefighter who retired to Sugar Hill about 6 years ago and has set about building a library of old local history books and illustrations.
“I was on eBay last summer and I saw a postcard that was of the boulder that split the landslide,” he said. “I ended up winning it and now that I had it, I could go out and find it.”
John Dickerman, who’s the manager of Crawford Notch State Park for the past 25 years, said it had always been difficult to know exactly what boulder to look for, especially since thick woods grew up behind the Willey House site, which is now a small visitors’ center.
Having the picture, he said, finally solved the mystery.
One day late last summer, Accomando, who does brochure distribution for White Mountains Attractions, set out to find it. From some of the history books he’d read, he knew it would be about 60 yards from where the Willey House had been.
On his half hour lunch break, armed with the photo in a protective sleeve, he marched up the lower slope of Mount Willey.
“I just kept in a straight line because I knew it had to be directly behind the house,” he said. “I had to bushwhack, it was steep and I had to grab from tree to tree to pull myself up.”
When he came upon the boulders that looked somewhat familiar, Accomando pulled out the postcard and compared it to what he saw.
“I got myself at the same angle as the postcard and I was excited,” he said. “Nobody had known those ledges were there and I had walked right up to it. All that growth had covered them up.”
They are not covered up any longer, for shortly after Accomando rediscovered the rocks, Dickerman set about clearing the woods that had surrounded them and posting a sign noting their importance.
“We cleared last fall and opened it up,” Dickerman said. “We’re going to build a path up there and open it up some more – there’s a really nice view of Mount Webster.”
For years after the Willey tragedy, travelers would make their way into Crawford Notch to view the rock that channeled the massive slide, as fascinated with it almost as much as the story itself.
“That night must have been a horror show,” he said.
Two days after the 1826 storm, friends of the family made their way through the devastation to find out the fate of the Willeys. The house was undamaged and they found a dog howling mournfully, according to history books, as well as beds that appeared to have been left in a hurry.
Samuel Willey, his wife, two of their children and the two hired hands were found; the couple’s three other children were never found.
While no one knows exactly what made the family flee into that terrifically wild night, some historians surmise it was because of the incredibly rapid rise of the Saco River a short distance away. The flood waters may have been uncomfortably close and in escaping the rushing water, the family was overcome by the landslide.
The Willey boulders are not the only ones that had captured the imaginations of tourists. Up until 1883, a huge egg-shaped boulder was suspended between the upper reaches of the granite walls of the Flume Gorge in nearby Franconia Notch.
In June that year, a powerful storm roared off Mount Liberty, sending water cascading down the slopes and into the gorge with such strength, it dislodged the boulder, and it was presumed, which was smashed into pieces.
In the years that followed, especially as fewer people came to the Flume once the rock was gone, someone thought to find a boulder – any boulder – and mark it as the one that had been washed away. It worked, as history says visitors did return to see the rock.