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Telling the story of 200 years  of White Mountain History

                           Fire On Mt. Washington

           FIRE ON THE SUMMIT:   101 YEARS AGO      
                                     by Rick Russack    

On the night of Thursday  June 18, 1908 all the buildings at the Summit of Mt. Washington, with the exception of the original Tip Top house, were destroyed by fire. The damage was extensive:  the Summit House Hotel, the printing office and press of “Among The Clouds”, the cottage, the stage office, the Signal Station, the train shed and a portion of Cog Railway track, were destroyed.  It would be seven years before a new Summit House would be built.

 


      Ruins of the Among The Clouds Office and Printing Press
                           Douglas Philbrook Collection

The exact cause of the fire was never determined.  Railroad crews had been working that day, getting the buildings ready for the first day of the season, June 29.  It was a bright, sunny day, and the work crew descended the mountain by train at about 4:45.  All was in order.  Shortly before the workmen left, a group of young hikers from Berlin arrived, planning to spend the night in the Stage office.

 

Apparently, the fire was first noticed by the hikers, one of whom later said that they had seen flames coming from a window of the hotel.  They entered the hotel but were unable to put out the fire.  They were unable to call down to the Base Station, as the telephone had been disconnected and four of the hikers started down the carriage road to alert men at the Glen House.

 

Because of the placement of the Base Station, the railroad employees were not able to see the summit, and did not know of the danger.  The first word of the fire was relayed from the nearby Fabyan House.  A number of people at the hotel, staff and guests, saw the glow on the mountain but assumed it to be sunlight.  The hotel clerk saw the flickering of the light and understood the situation.  He called Colonel Baron, manager of the hotel and he called the Base Station.  Superintendent Horne, in charge of the work crew, had a train made ready and a crew went up the mountain.  As they approached the Gulf tank, the men saw the hotel almost consumed by flames and realized they could not take the train to the summit.  They left the train near that point and when they arrived at the summit, they saw the roof of the hotel was already gone and the fire was spreading.  The train shed had been destroyed, the stage office had fallen in, and the “Among The Clouds” building was burning.  Shortly after they arrived, the Signal Station caught   fire from embers from the train shed.  The crew from the Base Station could do nothing but watch as the fire progressed.  When the flames were seen from the Glen House, a crew started up the carriage road and met the four young hikers who were coming down to try to get help.  But nothing could be done.  By midnight the fire had burned itself out.  All that remained were the old, unused, Tip Top house and two stables, which were located below the summit.

 

Although the Baron family, operators of the Summit House, initially thought they could re-build in time for that season’s visitors, it was finally decided that it simply could not be done. Logic, and logistics, were such that immediate re-building was not possible. They decided to use the old Tip Top House, the only building that had survived  the fire, for that season’s visitors. Tip Top House had not been used as hotel in many years. Work began immediately to get the building ready and by the end of July it was able to feed day visitors and accommodate overnight guests. The new Summit House was not completed until 1915



                   New Summit House Under Construction
                         Douglas Philbrook Collection              
 
               

The original Summit House was opened in 1852 Joseph Seavey Hall and Lucius Rosebrook. Building it required physical effort almost impossible to believe today. The lumber was cut at a sawmill in Jefferson and taken up to the Summit via bridle path. The boards and timbers were partly secured to a horse and partly carried by one of two young men, walking behind the horse. These young men were D.B. Davis and A. Judson Bedell. It’s said that the door of the hotel was carried up the mountain by Rosebrook. The next year, 1853, a Lancaster resident, John Spaulding, built the Tip Top House to compete with the Summit House. After one season, Spaulding bought the Summit House and the two have since been operated by one company.

 

In 1861, the Carriage Road up Mt. Washington from the Glen House was completed and in 1869, the Cog Railway was completed. Both brought a large increase in the number of visitors. It became apparent that facilities had to be enlarged. In 1872, Walter Aiken, representing the Mt. Washington Railway, and John Lyon, President of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Rail Road, decided to build a new, larger, Summit House. It opened in 1873. It cost $59,599.97 to build, plus another $10,000 for freight costs. All material came up the Cog Railway and 259 freight car loads were required. In 1874, the Summit House was enlarged and the original Summit House, which was still standing, became a dormitory for the staff until 1884, when it was taken down.

 

In 1877, Henry M. Burt, began publishing Among The Clouds, the first paper to be printed on a mountain summit, using a portion of the Tip Top House. In 1884, a new building was erected for the paper. (The paper was not published at all in 1908, all it’s equipment having been destroyed in the fire. In 1909, a Special Edition was published and in 1910 regular publication resumed, but not from the Summit.)

 

In 1878 the Stage Office was built by the owners of the Carriage Road,  and was operated from the Glen House. The E. Libby Co. of Gorham, who was the operator of the Carriage Road and the stage line at the time of the fire, started re-building within a few days of the fire and the building was ready for use in late July. The Signal Station was built by the US government in 1874 for use by weather observers.

 

It’s likely the photographs on this page, and the photo-album linked below, were taken by Guy Shorey, a well known photographer from Gorham. Shorey was on the Summit the morning after the fire and the photo   showing part of the Signal Station still standing, was definitely taken by him. It was used in the 1909 Special Edition of Among The Clouds, published in magazine format, to commemorate the fire. Shorey is named as the photographer.

 

The information used on this page is taken from that 1909 Special Issue of Among The Clouds and from Frederick Kilbourne’s “Chronicle of the White Mountains”, an excellent history of the area. The photographs of the aftermath of the fire are from the Douglas Philbrook Collection and the collection of the  Mt Washington Observatory and are used with permission.


   click here for additional photos of the Summit Fire

 

 

 

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