My Search For Metallak & Finding Nirvana
By Kevin Skarupa
Editor’s note: Kevin Skarupa is a meteorologist with WMUR, channel 9, in Manchester NH. He brings a fresh pair of eyes, and orientation, to events of White Mountain History
In January 2010, while working a rare evening shift, I decided on a new project that could air during our November ratings period during the morning show called 20 Towns, 20 Storms. It was a concept of picking 20 evenly spaced towns in New Hampshire and finding the biggest storm each of those communities had in their history and the changes that the storm created in their town. Little did I know when I picked Colebrook as my far northern town in NH for the series what kind of odyssey it would take me on. I am fortunate enough that my employer (and boss) humors me and allows me the freedom to use valuable news resources to do these outside the box projects.
Literally, that night I impulsively sent out an e-mail to the 20 historical societies of the 20 communities I picked. Over the course of the next month I got some very creative suggestions on which storms I should use. As you can imagine the Hurricane of ’38 was extremely popular and could have been used by more than half the towns on the list (but that isn’t very good for TV) so we used some more “under the radar” storms and found some great stories along the way.
After bouncing around with several possibilities in Colebrook, Charlie Jordan from the Colebrook Chronicle turned me on to a weather event that probably shaped their local economy for decades and from there I was hooked. Full disclosure: this easily became the most fascinating of the 20 stories I did. As the story goes, a group of businessmen from Maine decided to take the luxury hotel business to Colebrook, to a spot on the southeast side of town known as Lombard’s Hill. It was originally going to be named for a Native American named Metallak who resided in the Androscoggin Valley.
There were grand plans for this 102 room luxury hotel: breathtaking views from Vermont to Canada, hiking trails and a mineral spring bottling company. Once they broke ground, in 1892, the building process was never smooth. In fact, the site was so rocky they decided to rename the soon to be hotel “Nirvana” figuring naming the hotel after a Native American for profit was bad karma. As far as the events that knocked down the hotel, the closest weather data to Colebrook we have for the 1890s is Berlin and it tells a sorry tale during that late winter-early spring 1893. There was 16” of snow In April, (most of it in just two days) and as you well know “winter” can be pretty stubborn to release, sometimes with several days of mixed precipitation and heavy winds. In early May of 1893 word came down from Lombard’s Hill that the hotel had been destroyed. The weather, in combination with a plan that seemed doomed from the start, fostered the decision not to rebuild.
While writing the 20 stories for this series, I started to realize that a lot of these stories could be further enhanced through the local scars from these storms that were still visible today. There are sawed off logs in Turkey Pond in Concord from the ’38 hurricane, the Sewell’s Falls Dam which held north of Concord in the flood 1895 still has remnants on the Merrimack River and the location of the avulsion (where a river changes course) of the Suncook River during the 2006 flood. Colebrook’s storm provided me with a very unique opportunity. Charlie called me and mentioned as far as he knew what was left of the foundation of the Metallak was still very visible atop Lombard’s Hill. So I planned a trip to Colebrook, I was so glad I went. After 45 minutes of walking through an overgrown landscape Charlie showed me what he knew to be there. It was amazing, Despite 120 years, the foundation itself was very much intact. (At the bottom of this page is a link to the video shot that day.)
Just this past November I did another series called “Weather or Not” where we went through past storms and put them up against today’s knowledge to see if we could come up with a bit more about them. John Jensenius from the National Weather Service in Gray, ME was my “detective”. He has been doing local storm damage surveys for over 15 years. One part in the series was about what kind of wind could have knocked down the “Metallak” in April 1893 since the local headline called the wind a “hurricane.” We know today a hurricane is not possible in April in the North Country, but could the winds have been over hurricane strength? After looking at the photos of the partially constructed hotel, looking at the local topography, the weather maps from that time and listening to the eyewitness accounts…he had some very interesting things to say.
In his estimation winds during that time, at the construction site, could have been as high as 70-90 mph…inferring hurricane force! His reasoning? The hotel was only partially constructed, meaning strong winds could get into the structure and blow it apart from the inside out. It was not lost on John that a lot of the valley locations did not report any damage but an exposed structure (located several hundred feet higher than where most live) could have experienced much higher winds than downtown Colebrook. Another theory he had when hearing of the 16” of snow that month would be the possibility of the snow load on the roof making it collapse with any kind of wind coming through.
I’ve realized that we have such a rich weather history here in
New Hampshire that I’d be almost doing it a disservice by not investigating and learning more about it. The quote that sticks with me is from Emergency Management, “We get everything in New Hampshire but volcanos!” Truth be told, I have a list of another 20 towns already sitting on my computer and am just waiting for the inspiration to launch into another 11 months of discovery.
Watch the video of Kevin's expedition to the site of the hotel and see what's left the foundation. Used with the permission of WMUR.
The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains,
by Bryant Tolles