History of Lakes of the Clouds Hut
Lakes of the Clouds Hut, highest of all at 5,012 feet above sea level, is one of the most storied locations in the hut system. Although it is not the oldest hut, it was born out of a tragedy that rocked the hiking community.
The two tiny, glacial tarns for which the hut is named are recorded far back in history. They are noted as “2 litle ponds, 1 of a curious red colour, the other black,” by Darby Field, the first recorded European to have climbed Mount Washington in 1642. Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, observed them later that year. Gorges, seeking valuable minerals in the “Crystal Hills,” arrived close on the heels of Field. Gorges proclaimed the lakes the sources of the Connecticut, Saco, Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers (they are actually the source of the Ammonoosuc).
The lakes remained nameless until the 19th century. A party which included Philip Carrigain of New Hampshire mapping fame and John Weeks, ancestor of John Wingate Weeks, the Massachusetts Congressman, passed the lakes in 1820. They were led by Ethan Allen Crawford. The group collectively dubbed the larger of the two lakes “Blue Pond.” Reverend Samuel J. May, a prominent abolitionist, and education and women’s rights reformer was informed that the name of one lake was Washington’s Punch Bowl. At some point later on, the name Lakes of the Clouds became attached to the two tarns.
AMC was drawn to this spot in 1900, when the 35th annual Field Meeting of the club was held at the Summit House on Mount Washington between June 30 and July 7. Although New England was well on its way into the thick of summer, cold and snow prevailed in the mountains during opening weekend of the meeting. Members hiking to the summit over Boott Spur were lashed by fierce winds “blowing a hurricane,” rain and sleet. Progress was excruciatingly slow, and they had to stop and lie flat on the ground or crouch behind rocks to regain their breath in the howling gale. On the other side of the mountain two unfortunate travelers, Allan Ormsbee and William B. Curtis battled for their very lives.
The two men were certainly fit for an 8.5 mile hike on the Crawford Path. Curtis, considered the father of athletics in the U.S., was the founder of both the Fresh Air Club and New York Athletic Club. Aside from being a Civil War veteran, engineer and writer, he was also a talented runner, oarsman, cyclist, weight lifter, and a man of “magnificent physique”. Allan Ormsbee was a member of both the Crescent Athletic and Fresh Air Clubs, and an amateur photographer. He worked for Russell & Erwin Manufacturing Company (a maker or hardware such as doorknobs and locks) and was a “favorite of Brooklyn society.”
They had spent the previous days climbing other peaks in the area, and were said to have gone up Mount Willard on the morning of Saturday, June 30, before heading up the Crawford Path for Mount Washington. The wind was already high and the weather very cold, and with 8.5 miles ahead of them on a late morning start up the trail, it seems unwise that they would not have changed their plans. They were met by another party coming down the trail who warned them that the weather only got worse ahead, yet they continued up the path.
Equipped with a little food, cameras, and only the clothes on their backs, they were soon overpowered by the cold. Curtis seems to have succumbed first. His body was found by a search party on Monday, in the path near the Lakes of the Clouds. Ormsbee was found further up the trail. The cameras and food were found in and around a small cavity under a dense clump of krumholtz where the pair had briefly taken shelter. They were still about a mile and a half from the summit.
In the days following the tragedy AMC voted to construct a shelter near the spot where the two men had perished. Later memorial crosses. The Fresh Air Club placed plaques along the trail. The “Refuge Hut” was a small frame cabin that could hold about six people. There were blankets inside, but no stove. The club gave a stern warning: “Its use is forbidden except in emergencies and it is far too uncomfortable to attract campers.” Unfortunately it was not adequately inhospitable and soon hikers were camping there for pleasure. With the popularity and growth of Madison Spring Hut, the club eventually decided to build a similar hut at this location as well.
The site of the new hut was chosen on May 22, 1915, and work proceeded rapidly with the aid of the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Local stone was used to build the walls and all other materials were shipped up the mountain on the train. Work was complete (except for a bit of painting) by July 29. The hut opened its doors to guests on August 7 and stayed open until October 1. The timing was perfect, for as fate would have it, six hikers visited the hut in September and became snowbound there for four days. From Saturday evening until the clouds parted on Thursday morning a storm of gigantic proportions raged outside.
The hut had proved its worth as a life-saver and in the following years it went through a process of expansion similar to Madison Spring Hut. In 1922 an addition was built, bumping occupancy up to 48. Just five years later the entire interior was rearranged. The women’s bunkroom, with its large windows was made the dining room, the women being given their own addition with 24 bunks. The kitchen was made a bunkroom for 15, and 12 bunks were added to the men’s bunkroom. William F. Dawson, who had been among those snowbound at the hut in 1915, gave 50 books so that anyone as unfortunate as he would have something to read other that “some ancient copies of Good Housekeeping.”
The years 1946 and 1947 were record breakers for hut use, and with all the huts once again open (some were closed during World War II) the club looked toward many needed improvements. Lakes was again expanded in 1947, adding living and bunk space. In 1968 a double project went forward with the complete renovation of the trading post at Pinkham Notch and two new additions at Lakes. These last wings brought the footprint of the hut up to its current size. In 2005 Construction Crew completed upgrades to bunkrooms and bathrooms. From an uncomfortable cabin to a hut with 90 bunks, Lakes of the Clouds has grown from a lonely shelter of last resort into one of the most popular and spectacular spots in the White Mountains.
Read more about Lakes of the Clouds Hut's history in Passport to AMC's High Huts in the White Mountains >>
Photos: AMC Archives