History of Madison Spring Hut
The 1876 edition of Sweetser’s The White Mountains: A handbook for travelers attempts to entice the daring overnight hiker with the prospect of camping between Mount Madison and Adams: “There is plenty of wood there, and never-failing springs of water, in a well sheltered locality.” This was the golden age of White Mountain resort hotels and ‘roughing it’ was not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Camping out meant sleeping on hemlock boughs, wrapped in rough wool blankets, sometimes under cover of a tent, though often not.
The uninitiated did not have to attempt this alone. Several able guides led the adventurous to this established campsite, including Charles E. Lowe and Laban Watson. Both were farmers turned hoteliers, Lowe at the Mount Crescent House and Watson at the Ravine House. These two men cut many of the paths in the area. Their names remain on the map, and in Lowe’s case, on the general store in Randolph run by his descendants.
AMC took an early interest in the northern part of the Presidential Range. In fact, the year the club was founded (1876), Laban Watson opened the Ravine House, creating a popular base from which to hike. William G. Nowell, the club’s first Councillor of Improvements, had built a log and bark shelter on Mount Adams the previous year. AMC had higher hopes still, and in February 1888 the club leadership approved the construction of a stone hut above treeline. Donations for the project reached $487, with the final project cost totaling $739.50. Brown’s Lumber Company of Whitefield, N.H. deeded the acre where the hut was to be built to the club as a gift.
Laban Watson was called into action to help improve the path to the building site. It was made passable for horses carrying supplies up to about the three-mile mark on what is now the Valley Way. Masons were sent in on the 21 of August, and the 2-foot-thick stone walls of the hut went up in about three weeks. Work lagged after this point as early autumn storms made it difficult to put a roof on the building.
The final product was a rectangular building measuring 16.5 by 12.5 feet, reaching 7 feet high at the eaves and 11 feet at the ridgepole. Two tiny windows let in sparse light, and a small stove provided heat. Also stuffed into the space were four bunks on each end (later increased to twelve), shelves and a cupboard for storage, a wood box, table, chairs, tin plates, candlesticks and an axe. All was carefully arranged and sealed in for the winter.
On Thursday, February 21, 1889, about a year after the project began, Madison Spring Hut received its first overnight visitors. Rosewell B. Lawrence (1856-1921), long-time AMC Recording Secretary, member of innumerable committees, the father of AMC’s August Camp and Three Mile Island, lawyer, adventurer, world traveller, and Medford, Mass. society fixture, snowshoed to the hut with Laban Watson, who had done so much to see the project through.
Their first task upon reaching the hut was to chop ice from around the door in order to get in. Twenty minutes of this exercise in the sun and sheltered from the wind probably caused them to be the warmest they would be for the entire trip. Chopping through three more feet of ice secured them a bit of water at the spring. Once inside the hut they struggled to start a fire in the stove.
After some work they had a blaze that “fairly roared,” even to the point of shooting flames into the room when a blast of wind came down the chimney. The heat of the fire caused another dilemma. Frost that had formed on every surface of the interior soon began to melt, causing perpetual drips from the ceiling. Despite the ice, the damp, and the crazy behavior of the stove, Lawrence pronounced the hut “one of the best things the Club has done,” while cautioning guests “not to expect too much.” Lawrence’s words struck a chord with AMC members, and the hut system was born.
Several log shelters sprang up in the Northern Presidentials the following decade, but the hut’s popularity soon led to overcrowding. By the end of the 19th century wood fuel around the hut was in short supply and stories traveled back to club headquarters that people had been turned away at the over-full hut. Finally, in 1906, the hut was expanded and bunks were added to host 24 guests. Additionally a caretaker was hired to manage the crowds. Austin Brooks, AMC’s first hut croo, collected 50 cents per person as a lodging fee. His successor, Kenneth Swan, suggested the club offer meals to weary travelers, and in 1911 a separate stone cook-house was erected.
Increasing demand again spurred expansion and in 1922 yet another building was added to the Madison complex. The new bunkhouse, known at Madison #3, was designed by architect Edward Fletcher Stevens (1860-1946), whose specialty was the design of hospitals. The new building had large windows, like those found at Lakes of the Clouds (also expanded that year). A new oil cooking stove was also brought in, proving to be hugely popular with both croo and guests.
By the late 1920s all of the huts were in need of repair in one form or another. A systematic plan of renovation began in 1927, and by 1929 AMC was ready to think about the future of Madison. The original building was now “in a precarious state of repair.” Space in the second building was so scarce that croo were obliged to sleep in the kitchen. It was thus decided that a new wing would be added to Madison #3, and stones from the demolished Madison #1 were used in the foundation. The new wooden building brought sleeping quarters, kitchen, dining room, and space for a croo room together.
Peace reigned and the hut ran relatively smoothly for a decade before catastrophe struck. On October 7, 1940, a croo member was transferring gasoline, used to power a generator, from one container to another when it ignited. The fire spread quickly and though the hut croo had two fire extinguishers, there was no way to stop the flames. After dousing Madison #2 with water to keep it from catching fire, the croo members walked down the Valley Way with three hut guests, abandoning the building to the flames. It was all they could do.
Meanwhile in Randolph, George Lane of the Ravine House had called Joe Dodge, Huts Manager to warn that a bright glow could be seen on the mountain, approximately where the hut should be. Soon after, one of the hutmen arrived to confirm Lane’s suspicion of fire. Dodge hiked to the site the following day, later reporting to the Committee on Huts that the destruction was complete. The masonry walls were left standing in a heap of charred wood, tin cans, dishes and denuded bed springs, with a lone chimney standing sentry where the dining room had been. As Dodge beheld the wreckage, he “couldn’t help thinking of all the sweating and swearing that had gone into building the old hut.”
Reconstruction began the next year, using the plans from the 1929 renovation. Donkeys from the original “White Mountain Jackass Company” were used to shuttle building supplies up the mountain. A motley crew of men was also assembled, often surpassing the unruly burros in the amount of wood, cement, food, and other gear hauled up the mountain. One French-Canadian lugged 224 pounds of supplies up in one trip. All told, 50 tons of materials were carried up, mostly by man rather than beast. By July 3 the hut was ready for a few guests, who ate with the construction crew in old Madison #2. August 2 marked the end of major work and at mid-month the hut croo was left to run the place.
This now 60-year-old building has been through yet another historic change. At the end of the 2010 season the croo turned their hut over to AMC’s construction crew to begin one of the largest hut renovations in decades. They worked well past when the snow began to fly in the mountains, and started up early in the spring to see the job through. The old stone portion of the hut continues to hold its honored spot as bunk space, and the 1940 wooden wing will remain intact. The front end of the hut, which looks out over the valley, has been expanded to provide a larger sitting and dining area. Greater guest space and comfort is a major theme. Stacked bunks that once rose to dizzying heights now tower not quite so high. The flush toilet and overworked septic field have been replaced with a waterless system. Wind and solar continue to power the hut. With these updates, Madison is ready to provide another 120-plus years of adventure in the mountains.
Read more about Madison Spring Hut's history in Passport to AMC's High Huts in the White Mountains >>
Photos: AMC Archives