125 Years in the White Mountains
AMC's high huts, 1888-2013
By Marc Chalufour
AMC Outdoors, May/June 2013
Rosewell Lawrence and Laban Watson woke up at Ravine House on a crisp winter morning and peeked out the window at the cloudy sky. Lawrence, AMC’s recording secretary, and Watson, proprietor of the Ravine House, began planning this day months earlier. They glanced at the thermometer, saw the mercury hovering at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and began dressing accordingly. At 8:45 a.m., the men set out across a meadow with leather snowshoe straps cinched over their boots and wooden alpenstocks clasped in their hands. Mounts Madison and Adams loomed ahead. The date was February 21, 1889, and they were about to become the first-ever guests in an AMC hut.
Much has changed over the intervening century and a quarter, yet Lawrence and Watson’s trek wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to a hut guest today. Within a few years the Appalachia train station would be constructed nearby, and then that would eventually give way to Route 2 and a rail trail. The two men crossed this landscape and began tromping up the Air Line trail, which had been completed just a few years earlier.
Snow lay in deep wind-blown drifts. “King’s Ravine was far more impressive than in summer,” Lawrence later wrote in Appalachia. “The slides looked as if they might be terrific toboggan shoots [sic]. We were in high glee.”
They reached Madison Spring Hut just before 1 p.m. AMC built the stone structure the year before, after considering alternate sites at Spaulding Spring and Peabody Spring. None of today’s hut amenities were there to greet them: no steaming mugs of cocoa, no scent of baking bread, no smiling hut croo members. But once they got the wood stove roaring, they fricasseed chicken and toasted doughnuts, washing their meal down with hot tea. Occasionally “a sheet of flame three feet by two blazed out into the room.” Otherwise they found the hut hospitable.
After climbing to the summit of Mount Adams and sliding much of the way back down, they enjoyed the red glow of sunset before heating another meal—oatmeal, corned beef, cookies, and more doughnuts. They stepped outside once more around 8 p.m. to gaze at Orion overhead, then retired to the hut. Sets of bunks on either side of the stove would eventually be built and lined with fir boughs, but on this night AMC’s first two guests climbed into hammocks, exhausted and full.
The world that Lawrence and Watson had left behind was, of course, very different from that of 2013. President Grover Cleveland was finishing his first term in office. Congress was debating the addition of four new states: Montana, Washington, and the Dakotas. While the pair hiked, the price of oil slipped beneath 91 cents a barrel.
Hiking in the White Mountains wasn’t yet the tourist draw it eventually became. A modest series of trails welcomed those outdoors enthusiasts intrepid enough to ride the train up from Boston. Only a year after Madison opened did AMC begin discussing the construction, for reasons of safety, of a series of cairns connecting the hut and Mount Washington. Whether Lawrence and Watson packed their trash out from the hut is unknown; the concept of “Leave No Trace” was still 70 years in the future. During their stay they did burn wood gathered from the mountainside, a practice that continued among hikers for years.
From the construction of this modest stone building, AMC’s hut system sprang. Madison was expanded, then expanded again. It burned to the ground and was rebuilt. Meanwhile, the club added new huts to the east and west. Caretakers gave way to entire crews of young men and, by the 1970s, young women, who were hired to run the huts. Eventually, AMC’s educational mission grew and a naturalist joined each croo.
Lawrence wrote that building Madison Spring Hut “is one of the best things the Club has done.” His reflections, published in Appalachia mere weeks after his trip, managed to articulate the special nature of AMC’s first hut—and all those that followed: “[It will] enable climbers to enjoy the high mountains, the views, sunrises, and sunsets.” The presence of the hut would, he predicted, make the mountains safer and more accessible. More than a century later, those words remain true.
(This story was edited from its original form. A reference was made to the Appalachia train station and train tracks, however those were not constructed until after Lawrence and Watson's trek.)