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Hikers sign on to fight proposed Mount Washington hotel

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 03. 2016 7:33PM
Cog Railway steam trains make their way along the line at the Skyline Siding, site of the Cog's proposed hotel near the summit of Mount Washington. (UNION LEADER FILE)

SARGENT'S PURCHASE -- The ambitious plan to erect a luxury hotel less than a mile from the top of Mount Washington has touched off competing petitions with strong opinions on both sides.

The proposed 35-room hotel and restaurant may be unstoppable given the developers who own the Cog Railway are planning to build it on their 99-foot wide, right-of way.

The owners, Wayne Presby and Joel Bedor, are politically connected and well-regarded businessmen having first revitalized the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods during the 1990s and more recently the Cog Railway. Presby and Bedor have owned the railway since 1983.

But many hiking enthusiasts say they are displeased with this proposal to bring back a commercial hotel to the highest peak in the Northeast.

"I just feel it would be a blight on the landscape," said Mike Cherim, a longtime hiker who's trekked up the mountain 90 times himself and runs Redline Guiding that offers guided hikes especially in the winter.

"I am adamantly opposed to the construction. The whole project just sickens me. I love this mountain and feel like this is going to ruin the experience for a lot of people."

Hours after the New Hampshire Union Leader published a story about this plan Thursday, opponents started a petition led by Rachel Lewis, a hiker who lives in Hampton. By Saturday afternoon, 1,955 signed it.

"With the constant expansion of luxuries on the summit, we have also created two other problems, one being that the summit sign has turned into the equivalent of waiting for a ride on Splash Mountain," Lewis wrote referring to the Walt Disney World attraction.

"The ones who actually hike to the summit are stuck waiting in line behind a sea of khakis and sandals. With the added Cog traffic this issue is sure to increase."

In response, the owners put up a petition of their own which in the first several hours attracted 281 backers.

The plan would be to locate the hotel about a mile south of the summit at a former track siding site known as the Skyline. Owners are exploring placing the hotel on the tracks and having the Cog railway cars run through it. It would be open when the railway operated each year, from May until November.

The Coos County Planning Board will have an initial discussion on the proposal this Thursday night.

Presby said in an interview last week that Mount Washington has become a victim of its own popularity. With 300,000 coming there every year and as many as 5,000 on the mountain on a given day, they said there aren't enough amenities to serve the public.

"Tourism is the lifeblood of Northern New Hampshire," the pro-petition states.

"Tourism takes many forms and facilities need to be available to all who seek to enjoy the mountains not just those with the ability to hike to the summits. Facilities such as the one proposed by the Cog Railway will enhance the safety, the comfort and the experience of those coming to Mt. Washington."

Currently, there are overnight accommodations at the Lake of the Clouds hut near the summit and also people can stay up to a week at a time as guests of the Mount Washington Observatory at the visitor center.

But Presby notes the conditions are Spartan and bringing a luxury hotel to the mountain merely returns Mount Washington to its history of having an elegant dining and residential space.

Summit hotel history

The 91-room Summit House operated atop the mountain from 1852 until it burned down in 1908. A replacement hotel was built there a short time later.

Dartmouth College inherited the summit acreage and Cog railway from Henry Teague, an alumnus.

The college sold summit acreage including the hotel to the state, which leased it for several years to Col. Arthur Teague, who managed the railway for the school. Art Teague (no relation to Henry) then bought the railway and offered ticket packages that included a round-trip Cog ride and overnight on "the top of New England."

This ended when the state would not pay for needed repairs to the hotel and refused to let it open in 1967.

A commission recommended a 100-bed hotel be built there but it never was.

Instead, the Summit House was torn down and the Sherman Adams Visitor Center was erected on its footprint, opening in 1980.

"We are fortunate to have the Appalachian Mountain Club lodges throughout our mountains, while the new Maine Huts & Trails offer visitors unique lodgings in the Sugarloaf area," said Jayne O'Connor, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association.

"These are all examples of lodges offering unique experiences, while working to maintain the integrity of the surroundings."

David Dillon, a veteran hiker who wrote a blog in opposition to this plan, said he fears that bringing a full-service hotel back to this site will only encourage more growth.

"I think if we open the door to new construction it will be a slippery slope and this won't be the end of development," Dillon said.

"Some places are meant to be difficult to get to and enjoy. That's part of what makes them so special."

Opponents acknowledge the Cog Railway and Mount Washington Auto Road have been an economic engine for the region but Cherim faults the railroad for failing to keep the tracks along the route clean.

"The coal, the timbers and ties, and the rusting scrap littered everywhere; it's an eyesore," Cherim said.

And when the railroad's capacity was doubled by adding a second lane of tracks near the summit in the past year, Cherim said the environment was not protected.

"Heavy equipment was observed grinding its way across the fragile alpine areas. Some of the same plants hikers try to avoid stepping on were fair game to the machine," he said.

Political leaders on board

State Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, is a former House speaker who once served on the Mount Washington Commission and said Presby and Bedor have impeccable reputations for doing quality work.

"Look I understand there are going to be some who don't want anything more to happen up there but these folks have a history of doing an outstanding job using local labor," Chandler said.

"I've got the utmost respect for them. They won't do anything that would detract from the Cog."

Likewise, Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield said this project is a logical way to improve the experience.

"I congratulate the Presby and Bedor families and the Mount Washington Cog Railroad for coming up with such a bold and visionary plan," Woodburn said.

"They have a long history of preserving our threatened historic landmarks, creating jobs and giving back to the community. Mount Washington is a working mountain and this will be an important addition and add necessary amenities."

Presby and Bedor have a lengthy history of support for Democratic candidates in New Hampshire.

Over the past 15 years, the pair and their spouses have given $67,550 in donations including $9,400 to Gov. Maggie Hassan for her winning Senate campaign over Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

The director of state parks and recreation pointed out the reality that state approval is not required for this project but he pledged to continue to monitor it.

"Mount Washington has been an extraordinary destination for well over a century. It is the uniqueness of these types of environments that make them so desirable to experience. Like the development at the top of Mount Washington in the state park, this project would provide a unique experience for visitors but also would have other impacts that have yet to be fully understood," Phil Bryce summed up.

"And while the Mount Washington Commission has no authority over the project we hope that the Cog, as one of the members, will continue to share the status of the project with us."

klandrigan@unionleader.com


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