BRETTON WOODS — The bicentennial of Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained foot trail in the U.S., was celebrated Friday by its stewards and some of the people who are helping it enter the next 200 years.
Dozens of well-wishers, including members of some 13 crews that have worked, or are working, on the 8.5-mile Carter Path trail as part of the White Mountain Trail Collective, gathered at the main parking area for the path, which is just off Route 302 and a short distance west of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center, for a ceremony that was big on gratitude.
AMC’s archivist Becky Fullerton said that, well before the grand hotels, a traveler going into what was then known as “the Notch of the White Mountains” — now Crawford Notch — who needed to spend the night in the area had one choice: a humble farmhouse/inn on the side of the road operated by Abel and Hannah Crawford.
The Crawfords, who had seven children, were originally from Guildhall, Vt., where, Fullerton said, a relative of Abel Crawford left him a farm that carried a substantial mortgage.
The family chose to come east to New Hampshire, settling in the notch that now bears its name.
Observing how early hikers struggled to ascend Mount Washington from the southwest, Abel Crawford and his son Ethan Allen in 1819 cut a path from the valley where they lived to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington.
In 1820, Fullerton said, Ethan Allen led an expedition whose members named many of the peaks in the Presidential Range — but not Mount Washington, which had already been named — noting that when they ran out of names, they named one mountain Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, and another after the quality it radiated — Mount Pleasant — now Mount Eisenhower.
In 1840, Ethan Allen’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Crawford, improved the path to a bridle path as the path had become “quite run down,” said Fullerton.
Going up the Crawford Path in the early 19th century had both critics and supporters, she said, with one critic opining that it was “tedious and fatiguing” while an admirer of the path said the entire experience of being in the mountains was awe-inspiring.
After the Mount Washington Auto Road opened on the east side of the mountain in 1861 and the Cog Railway opened in 1869 on the west side, the Crawford Path became increasingly less used, said Fullerton, with the last horses on it being recorded sometime in the 1880s.
Luckily for Crawford Path, she said, that was also the time when what is now considered traditional mountain hiking began.
With a big smile on her face, Fullerton said the Crawford Path outlasted “many hotels that kept it alive,” adding that Crawford Path, despite some tricky spots and a plethora of flying insects, will always be popular with hikers because it visually offers them “a sea of summits” and also lets them “taste a breeze that knocks the bugs away.”
Brooke Brown, the U.S. Forest Service’s Pemigewasset District Ranger, pointed out that the Crawford Path passes through all three ranger districts in the White Mountain National Forest and that in recent years it has been maintained through a partnership with the AMC.
Walter Graff, senior vice president of the AMC, said that since 1974 he has spent “a lot of time” on Crawford Path, which at its upper reaches joins the Appalachian Trail.
Graff marveled that Abel Crawford rode up the entire length of Crawford Path at the age of 74. He thanked the Forest Service for working with the AMC, noting that the AMC has been working in the White Mountains since 1876.
By comparison, the Forest Service was founded in 1905 and the White Mountain National Forest it oversees was created in 1918.
Although they did not attend, every member of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation sent congratulations and good wishes on the occasion of Crawford Path’s milestone.