This is an excerpt from “Chasing Eden,” the latest book by Hancock’s Howard Mansfield — an author who “sifts through the commonplace and the forgotten to discover stories that tell us about ourselves and our place in the world,” (howardmanfield.com). In this chapter, the author sifts through some commonplace attractions of our own White Mountains with one of our state’s most famous artists (and now, you, dear reader) along for the ride.
Chapter 1. “Like a Turkey Swallowing Corn.”
On a summer’s day, the road up Mt. Washington has the hallmark upheaval of a tourist attraction. Wave after wave of cars and motorcycles move with the percolating hurry of a ferry crossing. We watch the light glinting off the cars miles away up the mountain, little flecks of glass in the granite and the green. It’s mesmerizing. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake this for an evacuation up the mountain.
I’ve come north to the mountains with a friend who is an artist, James Aponovich, at the time New Hampshire’s artist laureate, in search of the scenes that appear in the great landscape paintings of the nineteenth century. The base of the auto road may seem to be an odd place to begin a pastoral quest, but the impulse that sends more than thirty thousand cars and trucks hurtling up the mountain each year began with artists back in the 1820s. Today’s tourists may not know it, but they’ve come in search of an Eden created by a legion of nineteenth-century landscape painters. Their paintings taught Americans how to look at the wilderness. Americans were eager for the lesson, and, with guidebook in hand telling them where to see the views in the famous paintings, they followed the artists. Their art created a market for the views, filled hotels with tourists, and laid the bounds for state and national parks and forests. ☞
The road up Mt. Washington was begun early, in 1854, at a time when the country lacked good roads and bridges. There was plenty that needed doing elsewhere. Building a road up the highest mountain in the Northeast would not have made any list of necessary public works for a young country. The carriage road was one of those
nineteenth-century engineering projects that seemed to be propelled by a force as powerful as a religious calling and a biological drive. No one questioned the wisdom of building a road up a mountain known as a cauldron of ferocious weather. And like other works of its era, the road is handmade, built by men working ten- to twelve-hour days, drilling blasting holes by hand in the granite, sleeping in shanties and tents, carrying supplies eight miles from the nearest railroad station by horse, by oxen, or on their backs. After three years of construction, with the road at the halfway point, the company ran out of money. A second company was founded two years later to finish the road.
“America’s oldest tourist attraction” opened in 1861.Tourists rode in wagons and coaches to a small summit hotel. The road was forecast to be the beginning of a great resort. There was talk of extending the eight-mile-long carriage road along a ridge to the summits of Mounts Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. “The rivalry of hotels on tops of the mountains will be as sharp as it is at Newport, Saratoga or Niagara,” said the New York Times. But after only eight years, the carriage road fell out of fashion when the cog railway to the summit opened in 1869 on the west side of Mt. Washington. The short train ride beat the all-day journey on the road. Building railroads everywhere was another signature American obsession. (Had they built a canal up the mountain, they would have hit the nineteenth-century transportation trifecta.) By the late 1800s, the summit had two hotels, the carriage road and the railroad, an observatory, a telegraph, and a daily newspaper. The only things missing, really, were a mill, a church, and a school. The summit was like an amusement park with a great view, “the second greatest show on earth,” P. T. Barnum reportedly said about the view on the cog railway — and even if he didn’t say it, staking the claim was right in the spirit of the age, pure Barnum.
The arrival of the automobile revived the road. The first automobile made it to the summit in 1899 — a steam Locomobile driven by F. O. Stanley, later known for the Stanley Steamer.
The auto road is a family business. It’s owned by four families. In the New England manner it seems more like a public trust. The five-dollar toll for a car and driver did not increase for sixty years, holding steady from 1911 into the 1970s. The iconic bumper sticker — This Car Climbed Mt. Washington — first appeared in the 1930s, a badge of honor in an era when radiators overheated on the way up and brakes overheated on the way down. No one knows how the bumper stickers got started, but they are all over the world. The road’s general manager, Howie Wemyss, mails out replacement bumper stickers to Europe and the Mideast. Foreign tourists are fans of the road. They travel a loop from Boston to Mt. Washington to Acadia National Park on the Maine coast.
As the general manager, Wemyss (pronounced weemz) is the road’s curator and protector. He has worked at the road since the 1970s. He is the author of something seen by every visitor starting out on the road. He wrote the warning sign:
People do “freak out,” he said.
“It’s pretty constant that every year we will drive down from the summit about two dozen cars — motorcycles, too. People that have somehow managed to get themselves to the summit and then they think of that drive back down, and a particular stretch of road where on the way up they’re on the inside, and now they know they’re going to have to be on the outside. And they can’t do it.”
The distress calls are not from older drivers, who are from an era of rougher roads and rougher cars. “The 20- and 30-somethings coming out of the city are just blown away,” he said.
Mostly what concerns Wemyss is that people are in too much of a hurry. They race up his road to see the view up top, which on most days isn’t there. He is sad that people don’t take the time to enjoy the road itself — “the auto road experience” as he says. On some days you can see more than a hundred miles, see five states, Canada, and the ocean. On other days the view may be eight feet. Wemyss sounded like a Zen master counseling pilgrims to appreciate Mt. Fuji in the clouds — however you find it, the mountain you see that day is the mountain. Or, as he says, “So frequently the view is not there. And the experience is always there.
“What we’re trying to do is to get people to think of it as more than a place to go for a good view. In reality, the environment up there is so different than the rest of New England that it’s worth the drive just to see what’s up there on the ground. It’s the same as driving into northern Labrador. You’re driving to the Arctic Circle — it’s going to take you half an hour to get there. It’s fascinating.” Every one thousand feet of elevation is equivalent to moving about one hundred fifty miles north. But visitors are hemmed in by the heritage of scenic tourism; they are looking for the one view — the snapshot — and they hurry on. In view-seeking they reduce the “experience” to a picture.
“How long do people spend on the summit?” I asked.
“When we last surveyed it, I was disappointed, I should say. We found that they spent about forty-five minutes.” He was crestfallen. He had a host’s pride in the mountain.
“That’s a lot for an American,” I said.
“Well, apparently it is,” Wemyss said. “I would have thought that people would have been more interested in all of the various things that are up there. Spend more time up there. But you know they’ve got to move on. They’ve got things to check off their list today.”
They have tried to slow down visitors and get them to look at the mountain. They offer a one-hour stay in the mornings, but some people ask, “Do we have to stay an hour?” Admittedly, on most days the summit of Mt. Washington is not a picnic spot. The observatory up top boasts of the “world’s worst weather.”
“We tried a three-hour tour the last couple of years. You go up and actually get out and walk around a little bit. It’s flopping. Nobody cares,” he said, dejected.
The first pilgrims who made their way through the notches, the mountain passes that open the White Mountains to the world, faced far rougher travel, but they, too, were quick to criticize others for their haste. It was an era of slow journeys by foot, horse, and canal boat. It took Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, who wrote about his travels, 15 days to go from New Haven to the White Mountains in 1797. Forty-two years later, Henry David Thoreau was seven days traveling by rowboat, foot, and stagecoach from Concord, Massachusetts, to Crawford Notch.
In the early nineteenth century, the turnpike through Crawford Notch was so rough that wheeled carts couldn’t be used. It was so steep that ropes had to be used to pull up a horse that was harnessed to two long poles dragging on the ground. The cargo sat on a board lashed between the dragging sticks. This was like forgetting about the invention of the wheel. Going downhill through the notch, they had to tie a rope around the horse’s neck to keep it from falling. Most travelers walked, and most freight was moved in the winter on sleds. Before 1825,the two inns then near the notch were twelve miles apart, a serious distance, presenting a challenge to travelers to arrive at one before nightfall.
One of the first artists to paint the White Mountains, Thomas Cole, arrived in Crawford Notch six or seven days after leaving Concord, New Hampshire, ninety miles away. Today that ninety miles, almost all of it by an interstate highway, can be covered in an hour and a half, but our speed undermines our arrival, as if everything we still see is blurred.
The artists who introduced this northern wilderness to America were walkers. The great landscape paintings were born at a walker’s pace. They spent days approaching the mountains. They saw Mt. Chocorua far away and saw it slowly grow, day by day. They came through Franconia Notch riding atop a stage and felt the curving wall of Mt. Lafayette pushing toward them. If they were to hike up a mountain like Chocorua, they’d first walk a half dozen miles to get to the mountain and then start their way up.
Cole, traveling with a friend by wagon and foot, had to contend with washed-out roads and bridges. They crossed the Swift and Saco Rivers several times, once in a canoe that “came close to upsetting” and other times by “means of fallen trees and rocks and I may add firm nerves, for it required no little courage to venture on such precarious bridges with a rapid stream rushing beneath,” he wrote in his diary.
They walked through Crawford Notch just two years after a great rockslide had killed the Willey family in 1826, a disaster that fascinated the public. The site would become one of America’s first tourist attractions. “We walked among the rocks and felt as though we were but worms, insignificant and feeble. … We looked up at the pinnacle above and measured ourselves and found ourselves as nothing,” Cole wrote. In the paintings he made after his trip, the notch is a forbidding wilderness. Facing nature we’re insignificant, and that is what makes us significant. That’s one of principles of the sublime: we are humbled by God’s power; we find our place in the world. The sublime was a specific experience, a twining of wonder and fear brought on by wilderness, towering waterfalls, thunder, and tempests. Awe is the word that is used: worship and reverence in the presence of the sacred. “We now entered the Notch and felt awe struck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains that rose on either side thousands of feet above,” said Cole.
The mountain wilderness was “a fitting place to speak of God,” he said. In America we can still see “the undefiled works” of “God, the creator.” The “prophets of old” found inspiration in the “solitudes of nature,” and that inspiration is there for us to claim. “It was on Mt. Horeb that Elijah witnessed the mighty wind, the earthquake and the fire and heard the ‘still small voice’ — that voice is yet heard among the mountains!”
This land with “its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity” is every American’s “birthright,” but they don’t live up to their inheritance, said Cole, who was born in England and lived there until age 17. “They wander ‘loose about’; they nothing see, … short lived, short sighted.” Beautiful places are being destroyed —“the ravages of the ax are daily increasing”—“in this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment.” But “Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”
To the first white settlers, the White Mountains were not Eden. The mountains were avoided. They were a “daunting terrible” wilderness “full of rocky hills” and “clothed with infinite thick woods.” To Europeans since the time of Christ, mountains were “Warts, Wens, Blisters, Imposthumes.” Travelers in the alpine passes of Switzerland asked to be blindfolded to avoid the terrors of looking at the peaks — it might drive them mad. The Alps were home to witches and many species of dragons. Mountains were “Nature’s Shames and Ills,” a libel against God’s perfection. God had created the earth six thousand years ago on the third day of Genesis and there it sat, unchanged. The earth itself, it was widely believed, had no history. Within fifty years in the eighteenth century, all this changed. Geologists, Romantic poets, and artists discovered a living, dynamic earth. It was “one of the most profound revolutions in thought that has ever occurred,” says scholar Marjorie Hope Nicolson. In America, Cole was a leader in this revolution in seeing.
Cole’s paintings made him famous. He was the premier American landscape painter in the first half of the nineteenth century, and a teacher and friend to other painters who were portraying the wonders of the Hudson River and the Catskills. Aspiring to do more than just paint scenes, he pursued a “higher style of landscape,” one with moral lessons, like his two paintings of the Garden of Eden in which the mountain is modeled on Mt. Chocorua, and sweeping allegories like the five paintings showing the rise and fall of civilization. Cole died early of pneumonia, at age 48, at the height of his fame. “I think every American is bound to prove his love of country by admiring Cole,” wrote diarist Philip Hone.
America was Eden. God was present. A view of eternity awaited in the mountains. Scores of artists, backcountry adventurers, and tourists would echo Cole.
Climbing Mt. Carrigain with friends, the Rev. Julius Ward reveled in “the sense of utter separation from humanity, the sense of entire lostness in the wilderness, the sense of complete abandonment of the soul to Nature,” as he wrote for the Boston Sunday Herald in 1890. He stepped away from his companions to “feel this aloneness in all its intensity” and “to measure my heart-beats by the rhythm of the life of the mountains.”
“There is something about one’s thoughts on these desolate peaks that can not be spoken, just as there is something that one never tells about his religious life,” said the Reverend Ward.
In the mountains, Benjamin Brown French, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and a New Hampshire native, was moved to sing. He was ecstatic. He loved good drink, “glorious chowder,” and fishing. (“We fished nearly to sunset & caught 130 trout.”) At one inn he and his friends “duly disposed of” a pitcher of eggnog and “sang and danced & enjoyed ourselves mightily.” (Did they have more fun back then?) But approaching Crawford Notch by horse and wagon, he was reverential:
“Sunday, June 29  … The scene about us became awfully grand & majestic. It was a temple not made with hands in which all the aspirations of a man’s soul must necessarily rise to the God who formed it. I felt that the day & the place were sacred. Though no great singer, I could not resist bursting out with ‘Old Hundred’ & Henry joined me, and I declare that I never felt more solemn or more in the immediate presence of the God who made me, than when, among those everlasting & eternal hills.”
One visitor excelled in this Junior John Muir League of Moralizing: Thomas Starr King, the Unitarian minister who wrote the era’s most popular guidebook to the mountains, The White Hills.
There’s a sermon on every page in The White Hills, a moral lesson in almost every paragraph. At 403 pages, this is an exhaustive and exhausting guide, a mountain of prose to lay before the mountains. Every view comes with a preachment to throw off your triviality. Starr King is like a Moses of tourism who never ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, but instead lectures his flock on the right way to look at Mt. Sinai.
He tells the reader what to see and at what time: At about four on a summer’s afternoon, view the Great Stone Face, the famous profile of the Old Man in the Mountains, from the little lake below. Best of all if there are thunder clouds behind the stone face (in which case I’d suggest leaving the lake). He also judges the Great Stone Face to be melancholic and having a weak mouth, as though suffering from bad teeth. It’s the most heartfelt description of the profile that I’ve ever read. You get a sense that Starr King would like to cheer up the Old Man.
His guidebook not only sets out specific views, but lectures his readers on the proper way to look, to travel. When he scolds tourists for their haste, his scorn goes to the heart of how they live, holiday or not. “The difficulty is, that in rushing so fast as many of us do through the mountains, the mountains do not have time to come to us,” he writes. Who has earned their scenic view? Who’s really in the Church of Nature for the right reasons, to pray to God, and not just for the social after? The mountains are God or God’s house and we are not worthy, not paying attention.
And not any mountain view will do. The view must be “framed” correctly, must be more than land; it must have the qualities of a landscape painting. The mountain must be at the “proper distance” so there is atmosphere, color, and light. “There must be meadow, river, and greater distance from the hills, so that they can be seen through large intervening depths of air. Going close to a great mountain is like going close to a powerfully painted picture; you see only the roughnesses, the blotches of paint, the coarsely contrasted hues, which at the proper distance alone are grouped into grandeur and mellowed into beauty.” It’s not enough to see Mt. Washington; one must see it as it has been seen in the better paintings.
Tourists wanted to see the landscape as art. Many carried a Claude Glass to make the landscape more painterly. Named for the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, the glass was a tinted, convex mirror that looked like a makeup compact. A viewer stood with his back to the scene and looked at the mirror to give the scene a “mellow tinge” and the glow of Lorrain’s paintings. Thoreau sometimes carried a homemade Claude Glass in his travels around Concord.
Seeing is Starr King’s real subject. Slow down and look at the mountain for as long as possible. See it on a misty day and on a “day sacred to clouds.” Be there at sunset and sunrise. He has the dedication of plein-air painters. Get outside. Look and look again, sketch, return and look again, sketch and return, and maybe the place opens to you. Maybe it “hums” as the twentieth-century installation artist Robert Irwin said. Driving across the Mojave, “it’s all just flat desert,” mile after mile, said Irwin, but in an instant “it takes on an almost magical quality. It just suddenly stands up and hums, it becomes so beautiful, incredibly, the presence is so strong. Then twenty minutes later it will simply stop. And I began wondering why.”
Irwin went to great lengths to rejuvenate his vision, closeting himself in an anechoic chamber, where no light or sound entered for six to eight hours. Once he got out, the world had shifted; everything seemed to be saturated in color and energy. “Nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up things which you normally blocked out.”
Similar encounters occurred in the White Mountains. In this “daunting terrible” wilderness, the world shifted for a generation of artists. Their paintings are a story of first sight, insight, and learning to see again.
“The general beauty of the world is a perpetual revelation, and if we are impervious to its appeal and charm, a large district of our nature is curtained off from the Creator,” Starr King wrote in The White Hills. “As soon, therefore, as we become educated to see, and just in proportion to our skill in seeing, we get joy.” A few years later, preaching from the pulpit, he told his congregation, “I believe that if, on every Sunday morning before going to church, we could be lifted to a mountain-peak and see a horizon line of six hundred miles … we should feel that we live amid the play of Infinite thought; and the devout spirit would be stimulated so potently that our hearts would naturally mount in praise and prayer.”
The White Hills went through ten editions in more than twenty-five years, but Starr King didn’t stay around to live on his success, to tour the lyceum circuit imploring his listeners to slow down. He hurried on. Just a few months after his book was published, Starr King moved to San Francisco to take charge of a church. He continued his energetic travels. He was smitten by Yosemite, comparing it to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He’d seen a lot of granite in New Hampshire, but that paled before Yosemite. “Great is granite, and the Yo-Semite is its prophet!” he said. He wrote home to a friend: burn my book:
I have … descended into the jaws of the Yo-Semite. Poor White Mountains Notch! Its nose is broken. If you can find any copies of King’s book on the New Hampshire ant-hills, I advise you, as a friend of the author, to buy up the remaining edition and make a bond fire bonfire of these in the park. …
The booster, the landscape cheerleader, had found a grander stage. Starr King’s allegiance had migrated, just as the great landscape painters would, heading west to paint Yellowstone and so many other shrines to the sublime that would become national parks.
He lectured tirelessly in California, campaigning for Lincoln and for the state to stay in the union. He opposed slavery and raised money for the United States Sanitary Commission’s work to help sick and wounded Union soldiers.
Starr King lived in California only four years, becoming the state’s “man for all seasons,” says one historian. He died young at age thirty-nine, from diphtheria. In the U.S. Capitol’s National Hall of Statuary, where each state is allowed two statues to represent its best, Starr King stood for California until he was replaced by Ronald Reagan in 2009. His statue was moved to the California state capitol. There is another Starr King statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and there are schools, churches, streets, a park, and, most appropriately for this prophet of granite, two mountains named for him, one in Yosemite and the other in the White Mountains.
The great nineteenth-century landscape paintings were encounters with a little holy terror. They implied that God was near. They were about a vast land, about wonder that bled off the canvas. The huge mountains suggested mountains without end. They suggested that greatness without end awaited the young nation.
The paintings were exhibited in Boston and New York. They were news; they were an advertisement of a great find, a scenic Gold Rush. The tourists followed by the trainload, filling the big wooden arks of the hotels. They stayed for weeks. They came back to the same hotel year after year. The hotels expanded, burned, and were rebuilt ever larger. The arrival of each new railroad line spawned more hotels and additions, a wing here or there, forming H-shaped, T-shaped, L-shaped buildings, farmhouses multiplied many times: window, window, window, dormer, dormer. Longer and longer runs of clapboards unrolling like yards of linen. White, boxy buildings, crisp as a starched shirt. The hotels advertised the lengths of their piazzas. Imagine yourself lingering to take in the view, promenading after dinner. (They are piazzas, not porches.)
More artists followed the tourists. A half dozen of the grander hotels had artists in residence. Other artists, like Benjamin Champney, had set up studios nearby. Champney was lured to North Conway with the promise of reduced room and board if he’d put the town’s name on his sketches. It worked. There were soon forty artists in the neighborhood painting. They painted the scenes that tourists saw from their hotels or nearby, walking, or on a carriage ride. They painted the same scenes over and over and they painted them in a size ready to go home: ten by sixteen inches, postcard size, a few two by three feet. The foreground is bucolic, settled, husbanded, sometimes with cattle. The distant mountains are big, recognizable in profile, and not menacing. They are dignified, familiar, presiding. Sometimes there’s a storm coming or going, but blue skies prevail. They are nice paintings, easy paintings to live with. They are paintings with parlor manners. They would hang on the wall in the front parlor or hall, politely in the background until you chose to look at them. The great views were domesticated. Awe was downsized to prettiness.
The landscape went from being a testament to a souvenir; visitors went from witnesses to tourists on the American plan — a room and three meals, all included. No revelation, no burning bush, just sightseeing. The artists no longer insisted you must look at this. They painted pretty pictures. Benjamin Champney’s studio was near a big, popular hotel. Tourists could shop for the scene and the size painting they wanted to take home. There are more than a hundred paintings displayed in a photo of his studio. “If I have not accomplished anything great in art, I have at least given pleasure to the inmates of many homes,” he said.
For the first artists, the White Mountains was a place awaiting their discovery, a place they would conjure. By the end of the nineteenth century, after all the paintings and guidebooks, it had all been seen. A visit to Crawford Notch or Franconia Notch was a paint-by-numbers exercise. The views and the corresponding emotions were prescribed. Look here and look here, do this and this, quote this writer and that one. Time soon for dinner, a game of cards, a stroll on the piazza.
The best of the landscape paintings are a call and response, a longing and its echo — Is God here? the painter asks, and the land answers yes. The paintings are a longing for arrival, a longing to feel at home in this Not Europe land; a longing to find God and God’s approval, to read the Bible in the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and valleys. Do not turn away from it, says Thomas Cole, almost as a commandment. “We are still in Eden.” The modern viewer stands before the grand landscape paintings and the echo is different. Is God here? And the echo returns only his question.
The quest continues
This artistic, literary and spiritual journey of discovery for our two Edenic explorers is far from done. We will publish the remainder of the first chapter of Howard Mansfield’s new book next month in our September issue — with some special attention given to the idealized still life paintings of James Aponovich. You’ll be able to read “Chasing Eden” in its entirety upon its release in October.
Book Notes: “When Thomas Jefferson committed the new nation to the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ he set up the primary occupation of every American. ‘Chasing Eden: A Book of Seekers’ is about that pursuit, about Americans seeking their Eden, their Promised Land, their utopia. Seekers are all around us. They are seeking God, seeking freedom, seeking peace.”
The American seekers featured in “Chasing Eden” include the landscape artists of the 19th century, 40,000 Africans freed from slavery, veterans just home from World War II, and a certain group of Pilgrims and Wampanoags who shared a harvest feast that would be spun into one of our most cherished (and debated) national myths.
More books for the journey: A few favorites from Mansfield’s works selected by our editors
“Hands-down, the finest writer of Yankee life today is this guy. … Howard Mansfield sees things differently than most of us, and he points stuff out that most of us miss. … [He has] found a way to unlock the Yankee character.” — Fritz Wetherbee, “New Hampshire Chronicle,” WMUR-TV
Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart
Before the railroads required the creation of Standard Time zones in 1883, timekeeping was a local affair. Now, time is significant down to the nanosecond for everything from manufacturing to transportation. How should a historian react? Down East Books
Dwelling in Possibility
We know within seconds upon entering a new house if we feel at home. We know when a place makes us feel more alive. This is the mystery that interests Howard Mansfield — some houses have life, are home, are dwellings, and others don’t. Bauhan Publishing
The Bones of the Earth
For millennia this is all there was: sticks and stones, dirt and trees, animals and people, the sky by day and night. The Lord spoke through burning bushes, through lightning and oaks. Trees and rocks and water were holy. They are commodities today and that is part of our disquiet. Counterpoint
In the Memory House
“Architects sometimes talk of building with context and continuity in mind, religious leaders call it tradition, social workers say it’s a sense of community, but it is memory we have banished from our cities. We have speed and power, but no place. Travel, but no destination. Convenience, but no ease.” — from “In the Memory House,” Fulcrum Publishing
The Same Ax Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age
An old farmer boasts that he has used the same ax his whole life — he’s only had to replace the handle three times and the head twice. Mansfield explores the myriad ways in which we attempt to reconnect with and recover the past. University Press of New England