Fall Foliage Camping Trip – The Willey’s – Part 1

As we drove south through the notch, heavy rain and dime sized hail were pounding the exterior of the jeep. Visibility was down to almost nothing but to my right, I could still see the historic marker where the Willey house used to stand. I remember visiting the area in my childhood and learning about the tragic fate of the family. A story that filled me with wonder and left me with many questions.

Back in 1826 the Willey family were the only people living in the middle of Crawford Notch. Ethan Allen Crawford lived at the northern end of the notch and ran the Crawford Hotel. It was located where the present day AMC Highland Center is. This land was originally settled by his father Abel Crawford who by that time had moved to the southern end of the notch to where Notchland stands today. It was fifteen miles or so between the two Crawford homesteads and somewhere in the middle was the Willey house.

During that summer the White Mountains had experienced a severe drought which left the soil dry and loose. On August 27th as the sun began to fade behind the mountains, a cool breeze began to filter through the notch. The night continued and the breeze increased in intensity, by 4AM a steady rain began to fall. They say the wind howled and the rain fell in sheets as lighting and thunder bounced off the high walls and cliffs of the peaks above. The Saco River overflowed its banks and transformed into a lake hundreds of acres in size. It must have been a terrifying display of natures power. The height of the storm occurred around 11PM and this is when the sides of the mountains began to rumble and give way. Giant boulders began to slide and roll down the mountains taking mud, trees and everything else in their paths with them. By 12AM the storm had passed but the slides continued for some time after.

The next day, a traveller who had been staying six miles to the north at Ethan Allen Crawford’s place made his way towards the Willey homestead. The road had been completely destroyed so it took him all day to make the journey. He arrived at the Willey House and found it had been largely untouched by the slides and flood however no one but the family dog could be found. He spent the night at the home before continuing south towards Abel Crawford’s place and further on southeast to Bartlett where a search party was organized.

The search party reached the Willey house on the morning of August 31st and also found it empty. A member of the party noted that a large granite outcropping directly behind the house had saved the home by dividing the stream of the slide, dispersing the rubble to within three feet of the building on either side. As the cleanup process got under way, all but three of the bodies where eventually recovered, either broken under the rubble or drowned in the water.

We can only speculate what might have happened to them and and to reasons why they would have left the shelter of the house. The family bible left open on the table and other evidence suggests the family fled in a hurry presumably to escape the flooding river, only to be buried and swept away by the slides. We do know Mr. and Mrs. Willey, their four children and two hired men all lost their lives. News of the event spread like wildfire and the legend of the “Willey Family Tragedy” quickly became a part of New England folklore. I don’t know if it’s true or not but its been said the origin of the phrase “It gives me the willeys” can be traced back to this historic event. After surviving some of the worst weather the mountains could throw at it, the old house finally burnt down in 1901. Today there is a picnic ground nearby with trails connecting it to the surrounding mountains and wilderness.

Photo from mid 1800s Original Willey House is the smaller attached building in the back right.

Photo from mid to late 1800s. Original Willey House is the smaller attached building in the back right.

A few miles past the site where the Willey house used to stand, Bryan pulled his Jeep off the road and parked next to Sawyer River. The freezing rain still battered the outside of the jeep, loudly striking the hard plastic roof top like a snare drum. Bryan felt natures call so he threw on his rain jacket, opened the driver side door and disappeared down a trail into the wind and rain. I hid in the warm, dry confines of the jeep with his dog Luke and pulled out my cell phone to text Chris. I typed something simple like “We’re here” before putting it in a plastic sandwich bag and away inside my coat pocket.

Chris and Mike were on their way up to meet us for a weekend of camping and exploring Crawford Notch and it would be another hour or two until they arrived. Out the windshield in front of me I could see Mt. Tremont looming high above the valley floor. It’s summit was obscured by white wisps of clouds but to the north and south I could see the hope of blue sky. After a few minutes the blue began to spread and before long the bright golden sun emerged from behind the clouds, illuminating the peak fall foliage covering the mountains and valleys below. It was a stunning show and another reminder of how fast the weather can change around here.


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