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A Yankee Notebook

September 1, 2013


WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST, NH – It’s hard for most people, probably, to imagine what the White Mountain notches looked like before modern highways snaked through them. Gazing down on Crawford Notch from the outlook on Mount Willard the other day, I thought of the old stereopticon photo I’d seen of the place when it was traversed by a stage turnpike: rough and rocky as a current White Mountain climbing path.

Crawford Notch has seen its share of drama. An extraordinary cloudburst in 1826 swelled the Saco River far out of its banks and triggered a landslide on the mountain above the home of the Samuel Willey family. Attempting to reach safety in a shelter nearby, the entire family and its hired help were all killed; the house they had fled was untouched.

Years before that, in 1778, Nancy Barton, a 16-year-old servant girl in Jefferson, fell in love with Jim, one of the hands on the farm where they both worked. Though they had mutually pledged their troth (as they used to say), and she had given the young man her savings as a dowry, he was persuaded to take off one winter day for Portsmouth, to join the Continental Army.

Nancy was a game gal, however, and decided to go after her faithless lover. Against advice from the other hands on the farm, she set out in her long skirts and walking shoes to hike through Crawford Notch. She never made it; if she had, we wouldn’t have this story. She was found frozen to death, sitting beside a brook she had waded, soaking her clothes. The men who found her buried her there. The brook, a waterfall, a pond, and a trail there are all now named after Nancy Barton.

How do I know all this? I’ve just spent the day hiking with Marianne O’Connor, a young educator and author who in 2008 published Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire. Marianne has researched all the spooky stories, inscrutable mysteries, and unsolved murders of the White Mountains. The Willey Slide and Nancy Barton are two of the chapters in the book.

We’ve been hiking today in Franconia Notch, the westernmost of the big three notches through the White Mountains. Route I-93 narrows to two lanes as it passes through the notch, thanks to the efforts of determined conservationists during the interstate highway building boom. The traffic was intense at the major tourist destinations; cars were parked along the shoulder for at least half a mile at Lafayette Place, where several hiking trails originate; and the state campground displayed a big sign that read, FULL. But just a couple miles west, in the valley of Coppermine Brook, our party hiked unaccompanied up to Bridalveil Falls.

Henry Thoreau is supposed to have hiked to Bridalveil Falls. The important phrase in there is “supposed to.” Looking for indisputable facts in any of the tales of the mountains is not a fruitful pursuit. Personally, I don’t care; what I’m after is the story.

And there’s a good one in this valley. Bette Davis is the best-known character. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I have a soft spot in my heart for that allegedly most difficult of women, because she and I went to the same prep school. But then, so did Laura Linney.) A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, Bette knew a bit about these mountains. When one of her films was premiering in nearby Sugar Hill, she took rooms at a local inn named Peckett’s. A manager at the inn, a chisel-featured chap named Arthur “Farnie” Farnsworth, excited Bette’s libido. Noting that it was his job each evening to round up any errant guests, she apparently contrived to get lost up Coppermine Brook, where he found her. They were married shortly after, formalizing a relationship characterized by, more than anything else, infidelity and argument.

It’s a long story; but years after an inquest jury had failed to find Bette guilty of the blow to Farnie’s head that had led a week or so later to his death, she confided to Tennessee Williams that she had bashed him with an iron table lamp after finding him in bed with Ann Sheridan. In the 1960s she sold the estate she and Farny had built in Sugar Hill. Shortly afterward, there appeared, bolted to a large boulder in the middle of the brook, an inconspicuous and very hard-to-find bronze plaque, “In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth, “The Keeper of Stray Ladies, Pecketts 1939, Presented by a Grateful One.” Marianne led us to it; I’d never have found it alone.

In the afternoon we hiked up Indian Head, near the southern end of Franconia Notch, and looked down upon the stretch of US 3 where in 1961 Barney and Betty Hill, a couple driving home at night from a vacation in Canada, claimed to have been abducted, inspected, and “explored” by aliens in a UFO. As Marianne described their experience, I watched her carefully, remembering her other stories about ghosts and poltergeists in mountain huts, the spirits of dead climbers hovering around Mount Washington, and the wailing often heard near Nancy Barton’s grave. I thought, “She really believes all this! You don’t suppose...? Nah! On the other hand, why not?”

Photo by Willem lange