Snow in large amounts sliding down the side of a mountain is called an avalanche. Earth, usually wet earth, commonly called mud, sliding down a mountain is called a landslide.
Anyone who is at all knowledgeable about Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire has doubtless heard the story of the tragic and deadly landslide at that locality in August of 1826 involving the Willey family. This account, though, is about another devastating landslide in another area of the White Mountains which probably fewer Granite State residents know about.
Early Springtime in New England is also called mud season. The fact is, however, that mud can, and sometimes is, produced during other seasons of the year when large amounts of rain fall and mix with previously dry earth , a process that is apt to take place quickly. It happened quickly and with devastating results on the morning of July 10, 1885 near Jefferson, New Hampshire on the north side of Cherry Mountain, also known as Mount Martha. The landslide happened on a Friday morning at 6:00 o’clock when farmers in the valley below the mountains had already begun their work day. The greatest loss of property was that belonging to Oscar Stanley who operated a farm in the meadows beneath Cherry Mountain.
Five weeks prior to the landslide, Mr. Stanley had lost his house to a fire and with the help of Moses and Cliff McDonald of Whitefield was in the process of building a new one, starting with the “ L” section, probably the custom in that era. His wife and children were staying with her father who lived half a mile away while Stanley and a hired man, 24 year old Don Walker, were sleeping in the barn. The barn was an impressive structure, 40 feet wide and 75 feet long, and was home to a horse, four cows, a calf, three swine, and an undetermined number of poultry. Some furniture that was saved from the house when it burnt was stored in the barn.
A heavy rain shower had poured onto the mountain that morning, and one witness reported seeing two heavy cloud formations come from different directions and join at the top of a prominence on Cherry Mountain called Owl’s Head because of its peculiar shape. Many believed that the abundance of rain loosened the earth and ledge on the side of Owl’s Head and started the landslide; others felt that a bolt of lightning had dislodged a huge hunk of ledge which initiated the slide. Whatever the cause, an estimated million tons of mud and boulders rolled down the mountain side taking with it numerous trees including “…no less than 25 acres of thick, standing timber.” The slide travelled for two miles and the Stanley farm was in its path.
Oscar Stanley and the two McDonalds were working in the new house and the hired man, Walker, was milking in the barn when they heard a large noise which, at first was mistaken for thunder or a train on the railroad tracks. Oscar, however, ran to the door and saw the mass of dirt coming down the mountain and yelled to his companions and they all ran and barely escaped being swept away by the landslide. Oscar afterwards said “My barn and house were struck and smashed like eggshells.” Don Walker was buried in what had been the barn and was severely wounded , but was still alive when he was pulled out of the ruins. He died of his wounds four days later. The horse and one cow minus its horns, though buried in the mud, survived the ordeal though the rest of the farm animals perished. Besides his buildings Mr. Stanley lost 40 acres of his best farmland including his crops of potatoes, oats, wheat, and a large garden.
Writing two days after the tragedy a reporter for The Monitor said “ Today over 5,000 people have visited the scene of the disaster, coming by train, by team, and on foot, from miles around. A special train of 12 cars arrived from Groveton…”. He predicted that visitors would soon be rushing into Jefferson by the thousands and encouraged them to do so, citing the attractiveness of the scenery despite the destruction left by the slide. The reporter also had some good words for the Whitefield and Jefferson Railroad and the Waumbek Hotel , recommending the meals served there and its stable run by J.S. Huntress.
Probably because of the advent of the automobile the railroad line was discontinued and the Waumbek Hotel with its good view of Cherry Mountain (Mount Martha) four miles away was destroyed by fire on May 9, 1928, but the beauty of the landscape (not the landslide) remains.
What exactly triggered this massive landslide remains a mystery, but it appears that the huge amount of rain falling in a short period of time was at least a contributing factor. However, one might want to keep in mind that it has been suggested in these more “ modern” times that the Cherry Mountain Road is considered perhaps the best spot in the State of New Hampshire for signs of the elusive sasquatch, otherwise known as “Bigfoot”. Do you suppose that something other than rain or lightning could have moved the boulder or section of ledge that was the trigger of that massive landslide?
Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr., lives in New Hampton.