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Willem Lange: Searching Out the Spooks and Spirits of the White Mountains

Crawford Notch, N.H.

It’s probably hard for most people 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.

The Indians originally used the notch when traveling from the coast to the north country. They left hardly a trace; it was in their interest not to leave any. But then it was “discovered” by a pair of white hunters a couple of years before the Revolution. They blazed a trail through it, and local entrepreneurs soon built hostels for adventurous travelers trying to get away from the rigors of life in Boston. Now a beautifully engineered highway climbs the long grade — the roar of heavy trucks fills the space between the cliffs on either side — and a tourist railway, another engineering marvel, hugs the west wall and rumbles over spectacular trestles toward the summit.

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, in 1778, Nancy Barton, a 16-year-old servant 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 Jim 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. O’Connor 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 book’s chapters.

We’ve been hiking today in Franconia Notch, the westernmost of the big three notches through the White Mountains. Interstate 93 narrows to two lanes as it passes through the notch, thanks to the efforts of determined conservationists during the interstate 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.) A native of Lowell, Mass., Davis 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 Davis’ 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, beginning a marriage characterized by infidelity and argument.

It’s a long story; but years after an inquest jury had failed to find Davis guilty of the blow to Farnsworth’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 Farnsworth 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.” O’Connor 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 on the stretch of Route 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 O’Connor 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?”

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.