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12 April 2013

A Short Trek to the Historic Site of the Mt. Willard Section House

The historic site of the Mt. Willard Section House is located along the railway corridor that runs along the west wall of the Crawford Notch.  It's near the base of the massive cliff on the south side of Mt. Willard.

I hiked to this site from Rt. 302 via an unmarked pathway which follows the same corridor that was used by the family who occupied the house that once stood along the tracks.  It's a short hike of about 0.2 mile, but it's a steep climb with an elevation gain of about 300 ft over that short distance.

Presented below is some background information which was taken from a variety of resources that are publically available on the Internet.  And, if you are interested in seeing original floor plans and drawings for the Section House, click HERE.
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The Maine Central railroad constructed this precariously placed dwelling in 1887 to house the section foreman and crew who maintained the track along the face of Crawford Notch through blizzards and avalanches. The house was located less than 20 ft from the tracks.  It could only be reached by rail, or by climbing a steep path up the side of the mountain.

In 1903 it became the home of Loring Evans (section foreman) and his wife Hattie, who was also hired as an employee of the railroad to cook and wash for the four crew members who shared this home. Hattie gave birth to four children during the first eight years of living at this home beside the tracks.  A special train was dispatched from Bartlett to bring a doctor to attend each birth.

On Thanksgiving day in 1913, tragedy befell the Evans family when Loring was struck and killed by a locomotive while clearing ice from switches at Crawfords.   Hattie decided to stay on and to continue caring for the section crew and raising her four young children in her mountain home.

The children (Gordon, Mildred, Raymond, and Enola) grew up beside the tracks.  The trains took them to and from school.  Since the train could not stop on the uphill grade, the conductor reached down from the rear platform and plucked each of them from the ground as they stood at intervals along the side of the tracks.

The house was occupied by members of the Evans family until 1942.  In 1972 the house was demolished after being heavily damaged by fire.  Up until that time, people driving through the Crawford Notch would gaze with wonder at the house which clung precariously to the mountainside.

The story of the Evans Family and their life in the Section House is the subject of a book entitled "Life by the Tracks" by Virginia Downs.
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Shown below is an old postcard, followed by an old photo.  Both show the Mt. Willard Section House when it was still standing.  These images are publically available on the Internet.
This post card was postmarked in Littleton, NH, on July 30, 1917
Photo from Ray Evans collection, and available via courtesy of Robert Girouard
The next series of photos were taken by me during my visit on 11-Apr-2013.
Memorial erected at Section House site
Looking southbound across the Willey Brook Trestle (Section House is behind me)
Looking northbound toward Section House site (trestle is behind me)
Looking into basement which contains remains of heating unit for Section House
Set of stone stairs along south side of Section House
Sweeping vista of Crawford Notch from Section House location
There are numerous artifacts in the vicinity of the Section House.  Of course, it is illegal to remove artifacts from a historic site, but they may be photographed (unless specified to the contrary). 
Some of the many artifacts that I spotted on my final approach to the Section House site
Permanent display of artifacts adjacent to the Section House memorial marker
The next photo really has nothing to do with the Mt. Willard Section House historic site.  By walking a short distance northward from the site, you can get a distant view of Silver Cascade which is located on the opposite wall (east side) of the Crawford Notch.  The following snapshot is highly zoomed.  Those with better cameras than my simple "point and shoot" are able to obtain some stunning photos from this location when water is at peak flow.
Highly-zoomed image of Silver Cascade

To sum it up, I'll end with a word of caution.  This hike was done during the season when the Conway Scenic Railroad isn't running.  Perhaps it's being overly cautious to state this, but it would be prudent to forego doing this hike when the trains are running. (Click HERE to access the railroad's seasonal schedule.) 


Summerset said...

Very interesting! I never knew there was a house up there at one time. Imagine living up there full time? The views and experience must have been incredible.

Ellen Snyder said...

Hi John,

Thanks for this absolutely cool post. I did not know this story. The post cards are awesome -- what a place to grow up as a kid! Your photos of current conditions are also excellent. It reminds me of how hardy folk were back in the day and how tenuous life was. What a strong woman to keep raising 4 kids and caring for the crew!

Thanks for the story.


1HappyHiker said...

Hi Summerset,

Thank you for your comments!

This hike was small in terms of distance, but BIG in terms of the “Wow Factor”! The Crawford Notch vista from this location is awesome. Equally awesome is standing at the spot where the house once stood, and then imagining what it must have been like to have actually lived there and raise your family in such a unique location.


1HappyHiker said...

Ellen, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this posting! The story is indeed a clear reminder of the hardiness of folks “back in the day”! For certain, the family experienced many hardships living year round at this location. However, on the flip side of the coin, there must have been unimaginable beauty as they watched the seasons pass by from this unique perch in the Crawford Notch.

Thank you for your comments . . . very much appreciated!


Rita Wechter said...

Hi John,

I loved the story behind this trek! I agree with Ellen about the toughness of people a century ago.; we humans have become awfully soft in the last 100 years!
Thanks for attaching the old post card and photo—they really show the precarious setting for the house. Imagine living there and what it must have felt like every time the train roared by.
Have you read the "Life by the Tracks" book? It sounds interesting.
And lastly... great waterfall shot!

1HappyHiker said...

Hi Rita,

Thank you so much for such thoughtful and perceptive comments about this blog posting!

Regarding “Life by the Tracks”, I checked it out of our local library and skimmed through it. It contains a plethora of interesting photos, but the textual part was different from what I had expected. Rather than reading like a story with a beginning, middle and end, it was more or less a collection of short essays about members of the Evans family and other contemporaries associated with the family.


Anonymous said...

Hello John!. Great photo's. Another great book with information of the section house and the area is in the book "Hart's Location" by Marion L. Varney. Published in 1997. It's about Hart's location but has some of Raymond Evans photo's. It tells of all the families that lived at that section house. It gives more info on things that went on to further east of the section house. Yes that corner stone or whatever it is..puzzles me to every time I go up there. I hear there is a guestbook up there also for all the visitors that go up there. Robert J. Girouard.

1HappyHiker said...

Robert, thank you so much for taking time to respond, and for your very kind words. Also, thank you for including a reference to “Hart’s Location” by Marion L. Varney. I’m aware of that book, and indeed it does contain a lot of information pertinent to the history of the Mt. Willard Section House.

Best regards,