When Mother Nature gets out her paintbrush, foliage aficionados flock to New England. Leaf peeping is not a modern development. The leaf peeper has traveled New England’s countryside since well before Peter Pan’s People Professionals began hauling them up here.
In the 19th century, people took trains and stagecoaches to ogle at breathtaking scenery. They came less for colorful leaves and more for the sublime beauty of the mountains. Thomas Starr King wrote about it in his 1859 guidebook, The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscapes and Poetry. Travelers, he wrote, not to eat or look at houses. They came “to be introduced to the richest feasts of loveliness and grandeur that are spread by the Summer around the valleys, and to be refreshed by the draperies of verdure, shadow, cloud, and color, that are hung by the Creator around and above the hills.”
By the White Hills, King meant New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Today, people who want to drink in the mountains’ draperies of verdure can, for example, drive Route 16 to North Conway. Or they can take the Kancamagus from Conway to Lincoln. Or I-93 to Plymouth and beyond. Each trip takes several hours.
But back in 1859, it took days to see those richest feasts of loveliness and grandeur.
Leaf Peeping Guide, 1859
Thomas Starr King wrote that the White Hills had two mountain ranges, the Mount Washington and the Franconia. (Actually, there are at least 16.)
Nineteenth-century leaf peepers (or perhaps “verdure visitors”) faced the challenge of wildly inaccurate guidebooks. For example, maps regularly sold in mountain hotels placed Montreal south of Portland. Another guidebook described the Profile (later the Old Man in the Mountain) as a short walk from the Willey House. They are 30 miles apart.
King recommended New Hampshire above other New England destinations. “It confers the most benefit on the mind and taste,” he wrote. The landscape splendor of a noble mountain will benefit the traveler with “a perception and love of the refined grandeur.” Also, chaste sublimity and airy majesty — overlaid with tender and polished bloom.
He described four ways to the two highest mountain ranges in New Hampshire: the valleys of the Saco, the Merrimac River, the Androscoggin River and the tributaries of the Connecticut. You could take a railroad to all of them. And, according to his guidebook, you could reach some point among the highest hills within 24 hours of leaving New York!
The Androscoggin Valley was the quickest way to the White Mountains, wrote King. “This noble river flows by the extreme easterly base of that range, where the forms are the most noble and imposing.” One got there by leaving Boston in the morning by the Boston and Maine or the Eastern Railroad to Portland. At noon, travelers could take the Grand Trunk Railway to the Alpine House in Gorham, N.H., reaching it by 5 pm. Then they could take a stagecoach ride — for 1-1/2 to two hours — seven or eight miles farther to the Glen House.
King recommended staying a day or two in Gorham to drink in the “wildness and majesty of The Glen” (Mt. Washington, Tuckerman Ravine and the northern Presidential Range).
The Saco Valley
To go by theSaco route, the traveler had first take a train to a “charming sheet of water,” Lake Winnipisoggee (Winnipesaukee). It took about five hours by the Boston and Maine Railroad, connecting with the Cocheco Railroad at Dover, which ended at Alton Bay. Or they could take the Boston, Concord and Montreal railroad to the station at Weir’s (now Weir’s Beach). From those train stations the traveler had to take a steamer to Center Harbor, 30 miles from Alton or 12 miles from Weir’s. Today the traveler can take that trip aboard the Mount Washington, a descendant of the paddle steamer that first plied the charming sheet in 1872.
From Center Harbor, the only way to get to Crawford Notch was to take a stagecoach 62 miles. If one left Boston in the morning, a traveler could eat quickly in Center Harbor and take a stage to Conway through “cool, dark towers and domes that swell along the northwest.” In Conway an excellent hotel awaited the traveler, who could then rest up for some serious leaf peeping the next day.
Conway, however, was still 32 miles from the “desolation and gloom” of Crawford Notch/ Travelers took the morning stage to get there. People who got stuck in Conway because they missed the morning stage could hire a wagon and drive nine miles to Chocorua Lake. There they’d find the “ragged, torn, lonely, and proud-peaked mountain reflects the ravage of its slopes and the vigor of its lines.”
The Merrimac Route
The Merrimack starts at the Pemigewesset River, which opens the natural avenue to the Franconia Range. Travelers could reach it in a day from Boston. Today they can reach it in two hours via I-93.
Back then, they’d ride the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad or the Boston and Lowell to Plymouth, N.H., arriving by noon. After eating in Plymouth, they’d take a stagecoach to the Flume House or the Profile House, both “excellent” according to King, and arrive by sunset. On a nice day, the ride would afford “various and perpetual delight.”
In 1859. the Old Man of the Mountain was known as The Profile. New Hampshire native Daniel Webster named it with a quote. “Up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men,” he wrote. But the Old Man name hadn’t caught on yet.
That didn’t stop Thomas Starr King from waxing elegiac (and at times incomprehensible) when describing Franconia Notch’s most famous feature. “The best time to see the Profile is about four in the afternoon of a summer day,” he wrote. “Then, standing by the little lake at the base and looking up, one fulfills the appeal of our great transcendental poet in a literal sense in looking at the jutting rocks, and,
through their granite seeming
Sees the smile of reason beaming.”
Starr lists several ways to reach Franconia Notch for leaf peeping. A traveler could take the train from Plymouth to Littleton, N.H., and then by stage to one of several hotels. Anyone who went to Littleton first could leave Boston in the morning and reach the Profile House before the purple faded from Lafayette Mountain and the Profile’s expression faded out in the twilight.
Another way was to take the Grand Trunk Railroad to Northumberland, N.H., and then the stage nine miles to Lancaster, N.H. One would leave Boston in the morning and arrive around 8 or 9 pm. Starr highly recommended Lancaster, about four or five hours from Franconia Notch. However, he strongly advised taking short drives, presumably in wagons or stagecoaches, in the area around Lancaster.
He recommended the spectacle from Bray Hill, on the edge of Whitefield, N.H. There, at five in the afternoon, Nature spreads “as gorgeous a feast of color” as New Hampshire can supply.
Proper Leaf Peeping
King advised spending a long time to drink in the beauty of the White Mountains. He also chastised those who rushed through the scenery.
Most people, he wrote, reach Conway first, then hurry through North Conway to Franconia Notch on Day Two. On Day Three they climb Mount Washington. Then on Day Four they go to Franconia for “an equally rapid glimpse of its treasures.”
“A large proportion of the summer travellers in New Hampshire bolt the scenery, as a man, driven by work, bolts his dinner at a restaurant,” he wrote. They may as well be train conductors, he huffed.
The mountains, he wrote, “are tardy in forming intimate acquaintanceships.”
They only show their “aspects of superior majesty” and their “fleeting loveliness of hue” to the calmer eye, he wrote. They reveal themselves “to the man who waits a day or two in order to unthink his city habits, domesticate himself as their guest, and bide their time.”
Now in paperback!
This story was updated in 2023.
Check out The New Hampshire Historical Society’s on-line exhibit, “Art and Tourism in the White Mountains, 1850-1900.” It features 19th century paintings in the style of the Hudson River School as well as amateur drawings and watercolors. Images: Kancamagus By Polaron at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17848792. Featured image of New Hampshire in Augutmn by By Werner Kunz – https://www.flickr.com/photos/werkunz/4058009019/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9480827.