When the Samuel Willey family moved to Crawford Notch in 1825, they unwittingly set in motion a chain of events that turned the White Mountains into a tourist attraction.
The mountains were a desolate wilderness in the decades after the American Revolution. Nonetheless, Willey took his wife, five children and two hired men to live in a small, remote house in the mountains. Called the Old Notch House, it had been built in 1793.
During his first year, Samuel Willey and his two hired hands expanded the house. It stood in the shadow of a mountain now called Mt. Willey.
The men turned it into an inn for travelers along the deserted notch road.
Willey Family Tragedy
In June 1826 a heavy rain terrified the Willey family when it caused a landslide across the Saco River. Sam Willey decided to build a stone shelter above the house. He thought the family could find safety there in case of another landslide.
On Aug. 28, 1826, a violent rainstorm caused a mudslide on the mountainside. The Willey family and the two hired men took refuge in the stone shelter. The landslide killed all nine of them, but it missed the house they’d fled. A ledge above the house spared it from destruction.
Rescuers found unmade beds, clothes strewn about and an open Bible on a table in the house, and they concluded the family had left in a panic. They found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, two of their daughters and the two hired hands. But they never found the bodies of the other three children.
News of the Willey family tragedy spread through newspapers and Theodore Dwight’s guidebook, The Northern Traveler. The intact Willey family house began to attract tourists. Then it began to attract artists and writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story about the Willey family tragedy, called The Ambitious Guest.
White Mountain Tourism
Others exploited the tragedy as well. A mountain guide named Ethan Crawford, who grew up in the notch, built an inn. He called it the Notch House, and his brother Thomas ran it. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster and Henry David Thoreau stayed at the inn.
Eventually the Crawford family gave their name to the mountain pass, previously called the White Mountain Notch.
Samuel Willey’s brother, the Rev. Benjamin Willey, charged for guided tours of the Willey family house. In 1845, a tourism entrepreneur named Horace Fabyan turned the Willey house into a 50-room hotel.
John Frederick Kensett
Thomas Cole, member of the Hudson River School of painting, found inspiration in the Willey family tragedy. He painted a landscape called Distant View of the Slide that Destroyed the Willey Family. Other painters followed, and prints and paintings of the White Mountains drew more tourists to the region.
No painting did more for White Mountain tourism, though, than John Frederick Kensett’s Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway in 1851.
Kensett’s image became the single most effective mid-nineteenth-century advertisement for the scenic charms of the White Mountains and of North Conway in particular, wrote Barbara J. MacAdam as the Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of America Art at the Hood Museum of Dartmouth College.
An engraver made a copy of the painting, which was sold to 13,000 subscribers of the American Art Union. Artists copied the painting, and Currier & Ives turned the engraving into a lithograph in 1860. It surpassed images of the Willey family house as the best known landscape view of the era.
Kensett’s other landscape paintings achieved great popularity, partly because he painted newly fashionable resorts like Newport, R.I.
Born in Cheshire, Conn., Kensett followed his father into the engraving trade, but tired of it and turned to painting. He bought land on an island off Darien, Conn., and called it Contentment. In 1872 his own life ended in tragedy, when he jumped into the Long Island Sound to save the life of a friend’s wife. Not only did he fail to save her, he caught pneumonia and died a month later.
The Willey family house is now an interpretive center within Crawford Notch State Park.
This story about the Willey family was updated in 2023.