Mount Washington

Mount Washington, located in Coös County, New Hampshire, has an elevation of 6,288 feet (1,917 m) making in the tallest mountain Thoreau ascended. Thoreau made two trips to Washington during his life, the first in 1839 with his brother John Thoreau Jr. and the second in 1858 in which he was joined by Edward Hoar, Harrison Gray Otis Blake, and Theo Brown.

Thoreau gives a brief account of his first trip to Washington with John in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (pp. 85-91). His journal entries (pp. 90-1) from the same trip are vague and lack the same attention to detail seen in his later entries.

In 1854 construction of the Mt. Washington Carriage Road began (now called the Mt. Washington Auto Road). In 1856 the road reached the halfway point to the summit, but work was halted the same year due to a lack of funds. During Thoreau’s second trip to Washington in 1858 he hiked partially up the mountain using the newly built Road.

The 1858 excursion lasted about three weeks, part of which was spent travelling to and from the White Mountains. However, the trip did not always run smoothly. Thoreau’s packer William H. H. Wentworth, who assisted him in carrying supplies up the mountain, accidentally set fire to several acres of forest. Several days later while camping in Tuckerman’s Ravine Thoreau took a fall and sprained his ankle. The exact circumstances surrounding how he fell are unclear, but years later Ralph Waldo Emerson theorized that Thoreau had spotted an Arnica mollis growing on the mountainside and was distracted just long enough to lose his balance. Thoreau’s injury proved to be minor and after their descent of Washington the group continued on to hike the neighboring Mount Lafayette.

Thoreau writes to Blake 29 June 1858:

Mr. Blake,—
Edward Hoar and I propose to start for the White Mountains in a covered wagon, with one horse, on the morning of Thursday the 1st of July, intending to explore the mountain tops botanically, and camp on them at least several time. Will you take a seat in the wagon with us? Mr. Hoar prefers to hire the horse and wagon himself. Let us hear by express, as soon as you can, whether you will join us here by the earliest train Thursday morning, or Wednesday night. Bring your map of the mountains, and as much provision for the road as you can,—hard bread, sugar, tea, meat, etc.,—for we intend to live like gipsies; also, a blanket and some thick clothes for the mountain top.

(The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 516-7)

Thoreau writes to Blake 1 July 1858:

July 1st. Last Monday evening Mr. Edward Hoar said that he thought of going to the White Mountains. I remarked casually that I should like to go well enough if I could afford it. Whereupon he declared that if I would go with him, he would hire a horse and wagon, so that the ride would cost me nothing, and we would explore the mountain tops botanically, camping on them many nights. The next morning I suggested you and Brown’s accompanying us in another wagon, and we could all camp and cook, gipsy-like, along the way,—or, perhaps, if the horse could draw us, you would like to bear half the expense of the horse and wagon, and take a seat with us. He liked either proposition, but said, that if you would take a seat with us, he would prefer to hire the horse and wagon himself. You could contribute something else if you pleased. Supposing that Brown would be confined, I wrote to you accordingly, by express on Tuesday morning, via Boston, stating that we should start to-day, suggesting provision, thick clothes, etc., and asking for an answer; but I have not received one. I have just heart hat you may be at Sterling, and now write to say that we shall still be glad if you will join us at Senter Harbor, where we expect to be next Monday morning. In any case, will you please direct a letter to us there at once?

(The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 518-9)

While in Tuckerman’s Ravine the group encountered several reporters working for the New York Tribune. An article describing Thoreau and his companions was published in the New York Tribune 17 July 1858:

Mr. Thoreau doubtless understands as well as any mountaineer how to make himself comfortable under such circumstances, but we could not help shivering, as we looked down the ravine the next morning and saw the banks of snow that are all but eternal, and the little black pools a mile below, beside which the party camped for four nights (pp. 6).

Three months after Thoreau’s death in 1862 Ralph Waldo Emerson writes a memorial piece titled “Thoreau” for The Atlantic Monthly in which he recounts the fall Thoreau took on Washington in 1858:

“At Mount Washington, in Tuckerman’s Ravine, Thoreau had a bad fall, and sprained his foot. As he was in the act of getting up from his fall, he saw for the first time the leaves of the Arnica mollis.”