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WILLEY

THE WILLEY FAMILY CATASTROPHE IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

 IN AUGUST 1826
 

This was transcribed by Karen Heath Penman Jan 2001
From photocopy of transcript on film by Nettie White Wolcott, comp. 1958. 
 


Original film is in possession of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family History Library in  Salt Lake City, UT.   Film title is :"A Manuscript copy of the Biography of Chandler Graham Heath of Fryeburg, Oxford Co., ME and Mineral Point, Iowa Co. WI and The Willey Family Catastrophe in the White Mountains of  New  Hampshire in August 1826"


THE Willey House, Mr. Spaulding tells us, was built as early as 1793. In 1803, a road was laid out through the Notch to Bartlett, at a cost of $4,0000.00, and so many teams passed with produce that it was quite necessary and not unprofitable to keep a house and stable in the Notch for their accommodation. In the Autumn 1825, Mr. Samuel WiIley Jr. with his family moved into the little tenement, which has derived such tragic interest from his name.

 

During the following Winter, we are told that his hospitable kindness and shelter were greeted with as much gratitude by travelers who were obliged to contend with biting frost, the furious storms and the drifted snow of the Notch, as the Monks of St. Bernard receive from the chilled wanderers of the Alps. The teamsters used to say, that when a furious northwester blew through the Notch in Winter, it took two men to hold one man's hair on. In the Spring of 1826, Mr. Willey began to enlarge the conveniences of the little inn for entertaining guests, and in the early Summer the spot looked very attractive (1. Starr King)

There was a beautiful meadow In front stretching to the foot of the frowning wall of Mt. Webster and gemmed with tall rock maples. To be sure Mt. Willey rose at a rather threatening angle some 2000 ft. behind the house, but it was not so savage In appearance as Mt. Webster opposite, and pretty much the whole of its broad steep wall was draped in green. In a bright June morning the little meadow farm flecked with nibbling sheep and cooled by the patches of shadow flung far out over the green grass from the thick maple foliage, must have seemed to a traveler pausing there and hearing the pleasant murmur of the-Saco (river) and the thrill sweetness of the Canada whistler as romantic a spot as one could fly to, to escape the fever and the perils of the World.


Late in June, Mr. 'Willey and his wife, looking from the back windows of their house in the afternoon of a misty day, saw a large mass of the mountain above them sliding through the fog toward their meadows and almost in line of the house itself. Rocks and earth came plunging down sweeping whole trees before them that would stand erect In the swift slide for rods before they fell. The slide moved under their eye to the very foot of the mountain and hurled Its frightful burden across the road.

 

At first they were greatly terrified and resolved to remove from the Notch. But Mr. Willey, on reflection felt confident that such an event was not likely to occur again, and was satisfied with building a strong hut or cave a little below the house in the Notch, which would certainly be secure and to which the-family might fly for shelter If they should see or hear another avalanche that seemed to, threaten their home.

 

Later in the summer there was a long hot drought. By the middle of August the earth to a great depth in the mountain region was dried to powder. Then came several days of South wind betokening copious rain. On Sunday the 27th of August, the rain began to fall. On Monday the 28th, the storm was very severe, and the rain was a deluge. Towards the evening, the clouds around the White Mountain range and over the Notch, to those who saw them from a distance, were very heavy, black, and awful. It was plain that they were to be busy in their office as a (Factory of river-and of rain), Later in the Night, they poured their burden in streams. Between nine o'clock in the evening and the dawn of Tuesday, the Saco rose 24 ft. and swept, the whole intervale between the Notch and Conway. The little Rocky Branch in Bartlett, a feeder of the Saco, brought down trees rocks, and logs from the hillside and formed a dam near a log cabin on its meadow, which made in a little time a pond of water that undermined and floated the house, so that the family could not escape. They climbed into the upper part of the cabin and for hours were tossed on the mad flood, hearing the roar of the water and the storm, and expecting every moment to be crushed or drowned. The cabin however, held together and when the water subsided, they were rescued from their ark. Near by on the Ellis River, which also pours into the Saco, a herd of colts were swept from a yard where they were penned, and their dead bodies were found mangled by rocks and roots several miles below.

Around Ethan Crawford's house just below the Notch a pond of over 200 acres was formed in a few hours: a bridge was dashed against a shed and carried away 90 ft. of it, many of the sheep were drowned, and those which escaped looked as though they had been washed in a mud puddle. The water came within 18 in. of the door, and between the house and stable a river was running, and the channel of the Ammonoosuc near by which on Sunday morning was a few yards wide, and over hung by interlaced trees of the ancient forest was torn out ten times as wide by a mighty torrent that whirled off the banks and trees, and filled the broader bed with boulders, amid which in Summer now the river is almost lost. In the little settlement of Gilead also thousands of tons of dirt and rocks and forest were loosened from the over hanging hills. The roar of the slides was far more frightful than the thunder and the trails of fire from the rushing boulders, more awful than the lightning. For hours the inhabitants were in consternation. Their houses trembled as though an earthquake shook them and they expected every moment to be buried under an avalanche.


At Abel Crawford's six miles from the Willey-House, the river over-flowed its banks, beat down the fences, tore up the grain,, dashed to pieces a new saw mill, swept the logs, boards and ruins into the sand, and then circling the house flooded the cellar, sapped part of the wall and rose 2 ft. on the lower floors. Mr. Crawford was not at home, but the heroic wife placed lighted candles in the windows, and to prevent the house from being demolished by the jam, that was threatening it, stood at a window near the corner and in the midst of the tempest pushed away with a pole the timber which the mad current would send as a battering ram against the walls, and now and then the lightning would show her the drowning sheep bleating for help which were hurried past the house in the flood.

On the morning of Tuesday the sun rose into a cloudless sky and the air was remarkably transparent. The North Conway farmers busy saving what they could from the raging flood of the Saco, saw clearly how terrible the storm had been upon the Mt. Washington range. The whole line was devastated by landslides. Great grooves could be, distinctly seen where the torrents had torn out all the loose earth and stones and left the solid ledge of the mountain bare. Wherever there was a brook, stones from 2 to 5 ft. in diameter were rolled down by thousands in tracks from ten to twenty rods wide dashing huge hemlocks before them and leaving no root or tree in its path.

Soon after a party ascending by the Ammonoosuc counted 30 slides 11 along the acclivity they climbed, some of which ravaged more than a 100 acres of the wilderness not only mowing off trees, but tearing out all the soil and-rocks to a depth of 20 to 30 ft., and in the declivities toward North Conway, it was thought that this storm dismantled more of the great range during the terrible hours of that Monday night than all the rains of a 100 years before.

What had been the fate of the little house in the Notch and of the Willey family during the deluge? All communications with them on Tuesday morning was cut off by the floods of the Saco. But at 4 o'clock in the P.M. of Tuesday, a traveler passing Ethan Crawford's some 7 miles above the Willey House, desired, if possible to get through the Notch that night. By swimming a horse across the widest part of the flood, he was put on the track. In the narrowest part of the road within the Notch, the water had torn out huge rocks and left holes 20 ft. deep and had opened trenches, also ten feet deep and 20 ft. long. But the traveler, while daylight lasted could make his way on foot over the torn and obstructed road and managed to reach the lower part of the Notch just before dark. The little house was standing, but no human inmates to greet him and what desolation around?
 

The mountain behind it once robed in beautiful green was striped for 2 or 3 miles with ravines deep and freshly torn. The lovely little meadow in front was covered with wet sand and rocks intermixed with branches of trees with slivered trunks, whose splintered ends looked similar to an old peeled birch broom, and with dead logs, which had evidently long been buried beneath the mountain soil. Not even any of the bushes that grew up on the meadow in front of the house were to be seen. The slide of the mountain had evidently divided, not many rods above the house, against a sharp ledge of rock. It had then joined its frightful mass in front of the house and pushed along the bed of the Saco, covering the meadow in some places 30 ft. with the frightful debris and mire. The traveler entered the house and went through it. The doors were all open. The beds and their clothing showed that they had been hurriedly left, a Bible was lying open on a table, as if it had been read just before the family had departed. The traveler consoled himself at last with the feeling that the inmates had escaped to Abel Crawford's below and then tried to sleep in one of the deserted beds. But in the night he heard moanings which frightened him so much, that he lay sleepless til dawn. Then he found that they were the groans of an ox in the stable that was partly crushed under broken timbers, which had fallen in. The 2 horses were killed. He released the ox and went on his way toward Bartlett.
 

Before any news of the disaster had reached Conway, the faithful dog came down to Mr. Lovejoy's and by moanings tried to make the family understand what had taken place. Not succeeding he left and after being seen frequently on the road, some 'times heading North and then South running almost at top speed as though bent on some absorbing errand he soon disappeared from the region and has never since been seen. On Wednesday evening suspicions of the safety of the family were carried down to Bartlett and North Conway, where Mr. Willey's father and brothers lived. But they were not credited. The terrible certainty to be communicated to the father t in the most thrilling way. At midnight of Wednesday a messenger reached the banks of the river opposite his house in Lower Bartlett, but could not cross. He blew a trumpet blast after blast. The noise. and the mountain echoes startled the family and the neighborhood from their repose. They soon gathered on the river bank and heard the sad message shouted to them through the darkness. On Thursday the 3lst of August 1826 the family and many neighbors were able to reach the notch. Tall Ethan Crawford left his farm which the floods had ravaged and went down through the Notch to meet them "when I got there" he says "on seeing the friends of that well-beloved family and having been acquainted with them for many years, my heart was full and my tongue refused utterance and I could not for a considerable length of time speak to one of them and could only express my regards I had to them in pressing their hands but gave full vent to tears. This was the 2nd time my eyes were wet with tears since grown to manhood."


Search was commenced at once for the buried bodies. The first that was exhumed was one of the hired men, David Allen, a man of powerful frame and remarkable strength. He was but slightly disfigured. He was found near the top of a pile of earth and shattered timbers with "hands clenched and full of broken sticks and small limbs of trees." Soon the bodies of Mrs. Willey and her husband were discovered, the latter not so crushed that it could not be recognized. No more could be found that day. Crude coffins were prepared and the next day, Friday, about sunset, the simple burial service was offered. Elder Samuel Haseltine, standing amidst the company of strong manly forms, whose faces wet with tears, commenced the service with the words of Isaiah, "who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and meted out Heaven with a span and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance." How fitting this language in that solemn pass and how unspeakably more impressive must the words have seemed when the mountains themselves took them up and literally responded them (picture of the Willey House) joining as mourners in the burial liturgy; For the Minister stood so that each one of these sublime words was given back by the echo, in a tone as clear and reverent as that in which they were uttered. We may easily believe that the "effect of all this was soul stirring beyond description."

 

The next day the body of the youngest child, about 3 years old, was found and also that of the other hired man. On Sunday, the eldest daughter was discovered at a distance from the others across the river. A bed was found on the ruins near her body. It was supposed that she was drowned, as no bruises or mark was found upon her. She was 12 years old and Ethan Crawford tells us "she had acquired a good Education and seemed more like a gentleman's daughter of fashion and affluence than the daughter of one who had located himself in the midst of the mountains. These were buried without any religious service, 3 children, a daughter and 2 sons were never found.
 

It seems to us that nothing can interpret so effectively the terror of this tragedy as the connected statement of the simple facts so far as they are known. We are indebted for the facts to Rev. Benjamin Willey's interesting "Incidents in White Mountain History," and the story of Ethan Crawford's wife (now out of print). But the horror of that night to the doomed family, who can imagine that? The glimpses given us of the fury of the storm, by the peril of Abel Crawford's family, and by the experience of the settlers that were tossed in their hut upon the flood of the-Rocky Branch, furnished but faint coloring of the awfulness of the tempest as the Willey family must have seen and felt it.

 

About 2 years after a man who had moved into the same house witnessed a thunder tempest in the night, which was not nearly so terrible as the storm in 1826, but which supplies us with better means of conceiving the tremendous passion of the elements amid which the Willey family were overwhelmed, and what must have been their consternation and despair. We are told that the "Horror of great darkness" that filled the Notch would be the blinding horror of lightning that now and then kindled the vast gray wall of Mt. Webster opposite the house, opened (The grisly gulfs and slaty rifts which seam its shivered head) and showed the torrents that were hissing down its black shelves and frightful precipices. Next a rock, loosened by a stream or smitten by a thunderbolt would leap down the wall, followed all the way by a trail of splendor that lighted the whole gorge and making a reverberating noise by its concussions, more frightful than the roar of the thunder, which seemed to make the very ground tremble. To this was added the rage of the river and the fury of the rain, and all united to produce a dismay which we may well believe prevented the inmates from speaking for half an hour, and caused them "to stand and look at each other almost petrified with fear." For several hours the Willey family were enveloped in (such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, such groans of roaring wind and rain) as flamed and roared in the storm that beat upon Lear. The father and mother, anxious for their young children, doubtless saw, with their minds eye, that fearful landslide of June more vividly than any horror which the lightening showed them on the walls of this gigantic prison. In every pause of the thunder, they were straining to hear the more fearful sound of the grinding avalanche. And what must have been the concentrated agony and dread, when they heard the moving of the loosened ridge, heard nearer and nearer its accumulation roar; heard and saw, perhaps through one flaming sheet of the lightning that it was rushing in line of their little home; and unable to command their nerves or hoping to out run its flood rushed from their security into (The tyranny of the open night too rough, for nature to endure).

 

 The relatives who studied the ground closely after the disaster, were unable to conjecture why the family could not have out run the landslide or crossed its track, if they left the house as soon as they heard its descent far up the mountain. Some of them at least they thought, should thus have been able to escape its devastation. Mrs. James Willey informs us that the spirit of his brother appeared to him in a dream and told him that the family left the house some time before the avalanche fearing to be drowned or floated off by the Saco, which had risen to their door. They fled back, he said farther up the mountain to be safe against the peril of the water and thus when the landslide moved toward them, were compelled to run a greater distance than it would have been required if they had staid in their home, while they would have been swept off by the flood, if they had kept the line of the road which could have conducted them out of the Notch. It is a singular fact, Mr. Benjamin Willey tells us, that this explanation accounts for more known features of the catastrophe than any other which has been formed. It explains why the eldest daughter was found without a bruise, as though she had been drowned; and also the fact that a bed was found near her body, with which certainly the family would not have encumbered themselves, if they had rushed from the house.


In the single hope of escaping destruction when the avalanche was near. It accounts for the appearance of the body of the hired man who was first discovered. And by connecting the terror of the sudden flood with the other horrors of the night, it brings the picture into harmony with what we know of the ravage and disaster along the line of the Saco below. The Bible was open on the table in the Willey House when it was entered the next day. The family was then secure from the wrath of elements that desolate the earth. At what place could the book have been found open more fitting than the 18th Psalm, to express the horrors of the tempest and the deliverance which the spirit finds? "The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hail stones and coals of fire. Then the channels of water were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, 0 Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils, He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. He brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me." Upon the spot where a portion of the family were buried, it was a custom for several years for each visitor to cast a stone. Thus a large monument was reared out of the ruins of the slide.


(I, Benjamin Willey)
On the boundary between Conway and Bartlett, near the homestead of my father, on a high bank overlooking intervale and the Saco, is the burying place of my family. Here rest the remains of the bodies of my family recovered from the avalanche. In one wide grave they sleep, Father and mother, and 2 children. Three yet sleep among the ruins of the storm. A broad stone near the entrance of the yard marks their resting place. The following are the names of those destroyed,


Samuel Willey Jr.
age
38.
b, ca, 1788.


Polly L. Willey,
35.
" "
1791.
(children)


Eliza Ann
"
13

Jeremiah L.
"
11

Martha G.
"
9

Elbridge G.
"
7

Sally
"
5

(hired men)


David Nickerson
"
21

David Allen
"
37
 


 First 2, Parents. Next 5, children. Last 2 hired men. The first 3 and the last 3 have been found. This farm is   now owned by the Rev. Dr. Merriman and Mrs. Merriman daughter of the Rev. Dr. Merriman and Mrs. Merriman daughter of the late E. B. Bigelow, in book printed    1900.Copyright by M.E. Eastman "East of the White Hills" in it


             "The Story of the Willey Family." (Note by Nettie White Wolcott- James Willey was brother of Samuel Willey Jr. [killed in avalanche]. Samuel Willey Sr. lived in Bartlett)

 

 

             

 

                                                                                                                  

       

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