A Moment in History” from New Hampshire Historical Society.

The 1826 Willey Landslide in Crawford Notch

The tragic deaths of the Willey family, who perished in August 1826 while attempting to flee from a massive landslide in Crawford Notch, established their homestead as one of the earliest tourist attractions in the White Mountains.

In the fall of 1825, Samuel Willey Jr. of Bartlett moved his wife, five children, and two hired men into a small house just west of what at the time was called simply the notch, deep in the White Mountains. The notch, later known as Crawford’s Notch, was a narrow eight-mile-long pass through the mountains, frequented by travelers attempting to cross the rugged mountain range.

Willey was convinced to move to the area by Abel Crawford, who promoted the location as an ideal stopping place for travelers. As early innkeepers in the area, the Crawfords and Willeys were the first of many to make their livings by providing for travelers’ needs in the White Mountains, but it was a lonely existence for these settlers. The Willeys lived on the west side of Crawford Notch, six miles from their nearest neighbors and in the shadow of a ring of mountains that would later bear the names Crawford, Webster, Willard, and Willey.

Crawford Notch, oil on canvas, by Thomas Hill (1829-1908), c. 1870. Although painted long after the tragedy, this monumental painting represents the area as it probably looked before the landslide. It is currently on display at the Society, hanging in the grand stairway.

The dryness of the summer of 1826 left New Hampshire in a drought that loosened tree roots and weakened the holds of rocks on the mountain hillsides. Earlier that summer, after a heavy rain in June, the Willeys heard a noise and looked out to see a huge landslide beginning on a nearby mountain. Although the landslide did not pose any danger to them, they considered relocating all the same. Reassurances from Abel Crawford convinced them to stay, but they built a cave-like shelter above the house to offer protection from future slides.

On the night of August 28, a powerful thunderstorm caused numerous debris slides throughout the region. The Saco River, which had its origins in the Notch, rose 20 feet overnight, washing out 23 of the area’s 26 bridges. The flooding and landslides carried off livestock, set buildings afloat, and obliterated much of the road through the notch.

The rainstorm also set off a massive avalanche that flowed three miles down what is now called Mount Willey, with the Willey homestead directly in its path. The damage that the region sustained from the storm was so extensive that two days passed before anyone could reach the vicinity to check on the Willey family. Searchers found the house unharmed because of its location in front of a huge granite ledge that divided the slide, causing it to bypass the house. Inside, they found rumpled beds and the family Bible open on the table.

Only later did they discover the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, two children, and both hired men some distance from the house and crushed in the wreckage left behind by the mudslide. The shelter Willey had constructed to protect his family was completely destroyed. Rescuers surmised that the family evacuated their home to escape the landslide, although it is unclear whether or not any of them ever reached the shelter. Ironically, if they had remained in the house, they would have survived.

As news of the tragedy spread, the fact that the family perished while their house survived fascinated people nationwide. More and more visitors came to view the site, bringing about a rapid expansion of the tourist industry in the White Mountains. The undamaged house continued to attract tourists until it burned in 1899. Nathaniel Hawthorne immortalized the Willey family in literature in his story “The Ambitious Guest.” In art, the Willey legend created a new awareness of the raw majesty of untamed nature in the White Mountains.

Almost immediately after the disaster, the Willeys’s sad tale became embellished with mysterious and supernatural overtones. Among the most popular stories to emerge from the tragedy was an account by Samuel Willey’s brother claiming that Samuel returned to him in a dream to detail the family’s demise. A great deal of speculation also arose over the fate of the three missing children and whether or not they actually perished in the slide, since their bodies were never found. One local legend suggested that the children survived the mudslide, but, traumatized by the death of their family, they fled into the mountains where they became as wild as animals. The story of how the family was destroyed despite attempting to escape the landslide is enough to give anyone the willies, and there is some speculation, at least locally, that the phrase “to have the willies,” comes from this disaster, although the source of this expression has never been documented.

Although the Willey House no longer exists, its site is today part of Crawford Notch State Park, and evidence of the landslide remains on the forested mountainside above. Scientists describe it as the first New England debris flow reported in geological literature.

To learn more about the Willey family, check out Eric Purchase’s Out of Nowhere: Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) and Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, volume 3 (1832), which has two articles about this event, J. B. Moore’s “Account of the Storm and Avalanches at the White Mountains in 1826” and Thomas C. Upham’s “Reflections on the Destruction of the Willey Family, in the Notch of the White Mountains.”

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