PINKHAM NOTCH, NH — August 31st marks an important anniversary for the Mt. Washington Auto Road, commemorating a landmark event that put emphasis on the word “Auto” in the road’s current-day moniker.
Completed in 1861, the historic road to the summit of Mt. Washington was originally referred to as the Mt. Washington Carriage Road. Motorized vehicles were still several decades away from invention, and hearty travellers braved the elements and rough conditions in horse-drawn wagons for the four hour trip to the summit. On August 31, 1899 history was made with the first motorized ascent of Mt. Washington.
Freelan O. Stanley, of Stanley Steamer fame, climbed the road as a publicity stunt for the Locomobile Company, which had recently bought the manufacturing rights to his new invention. Freelan and his wife, Flora drove their Locomobile from Newton, Massachusetts to the summit of Mt. Washington—a trip which took five days to get to the base of the mountain, and then two hours and 10 minutes to drive to the summit. It was a testament to the capabilities of this new mode of transportation, and a glimpse into the future of motorized vehicles.
Mrs. Stanley wrote of the event, stating, “We went on and up, up, still up, the continuous climbing being varied only by a steepness so excessive that as we looked ahead to it, we felt a sickening anxiety lest each brilliant dash should be our last . . . Our engine, panting and quivering, never failed us, but pushed us bravely over seemingly impassable heights.”
There were more steam-powered ascents during the next three years, and then in 1902, the first two gasoline-powered cars reached the summit. Automobile manufacturers quickly looked upon the road as the ultimate proving ground for their new “horseless carriages” and in 1904 the inaugural Climb to the Clouds race was held. This historic hillclimb included drivers such as Francis E. Stanley, Freelan’s twin, in his 6-horsepower Steamer, Harry Harkness in his 40-horsepower Mercedes, and other entries from burgeoning companies such as Pierce, Oldsmobile, Rambler and Daimler. None were able to match the speed of the Mercedes, with Harkness posting a winning time of 24 minutes, 37 and ⅗ seconds.
Fast-forward to July 9, 2017 where a new Climb to the Clouds record was set by Subaru driver Travis Pastrana—a blistering time of just 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds.
While technology has changed greatly since the 1800s, the excitement and allure of ascending the Northeast’s highest peak has not. Today, a journey on the Mt. Washington Auto Road is still as breathtaking as it always has been.