Out of Nowhere: Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains
On Monday night, August 28, 1826, an avalanche in isolated Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, in the heart of the White Mountains, killed innkeeper ... Show synopsis On Monday night, August 28, 1826, an avalanche in isolated Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, in the heart of the White Mountains, killed innkeeper Samuel Willey, his wife and five young children, and two hired men. The landslide carved a channel fifty feet deep and buried the family in a stream of earth, stones, and uprooted trees after they had fled their house, which, incredibly, was spared. In Out of Nowhere, Eric Purchase examines the surprising connection of this disaster to the rise of tourism in America, investigating developments that ranged from land speculation to new interpretations of the meaning of nature and landscape. The Willey tragedy, widely recorded in literature, art, travel writing, newspapers, and scientific journals, was the first natural disaster in the United States to capture national attention. Nineteenth-century Americans were intrigued with nature's sheer perversity in destroying an entire family while leaving its house untouched. They marveled at such dramatic evidence of the natural world's vastness and power. Suddenly the White Mountains became, in the public's imagination, a mythical place where nature was preserved in its original, potent state. Hundreds and then thousands of tourists, including artists, scientists, and writers such as Thomas Cole, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Charles Lyell, began traveling there every summer to take vacations amid the romantic landscape. The Willey's undamaged house became one of the area's most popular attractions -- fittingly, Purchase notes, since Samuel Willey was among the first entrepreneurs of White Mountain tourism. It was businessmen, after all, not artists or intellectuals, who were the first to exploit picturesque notions of untamed nature in remote landscapes to lure wealthy tourists to their inns. Ultimately, the fame of the Willeys' gruesome deaths only enhanced the tourist trade they had helped launch.