Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Willey Family Tragedy

Legends & Lore of the White Mountains
The Willey Family Tragedy

According to historical records, in the fall of 1825 Samuel Willey, Jr. of Bartlett moved into a small house in the heart of Crawford Notch with his wife, five children, and two hired men.

During the first year the three men enlarged and improved the house which the family operated as an inn to accommodate travelers through the mountains on the desolate Crawford Notch region. Their small grouping of homes and outbuildings located on the side of what is now known as Mt Willey.

In June of 1826, following a heavy rain, the Willeys were terrified when they witnessed a great mass of soil and vegetation, torn loose from the mountainside across the river, slide in a path of destruction to the valley floor. Following this experience, Samuel Willey built a stone shelter a short distance above the house to which the family could flee if a slide threatened their side of the valley.

Clouds Over Mt Webster Poster - Click Here.
Artist: Wayne D. King

During the night of August 28, 1826, the "Notch" experienced one of the most violent rain storms recorded in the White Mountains. Overnight, the Saco rose almost twenty feet carrying off buildings, vegetation and livestock. It was at some time during this storm that a slide occured on the side of Mt Willey and the family fled their home, probably in search of the stone shelter or simply in a desperate attempt to reach higher ground with the flood waters rising. It would be two days before friends of the Willey's would learn of the odd and sad fate of the family.

As they penetrated the valley strewn with the carnage of the flooding they came upon the home of the Willey family which was untouched by the massive slide because of a ledge just above the house that apparently divided the landslide and diverted it around the house. The rock shelter, however did not fare as well and the bodies of the family and their hired hands were found among the mud, boulders and debris stewn throughout the area.

None will ever know the exact circumstances of the demise of this family but a story was told in an examiniation of the inside of the home where "beds appeared to have been left hurriedly, a Bible lay on the table, and the dog howled mournfully".

The bodies of the Willey Family members and their hired hands were initially buried near the house but later moved to Conway. The bodies of three of the children reputedly were never found.

Note: A more detailed account of both the Willey Family and the tragedy can be read here.

Last Light on the Mt. Washington Hotel

Further Tragedy Burnishes the Legend
Following the tragedy, an addition was built onto the house which was operated as an inn until it burned in 1898. In the mid 20th century the Willey House Historic site was established and for a time a small "Wildlife Park" of native animals, including Bears, was run in the area directly across the Saco river from the site.

In the 1950's the bear keeper who had been taking care of the bears at the Willey House left on his first vacation in years. In his stead another local resident was hired to feed and care for the bears. However, his inexperience and fear apparently emboldened the bears and he was attacked and killed by one of the bears, either in an effort to escape its cage or simply because it sensed fear. According to our sources several local residents, including Franklin George, his son Bert and nephew Roger King of Bartlett were brought in to kill the bear but it was too late for the bear keeper. This new tragedy was the first step to the demise of the zoo and today the Willey House features a nature trail where it once existed.

Read Ben George's fictionalized account of this tragedy here:  Fatal Error

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