CONCORD, N.H. – A dozen years after forming the Appalachian Mountain Club in 1876, its members embarked on an ambitious mission to build a refuge for hikers of the rugged ridgeline of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains.
The Madison Spring hut – a stone shelter complete with a fireplace – was built in the summer of 1888, in a saddle between Mount Madison and Mount Adams. It was a time when tourists were flocking to the White Mountains by train, riding the world’s first mountain railroad – the Cog Railway – to the summit of Mount Washington. Many stayed in the Summit House Hotel atop Mount Washington.
Madison Springs was the summit house for hikers. AMC founding member Rosewell Lawrence and a companion spent several nights in the hut in February 1889. He wrote a diary entry hailing it as “a great institution. Its construction is one of the best things the club has done.”
Now, 125 years later, the AMC is celebrating the anniversary of the nation’s oldest mountain hut system with special hut hikes, educational programs and commemorative items, including posters, patches, pint glasses and clothing. It’s also encouraging visitors to go to its website and post photos they’ve taken of their stays in the huts.
The system has grown to eight huts located along the Appalachian Trail, ranging in capacity from 36 at the smaller huts to 90 at the Lakes of the Clouds hut just below the summit of Mount Washington. AMC officials say about 39,000 hikers overnight in the huts annually.
Each hut is staffed with a crew that includes a naturalist. Stays include dinner and breakfast, at a cost averaging $98 for AMC members and $118 for nonmembers. Staff members discuss the ecosystem around the hut and talk about what they do to minimize the impact to the environment.
“We showcase how the hut runs and suggest what people might be able to do back home,” said Chris Thayer, a hut system worker and manager since 1989, who now oversees the outreach and education program.
“Two things make the huts come alive,” Thayer said. “You can’t ignore the beautiful surroundings and the cast of characters that come from all walks of life that come together in a hut with the common experience of what they were able to accomplish and what they were sharing that evening.”
Avid hiker and octogenarian Margaret Mathis has made the AMC’s hut system in the Presidential Range a destination for more than 60 years and this year is no exception.
She and her camping party recently spent two nights at the Madison Spring hut – built 125 years ago as the flagship of the nation’s oldest mountain hut system.
“The huts allow you to do some of the more ambitious climbs,” said Mathis, 85, of Bridgton, Maine. “To go up and down in one day would be pretty difficult when you get a bit older. I don’t care to do that.”
Rick Wilcox, professional mountain guide and co-owner of the International Mountain Climbing School in Conway, said the hut system really helps older hikers and children who can’t comfortably backpack a week’s worth of gear to explore the Presidential Range.
John Judge, president of the AMC’s New Hampshire chapter, says the hut system serves many functions.
“The huts are not only an oasis for folks who are hiking, who need shelter from a storm or need a good meal after a long day’s hike. They are centers for conservation learning and environmental research,” Judge said.
Each summer since 1987, Richard and Lisa Hillman of Annapolis, Md., have traveled to New Hampshire to volunteer with the AMC and hike to the huts. In 2003, Richard Hillman and his 14-year-old son did the loop and stayed in all eight huts. His favorite is the Mizpah Spring Hut, with its library and separate bunk rooms.
“There would be very little activity in the White Mountains compared to what there is if those huts were not there,” Hillman said.