PLYMOUTH — As travelers started to discover the White Mountains nearly two centuries ago, the Willey family smelled a business opportunity. Indeed, the region’s tourism did soar after the Willeys opened an inn near Crawford Notch in 1825. Unfortunately, the travel boom came completely at their expense. After a massive landslide in 1826 buried the entire family and their hired hands as they fled the inn, which ironically was left untouched, morbid curiosity lured thousands to witness the aftermath of the Willey Slide.
Those who came to northern New Hampshire to gawk at nature’s savage power were instead seduced by what the painter Thomas Cole described as “an ocean of beauty and magnificence.” Ever since, vacationers have come to the White Mountains, and now the region has one more attraction to draw travelers.
The Museum of the White Mountains, which opened in February, is an intellectual and cultural base camp for exploring the Granite State peaks. The museum is housed inside a renovated 1946 brick Methodist church on the campus of Plymouth State University, less than a five-minute drive off exit 25 on Interstate 93. “We’re right at the gateway to the White Mountains,” says museum director Catherine Amidon, “so we want to educate and prepare visitors for what they might see and experience.”
The museum’s inaugural yearlong exhibition, “Passing Through: The Allure of the White Mountains,” takes visitors on a virtual tour of five regions: Crawford Notch, Mount Washington Valley, the summit of Mount Washington, the Northern Presidentials, and Franconia Notch. Colorful paintings of pastoral mountainscapes and natural wonders brighten the museum’s large exhibition gallery. Artists such as Cole and Benjamin Champney captured the majesty of the peaks, and their 19th-century brushstrokes were as effective as any modern-day advertising campaign in promoting the White Mountains as a vacation destination.
Once the railroad arrived in Gorham in 1851, it became affordable and easy for the middle class to visit the mountains. Grand hotels sprung up across northern New Hampshire. Even the range’s tallest peak, Mount Washington, was tamed with the construction of a carriage road and cog railway. By 1870, tourists could leave New York City in the morning and watch the sunset that evening from atop the tallest spot in the Northeast. “We think of computers collapsing time exponentially now,” Amidon says, “but back then the pace of technological change was just as phenomenal.”
In addition to paintings, the exhibition features lithographs, illustrated guidebooks, maps, stereoscopes, broadsides, and artifacts such as a model of the famous Concord Coach that once rattled over the mountain roads. Scan the 1859 Profile House menu, and you’ll find 19th-century dining options both foreign — cold tongue, wine jelly — and familiar — mac and cheese. There’s a first edition of “Burt’s Among the Clouds,” a daily newspaper published atop Mount Washington beginning in 1877. Back then, before the advent of the now-ubiquitous “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers, tourists boasted of their summit ascents with mentions in the newspaper.
Particularly amusing are the “cartographically ludicrous” souvenir maps created by Franklin Leavitt in the late 1800s. They were precursors to the cartoon maps that present-day tourists find in hotel lobbies throughout the White Mountains, although the content certainly has changed. It’s doubtful you’ll find a map today like Leavitt’s 1882 version that depicted “Old Gib killing a bear” and “Tom Miller killing a bear” with a drawing of “Harry Crawford killing a lynx” thrown in for good measure.
What makes the museum unique is how its mission extends beyond the four walls of its physical structure. The White Mountains themselves are the true museum. When visitors leave, they can pick up a map with GPS coordinates and reproductions of the exhibition paintings so that they can stand in the very footsteps of the 19th-century artists and see how much — or how little — some of these landscapes have changed. This summer, the museum will also launch a geocaching program along with a series of guided hikes following trails that were popular in the 19th century.
The museum’s robust website is also a virtual extension of the museum. The exhibition catalog and a short documentary on view inside the museum can be found online, and the website includes a social media component called “The Cairn” where anyone can upload their photographs and write up their experiences in the region. “We want people to share their special sections of the White Mountains,” Amidon says.
The museum boasts an impressive collection of 6,000 rare books on the White Mountains along with maps, postcards, photographs, and hotel ledgers. The website features hundreds of digitally scanned vintage images, including several of the Willeys’ inn, where a family tragedy put the White Mountains on the travel map.
MUSEUM OF THE WHITE MOUNTAINSTues., Thurs., Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wed. 10-7, Sat.-Sun. noon-5. Closed Mon. as well as Tues. in summer. Free. 34 Highland St., 603-535-3210, www.plymouth.edu/mu