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July 27, 2017

Killington Peak’s first mountain houses

Killington Peak’s first mountain houses

By Karen D. Lorentz

While the stagecoach and boat brought “summer people” to Vermont’s lakes and mineral springs in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the advent of the railroad in 1850 made a “mountain trade” possible. Soon visitors were discovering the delights of sunsets from mountain peaks and the rehabilitative powers of mountain air.

The mountains became a natural asset for entrepreneurs who put up hotels near railroad depots and carted visitors to nearby summits. It was an exciting trip, whether for a sunset, sunrise, or lengthy stay in one of the summit hotels that sprang up.

The first hotel was Ridley’s Lodge, a rustic retreat on Camel’s Hump, the state’s fourth highest peak. Ridley also offered finer accommodations in his hotel by the local train station.

By 1858 Mount Mansfield had a rustic Summit House, and a 300-room Stowe village hotel followed. The latter combination transformed the town of Stowe from a wilderness to a highly successful recreational mecca and proved fierce competition for Ridley’s. With an improved toll road making automobile ascent possible in 1922, the Summit House was expanded and operated seasonally for 100 years!

Towns located near mountains — Woodstock, Montpelier, St. Albans, Manchester — quickly became thriving centers of tourism. Native Vermonters were aware of both the economic benefit and the aesthetic challenge with many residents enjoying outings on their neighboring peaks.

In an Aug. 18, 1859, Rutland Herald article “Mt. Killington,” Leverett Wilkins of Mendon wrote about building “a rough road,” starting from a gang mill in Mendon’s Wheelerville area, up to Killington Peak. Evidence of a “horse path” being finished was found and documented in an Aug. 9, 1860 article, “Excursion to Killington Peak.”

Soon after, Vincent C. Meyerhoffer built a rustic cabin about300 feet below Killington Peak. He entertained friends there in summer, and it was probably his cabin in which early mountain visitors took shelter in inclement weather.

Adventure and beauty as Killington’s calling card 

The Romantic Era of the 1800s contributed to a keen desire to experience the scenic beauty and clean air of the mountains. It was part of the national mood to luxuriate in the beauty that could be found in Vermont.

However, Rutland waited until 1879 to cash in on the wealth of Killington, the second highest peak in the state. It was at this time that General Richard Cutts, a surveyor with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, laid out a route to the peak. Delighted with the prospect of a tourist attraction, the citizens of Rutland raised money for the construction of a mountain road for horse and carriage travel, and the four-mile road (from Wheelerville) which climbed 3,000 vertical feet was quickly completed.

Playing host to more friends and visitors, Meyerhoffer enlarged his cabin to a hotel, which opened on June 17, 1880.

An 1886 history of Rutland County tells us: “Killington’s Summit House was more ambitious than the original hotels on either Mansfield or Camels Hump. In addition to the substantial frame hotel with rooms for 30 or 40 guests, there was an assemblage of outbuildings, including stables, sheds, annexes, and porches.”

Meyerhoffer enjoyed a booming business with a steady flow of out-of-state tourists as well as dinner and overnight guests from Rutland.

Hiking, croquet and fishing were offered but it was the enthusiasm for adventure, sunrises, and sunsets that provided the mountain’s true calling card. Rutlanders often made the 10-mile journey by night to arrive at the hotel before dawn so as to climb up the rocky summit and catch a magnificent sunrise. Sunsets were no less spectacular as visiting the peak became a favorite pastime.

The late Madeline Fleming, author of “An Informal History of the Town of Sherburne,” interviewed Ethel Gifford who went up the mountain via the Wheelerville route in 1892. Mrs. Gifford remembered that her father drove a four-horse team to pull hotel guests up the mountain, but on the way down he took off the lead horses as they were no help in holding back the carriage on the steep pitches.

Other routes were developed from the east with a Juggernaut (horse) trail thought to have been in use by the 1880s. Another approach was to ride in by horse and carriage to what is now the K-1 Base Lodge area and hike to the peak.

The splendor of views from the peak

Competing with Mount Mansfield, Rutland publicists for Killington advertised “a fine road leading east from the village” and a view from the top “far surpassing in extent and beauty that obtained from any other mountain in Vermont.”

Poet Julia C.R. Dorr of Rutland captured the breathtaking experience of climbing from the hotel to the pinnacle to see a sunset in this Oct. 9, 1880, account:

“I purposely avoided looking back or around until I had made about half the distance. Then I dropped upon a flat stone, to take breath, and well nigh lost it utterly, such was the sense of isolation, of dizzy height, and of infinite space that overwhelmed me. The House was directly beneath my feet, and I perched in midair above it, while near and far to the wide horizon rolled billow after billow, like the waves of the ocean. Not billows of clouds as you might suppose, but the everlasting hills themselves, all tremulous with the purple and golden mists of sunset. On either side mountains on mountains as far as ye could read. The valley of the Otter Creek seemed like a narrow ribbon, through which ran a thread of silver.”

Lawson Dawley wrote in Ludlow’s Black River Tribune:

“Many that have formerly flocked to Saratoga, Newport, and Long Branch, are now seeking quiet retirement among the mountains of Vermont where they can inhale the pure air of heaven uncontaminated with cesspools or miasmatic vapors, and we can say, without fear of contradiction, that Mt. Killington affords the most picturesque and romantic retreat in New England…

“A sunset view from the peak fills the soul with wonder and admiration when the glorious king of day sinks beyond the western wilds wrapped in the golden canopy of heaven…

“The Killington House is the highest abode of man in Vermont. The proprietor is an experienced caterer, and spares no pains to supply his table with various luxuries of the season…”

On Sept. 17, 1888, Meyerhoffer paid $500 to purchase the 324 acres of land that encompassed Killington Peak, believing that a $20,000 electric railway was to be built up the mountain by a friend. Unfortunately for the hotel business, it didn’t happen and as the automobile began to make its mark, it effectively doomed the horse-and-buggy era and summer visits to Killington House.

On June 10, 1901, Meyerhoffer sold his property and business to M.E. Wheeler of Rutland for $2,000. As the popularity of carriage roads waned, Killington House business declined and the hotel trade on Killington came to an end by 1910.

With its demise the buildings soon felt the ravages of storms and porcupines while picnickers used parts for fuel and other scavengers helped themselves to the timbers. Some say a fire finished it off in 1915 or 1916 but others dispute that. Today only a cellar hole and the Cooper Lodge, built in 1939, remain at this site.

Next week we’ll trace the story of others who visited the famous peak for outings and the peak’s Porky Shelter, which preceded the Cooper Lodge thanks to the founding of the Long Trail.

Submitted photo

Above: Killington House with peak above on May 25 in late 1800s. Note the snow!

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