A Fatal Afternoon Hike

On a September afternoon in 1855, a 23 year-old Kennebunk woman took an ill-advised hike to the top of Mount Washington.

Lizzie Bourne, painted posthumously by Charles Octavius Cole from a daguerreotype

On the afternoon of September 14, 1855, 23 year-old Lizzie Bourne, her Uncle George, and her cousin Lucy Bourne set off to walk up the 6,288 foot Mount Washington. Along with George’s wife Aunt Jane, the group had taken the morning train from Saco and arrived at the Glen House, a hotel at the base of the mountain.

Frail Lizzie had a heart condition but was able to convince her father to let her tag along on her Aunt and Uncle’s “long-awaited” trip to the New Hampshire mountains.

They got to their hotel in the early afternoon and were intending to go up the mountain in the morning. But Lizzie convinced her Uncle (there is a pattern here) and cousin to leave immediately and hike up the 8-mile carriage trail. Although the carriage road was still under construction, they figured they could follow the well-marked bridle path after the road ran out. They also decided they didn’t need a guide and so they set off on their adventure. They intended to get to the top of Mount Washington in time to watch the sunset, have dinner at one of the two small hotels at the top of the mountain, and spend the night in the hotel’s warm beds. Lizzie was most excited to see the spectacular panoramic sunrise that she had heard about from her friends.

Handsome Uncle George, owner of the Wedding Cake House

Because the trio had arrived by train that same day, they weren’t able to start up the mountain until 2pm. They met a Mr. Meyers, who was supervising construction higher up on the mountain, as soon as they left the hotel. He walked the first 2.5 miles with them, pointing out various sights, until he had to attend to his duties and separated from their party. By 4pm, they were only at the Halfway House. Lizzie was tired, so they stopped for a brief rest. Construction workers who were at the Halfway House said that they had heard that a storm was brewing at the top and advised the group to turn around. The girls convinced Uncle George to continue.

The road construction only went as far as the house at that point, so they had to cover the remaining 4 miles on a rough bridle path. Witnesses who later saw them at 5pm said the group seemed fine. There was no additional shelter until they reached the top, and the treeline eventually gives way to barren rock.

Passengers stopping at the Halfway House, 1870s

Night fell, temperatures dropped and fog descended but they still hadn’t reached the top. Lizzie was exhausted and cold and the deplorable conditions made it impossible to see where they were.

Uncle George and Cousin Lucy struggled to help Lizzie pick her way up the mountain. As they crested what they thought was the last steep slope before the top, they were horrified to see more mountain rising before them. He later wrote: “To our sorrow another mountain stood before us, whose summit was far above the clouds.”

Disheartened and physically unable to continue, the three stopped their ascent.

Ride Out the Storm

George gathered rocks and began building a rudimentary stone wall around the girls. The girls huddled together for warmth and he kept checking on the two in the dark as the unrelenting storm raged while he assembled a wall. He made a routine of gathering rocks, building more wall, and “thrashing around” his arms to generate warmth. Then he’d check on the girls. This went on for some time. But when he reached out and grabbed Lizzie’s hand around 10pm, it was cold and lifeless. Lizzie was dead.

“She was dead. She had uttered no complaint, expressed no regret or fear, but had passed silently away.”

George held Lizzie’s body in his arms through the entire night, likely wracked with guilt but still needing to keep his daughter alive.

When daybreak finally arrived, Uncle George and Cousin Lucy could see that the peak and the warm safety of the hotel were just a couple hundred tantalizing yards away. They walked up to the Tip-Top House and woke the keepers. Four people went down and carried Lizzie’s body up to the hotel while a young boy was dispatched down the mountain with word of the event. The group spent four hours with “hot rocks and hot baths” to try to revive Lizzie, but she was long gone. Even modern medicine can’t raise the dead.

Down the Mountain

Joseph Hall, a construction supervisor, ran into the boy that was sent down the mountain and heard the news. He had workers hastily build a wooden box. He and another man then climbed up to the hotel with the coffin, and women gently placed Lizzie in the box. Using a pole and leather straps, the two men carefully made their way down the mountain and reached the Glen House after a 3 hour trip. They were greeted by a despondent Aunt Jane. The group, with the casket, returned by train to Portland. Mr. Hall returned to the spot and built a tall pile of stones to mark the spot. On the top, he placed a large rose quartz stone. It is said that after a lifetime on the mountain, Joseph Hall never went back.

1907 Postcard showing how close Lizzie was to the safety of the Summit House when she died

Shortly after her death, a triangular wooden sign was placed at the site of Lizzie’s death. A similar one can be seen today out the window of the passing Cog railway.

Lizzie’s father had a huge stone monument carved to place at the spot, but was unable to get it up the mountain because the carriage road construction was delayed. Instead, that stone was placed in the family plot in Hope Cemetery.

Not the First, Not the Last

Rime ice at the top, September 2022

There have been more than 160 deaths on Mount Washington since 1849. Causes of death include falls, hypothermia, and heart attacks. Lizzie died from a combination of the last two. Backpack.com names it one of America’s ten most dangerous hikes. Lizzie died in mid-September and it is not uncommon for there to be snow and gale-force winds that time of year. Winter temperatures can reach 50 below zero and Mount Washington holds the record for strongest wind ever recorded at 231 mph. This is not a mountain to take lightly.

Lizzie’s destination, the Tip Top House, September 2022

Although the mountain claimed many before her (and many since), Lizzie’s story made national news primarily because she was a young woman climbing a mountain.

Lizzie was the first documented woman to die on Mount Washington.

No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothing

Lizzie was also dressed in clothing that would make a modern hiker shake their head in disbelief. She was certainly wearing clothing appropriate to the day, which probably consisted of several petticoats, a heavy dress, at least one scarf, a wool cloak and a bonnet. All told, the clothing probably weighed 35 pounds – and it was wet from the rain. Nobody in the hiking party carried water or was in any way prepared for the weather. It is also believed that an undiagnosed heart problem contributed to her demise.

About Lizzie

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Green Bourne was born in Kennebunk, Maine on June 20, 1832. She was the daughter of Judge Edward Emerson Bourne (1797-1873) and Mary Hubbard Gilpatrick (1799-1852) who also had three other children. Her father Edward was a graduate of Bowdoin College and became a well-known judge and historian. Her mother had passed away three years before Lizzie and the Judge married Susan H. Lord.

She had a lively intellect, a joyous heart, and strong affections, and was to her kindred and friends inexpressibly dear.

Lizzie was a local debutante who, at the time of her death, was engaged to Robert Waterston Lord. The Bourne and Lord families had been intertwined in Kennebunk society for a while. Both were very well-known shipbuilding families and had become quite wealthy over the years. The Bourne’s shipyard was run by Uncle George (who was on the hike) who also lived in the ostentatious Wedding Cake House detailed on this site.

Lizzie grew up in the Bourne Mansion, a massive home built in 1812, located on what is now Bourne Street in Kennebunk. Judge Bourne had inherited the mansion from his Aunt.

A Reverend’s Diary

Rev. Larned L. Eastman was staying at hotel the summit the night that Lizzie died. He wrote in his diary, “Mrs. Eastman and myself drove to the White Mountain House, left our team, and with guide rode on horseback to the top of Mount Washington, where we were to stop some days with old friend who kept the hotel on the summit. There came on a terrible store, lasting two days and three nights. On that last awful night the unfortunate Miss Lizzie Bourne, of Kennebunk Me., perished but a short distance from the Tip Top House, where we were comfortably sleeping. How painful the fact was to us, I can never describe. We were the only company present on that beautiful yet very sad morning. I helped to carry in the dead girl. After making every possible effort to revive the dear girl without success, and to comfort and make comfortable the uncle and his daughter who did but just survive the terrible night, our guide having returned, we proposed to descend. The view from the top of the mountain was glorious. The storm had thoroughly cleared the atmosphere. We could distinctly see the sun emerge from the silver bosom of the sea. Then the might mountains, the hills, lakes, rivers, with the milky-white clouds floating far below, here and there giving glimpses of country and village, furnished a scene transcending description.”

Cog railway trains at summit, September 2022

Uncle George

It is said that Uncle George never quite got over Lizzie’s death. His brother Edward never blamed him, and publicly stated that he knew that George did everything he could. Edward later wrote that his brother George had been physically weakened and wracked with guilt from the ordeal on Mount Washington. George battled typhoid fever and was confined to his bed in the Wedding Cake House the last two months of his life. He died a little over a year after the mountain tragedy at age 55.

Lizzie’s Legacy

In the visitor’s center at the top of Mount Washington, there is a display about Lizzie’s ill-fated adventure, a portrait of her, and a replica of the monument which marks the spot of her death. There is also a list of every person who has died on the mountain.

The Lizzie Bourne exhibit in the Visitor’s Center at the top of Mount Washington, September 2022

Lizzie’s Station

For years, the owners of the COG railway have been “fighting with” the State of New Hampshire because they want to expand the facilities on the mountain to better serve the tourists. Both the COG and the Auto Road, which are owned by different people, have strict easements that allow them to run and maintain their operations. The mountain itself and the Visitors Center at the top of owned by the State. So the three entities have operated under agreements for a long time. The COG has offered different proposals in the past but have been met with strong opposition.

Rendering of the proposed “Lizzie’s Station” near the top of Mount Washington. Spend the night in a railway car!

Finally, in the Summer of 2022, the State approved a Memorandum of Understanding which would allow the COG to build the so-called “Lizzie’s Station” on their existing easement just below the summit. Lizzie’s Station will consist of 18 custom-made coaches that would be able to accommodate up to 70 overnight guests. Some coaches will also have bathrooms, water, and fiber optic cables will be run to provide internet connectivity.

Cog President Wayne Presby said “Our new station, Lizzie’s Station, if approved, will be located just below the summit on land that we own. Lizzie’s will help significantly reduce congestion outside the Sherman Adams Building and will provide much needed additional infrastructure…including bathrooms, sewerage capacity, water, and a fiber optic cable. Lizzie’s will be an engineering marvel and will provide a one-of-a-kind experience, attracting visitors from around the globe.”

I’m not sure how the Bourne family would feel about “Lizzie’s Landing.” But hey! Visitors need the internet!

SOURCES & CREDITS:

Wikipedia, kportconnections.com, cowhampshireblog.com, findagrave.com, newscentermaine.com, atlasobscura.com, nhmagazine.com, conwaydailysun.com, Kennebunk assessor, geni.com, nhstateparks.org, Not Without Peril: 150 Years Of Misadventure On The Presidential Range Of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe