PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. — The wind was howling at nearly 65 miles per hour and blowing snow across the mountaintops. Despite the brilliant midmorning sun, the temperature had dropped to 17 degrees below zero.

“It was awesome,” Hebron Station School student Arianna Durepos as she climbed out of one of two Mt. Washington SnowCoaches at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road last week. “I got blown over in the wind.”

This was no ordinary class field trip for her and 16 other sixth-graders. This was an engineering challenge for Lydia Eusden’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics students.

Their trip to the 6,288-foot summit included a stop at the tree line, a subarctic zone. The site, also known as “The Horn,” is 2,000 feet below the summit, where observers recorded a wind speed of 89 miles per hour and a low temperature of 25 degrees below zero that day.

The idea to have students study the engineering feat of building the Auto Road more than 150 years ago and how the SnowCoaches climb the road with ease in winter came to Eusden while she was cross-country skiing at Great Glen Trails, which is part of the road system.

On their 45-minute ride up the road, students carried clipboards and pencils and had a list of questions on subjects ranging from weather observations, SnowCoach traction and the Auto Road history.

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“I thought the SnowCoach would flip over,” Durepos said. She and classmate Kyarra Fortier chuckled about being scared as they rode up the mountain.

Once they reached the tree line, the students got out of the SnowCoaches and measured a six- to seven-foot deep snowbank with probes. Eusden said the students then got back in the SnowCoach, where they extended the probe to measure the snow depth again. This time, it measured 9 feet.

They also saw what subarctic weather does to the landscape.

“Students got to visualize their dictionary definition of “tree line,” defined as the altitude above which few trees grow because they are affected by temperature, wind and soil drainage,” Eusden said. “They also observed krummholz trees, which are stunted, windblown trees growing near the tree line on mountains.”

As part of their studies, students also determined prevailing wind direction by studying conifer tree branch shapes, which were growing in only one direction, she said.

After getting back to the base of the mountain, Howie Wemyss, general manager of the Mt. Washington Auto Road, described the triangulation of the SnowCoach wheels as the students took notes.

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“You notice the tread is much different,” Wemyss said pointing to the tires on the newer coach. “This one is more open and has smaller rubber pieces. It has a much better traction in all different types of snow.

“This one tends to get clogged up with snow,” he continued. “There’s no way to get the snow out of it once the treads get filled in,” he said of the coach about to be taken out of the fleet. “We did try some studding, but what we found was that it only helped for a couple of weeks, then the studs are useless.”

The students were invited into the lodge to warm up and listen to Wemyss talk about the history of the 154-year-old Auto Road before they returned to Hebron.

“Students had a fantastic outdoor classroom experience because it was authentic,” Eusden said.

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Auto Road construction presented many challenges

PINKHAM NOTCH, N.H. — The history of the Mount Washington Auto Road is a tale of challenges — and ultimately, triumph.

The idea for the road was born out of the development of a railroad line from Montreal to Portland that included rebuilding the highway from Gorham to Pinkham Notch in 1850. It also included construction of the Glen Bridle Path to the summit of Mount Washington and the beginning of a large-scale tourist business on the easterly side of the White Mountains.

Accommodations for the growing business included the 1852 Glen House and the first Summit House, built that year.

Howie Wemyss, general manager of the Mount Washington Auto Road, said building of the Auto Road, which was known as the Carriage Road, was a huge challenge. Dynamite was not available and black powder required hand-drilling blasting holes. There was no machinery to handle the tons of rock and gravel that had to be moved. The only transportation was horse and wagon, and the nearest supplies were eight miles away in Gorham.

Money ran out in 1856 when the halfway point of the road was reached. It was not until 1860, after the Mount Washington Summit Road Company was formed, that work on the road resumed. The grand opening of the road occurred in the summer of 1861.

Although the use of the road began to dwindle after the Mount Washington Cog Railway opened on the western side of the mountain in 1869,  Abbot-Downing Concord Coaches, a 12-passenger Mountain Wagon and other horse-drawn vehicles, continued to make the trip to the summit over the road.

“Pretty amazing trip back then,” he said.

 
The first motorized trip up the Carriage Road was in 1899, when Freelan Stanley and his wife, Flora, drove their Stanley Steamer from their home in Newton, Mass., 197 miles to the Carriage Road and seven miles to the summit.
 
The feat attracted worldwide attention, and the historic event was captured in a photograph by Frank Hunt Burt, editor and publisher of the summit-based Among the Clouds newspaper and a Newton neighbor.

There were more steam-powered ascents during the next several years, and in 1902, the first two gasoline-powered cars reached the summit.

The age of the automobile was about to begin.

In recent years, more than 45,000 vehicles have driven the Auto Road each year.

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