Traveling has always been one of my passions. The world is full of fascinating places and cultures and I hope to see as much of it as I can.
If you want to learn about the history of the Mount Washington Auto Road, then look no further than the Douglas Philbrook Red Barn Museum in Gorham, New Hampshire. Located just behind the Mount Washington Base Lodge, this museum has a wonderful display of the vehicles that have been taking visitors to the summit of Mount Washington since the mid-19th century.
History of the Auto Road
The carriage road to the top of Mount Washington first opened in 1861, and was the country's first man-made tourist attraction. It took seven years of on and off construction to complete the road, which back then was known as the carriage road. Before the invention of the automobile, horse-drawn carriages took visitors on the nearly 8-mile journey to the top of the mountain, and you can see a few of these early stage coaches and carriages on display. Can you imagine spending up to 7 hours on a horse-drawn carriage going up and down the mountain?
I find it fascinating to think that when this all started Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States. A lot has changed since then, and the museum does a wonderful job of reliving the history of the mountain and the auto road.
Auto Power Replaces Horse Power
The first automobile to make the trek to the summit of Mount Washington took place in the summer of 1899. It was a steam powered, Stanley Steamer, and a few years later gasoline powered vehicles started making the journey. Slowly, the name of the road began to change from the Carriage Road to the Auto Road as motorized automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages. The first auto race to the summit, known as the “Climb to the Clouds”, took place in 1904, and is the oldest auto hill climb in North America.
Red Barn Museum
The Red Barn that houses the museum is the last of several barns that at one time housed the horses that provided the horsepower to pull the stage coaches and carriages up the mountain. Today, the Red Barn is home to many of the vehicles that have shuttled visitors to the top of the mountain since the road first opened. There is also a lot of memorabilia here to go along with the vehicles including signs, photos, maps, and equipment. To be honest, the Mount Washington auto road has an incredible history to it and it’s all captured here in the Red Barn Museum.
From the early days of horse-drawn carriages taking adventurous visitors to the top, to the modern shuttle vans of today, the mountain road really has witnessed the evolution of transportation. Throw in a bicycle race and the annual road race and it is utterly astounding at the many ways people have come up with to conquer the mountain. There is even a Segway in the museum that made the trip to the top of Mount Washington in 2003. I really am amazed at the obsession people have had with getting to the top of Mount Washington for over 150 years.
Running up the Mountain
Can you imagine running 7.6 miles up 4,650 feet of elevation gain, with an average grade of 11.5 percent and a maximum grade of 22 percent? And consider that the world record holder, Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand, accomplished this in a mere 56 minutes and 41 seconds. That works out to a pace of 7 minutes and 27 seconds per mile. That is an incredible athletic achievement. Equally impressive is the women’s record of 1:08:21 by Shewarge Amare of Ethiopia.
If you wish to enter the Mount Washington Road Race, entries start in mid-February and the race is usually run in mid-June. As this very popular event draws runners from all over the world, the only way to get in is by being randomly selected. The selection process is done in early March, and entrants are notified by email whether they were accepted or rejected.
The Cog Railway
If running up the mountain is not your thing, then you have many other options available to get to the top. You can drive your vehicle up the auto road, take a shuttle to the top, hike, walk, bike, or you can even take a train ride on the Mount Washington Cog Railway that takes visitors to the top of the 6,288-foot summit. The Cog Railway has been operating since 1869, and its construction was a marvel of then modern engineering. Today, the Cog, as it is known, is still the world’s second steepest railway with a grade averaging over 25 percent.
If you wish to visit the Red Barn Museum, they are open on Monday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. There is no fee to enter, but they do accept donations to help keep the museum running. The gentleman who was working the day of our visit was extremely knowledgeable and answered our many questions. If you want to hear some interesting stories and unique tidbits about the mountain and the auto road, then ask away.
Other Nearby Activities
After visiting the museum be sure to go into the Mount Washington Base Lodge, which is right next door. In addition to a gift shop and cafe, there are a few interesting displays and some historic photos to view. You can also book a shuttle ride to the top of Mount Washington here if you don’t want to make the drive yourself. And you’ll definitely want to go onto the large deck that faces Mount Washington for an incredible view of the Presidential Range.
For outdoor tours and other activities you can visit the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, located across from the base lodge. This really is a beautiful area of the country and there are plenty of outdoor activities to partake in including hiking, biking, kayaking, wildlife tours, and all-terrain vehicle riding.
For a short hike to a beautiful waterfall check out the Glen Ellis Falls Trail. It’s located just a few miles south of the museum on Route 16 and offers an easy hike to stunning views of the waterfall.
© 2022 Bill De Giulio