Courage and innovation

Climbing Mount Washington with a view of the other Presidential Mountains, ca. 1870. Courtesy of the Mt. Washington Auto Road website

New Hampshire has a special place in my heart. My friends and I camp in the White Mountains every summer and each year we find something new to visit. One summer, we made it up Mount Washington. Everyone in New England knows the “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers. But do people know enough about Mount Washington’s history? It’s full of human perseverance, courage, and innovation. Its main claim to fame is that on the summit in 1934, the highest wind speed ever was recorded. The record was held till 1996, but it is still the highest wind speed recorded that is not associated with a tornado or a cyclone.

Standing on top of Mount Washington, I not only found it to be beautiful and spiritually grounding, but I also found it inspiring. Especially since my great-grandfather, former Massachusetts Governor John A. Volpe, had ties to the highest peak in the Northeastern United States.

Many family histories are passed down orally, and this story is one of them. Apparently, my great-grandfather, who had his own construction company, helped build the observatory on the the mountain’s peak. When I was at Mount Washington, I asked the employees there for any information – they had none. I was disgruntled. I knew my grandmother wasn’t making this story up, so I had to know more about it. I had to find proof.

My great-grandfather John A. Volpe (second from the right) with his employees. Behind them is the Volpe Construction Company sign. Mount Washington, September 1947

Sure enough, I received more family photos (since I’m the archivist for both sides of my family—look at my blog post, “The Family Archivist”). And in that box I found a photo: my great-grandfather, John A. Volpe, and his workers at Mount Washington. (One worker was his relative, an Italian immigrant who happened to be a mason—how handy!)

After using my heightened googling powers, I found an article in Volume 178 of Scientific American, published in 1948, that mentions the Volpe Construction Company from Malden, Massachusetts. The article states that Volpe actually built an airplane hangar on top of the mountain. Apparently, Mount Washington was used as a testing site for the technology of de-icing airplanes. An airplane would be hauled up the winding road to the peak where it would be stored in the hangar before flying into frigid conditions. Tests would be initiated so engineers “might try to correlate engine and wing icing conditions… One of the pertinent questions that the scientists hope[d] to be able to answer as a result of this research [was]: [would] the jet engine or the plane’s wings ice up first under Arctic conditions?”[1]

I always love learning how my relatives contributed to major feats like this. There is always a long line of human participation, determination, and skill that is needed to produce a result, a feat, or a scientific discovery in order to improve humans’ lives. And my great-grandfather and his employees were a part of that.

Believe it or not, I only researched this for an hour, so there is still a lot to do. For instance, what about the weather observatory? I’ll find the records, don’t worry, family.

Do you have a relative who is connected to Mount Washington in some way? Perhaps one of those ladies (shown above) who wore full-length Victorian dresses up the mountain?!


“History of the Road” and “World Record Wind,” Mt. Washington Auto Road. Online

Michael Sheridan, “The Worst Weather in the World,” Scientific American 178 [1948]: 154-55.


[1] Michael Sheridan, “The Worst Weather in the World,” Scientific American 178 [1948]: 154.

About Geneva Cann

A member of the Research Services team, Geneva studied at Smith College and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, graduating with a BA in History and Museum Studies. Before joining the NEHGS staff, she interned at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She also interpreted at Historic St. Mary’s City, a living history museum in Maryland, as an indentured servant from 1667. Geneva enjoys traveling, reading about the history of the American West, playing piano, and continuing her role as her family's archivist.

6 thoughts on “Courage and innovation

  1. Geneva, you ask if anyone else has a relative connected to Mount Washington in some way. I do. My 3C4R, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bourne, died on Mt. Washington in a tragic hiking accident []. Sad. But, the last time I climbed to the top, the marker if the site was still there.

    1. Thanks for sharing. Such a sad story but you are related to a very brave woman! I liked that you are connected to her through hiking the mountain as well. It’s interesting how there can be so many connections between relatives. For instance, my dad is a pilot so the de-icing planes test connects two different sides of my family together. So interesting!

  2. I have a relative (1C 4R) who was involved with hotels at the west side of Mt. Washington. Horace Fabyan ran hotels in the area; there was one named Fabyan House but it was in his honor. He had nothing to do with it. I have a picture of myself standing at the railroad station sign that says Fabyan.
    As an engineer I would like to go to the top of Mt Washington by the cog railroad.
    As for your g-grandfather, I knew that name sounded familiar. I was at boarding school in North Andover MA from 1956-1961. But the school definitely leaned to the left. The faculty master who taught government was a staunch Democrat and got JFK to come talk to us during his campaign for president.

    1. Hotels are such a big business up there, and the older ones have such fascinating histories! That’s great that you went there and took a picture of the sign. Traveling is
      one of the best things to do to feel connected to your relatives.
      Yes, I want to take the cog railroad too! As you are an engineer, I’m curious to know if you would choose the steam or biodiesel powered train? Apparently you can choose which one to go on to get up the mountain!
      Thanks for sharing your story about your school. I have pictures of my great-grandfather with JFK. That must have been an amazing experience!

  3. Geneva – no choice, in memory of growing up, steam. My siblings and I grew up on the Hudson River with a New York Central pump station below our property. The New York Central calculated that the passenger steam engines were going fast enough that they could build troughs between the tracks and put scoops on the tenders to pick up water on the fly. It was a sight to see with the first three cars getting soaked by the overspray. Of course, it never dawned on us to take pictures of these happenings; I have a picture from a NY Central magazine but its not the same. And finally the last steam engine ran and it was just diesels from then on.
    A steam engine from Fort Wayne comes, normally, to run on the Cuyahoga Valley tracks each fall and I have taken pictures of it; once getting a little closer than I really wanted to.
    As for JFK, the government master had the whole school (220 students) practice for 30 minutes standing up together so that when JFK entered the assembly room, we came up as one person. The military would have been proud of us.

  4. I have a different connection to Mt. Washington — my ancestor, Darby Field, was the first white man to climb to the top. His Indian guides believed that their gods lived at the top, so they wouldn’t accompany him all the way up. When I was much younger, my family used to
    go camping in the White Mountains, but that’s before I got the genealogy bug, so didn’t check up on Darby. Wish I had seen the plaque that’s supposed to be at the base of the mountain.

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