GASPING for breath, the unseasoned climber will ask, "How much further to the top?" and from one who's been there before the answer invariably is, "We're almost there." Such an exchange is all too familiar to anyone who has ever taken a group of friends on a mountain climb.

Nowhere in Maine is this conversation more likely to occur than when ascending Old Spec Mountain. Located in Grafton, along the Maine-New Hampshire border, it is the state's third highest mountain, referred to in some guidebooks as the "steepest continuous rise of ground in the East." In the 1800s it was called Speckled Mountain, but over the years it acquired its present moniker.

The long abandoned fire-warden's trail onto the mountain best illustrates the steepness of the ascent. Leaving Route 26 at Grafton Notch, 1,500 feet above sea level, the 1.6-mile trail reached the thickly wooded summit at an elevation of 4,180 feet. It was so steep that local people often joke that a man could not smoke a pipe while climbing.

I've never tried to smoke a pipe while toiling up Old Spec, but I've climbed the mountain scores of times and can testify that the ascent is steep. And my father who knew the mountain intimately would say the same. Together, we often climbed the precipitous trails for pleasure. But mostly we climbed in line of duty, for both of us — at different times — served as summer fire watchmen on the tower atop Old Spec.

In 1914, a tower of poles, topped by a platform, was erected on the summit by the New Hampshire Timber Owners Association so that during dry periods a watchman stationed there could spot forest fires. Four years later, the Maine Forestry Department undertook the arduous summer task of erecting a forty-foot steel tower, which would be manned full time. Several days were vainly spent trying to find a suitable location for a road so that horses might tote building materials at least part way up. In the end it was on the backs of men that the sections of the steel tower went up the mountain. In charge of this slow and exceedingly difficult operation was George Sawyer who recruited local men and boys; by fall, the tower, with telephone hookup, was ready for use.

Because of the rough climb and the unnerving solitude, so few watchmen found the duty tolerable that between 1925 and 1945, eight different men came and went on the mountain. One of these was my father, Daniel Wight, who was born literally in the shadow of the mountain at the Wight homestead in North Newry

Fifty years ago (1959) Maine closed the fire watch tower on the top of Old Spec Mountain and abolished the position of fire watcher.  Eric Wight had the honor of being the last one to hold the job.  Eric had applied for the position while in his last year at Gould Academy and received his acceptance notice prior to his graduation.  However, his new job did not last the year.  Eric recovered well; he retired from Maine’s Game Warden Service after a 20 year career and was Bethel’s Police Chief in 1988.  After reading the article he wrote about life on Old Spec you could say that he would have been successful if he had taken up writing as a career.

In July 1980, Down East magazine published Eric’s story, On Top of Old Spec, about the history of the fire watchers job and the tower.  The fire watch observer duty started in 1914 sponsored by the New Hampshire Timber Owners Association.  Four years later the Maine Forestry Department took over the responsibility.  The first tower was made of wooden poles supporting just a platform. The second tower, forty feet high, was made with steel legs and a crude observation cabin – similar to Iron Curtain border towers in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.  Men had to manhandle the steel tower sections from the valley to the top of the mountain – no footing for horses or tractors.  The tower’s firewatcher kept in touch with the world through a crank telephone. 

On Top of Old Spec, Part II:  50 years ago: Another great lumbering name to remember was brought up in Eric Wight’s article in the course of telling about logging spruce on the side of Old Spec; he was Marshall Hastings.  Everyone in Bethel knows of the Gideon Hastings House, a prominent Broad Street address. However, Marshall Hastings was the last member of this famous Bethel lumbering family to have lived there.  Marshall died in 1958 but he had earned the distinction while working as a logging contractor for the Brown Company of delivering 27,000 cords in one year, the largest contract ever fulfilled by a single individual at that time. His achievement came in the late 1920’s well before the days of chain saws and the forest harvesting mechanization we see today.  He worked with his father from 1900 to 1914 as a partner in the Hastings, Maine lumber and wood alcohol enterprise on Wild River where he had the privilege of living in one of the “ten commandants” – company homes for resident employees.

On Top of Old Spec, Part III:  Daniel Wight, Eric’s father, had a seven year career as fire watcher on Old Spec between 1930 and 1937.  Daniel Wight was born and grew up in North Newry.  During his years on Old Spec he cleared a new trail that circled the east spur of the summit – a vantage point that allowed clear views of Bear River valley.  He also gained intimate knowledge of potential trail terrain from the Old Spec to Mahoosuc Notch. 

In 1927, the Appalachian Mountain Club made Myron Avery its president.  Avery became the dynamo needed to complete the trail including the leg into Maine.  In his hands on approach to getting things done he took in and used Daniel Wight’s knowledge of the area and suggestions Wight made as to the trail path in the Mahoosuc area.  Eric told me that quite frequently his father had direct talks with Avery.  Later when Wight was made an honorary member of the AMC, the trail he had cleared around the summit was named for him.  Coincidentally, the year Wight finished his tour of fire watcher duty, 1937, was the year the Appalachian Trail was declared finished.  In Maine at that time it ended at Sugarloaf.   (In 1938, Daniel Wight married Rosalie Thurston.  Murray “Mike” Thurston was Rosalie’s brother.)

Years after leaving the mountain, Daniel became an important member of an ad hoc group of nature lovers politicking to have Grafton Notch made a state park.  Charles Heywood was another advocate. Wight’s thorough knowledge and love of the area helped with his own slides and photos allowed him to give persuasive talks to a variety of influential groups that eventually led to state park status being achieved.

 

 

On Top of Old Spec

As Told and Written by Eric Wight

July 2009

 

Google Earth image

THE BETHEL JOURNALS—ON TOP OF OLD SPEC

Appalachian Trail

Summit of Old Spec

Appalachian Trail parking and Rt 26

THE BETHEL JOURNALS

PO Box 763

Bethel, Maine 04217

www.thebetheljournals.info