Drive around New England often enough, and you’re sure to spot a few “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers. The souvenir serves as proof of making it up the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, a feat that got its start thanks to Freelan Stanley and his Watertown-built car on this day in 1899.
Currently, about 45,000 cars earn that bumper sticker each year according to Howie Wemyss, general manager for Mount Washington Auto Road, a private entity which helps market the landmark, but what is now an iconic tourist pilgrimage began with that first vehicle to reach the summit 117 years ago.
Freelan Stanley and his wife Flora made history on August 31, 1899 when they drove their steam-powered auto, made in the Stanley brothers’ Watertown shop, up the 6,288-foot mountain.
According to Wemyss who, at 65, has held the general manager position at the Mount Washington Auto Road for 29 years, the Stanleys made the trek solely as a publicity stunt.
“They wanted to ensure their place in history,” Wemyss said. “They knew it would be a huge newsworthy event, and it was. It hit the papers across the U.S. People everywhere knew Mount Washington and were fascinated a car had actually made this climb.”
There are a few ways to reach the top of Mount Washington: You can hike the 6,288 feet, but set aside at least eight hours to go up and back, or if that’s too long, there’s a three hour cog railway tour, which got its start in 1868. But ever since the Stanleys paved the way, the auto road has become the most popular way to experience the tourist destination. About 150,000 people in total travel up the auto road each year, according to Wemyss, whether in their own car or in guided tours.
“It’s unlike any drive anywhere else, especially in the Northeast,” Wemyss said.
Before becoming general manager, Wemyss worked as a tour guide and has driven up the mountain hundreds of times. Still, he said, it never gets old.
“It’s different every single time you go up there,” he said. “And even if you don’t have a clear day, then you’re up in this famous weather.”
Among its height and stunning views, Mount Washington is most notable for its erratic weather. The mountain holds a world-record wind speed of 231 miles per hour, as recorded by the Mount Washington Observatory in 1934. Imagine experiencing that while in the first car to climb it, Wemyss joked.
The Stanleys also faced a unique predicament while making the ascent that thankfully tourists these days don’t have to deal with.. Since theirs was a steam-powered car, they needed water as fuel along the way. It took about two hours and 10 minutes for them to reach the summit, Wemyss said, (cars today can drive it in 45 minutes) but it would have been quicker if they hadn’t missed stopping at a spring near the top. The Stanleys needed to get water delivered down from the summit to where their car had stopped in order to make it the rest of the way.
Those who work at the auto road are proud of its history, Wemyss said, and the Stanleys’ story is a big part of that.
“We’re always reminding ourselves of it because we surround ourselves with our history,” he said.
The auto road’s base has a display on the evolution of the mountain transportation, including a steam car. Though unfortunately workers can’t prove if it’s the same exact vehicle (Wemyss said the history of its make was lost), it is at least the same model as the Stanleys’ and sometimes, on the anniversary of their trek, Wemyss is able to get it running again.
As for the bumper stickers, the Stanleys weren’t the first to start that trend. The earliest photographic evidence Wemyss has found through his research shows a car in 1938 affixed with a cardboard placard wired to its front bumper broadcasting to all that “This car climbed Mt. Washington.”