Long Trail: Early Leaders Leave Mark

07/19/10 7:55AM Tom Slayton
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The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History

Herbert Wheaton Congdon, courtesy UVM
Will Monroe

(Host) One-hundred years ago, the Green Mountain Club was founded and construction of the Long Trail began.

VPR is looking back this month at how the hiking trail has influenced the history and culture of the state.

Now, we continue our series: "The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History."

Today, VPR Commentator Tom Slayton introduces the early leaders of the Green Mountain Club.

(Slayton) In 1915, the Green Mountain Club, barely five years old, was in trouble. Its founder, James Paddock Taylor, had withdrawn from active participation because he felt that the club's purpose, building The Long Trail along the crests of the Green Mountains was pretty much fulfilled.

But those who actually hiked on the Long Trail were not so sure. A misguided deal with the state Forestry Department had produced a huge section of the trail south of Camel's Hump that was not only hard to follow, but boring as well. The Forestry Department had cut 70 miles of trail down the center of the state that was actually designed as a fire prevention trail: no grades exceeded 15% and most of the scenic peaks of the high Green Mountains were avoided.  This was not the sort of trail Green Mountain Club members had envisioned when the club was founded in 1910!

A sense of apathy and despair permeated the club and in 1916, it actually considered the possibility of disbanding.

But then a shaggy, mountain-loving retired botany professor from Montclair, N. J. appeared, and things began to change. Prof. Will Monroe, eccentric lover of dogs, passenger pigeons, and mountains had moved to Vermont, and saw that the club was dissatisfied with the trail it had inherited from the Forestry Department. So Monroe, with typical directness and energy, began cutting a new one.

Green Mountain Club executive director Ben Rose sees in the photographs of Monroe an active trail builder who might be recognized by today's hikers as one of them.

(Ben Rose) "There's all these pictures. In the rest of the pictures he's out on the trail, wearing a brightly colored bandana, looking like a hippie. He was a man out of time."

(Slayton) Instead of the timid grades and deep-forest routes favored by the earlier trail, Monroe blazed his trail directly over the highest crests of the Green Mountains. He turned out to be a natural genius at trail construction, scouted the woods and found the most interesting glens and overlooks, caves and springs and routed his trail to connect them.

The resulting 50 miles of trail is both rugged and beautiful. Some hikers today consider the Monroe Skyline the most challenging section of the Long Trail and the most aesthetically pleasing. In "Forest and Crag," their classic history of hiking in the Northeast, Laura and Guy Waterman declared that the Monroe Skyline Trail, as it came to be known - was and is "a classic etc...".

Ben Rose says Will Monroe was about as different from the Green Mountain Club's founder, James P. Taylor, as can be imagined.

Theron Dean, courtesy UVM
James P. Taylor
(Ben Rose) "James P. Taylor was ahead of his time, because before that the mountains were not particularly celebrated in Vermont culture, they were cold dark, brooding presences, impediments to commerce and transport and the mountains were really in the way. And here was this school teacher talking about how the mountains were going to be a magnet of economic activity and health and vitality for the state, he was really talking about eco-tourism before the word was common."

(Slayton) There were several other important early leaders in the early days of the club - Judge Clarence Cowles, Louis Paris and Herbert Wheaton Congdon, all hardworking trail builders. Ben Rose says there was also Theron Dean, a talented amateur photographer who created a magic lantern slide show to publicize the club.

(Rose) "Theron Dean was a very good photographer and he took a collection of photographs over his years of working on the trail, which to this day represent the best archival treasure trove of images about the early days of the trail."

(Slayton) Hiking in those days was becoming a fashionable activity, and the founders of the Green Mountain Club were the leaders of Vermont itself in the 1920s and 1930s. Some, like Taylor, were promoters and idea men. Some, like Will Monroe and Judge Cowles, were trail builders.  But together, they changed the way Vermonters thought about their mountains.

And those early Green Mountain Club leaders established an organization and an outdoor ethic that changed Vermont.  And that continues to this day.

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The Long Trail: Vermont's Footpath Through History

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