Then Again: James Taylor, father of the Long Trail, had a lot of help
James P. Taylor was the father of the Long Trail. This is how the story begins and usually ends. That’s true, in a way, but it’s also simplistic. In truth, Taylor might have come up with the idea, but others were just as important in making it a reality.
One version of how he designed it begins with the fact that he gets lost on a hike from Mount Mansfield to nearby Cloud Lake and is forced to spend the night outside. In another version, Taylor sits in his tent atop Stratton Mountain, waiting for the clouds to clear. Either way, as Taylor bided his time in the woods, he came up with the idea of creating a trail that would run along the backbone of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts border to Quebec.
Taylor was an avid outdoorsman before such a thing was all the rage in America. As deputy principal of the Vermont Academy at Saxtons River from 1908, he regularly took students on long hikes in the state’s wilderness. He became frustrated, however, that Vermont had few hiking trails to its highest peaks – eight by his tally.
“Should the Green Mountain Range continue to be sacrosanct to the minds of the early Green Mountain Boys and hedgehogs, and untouchable to everyone?” He asked during a speech promoting the trail.
At the time, Vermont actually had about 40 trails leading to its mountain peaks, hiking historians note. But even though Taylor overlooked a few dozen trails and seemed to think hedgehogs were wild in Vermont, his point was clear: Vermonters should get to know the peaks that define their state.
Like perhaps no other state, Vermont is dominated by mountains, he liked to say. Drawing on a bit of hyperbole, Taylor claimed that every Vermonter has a mountain in front of their door or behind them.
Taylor promoted his idea to every influential person he met. On March 11, 1910, he assembled a group of nearly two dozen people at the Van Ness Hotel in Burlington for the founding meeting of the Green Mountain Club. Among those present that evening were lawyers, judges, teachers, school principals and other state leaders.
The club had such august founders that it would later face accusations of elitism in the group. If the founders of the organization represented the elite, at least they were an elite who would get things done. The club’s goal, Taylor said, would be to create “a long trail” through the heart of the state that would “make the mountains of Vermont play a bigger role in people’s lives.”
Not much to start with
Taylor would leave the physically demanding creation of the Long Trail to others, but as the first president of the Green Mountain Club, he remained the primary promoter of the trail. Taylor was a natural marketer. In 1912, he became president of the Greater Vermont Association, the precursor of the State Chamber of Commerce, and held this position for 37 years.
The task of building the trail fell to people like Dr Lewis J. Paris of Burlington; Craig Burt, owner of Stowe Lumber Co., who would later help bring skiing to the city; and lawyer, and later judge, Clarence P. Cowles.
They didn’t have much to start with. In the words of Paris, the country through which they were making their way was then “a desert without a trail, surrounded by an indifferent people”. With the exception of a brief hike craze sparked by romantic literature in the 1860s, the people of Vermont weren’t very interested in working to reach the highest peaks in their state.
In the second half of the 19th century, Vermont had mountainside hotels on Camel’s Hump, Killington Peak, Mount Mansfield, and Mount Equinox, all accessible by horseback. In the early 1900s, only the last two remained.
Work on the Long Trail began on October 1, 1910, when Burt and Cowles laid out a route for the first leg of the trail. They set out from the Summit House hotel in Mansfield and within three days settled on the easier route south to Nebraska Notch. Taylor and others donned hiking boots to help survey the landscape to find possible routes. It was late enough in the season for the clearing of a trail to be postponed until the following year.
When construction began in 1911, club members planned to clear a road from Camel’s Hump north to Smugglers Notch, a distance of 29 miles. In the fall, they had done it. At the start of its trail history, Paris seemed disappointed with the mileage covered that summer, but added that “the first step towards opening up the Green Mountains has been taken”.
Summer rains slowed down work in 1912, and organizers and volunteers found they had to camp for weeks at a time to get the job done. As Paris says, “the construction of the Long Trail by the voluntary work of its members would become a rather rambling occupation”. So they decided to call in professionals.
Members of the Green Mountain Club have raised money to hire loggers to cut trails in some of the more remote sections. Fortunately, the Vermont Forest Department was looking at the time to create a fire patrol trail along the state’s peaks. The ministry could locate the trails and supervise the work, but it did not have the money to do the actual construction. If the GMC were to pay the money, the Forestry Department would oversee the work. A team of six loggers led by a Forest Service trail-building expert started north in late May 1913 from Killington Peak. They were shooting for Mount Horrid at Rochester Pass.
A breakthrough in Rochester
The club’s annual meeting in 1913, held that year on June 14 in Brandon, turned into a celebration when it became known that the track team had just passed Rochester Pass. The team then headed to Camel’s Hump and made a trail south to Lincoln-Warren Pass, a distance of 28 miles.
That still left a 35 mile missing link between Rochester Pass and Lincoln-Warren Pass – they had saved the worst for last. Paris said state trail-building expert RM Ross described this stretch as “the strangest jumble of peaks, valleys and cross-ridges he has encountered in Vermont.” . It would be slow, and therefore expensive, work and the GMC didn’t have the money.
Fortunately, another group, the Appalachian Mountain Club, did. A group of backpackers from the Boston-based club were eager to hike the trail south of Camel’s Hump. If the GMC could guarantee the road would be ready by September 5, their club would donate $ 100 for the effort. The track team finished the job with 10 days to spare.
In that first decade, workers cleared 209 miles of trails and built 44 shelters for sleeping. The remaining 60 miles or so of the road took another decade, but the GMC has continued to tackle the job, relying on more and more new volunteers over the years.
Finally, in 1930, with the clearing of a small section leading north to the border with Quebec, the 270-mile Long Trail was completed. Vermont was home to what has been dubbed the country’s first long-distance hiking trail, all thanks to James Taylor and many others.
In fact, their work on the Long Trail inspired Benton MacKaye, the engine of the Appalachian Trail, to create his own hiking route. MacKaye has indeed created a very long track. The Appalachian Trail runs 2,200 miles from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
In a sad postscript to the Long Trail story, Taylor’s life began to fall apart at the end. Retired in the late 1940s, he ran out of money and began showing up to Judge Cowles almost every evening at dinner time. The family always invited him to eat.
Then, one evening in 1949, Taylor chose to dine at North Hero. He stopped at an inn there and ordered a fine dinner, which he finished by smoking a cigar. Then he boarded a small boat and rowed on Lake Champlain, never to be seen again.
Cowles’ life ended more appropriately. When he died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 87, he did so while hiking along a trail near Camel’s Hump, enjoying the sport he had helped bring to Vermont.
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