“Now, boys, you won’t have me with you much longer. Something will happen to me, and you will have to get another pathfinder. But I hope you will keep up the walks just the same, in memory of me.” —Father Bill Curtis, Fresh Air Club annual dinner, Jan. 17, 1900
By THOMAS SHANNON
Writer, ornithologist, and naturalist John Burroughs is the man most associated with Slide Mountain. The most popular trail over it is called the Burroughs Range Trail. A plaque in his honor graces a ledge near the summit. His admirer and friend Henry Ford even led an unsuccessful shadow campaign to rename the peak Burroughs Mountain.
Yet there are two other men with a trail and monument of their own on this tallest Catskill Mountain. Hikers approaching from the western trailhead are familiar with the names “Curtis and Ormsbee,” even if their story is only known from a throwaway sentence or two in a trail guide.
William Buckingham Curtis was native to Vermont, born there Jan. 17, 1837 to Rev. Henry Harvey Curtis and his wife Elizabeth Deming Curtis. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him. Harvey Curtis soon remarried but it wasn’t long before his ecclesiastical duties as a Presbyterian minister took him and his family to Cincinnati, OH. Young Bill Curtis was weak from an early bout with tuberculosis so at the age of ten, he was sent to live with his stepmother’s family in the Green Mountains of Vermont. There he hiked, ran, and swam, building up his body.
In the late 1840s, Rev. Harvey Curtis took charge of First Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. He was a passionate abolitionist and, in 1858, became president of Knox College in Galesburg, IL. As college president, Rev. Curtis offered the campus as a site for one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Two years later, as Lincoln was running for president, Rev. Curtis bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate, the first academic credential of his life.
Bill Curtis, as a young man, aspired to get into West Point but could not secure an appointment. Unfazed, he acquired the curriculum and taught it to himself. As the son of such a fervent believer in the Union, abolitionist, and Republican causes, Bill Curtis volunteered for service immediately once hostilities commenced. He entered the Union army as a private in the 19th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, soon thereafter rising to Second Lieutenant, the commission he would have been given upon graduation from West Point. In the 19th Illinois, he was a staff officer serving under John Basil Turchin. Turchin, an ethnic Ukrainian, served more than ten years in the Russian Imperial Army before emigrating to the antebellum United States. He was the original devil figure of the Lost Cause for the so-called “Sack of Athens,” Alabama. Bill Curtis served at his side until 1863.
After the war, Bill Curtis moved to New York City and indulged his love for nearly all athletic endeavors. He joined the Atlantic Boat Club of Hoboken, NJ, frequently sculling and rowing on the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. On one occasion, the crew boat he was in accidentally collided with a two man scull in the Hudson off Jersey City. The two men on the receiving end fell into the water and began swimming for shore. Concerned that those two unlucky rowers would lose their scull, Curtis and his friend Harry Buermeyer plunged into the water, grabbing the victims’ boat and pulling it along as they likewise swam to shore.
Bill Curtis’ exploits as an amateur athlete were legendary. For nearly twenty years he took on all challengers in the 100-yard dash and never lost. At five feet, nine inches tall and one hundred sixty five pounds, he set records as a weightlifter that stood for decades. He tried his hand at nearly all sports and particularly loved speed skating.
During his first stint as a full time New Yorker, Bill Curtis co-founded the New York Athletic Club along with Harry Buermeyer and John Babcock. The NYAC was one of many Gilded Age voluntary associations that nurtured the concept of amateur athletics as distinct from professional athletics. In 1868, when the NYAC was founded, there were no standards of measuring athletic performances, referees were often crooked, and in Curtis’ opinion, remuneration of athletes opened the door to corrupted performances. There were, of course, class overtones involved for few had leisure time to participate in athletics and even fewer could compete without getting paid for it.
Curtis—“Father Bill” as he came to be called in recognition of his role in the origination of amateur athletics—was gaining a reputation as an honest athlete and referee. In 1870, he moved to Chicago to take a position on the Board of Trade while maintaining two houseboats, one on the Calumet River, and one at Bath Beach in Brooklyn. Moving back to New York permanently in 1879, he became managing editor of the athletics newspaper Spirit of the Times, widening his authority on what should and should not be in the world of amateur athletics. Bolstering his credentials as “Father” of amateur athletics, in 1888 he co-founded the Amateur Athletic Union, setting competitive athletic standards and grooming athletes for the soon-to-be-reincarnated Olympic Games.
These last two decades of his life, he competed less and less in athletic contests but stayed in phenomenal physical condition while shaping the nascent industry through his editorials and refereeing. His favorite activity in these years was serving as “pathfinder” for the Fresh Air Club, an association of serious hikers in the New York City area that he founded.
Among the most zealous members of the Fresh Air Club was a young man of 28 years, named Allan Ormsbee. His father, Allen Ives Ormsbee, was an old line Rhode Islander by birth, a prominent member of the New York Stock Exchange, and a heavy in local Republican politics. His mother, Fanny Childs Ormsbee, a native of Hartford, CT, knew sorrow as well as anyone, losing four of her eight children before they reached the age of ten. Young Allan was a member of the Crescent Athletic Club in Brooklyn, a volunteer in the old 23rd New York National Guard unit, and an experienced mountaineer.
The nickname “pathfinder” adhered to Father Bill Curtis as a member of the Fresh Air Club because he would often hike alone to scout the best route up a mountain. Only after finding the ideal path would he organize a club outing. Punishing hikes of between fifteen and thirty miles a day were the norm and quickly weeded out less enthusiastic hikers. What is now the Curtis-Ormsbee trail on Slide Mountain was Curtis’ preferred path, meandering to several picturesque ledges on a mountain with limited views.
In late June 1900, Curtis, Ormsbee, and fellow Fresh Air Club member Fred Ilgen took a hiking vacation to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Then, as now, the Whites tried the endurance of all hikers, particularly the foreboding Mount Washington, tallest peak in the northeastern United States by nearly five hundred feet. The men arrived early in the last week of June, hiking Mounts Lafayette, Whiteface, Passaconaway, and Sandwich Dome over several days.
Curtis, a member of the then twenty four years old Appalachian Mountain Club, was interested in attending their yearly meeting at the summit house on top of Mount Washington. This was not Father Bill’s first time in the Whites—he may have hiked there as a boy from neighboring Vermont and had vacationed there previously. Ormsbee was a newcomer and relished the chance to summit Mount Washington.
Curtis, Ormsbee, and Ilgen started their Saturday, June 30th, by taking a train to Crawford Notch near what is today AMC’s Highland Center. They made the short hike up Mount Willard, a modest peak with stunning views of the Presidential Range mountains. All could see dark clouds engulfing those higher peaks including Mount Washington. Descending from Mount Willard, Ilgen hopped back on the train in order to head up to the cog railroad that goes up to the summit of Mount Washington. Curtis and Ormsbee were determined to hike the eight and a half miles with nearly five thousand feet elevation gain that is the Crawford Path, up to the summit of Washington. For some reason, they did not stop in at the Crawford House, Highland Center’s predecessor, for a weather report or to register their hike.
Most of the attendees of this yearly AMC meeting, including many of the early trailbuilders whose surnames still adorn the Whites, arrived via the cog railway. The temperature at Washington’s summit that Saturday morning was 25℉, with winds and icy precipitation sufficient to break several windows of the summit house.
The first peak Curtis and Ormsbee scaled on the Crawford Path was then known as Mount Clinton, after the half Kingston-Dutch ditch digger, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. Some fool has since renamed it in honor of President and New Hampshire native Franklin Pierce. Mount Pierce’s summit is well treed in nowadays, though it may have been bare due to logging in 1900. Curtis and Ormsbee signed in at the waterproof trail register on the summit.
Pushing on through the freezing rain, the men passed through progressively more stunted tree growth. Two guides and a couple of trail maintainers descending the Crawford Path passed them and tried to persuade them to turn back but to no avail. Approaching the next mountain, Pleasant Dome (since renamed Eisenhower), the Crawford Path offers both a loop trail to the summit or a bypass on the leeward side of the mountain in case of bad weather. Curtis and Ormsbee took the summit loop and signed in at Pleasant Dome’s trail register.
Just beyond Pleasant Dome, where the loop rejoins Crawford Path, there is a small tarn called Red Pond with substantial spruce growth in a nook protected by the mountain. This is as far up the Crawford Path an emergency campsite of any comfort could be set up. The rocks soon come to dominate and the hardy spruces become more and more stunted to the point where they are more akin to bushes than trees.
Passing over the little hump called Mount Franklin, the men again faced the choice of bypass or summit loop over Mount Monroe. In all likelihood they took the summit loop. Just a short distance from where the loop rejoins Crawford Path uphill from Mount Monroe, Curtis and Ormsbee were forced by the brutal weather conditions to take shelter in a patch of scrub spruce, not much more than two feet high.
Fred Ilgen arrived at Mount Washington’s summit via rail in the early evening. His announcement that Bill Curtis and Allan Ormsbee were hiking up the Crawford Path disheartened the AMC members at the summit house. Near sundown, a few members started out down the Crawford Path but were so overcome by the high winds and sheen of ice that they only went a hundred feet or so and had to battle to get back.
The storm continued all day Sunday, July 1. Plastered on everything at the summit was a thick coating of ice measuring as much as eighteen inches in spots. Attendees stayed inside all day, content with the thought that, given the brutality of the storm, Curtis and Ormsbee would have turned around early on and returned to Crawford Notch. More typical summer weather resumed on Monday July 2.
Louis F. Cutter, responsible for many early maps of the White Mountains, was the first hiker to descend the Crawford Path that Monday. He found Father Bill Curtis’ body facedown on a large rock in the middle of the trail, the forehead badly bruised. Father Bill was well known for never wearing an overcoat but his corpse was found with a wool coat and cap on. Cutter also found the shelter the men had made in the scrub spruce nearby. There on the ground he found a few pieces of bread, an empty milk bottle and each man’s camera.
Cutter hiked back up to the summit house with news of his grim discovery. A search party was set up to find Allan Ormsbee. His body was found much farther uphill on Mount Washington - fifteen paces west of the Crawford Path and within sight of the buildings on the summit. The decision to leave the meandering trail and make a direct line for the summit was a fateful one for Ormsbee. On the cone of Mount Washington, the boulders are enormous and if one ventures off established trails, they jiggle underfoot, multiplying the difficulty of hiking in an ice storm. Ormsbee’s body had more than fifty severe bruises and lacerations.
The AMC set up a committee to establish exactly how this accident happened but had no luck coming up with a timetable. How long they camped out in the scrub spruce and when or why they split up was never determined.
The Fresh Air Club made a rock pile and set up a large wooden cross on the spot where Allan Ormsbee died. The rock where Father Bill died also got a wooden cross and a bronze plaque reading:
"On This Spot
William B. Curtis
In the Great Storm of June 30, 1900
Fresh Air Club of New York"
The plaque was later stolen and not replaced. From a picture of the site in Not Without Peril by Nicholas Howe, it looks to be located just south of the largest Lake of the Clouds, the two prongs of its outflow in the background. This would put the site of Curtis’ demise on the modern Dry River Trail, the old Crawford Path having been slightly rerouted.
Within a year of Curtis and Ormsbee’s misfortune, the AMC built a rude shack near where Curtis died so any hikers in the same situation could find refuge. By 1915, Lakes of the Clouds hut was completed nearby, the second of what are now eight high elevation huts in AMC’s White Mountain network.
Sometime before 1909 the Fresh Air Club made Father Bill’s favorite path up Slide Mountain a formal reality, placing the still extant stone marker, and organizing an annual work weekend to maintain the trail.
Fred Ilgen accompanied his friends’ remains as they made their way down Mount Washington’s slopes on the cog railway and on to New York. Allan Ormsbee was laid to rest in his mother’s earth, Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, CT. The New York Athletic Club gave (their) Father Bill Curtis a hero’s funeral, swiftly raising funds for a handsome tomb in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Searching for an appropriate epitaph, they settled upon Hamlet’s lament for his father: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall never look upon his like again.”
Thomas Shannon lives in Endwell, New York with his wife Mary and two daughters. He has hoofed across the Presidential Range and up Slide Mountain twice in the last year. All vituperation for Franklin Pierce is genuine and has nothing to do with his being a bare-thread-of-a-shirttail-cousin to DeWitt Clinton.