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1866: The Unionville Brass Band and the First and Last Concert on Mt. Monadnock


In a pointless exercise in mock-scholarship, we attempt to find the exact route an entire brass band, complete with large instruments (tubas! drums!) took to hike to the top of Mt Monadnock in New Hampshire to give what is most likely the first, and probably last concert to an actual audience.


While researching for something entirely different, and probably more useful, I came across a mention of an August 25th, 1866 concert on Monadnock by the aforementioned Unionville Brass Band. Acknowledging the author, David R Proper, is important as he appears to be the only person alive who cared enough to memorialize it. Attribution at the end of the article as I can't figure out how to footnote.


At any rate, the event was to celebrate to opening of the Halfway House, a mountainside hotel which, as they all seem to, succumbed to fire on April 14, 1954. (All this information, by the way, comes from David Proper's book, A "Keene" Sense Of History, Peter E Randall, Publisher, 2002.) After a few quick land transactions and small starts, the real hotel, a much grander enterprise, opened on July 4, 1886. Mr. and Mrs. George Rice, the new owners, envisioned a luxury experience for hikers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson was an early guest, along with members of his family. The band was hired to commemorate the grand opening. What remains is in this photo:


Mr. Proper quotes the New Hampshire Sentinel, on August 30, 1866, as saying the band "discoursed some of their best music, much to the edification of them (the attendees, ed.) all," and "The effect of their stirring tones way up there on the ragged rocks was romantic in the extreme." With all that, how could we not trace to original route?


I'll tell you how: it's really steep. At least, that was one potential route. Researching through what is probably the most extensive history of New England mountaineering and hiking, "Forest And Crag" by Laura and Guy Waterman, only a few early trails seemed to have existed on Monadnock at that time. There was the Dublin Trail, the Pumpelly Trail, a few unnamed routes of minor significance, and the Halfway House and White Arrow Trail. As the concert was sponsored by the Halfway House, that was the start. The path to the site of the house was a wide path suitable for carriages:


After that, however, the trails took a turn for the worse. The assumed route, as surmised by Monadnock State Park Manager Will Kirkpatrick, was up what is now the White Arrow Trail. On paper, it made sense. A few hand-drawn maps of the late 1800's seemed to confirm this, but as we'll see, was that actually it? Part of the problem is that after the hotel gained business, there was a trail-building fever, with all sorts of paths opening up around the flanks, many reaching the summit through alternate and easier routes. Here's what we found while heading up the White Arrow Trail:


And subsequently:


And of course it got harder:


Is the view from the summit worth it? Oh, yeah...


To be sure, you'll have many folks with you on top of what is thought to be the most-climbed mountain in this country, but what the heck, it's a blast and worth the work. Back to the purpose of the trip, and here's the route we took, courtesy of the official map and the Avenza GPS mapping app:


The White Arrow trail is on the left, and then on the right, we started down White Dot to the Smith Connecting Link, to Noble and then Side Foot, where we rejoined right at the hotel site. The point at where the loop connects at the bottom (the top of the stick of a lollipop?) is where the hotel was. Could something like this have been around in 1866? I hope so, as a tuba up White Arrow would have been a bear. I suppose musicians were heartier back then... I then had a thought that as the mountain didn't fully lose it's trees at the summit until the second fire of 1820, perhaps all of the soils had not eroded, and the hiking was easier. But, that seems unlikely, as there were plenty of inscriptions in the exposed rock dating to that period:


However, the existence of an easier side trail along the Smith Connector might well be proven by the notation of a wolf den along the Smith Connector. (The site of the den is circle number 15 in the map above.) As legend has it that the fires were started by farmers eager to wipe out the wolves and protect their herds, there's some possibility that the connector, an easy route to the summit, existed in some form. Will we ever know? Nah. Will anyone really care? Not likely, unless we can talk a school marching band or small brass band into a recreation. Not likely, I'm guessing. I was imagining the band playing Sousa marches up there, but he didn't start composing for a few years later, so here's a possible tune, one that predates the concert but was popular at the time. The only video I could find that seems correct was from the U.K., so you'll forgive the long lead-in to the tune:



And because we're being all historical, here's the original folk genesis of that tune before it was tun=rned into a march in the early 1800's:



While trying to find out what really happened will be lost to history, it's a hike well worth taking, and I highly recommend it, tubas or no.


Many thanks to the following for help with this:


Lee Dunham of the Swanzey Historical Museum did a bunch of digging as well as pointing me to other potential sources.


Will Kirkpatrick, Park Manager of Monadnock also dug a bit, and suggested the most likely route (as well as advising on parking on what would be a busy Sunday hike).


The initial mention of the concert was in the Dublin Seminars For New England Folklife publication, edited by Peter Benes, and this edition was entitled New England Music: The Public Sphere, 1600-1900. Copyright 1998 by Trustees of Boston University. Mr. Proper's article was entitled: "A Joyful Noise, 'Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal'. The Late 19th Century Town Band.


David Proper himself was the gatherer of most of the information we know, and his book "A 'Keene' Sense Of History" (Peter Randall, Publisher, 2002) has more mentions, as well as research, of the concert than anywhere else. Further digging revealed nothing that he hadn't already found.


Finally, the weighty book, "Forest And Crag" by Laura and Guy Waterman (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1989) is by far and away the best and most complete book on hiking and climbing in New England that ever was and ever could be written. Period.



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