While folks in the Western US laugh when people in New England talk about their “mountains,” there are some interesting and majestic peaks that run up the northern edge of the Appalachians. Mt. Washington, for example, while only 6,288 feet above sea level, has an over 6,000 foot rise from the valley floor below. It also pokes into the jet stream, causing it to receive some of the most extreme weather in North America.
But it’s Mount Washington’s more southern cousin that was dubbed the “magic mountain” by Bostonians.
When highways were built circling the city and eventually heading north, drivers noticed something odd about Mount Monadnock, some 65 miles to the northwest: it disappears. And it’s true—as you head North on I-93, you’ll get a clear view of the mountain’s bald top, and then you never see it again—unless you drive all the way to it’s base, some 90 minutes away. The illusion is that the mountain disappears and reappears only when you approach it, but the solution is simple: the road starts off heading northwest and quickly changes to northeast and then north again as it makes it’s way into New Hampshire. Your car never faces towards the mountain again until you’re right on it.
Monadnock has a few other claims to fame. It stands alone. There are no other mountains adjacent, with the nearest members of the White Mountains being about 100 miles north. As such, it’s name, Monadnock, which means “mountain that stands alone” in Abenaki, has become a term for all mountains that stand alone. Not only that, when Chicago was inventing sky scrapers, one particularly tall building stood alone as it towered above the other structures downtown. This building, which still stands today, is known as the Monadnock Building.
Scientists noticed something else that was odd about this mountain. It’s bald on top, meaning that the top of the mountain has a tree line. This is a line beyond which trees don’t grow, and all tall mountains have one. But Monadnock is only 3,165′ above sea level, well below the tree line of the taller White Mountains to the north.
The answer can be found hidden in the overgrowth of what’s known as Lynn Woods, just north of Boston. With some effort and bushwhacking, you can find two narrow rock lined pits, deep enough that the park service has installed railing around them. Legend has it that these were wolf pits. They would be hidden by greenery and baited with a dead lamb or some such. When the wolves leapt the greenery, they’d fall into the pit, probably onto wooden spikes. If they didn’t die immediately, the’d be trapped and killed by farmers the next day. Others suggest that these structures might have been saw pits or the ubiquitous root cellars that dot New England, but one thing was sure: people in the early 1700s were obsessed with wolves.
They weren’t so afraid them attacking people, as that rarely happened, but wolves did find easy prey in livestock and farmers would stop at nothing to protect their investments. And this brings us back to Monadnock.
In the 1700s, the woods around Monadnock were burned and clearcut so that they could become pasture. Monadnock was covered with spruce, which is a tree that burns well even when green. Fire raged up the mountain and consumed it. Years later, famers and villagers believed that wolves had taken up residence in the fells, and decided to solve their problem once and for all. They deliberately set fire to the entire mountain, killing nearly every tree.
Without trees, there’s nothing to hold in the top soil, and over time, the peak of Monadnock was blown bare, leaving no place for any growth on the tallest several hundred feet of the peak. As for the wolves, they’re long gone. Today, coyotes have taken their place in the ecosystem, though there are reports of wolf sightings in the Adirondacks, one lake away from New England.
We started with the title “Wolves of Magic Mountain,” but as the story unwound, the wolves and the magic mountain were destroyed, but hopefully a little bit of curiosity was stirred in you. Should you visit Monadnock, which is the most hiked peak outside of Asia, think of the wolves and the settlers and the trees and the Abenaki, and think about how something as immovable as a mountain can be so easily changed by the blind wheels of “progress.”