February 25, 2011

The Hermit of Crawford Notch

On a hot August afternoon in 2009. Dan and I stopped at a general store in East St Johnsbury, VT. After looking around, I decided to purchase a thin paperback book with short New England Christmas stories. The book included a story of "The Santa Claus of the White Mountains" who was said to be buried at the Straw Road Cemetary in Twin Mountain, NH. A man who looked like Santa Claus and whittled wooden toys for children. He was especially kind to orphans. The writer was unable to find the gravestone of Jack Viallis among the 100 or so in the small graveyard.

Intrigued by the story, we set out to Twin Mountain in the late afternoon. We split up and began our search and within five minutes we found the grave of John Vials. Above his name were the words "The Hermit of Crawford Notch".

When we got home I decided to go online to find out more about this man buried in the small cemetary in Twin Mountain.

 He was known as "English Jack" and was thought to have arrived in Crawford Notch to work on the Portland and Ogdensburg Rail Road, which was completed in the notch in 1875.  He lived in a ramshackle  home built from scrap lumber from the railroad and he referred to the home as his "ship".  Tourists from the city would come to the White Mountains and would hike to see him. The railroad had posted a sign "the house that Jack built" to indicate where he lived. He entertained tourists with tales from his days at sea, sold a homemade brew, as well as postcards of himself and items he had whittled.
Some say he swallowed snakes and frogs to entertain tourists which may or may not be true.

English Jack postcard

In 1892 a small book written in verse "The story of Jack" was published. This was his life as he recounted to James E Mitchell.
Apparently Jack was born in London and orphaned by age 12. He wandered the docks looking for a position as a cabin boy to escape the workhouse. On the docks he found a young girl named Mary who was crying because she was lost and looking for her father. Jack helped her find her father who was Captain Simmonds of "The Nelson". The family took Jack in and he became the cabin boy on the The Nelson. He sailed with Captain Simmonds for the next nine years until a shipwreck occured. Jack was one of eleven who survived the shipwreck on a desert island but illness overtook the survivors. Jack and two others were rescued but only Jack lived. Captain Simmond's dying wish was that Jack care for his wife and daughter.
Jack returned to London and found that the wife had died and the daughter had been sent to the workhouse. He found Mary and enrolled her at a girl's school. He professed that he had fallen in love with her and they decided to get married after he made one more trip to secure their future. The voyage would be to China and would take nearly a year. When Jack returned to Mary, he found that she had died a month before his return.
Distraught, he went abroad and fought in the Crimean War eventually winding up in New Hampshire to work on the railroad.  Or at least that's the way Jack told his story.

In his older years, he wintered with a family in Twin Mountain. Jack died in the winter of 1912 while staying with the McGee family.The townspeople collected money for his headstone. His obituary was published in the New York Times.

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