Alden Partridge had an astounding idea: He would hike two of Vermont’s highest peaks, Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump. That might not sound like such a revolutionary notion to us. After all, thousands of people hike those mountains each year. But this was 1818, a time when hiking wasn’t exactly a popular sport. Just saying you wanted to climb a tall mountain might have made you seem eccentric.
The other remarkable thing about Partridge’s idea is that he planned to get to and from the mountains by foot. Though this was still three decades before the arrival of railroads, Partridge could have traveled there largely by a combination of horse and boat. Instead he opted to walk the 150-plus miles round trip from his home in Norwich.
He made the entire journey in a week, mostly in the rain.
Looking at Partridge’s lifetime of hikes, however, this trek hardly stands out. Partridge would become New England’s first long-distance hiker. He wrote widely circulated newspaper columns about his wilderness treks and in so doing helped popularize the sport of hiking.
Looking at the history of hiking in New England and the East Coast in general, all trails seem to lead back to Partridge. Some writers link his hikes to the tourism boom that hit New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and to a lesser extent Vermont’s Green Mountains and Taconics, during the mid-1800s.
Later, in the early 1900s, reports of his exploits inspired schoolteacher James P. Taylor to create the Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont. The Long Trail, in turn, helped inspire Benton MacKaye’s vision for the Appalachian Trail, which now runs from Georgia to Maine.
A high purpose
As heartened as Partridge would be to know what his hiking habit helped spawn, he was pursuing his passion for another purpose. He was trying to craft hardy citizen soldiers and give them what he termed a “physical education” to complement their book learning. Partridge, whose father was a Revolutionary War veteran, was a career Army officer. He had been born in Norwich and attended nearby Dartmouth College, before transferring to West Point.
After graduating, he taught mathematics and engineering at West Point. In 1814, he was named superintendent of the school. But his tenure was short-lived. His changes to the curriculum and administration of the school proved unpopular with superiors, who dismissed him. Partridge’s response showed a stubborn streak. He returned to work as if nothing had changed.
His superiors had a different opinion of what Partridge’s duty was and decided that he was derelict in fulfilling it. So they court-martialed him and he was cashiered from the Army, a dishonorable way to be discharged. But President James Monroe interceded, allowing Partridge to resign instead.
Partridge’s experience at West Point left him disillusioned about the role of the military in American society. He worried that West Point was creating a professional officer class in control of a standing army, which he saw as a danger to the republic. Partridge put his faith in local militias run by citizens.
He returned to Norwich and soon founded The American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy, a private school to teach young men to become citizen soldiers. It was the first school of its kind in the United States. Partridge would found similar schools in Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. His Vermont school would become known as Norwich University, though it would move briefly to Connecticut; it’s now in Northfield.
‘Not a dry thread’
It was shortly after resigning from the Army, and while his military academy was still just a dream, that Partridge set out on his expedition to Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield. Trails in the wilderness were essentially nonexistent, so he had to bushwhack up Camel’s Hump, and did it in a driving rain.
At the summit, he pulled a barometer from his pack and measured the barometric pressure, using it to estimate Camel’s Hump’s height. He came up with 4,088 feet, only 5 feet higher than the peak’s accepted height today.
It had been a hard day, he noted in his journal that night: “Not a dry thread in my clothes, and somewhat fatigued, having ate nothing nor drunk anything but water during the day.”
The next day Partridge walked to Stowe, where he met an old friend. Together, they bushwhacked to the summit of Mansfield the following day. They were back down by 5 p.m. — “as usual, drenched with the water which fell from the bushes in passing through the woods.”
Perhaps after eating some food, Partridge bid his friend adieu and walked on to Waterbury, reaching it at 10 p.m. In the course of the day, he had hiked 34 miles, a rather pedestrian total for Partridge.
This trek had been mostly a solitary experience. At Norwich, he would make group hikes a regular part of the program. In August 1821, he led eight 13- and 14-year-old cadets from the Norwich school, as well as a number of Dartmouth professors and students, on the more than 75-mile trip to Crawford Notch in the White Mountains. From there they scaled Mount Washington, where they slept near the summit before returning home.
Two months later, he led the entire cadet corps, roughly 100 students, on a hike to Woodstock and back. The next year, the corps hiked to Montpelier, where the governor watched them drill.
Then in September 1823, Partridge marched his cadets to Manchester, where 20 local residents joined them in climbing Mount Manchester. Lacking a trail, they chose a steep route. Later, one of the cadets would recall having to hold onto trees or anything that came to hand “to prevent our falling backward.”
The hike, during which Partridge measured the mountain’s height, took place near the fall equinox. Some suggest that’s how the peak came to be renamed Mount Equinox.
During this four-day expedition, the cadets hiked more than 150 miles, covering 45 miles on one of the days.
Two feet vs. four
During his life, Partridge would climb many if not most of the high peaks of New England. He once offered others this prescription for a healthy life: “Walk about 10 miles per day at the rate of 4 MPH; about 3 or 4 times each year shoulder your knapsack and with your barometer, etc, ascend to the summits of our principal mountains and determine the altitudes, walking from 30 to 80 miles per day, according as you can bear the fatigue.”
Partridge’s love of hiking and his endurance seem only to have grown as he aged. In his 45th year, he hiked 152 miles in three days to climb Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire and then hiked 220 miles in four days to climb mountains in western Massachusetts. On another Massachusetts excursion that year, he walked 300 miles round trip, including 64 miles on the final day.
Guy and Laura Waterman in “Forest and Crag,” their 1989 history of hiking in the Northeast, relate a story told about Partridge. He was setting out one day from Concord, N.H., heading to Hanover, when a stagecoach driver offered him a ride. Partridge declined, noting that the coachman would have to change horses three or four miles up the road. He’d see him then. By the time the new horses had been harnessed, Partridge had already passed the spot. The stage passed Partridge along the road, before making another scheduled stop. When the stagecoach finally reached the hotel in Hanover, the driver spied Partridge sitting on the porch, reading.
The story is no doubt apocryphal. Nobody could walk that far, that fast. Or could they?
Mark Bushnell’s column on Vermont history is a regular feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine. A collection of his columns was published in the book It Happened in Vermont. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Alden Partridge Records in the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections include written accounts of some of Capt. Partridge’s excursions including his planning and execution, and scientific observations recorded on his journeys.