The Trollopes Climb Owl’s Head
Hugh Scott presented this account of Anthony and Rose Trollope’s ascent of Owl’s Head at an outing of the Georgeville Historical Society to the mountain on July 22, 2015.
The Historical Society has asked me to tell you about the first recorded account of a climb of Owl’s Head. The climber was the prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, who was second in popularity only to Charles Dickens. This year is the 200th anniversary of Trollope’s birth (that’s the sort of thing the historical society likes you to know) and he and his wife Rose made the ascent in 1861.
What was it that brought such a celebrated writer to the remote wilderness of Lake Memphremagog 154 years ago? It all came about because Sir Edmund Walker Head, the Governor General, visited Georgeville and the lake in September 1861. No sooner had Sir Edmund returned to Quebec City than Anthony Trollope, a fellow old boy of Winchester School, paid him a call.
The novelist was on a reporting trip for a non-fiction book to be called North America. Sir Edmund advised him that he should no account leave Lower Canada until he had “seen the lake and the mountains of Memphra-Magog.”
Trollope took the Governor General up on his recommendation. The author and his wife travelled by rail from Quebec City to Sherbrooke, and then by wagon with the mail to the village of Magog. There they took Capt. George Washington Fogg's new steamer, the Mountain Maid. Trollope wrote, “up the lake to a solitary hotel called the Mountain House, which is built at the foot of the mountain on the shore, and which is surrounded on every side by thick forest.
“The lake is therefore the only highway. I have seldom been in a house which seemed so remote from the world, and so little within reach of doctors, parsons or butchers. Bakers in this country are not required, as all persons make their own bread. But in spite of its position the hotel is well kept, and on the whole we were more comfortable there than at any other in in Lower Canada.”
Trollope's account continues: “The one thing to be done at the Mountain House is the ascent of the mountain called Owl's Head. “‘I doubt if the lady can do it,’ one man said to me. I asked if ladies sometimes did not go up. “‘Yes, young women do at times,’ he said. After that my wife resolved that she would see the top of Owl's Head, or die in the attempt. The path was indicated to us and off we started with high hopes.
“I have been up many mountains, and have climbed some that were perhaps somewhat dangerous. In climbing the Owl's Head there is no danger. One is closed in by thick trees the whole way. But I doubt if I ever went up a steeper ascent. It was very hard work but we were not beaten. We reached the top, and there sitting down thoroughly enjoyed our victory.
“The view down the lakes and the forests around, and on the wooded hills below, is wonderfully lovely. I never was on a mountain which gave me a more perfect command of all the country round. But as we arose to descend we saw a little cloud coming towards us from over Newport.
“The little cloud came on with speed, and we had hardly freed ourselves from the rocks of the summit before we were surrounded by rain. As the rain became thicker, we were surrounded by darkness also…I may confess now that I became much frightened. At last I did utterly lose the track. We had succeeded in getting down the steepest and worst part of the mountain, but we were still among dense forest trees, and up to our knees in mud.
“But the people at the Mountain House were Christians and men with lanterns were sent halooing after us through the dark night. When we were thus found, we were not many yards from the path, but unfortunately on the wrong side of a stream. Through that we waded and then made our way to safety in the inn. In spite of which misadventure I advise all travellers in Lower Canada to go up Owl's Head.”
The Trollopes' adventure demonstrates how thoughtful the historical society has been in arranging the chair lift not only to deliver us up the mountain today, but to take us safely down. On your behalf, I would thank the president of the society, Deane Moffat, and the directors for a splendid outing.
Anthony Trollope; Photo: Library of Congress