Building a Mile High Cairn

Apparently size does matter. Consider the use of cairns to make mountains bigger, or at least taller. More often those who hatch such schemes do so to make their mountain taller than someone else’s mountain but cairn builders have also done so to raise their peak to a mythical height. Over my next couple of blog posts I will discuss the whys and wheres of such cairn erection. I will begin with the lowest elevation peak but also one of the most famous cairn destination spots for hikers: Katahdin in Maine.

Surveyor Charles Turner Jr. and six men are the first people known to have climbed Catardin, as Turner labeled it. When the team reached the summit on August 13, 1804, they did not build a cairn. Instead, they cut their initials into a sheet of lead and left it and a bottle of rum on the summit. Sporadic visitors attempted to climb Katahdin over the next several decades. These include Maine’s first state geologist (1837), Charles Thomas Jackson and Henry David Thoreau (1846). Thoreau described Ktaadn as a “cloud-factory,” whereas Jackson wrote:

“From the observations made upon Mount Ktaadn, it is proved, that the current did rush over the summit of that lofty mountain, and consequently, the diluvial waters rose to the height of more than 5000 feet. Hence we are enabled to prove, that the ancient ocean, which rushed over the surface of the State, was at least a mile in depth…”

Not until 1847 was their a report of a cairn. In that year, Maine’s state botanist, Aaron Young, Jr. led a group to the top. Naturalist George Thurber wrote “the declining day warned us to hasten our departure, and each one adding a stone to the rough monument there, we all joined in singing Old Hundred.” He made no note of Noah’s Flood.

By 1853, there was “a considerable rock cairn supporting a bottle containing birch bark pieces inscribed with the names and dates of other climbers,” notes John Neff in Katahdin: An Historic Journey – Legends, Exploration, and Preservation of Maine’s Highest Peak. Photographs from the turn of the century show that the one cairn had multiplied to two, each about five feet high. No one knows why there were two or when the second one disappeared but just one cairn has been on the summit since the 1930s.

Curiously, surveyor Turner estimated the peak to be 13,000-feet-tall, more than double most later estimates, which bounced between 5,150 to 5,623 feet. Then in 1927, another surveyor, Floyd Neary, determined that Katahdin’s elevation was 5,267 feet. Neary’s number, so close to a mile, apparently excited some folks, who decided that Katahdin should attain that mythical height. They did so by erecting a thirteen-foot-tall cairn on the summit.

No one knows when these stones were piled up but a tall cairn is on the summit. Because of this precisely built cairn, you will find that people, guide books, and web sites often refer to “mile-high Katahdin.” This cairn is even more famous and more of a destination because it is the northern end point of the Appalachian Trail.

Whether the summit cairn is exactly thirteen feet tall is subject to some debate. There is no official measurement of it. John Neff wrote me that “In regard to the 13-foot-cairn, I agree that the idea might have been achieved back when the elevation was settled, but I have never had the impression that was something that was kept up for too many years.” Even if it is an apocryphal story, I suspect it’s too appealing to be debunked.

Next, I will write about cairns in Colorado.



4 thoughts on “Building a Mile High Cairn”

  1. A lower Carin existed in Wales: This is the story of the man who walked up a hill and came down a mountain. A link to a piece by a surveyor on the story is:
    It seems at the time 1000 ft was the border between a hill and a mountain and the village of Taff’s Well had a hill that everyone thought was a bit over 1000 ft, however a surveyor found it to be 997 feet tall so the town built a carin to make the hill into a mountain.

  2. Lyle, Thanks for your comment. I look forward to tracking down the movie and the book. David

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