This article was written by John Page and previously appeared in the Summer 2020 Long Trail News.
Before 1910 the Summit House hotel at the top of the toll road from Stowe was the center of hiking activity on Mount Mansfield. Guests driven to the hotel spent their days exploring the top of the mountain, and many of today’s side trails around the main ridgeline date from that period.
Burlington area mountain enthusiasts could also stay in a smaller hostelry on the Underhill side called the Half Way House, which maintained a bridle path to the ridge near the Summit House (now the Half Way House Trail). No trails reached the Chin directly from the base of the mountain. The only way to the summit was to ascend to the Summit House from either side, and then walk the ridge.
Burlington attorney Clarence Cowles was one of the mountain enthusiasts from Burlington who enjoyed exploring Mansfield from these hotels. When James P. Taylor convened the first meeting of the Green Mountain Club in 1910, Cowles attended and signed up as a charter member. In the next seven years, Cowles personally cut the original Long Trail from Mount Mansfield to Camel’s Hump and then, as a key colleague of Will Monroe, helped extend the trail all the way to Middlebury Gap. For this alone, Clarence Cowles deserves a place in the GMC hall of fame.
Cowles’ work as a trailbuilder wasn’t finished, however. In 1920 he supervised the building of Taft Lodge on a secluded shelf at 3,650 feet, in the shadow of Mount Mansfield’s Chin. On a scouting trip the previous winter he had “slashed a tree with a blaze and there marked what he believed to be the finest location for a shelter.” He hired Stowe lumberman Willis Barnes and foreman Clyde Brink to construct a large log cabin from huge spruce logs drawn up the mountain with teams of horses. Cowles climbed Mount Mansfield thirty-one times that summer to personally supervise the project and, on one occasion, to carry the new lodge’s wood stove up the mountain.
By now Cowles was a probate judge. He persuaded Elihu Taft, his fellow judge and mountain lover, to donate the construction costs for Taft Lodge, even though, as Cowles’ son put it, “old Judge Taft was then unable to climb mountains, he couldn’t have gone to Taft Lodge if we’d hauled him up.”
Taft Lodge was immediately popular with hikers, particularly those from around Burlington. It had an overnight capacity of thirty-two (divided into men’s and women’s ends), and one report says up to seventy slept in and around the shelter one night. For the next seven to eight summers, Cowles and his sons served as caretakers at Taft Lodge, providing blankets, wood, and water to hikers, while using their days to build the trails still used by hikers to ascend Mount Mansfield.
While Taft was being built, Cowles blazed the current Long Trail from Smugglers’ Notch to the summit, thus finally routing the Long Trail over the Chin. (It had previously bypassed the ridge, requiring a 2-mile side trail to the summit.)
Cowles needed a more direct route to Taft from his home in Burlington, however, so the next summer he built his masterpiece, the Sunset Ridge Trail, which many today consider the premier hiking trail in Vermont. The part of this new trail that extended from the ridge down to Taft became the Profanity Trail.
A few years later, Cowles built the Cowles Cut-Off from the site of the Half Way House to provide an even more direct route from Underhill to Taft Lodge. The Green Mountain Club later renamed this trail after Judge Cowles’ wife, Laura, who was an accomplished hiker in her own right and the first president of the Burlington Section.
During his years of activity at Taft Lodge, Cowles and his sons also improved and blazed an old path up the Hell Brook drainage, providing yet another direct (albeit steep) route to the Chin from Smugglers’ Notch. Thus in a few short years, Clarence Cowles created a network of trails that shifted hikers’ focus from the Summit House to the Chin. Quoting Cowles’ son again: “Father’s trails always aimed up toward the chin of the mountain and Taft Lodge.”
World War II ended the use of caretakers at Taft Lodge until 1969, when the modern caretaker program began. The lodge was substantially rebuilt in 1951 and again in 1996. Although it appears today much the same as the original structure, it’s unclear how much of the original fabric remains.
The biggest mystery about the construction of Taft Lodge? Why is the door so low that it dents hundreds of heads every summer?
“Paul Bunyan” of the 1996 Taft Lodge Restoration
In 1996 Taft Lodge had not been renovated for 35 years and was badly in need of repair. The Green Mountain Club hired Alfred “Fred” Carlton Gilbert III to completely restore the lodge that summer and fall.
A long-time GMC volunteer, Fred was a club director and served on the trails and shelters committee for years. He died at age 73 on June 1, 2019, leaving an indelible mark on the Green Mountain Club.
GMC’s archives house Fred’s detailed journal on the Lodge reconstruction. A couple of loose pages dated 1995 tucked into the journal express Fred’s fervent hope of landing the job: “…I may be attaining my life-long dream next year… I’ll be supervising the replacement of Taft Lodge on Mt. Mansfield. To be a Paul Bunyan in 1996! To be a revered personality in the veritable Green Mountains. Me, lowly, loving, me. I really hope all things work out.”
In January, fifty 20-foot spruce logs were delivered to Barnes Camp at Smugglers’ Notch. Teams of horses did not pull the logs up the mountain as in 1920. On May 8 and 9 the Vermont Army Air National Guard made 60 helicopter trips to carry those logs, plus 60 ten-foot spruce logs, 100 hemlock boards, metal roofing, mortar mix, tools, and other supplies, to a landing site about 700 feet above the lodge.
Fred and his assistant, John Bennett, moved to the mountain on May 14 bringing with them twelve gallons of gas and other supplies. “Beautiful stars and Milky Way at 3AM,” Fred wrote on May 15, after two trips to the outhouse. It was a welcoming first night of several months to come of living out his dream and working on the mountain.
Throughout his journal, Fred recorded good progress in the rebuilding of the lodge with the help of many volunteers. There are humorous, personal thoughts too: “Great book this ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.’ Lots of interesting input!”
In October, fifty people hiked to Taft Lodge to celebrate its completion and rededicate the shelter. In 2016 Taft underwent substantial renovation again, this time led by Kurt Melin.
Today, 100 years after its first logs were cut and peeled, the lodge still stands steadfast on the western slope of Mount Mansfield. Thanks to Fred and others like him, it will be there to shelter hikers for decades to come.