In Isabella’s novel We Twelve Girls, Edith told her friends about a special treat she received from her Aunt Mattie, who was recently married.
When Mattie and her new husband were on their wedding trip, they stopped in Edith’s hometown for a short visit. Edith was thrilled when Mattie and her new husband invited her to go with them for a portion of their journey. Edith said:
Where do you think they took me? Why, to the very tip-top of Lookout Mountain. We rode all day, and stopped in Chattanooga at night, and the next morning went up the wonderful incline. Up, and up, and up, ever and ever so far! You go up by an endless chain railroad; then when you have got away above the houses and church steeples . . . you see perfectly lovely views. We got out at Sunset Rock, and went to see where the sun sets, when it is time for it. Uncle took me close to the edge of some great rocks, and let me look down. He would have taken me very closer yet, but Aunt Mattie screamed, and he said it would not do for him and me to frighten her. He is just as nice as he can be.
I wish I could describe the mountain to you, and tell you how I felt when I went up. I had some real strange thoughts; it seemed to me I was bidding good-bye to this world—like going to Heaven, you know—and I could not help feeling a little bit disappointed when I came down again.
It sounds like Edith caught a little bit of “mountaineer fever” on that trip; and it’s possible she might have grown up to be an excellent mountaineer herself.
During Isabella’s lifetime there were quite a few women who enjoyed mountain climbing as a pastime.
One of the most famous mountain climbers in the world was Marie, Queen of Bavaria. She not only founded a mountaineering society, she designed what she called a “practical” climbing outfit for women, which shockingly exposed a lady’s ankles.
In 1858 Julia Archibald Holmes became the first Caucasian woman to reach the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado. An avid climber, she, too, wore a special “American costume” she designed to make the climb: a short dress, bloomers, moccasins, and a hat.
Fay Fuller wore a similar costume when she made the treacherous trek to the summit of Mount Rainier in 1890 (but with far fewer petticoats). She went on to become a founding member of the Washington Alpine Club.
Not every woman adopted a mountaineering “costume.” Short skirts and exposed ankles were quite risqué for the time; but modesty didn’t require women stay at home; they still climbed mountains, but did so while wearing modest but cumbersome skirts.
One of those women was Katharine Lee Bates. She was not a trained mountain climber, but after spending a summer teaching classes at Colorado College, she joined friends on a climb of nearby Pike’s Peak.
Katharine later wrote:
One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.
Katherine’s experience inspired her to author the poem “America the Beautiful,” which was later set to music composed by Samuel A. Ward.
By the turn of the century, more women than ever were involved with mountaineering, and their attire evolved, becaming more sensible for the task at hand.
Some avid female climbers left their long skirts behind at the base of the mountain and climbed in breeches, just like the men did.
Perhaps when Isabella wrote about Edith’s experience at the top of Lookout Mountain she knew first-hand what it was like to look down upon a beautiful vista from a high place. There were certainly hills near where she grew up in New York that she might have climbed as a girl.
And perhaps Isabella knew that wherever there were mountains, there were plenty of women—just like Edith—who were willing to climb them.