John Alfred Vials – better known as English Jack or the Hermit of the White Mountains – was a fixture for decades in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch. After a life of traveling the world, he spent his last years entertaining guests with tales of his wild life and trying to forget his broken heart.
The House that Jack Built was a regular stop for tourists and locals alike. It was the summer home English Jack built in Crawford Notch – his self-styled “ship,” he liked to call it. And far from being a recluse English Jack directed visitors to his home with a collection of signs giving directions from the railroad, roads passing through the notch and the trails used by visitors. Here he made a living entertaining visitors. He showed them his aquarium, where he kept trout for dining, and occasionally he scarfed down a snake, according to Chronicles of the White Mountains, by Frederick W. Kilbourne.
The Story of English Jack
In his low-ceilinged sitting room he sold postcards, souvenirs and a book that told the story of his life: The Story of Jack – The Hermit of the White Mountains, first published in 1891, and occasionally offered some of his home- brewed beer. In his later years, he would board with a local family.
English Jack came to the White Mountains to work on building the railroads and wound up becoming one of the region’s colorful characters. He came from England. Born in 1824, English Jack lost his parents at the age of 12. With no parents to look after him, he sought work, but struggled to find anyone to hire him.
Then one day he stumbled upon Mary Simmonds, a five-year-old girl separated from her father. The father, Bill Simmonds, had hopped on to a horse-drawn omnibus. Because he was conversing with a fellow sailor, he hadn’t noticed that Mary hadn’t gotten on with him.
Jack told the young girl to stay put and chased down the omnibus to find Bill. He led Bill back to Mary and reunited the pair. When Bill learned of Jack’s orphan state, he and his wife took in the boy. Bill also helped him find work – first as a cabin-boy and then as a full-fledged sailor.
For eight years the pair worked profitably on ships until a voyage on the Indian Ocean came to disaster. A hurricane. wrecked the ship. Thirteen of a crew of 42 survived and landed on a deserted island. There, they spent 19 months as castaways, eating what they could catch and dying off one by one. Bill’s dying wish was that Jack would look after his wife and Mary.
Jack and two other survivors were finally spotted by an America ship driven off course by a hurricane. Only Jack survived the return home. After telling the owners of the ship what had happened, he went in search of the Simmonds. He learned that Bill’s wife had died, and that Mary was placed in a workhouse.
True to his word, Jack removed Mary from the workhouse and found her a place in school. After paying her fees for the year, Jack returned to sea on a ship bound for Hong Kong, gathering gifts at every port for Mary. When he returned, he learned Mary had died.
The loss of Mary broke Jack’s heart. Caring little whether he lived, Jack joined the British Navy. His adventures took him to Africa and Greenland and to sea battles in the Crimean War. But he survived them all. Upon leaving the Navy, Jack abandoned England for America to work on the railroads. Settled in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, he became English Jack.
As his story said:
I left for England then for good and all,
And do not think I ever shall go back;
I’ve waited long for death to sound my call,
But still I’m here. Your humble servant jack.
In 1912, English Jack died high up in Crawford Notch.
This story about English Jack was updated in 2019.