The notch is at the upper or northern end of this gorge (constituting the extreme southern end of a panhandle at the southeastern corner of the town of Carroll), where the land descends both to north and south, and ascends both to east and west. However, the steepness of the south-flowing Saco's gorge (in contrast to the leisurely descent of the northward drainage into the watershed of Crawford Brook and eventually the Ammonoosuc River) makes it natural to attach the name to the gorge.
The gorge (like Hart's Location) is bisected by U.S. Highway 302 and the Saco, which run very similar courses.
The notch was known to European settlers well enough by 1772 for the boundaries of Hart's Grant to reflect its shape. It was named for Abel Crawford, an explorer, trail-builder and hosteler in the early 19th century. The path and eventual Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad through Crawford Notch opened a new route through the White Mountains for settlers of the Lancaster area (to the northwest) to reach Conway on the way to the trading ports on the coast.
A well-documented historic event within the notch was a rock-slide that killed the entire Samuel Willey family in August, 1826. The family fled their home during the storm to a prepared shelter but they were buried by the slide and died in a mass of stone and rubble. Their home was untouched. Mount Willey, on the west side of the notch, is named for the family. Further down the notch, Nancy Brook and Mount Nancy are named for an earlier tragedy.
In the Carroll portion of the notch, the Appalachian Mountain Club has built and operates the Highland Center Lodge and Conference Center, and has renovated the Queen Anne style Victorian-era Crawford Notch Maine Central train depot as a bookstore. The depot remains a stop on the scenic "Notch Train" railroad, operated seasonally from North Conway.