The Conway Scenic Railroad runs vintage equipment from the old round-house in North Conway, New Hampshire. From late spring to mid-December, some of the trains go south down the valley to Conway. The other trains run north to Glen and Bartlett through what an 1890 edition of Sweetser’s White Mountains described as “the broad intervales of the Saco River.”
I live five miles north of Glen and I’ve been through those intervales 10,000 times or more, but I’d never seen them this way until I rode the Scenic Railroad up the valley. I’d seen them from the road or from the tops of the mountains, but now I was a tourist on my home ground. I was riding the train through the backyards of people I knew. I was seeing their woodsheds and their children’s swings as landscape.
The serious work of another age began at Bartlett. The long climb through Crawford Notch to Bretton Woods and Fabyan Station was the most famous grade in the Northeast; it was so steep that when steam locomotives ruled the rails, as many as five helper engines were put on in Bartlett. Our train was a lightweight by those heroic standards: just a coach, a first-class car, and an observation car with open sides and outward-facing bench seats. Now I easily remembered the slight posting motion when seated, matching the bump-thump bump-thump of the rails, and the swaying sailor’s gait when negotiating the aisles. I also remembered, with some slight difficulty, how to stay calm while crossing a trestle 94 feet above a rushing stream, and so narrow that it seemed to have no visible means of support.
Crawford Notch pinches tighter and tighter, and the railbed climbs steadily up its west wall. The ornate language of Sweetser’s day strikes us as quaint and improbable, but his description of the ride through Crawford Notch still rings true: “When we entered the Notch, we were struck with the wild and solemn appearance of everything before us.” Sweetser’s elevated cadences have retired to the archives, but I was grateful to the Conway Scenic Railroad for giving me a new view of the place where I live.
by Nicholas Howe,
Conway Scenic Railroad, 38 Norcross Circle, North Conway, NH.