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The Kancamagus Highway | History of New Hampshire’s Scenic Corridor

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The Swift River, Near Sabbaday Falls

The Swift River, Near Sabbaday Falls

Photo/art by Jeff Folger

Swift River Covered Bridge

Swift River Covered Bridge

Photo/art by Dan Houde

Lilly Pond rocks  off Kancamagus Highway

Lilly Pond rocks off Kancamagus Highway

Photo/art by Jeff Folger

From Yankee’s Ultimate Guide to Autumn 2000

Anchored in the east by Conway Village and to the west by Lincoln, the Kancamagus Highway is driven by more than 750,000 vehicles every year and is some of the loveliest and wildest land in the White Mountain National Forest. This scenic corridor is a groove cut through a wall of trees and lies mostly in the town of Albany, New Hampshire. It bisects the Pemigewasset Wilderness, which is roughly square. The Kancamagus is known chiefly for three things: scenery, difficulties with the name, and moose.

The scenery is identified by eye and sign along the 34.5 miles of highway. Of the four pronunciations of the name in wide use, one is correct: “Kanca-MAW-gus.”

Moose are gentle and somewhat improbable creatures, combining as they do the best features of the cow, the giraffe, and the chandelier. This gives them an endearing quality. They are dedicated vegetarians and they require large amounts of greenery, so they’re most often seen along the swampy low-lying sections of the Kancamagus Highway. Motorists should keep a sharp lookout at night; moose are black on top and gray lower down, which makes them extremely difficult to see against car-lit pavement and the dark forest beyond.

The most interesting part of the Kancamagus Highway is less obvious than its scenic and recreational treasures because it is hidden in the early years of our century. It is important, however, because without it there might be no Kancamagus Highway.

Except for the occasional hunter or fisherman, this land did not feel a human footstep from the time the planet cooled until shortly after our Civil War. That would change with dizzying speed. In 1866, a group of hardy souls named themselves the Pemigewasset Perambulators and essayed a modest exploration of the north rim.

In 1882, a gentleman and three ladies set out to traverse the wilderness. The women were turned out in leg-of-mutton sleeves and skirts that swept the ground, and they often required the aid of two sturdy woodsmen who had been engaged to find a way through the untracked forest. The crossing took a week.

Most of the White Mountains land was state-owned until the middle of the 19th century; then it was more or less given away to private owners. Timber barons headed the list of recipients: Three operators divided up the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and the Kancamagus Highway runs for its entire length on the skid ways and railroad beds they built. This was the heroic age of American history and the approach of these three men defined the choices of American enterprise then and even to this day.

One tract of 75,000 acres went to Daniel Saunders, an unlikely woodsman who had a law degree from Harvard and the look of a rector in an English cathedral town. Indeed, he was a highly placed authority on legal matters in the Episcopal church, and in 1876 he started a mill town at the northern edge of the wilderness that would eventually include 150 residents and up to 200 choppers in the woods.

Selective cutting is the practice of taking only mature trees and leaving the rest to grow while the choppers move on to the next mature stand. This term was not in the timber baron’s vocabulary or even widely understood when Mr. Saunders went to work. He was the only operator who used this method. The Saunders family was so careful that they cut over most of their land three times and still had virgin trees standing after 41 years of work.

Fire was the great enemy. The timber barons were interested in only the long trunks of the trees and thus often left behind immense piles of limbs and the slender upper sections of the trees — what the British call “lops and tops.” These vast tinder boxes could be ignited by lightning, by a careless match, or even more easily, by sparks from the wood-burning locomotives of the timber railways. It’s a measure of the Saunders family’s devoted stewardship that no fire ever burned in their domain.

The largest of the operators was J. E. Henry, who advanced into the wilderness from the Zealand Valley in the north and then from Lincoln in the west, a company town built and personally owned by Mr. Henry. He was in business from 1881 to his death in 1912, and he was relentless. His men worked 11-hour days, which were regulated by 47 posted rules, 28 of which concerned the proper care of horses. Mr. Henry paid each of his men in person while carrying a gun on his hip, and he brooked no arguments. When one of his choppers settled up his account at the end of the winter, he saw a substantial deduction for tobacco at Mr. Henry’s store. “I don’t use tobacco,” said the chopper, “you can ask any of the men.” “That’s all right,” snapped Mr. Henry. “It was there if you’d wanted it.”

The property lines of the timber barons’ vast holdings were often disputed, and these were not trivial matters. The first serious disagreement involved the Saunders operation, and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Local ingenuity settled other arguments. There was, for instance, the line along the height of land between mounts Carrigain and Kancamagus. It divided the Saunders and Henry holdings, and the two men did not agree on the exact location, so Mr. Henry sent the sheriff to arrest the Saunders choppers near the height of land, and he jailed them in Lincoln. Independent investigation found that the Henry choppers were at fault. Then Mr. Henry returned to thought and came up with a more subtle plan: It was said that he counted noses and then sent so many of his men to live in Livermore that they could form a voting majority and redefine the property lines.

Unlike the judicious Saunders family, the Henry ideal was to mow the wilderness, to clear off the land so completely that logs could be rolled down the mountainsides to the skid ways and then hauled to his mills by train. These were not narrow-gauge railroad lines; they were full commercial width, and their location as well as the labyrinth of skid ways made for complicated undertakings.

This was the work of Levi “Pork Barrel” Dumas, an unlettered French Canadian, whose instinct for location and gradient would be the envy of today’s best civil engineers. While most loggers had a single-track operation, Mr. Henry built an empire with more than 20 deep-woods camps and more than 50 miles of railroad for six engines and extras he leased as needed; the trains would make two or three runs a day — a top haul was 28 laden cars — and telephone lines connected the camps and regulated traffic in “Henry’s Woods.”

Mr. Henry’s profligate ways led to three major fires: 12,000 acres burned in 1886, 10,000 in 1903, and 35,000 in 1907. Writers told of the “devastating efficiency” and “abomination of desolation” of the Henry operations. In the summer of 1907, the sky was darkened by smoke as if from a volcanic eruption. When the land had cooled, scientists declared that the ground was profoundly destroyed, that it was sterilized into the upper layers of bedrock, and that no green thing might ever grow there again. When the Henrys sold out in 1917, they transferred 100,000 acres largely given to stumps and ashes.

The third member of this epochal trio was Oakleigh Thorne, who started into the wilderness from Conway on the east side. He was as different from the other two giants of the Pemigewasset as they were from each other; he was a cultured New York financier and a member of the Tennis and Racquet Club and the Westminster Kennel Club. He used to arrive in the North Country riding in a seat attached to the running board of his chauffeur-driven Packard roadster.

Mr. Thorne began work in 1906 and would eventually build 20 miles of track. However patrician and picturesque Oakleigh Thorne might have been, he was an absentee owner: He let work out to subcontractors, and his operations were so anonymous that local residents and imported workers alike spoke only of “the Company,” the very model of a modern corporate life. This did not indicate a lack of character, however, and work habits were strictly enforced: One morning the foreman lit a stick of dynamite under his choppers’ shanty to hasten their way out to the cuttings.

“The Company” ceased operations in 1916, the last of the rapacious Henrys was gone in 1917, and the saintly Saunders left their woods in 1927. Nature sees things in a longer span than we do. The railroad beds and skid ways laid out by Pork Barrel Dumas are still engraved on the land, and hikers still find iron artifacts remaining from those wilderness empires, but it is impossible to find any differences in the woods once claimed by such completely different men. Now it again belongs to hikers and hunters and fishermen, the same as before any of the timber barons began their immense work.

What the Locals Know

Sabbaday Falls and Bear Notch Road

At approximately the midpoint, about 20 miles east of Lincoln, look for a barely visible National Forest sign — on the south side of the Kancamagus Highway — marking the trailhead to Sabbaday Falls. A ten-minute hike on a gentle, wide trail leads to a striking flume and waterfall.

Walls of stone rise about 40 feet skyward, while below, water has carved a four-foot pothole at the base of the falls. There’s a bridge crossing the falls that lets you watch the cascades gush down a granite chute.

From the Sabbaday Falls trailhead, it’s about 15 miles to Conway, the eastern terminus of the highway. During peak foliage weekends, both Lincoln and Conway can be snarled with traffic; an escape route is Bear Notch Road (paved, but closed in winter), 21 miles west of Lincoln and 13 miles east of Conway.

The nine-mile road hooks up with Route 302 in Bartlett, passing through young forest, affording mountain views to the east, and bypassing some of the heaviest tourist traffic.

ESSENTIALS

Lincoln-Woodstock Chamber of Commerce, 800-227-4191, 603-745-6621. The information center at the Depot Mall on Main St. is
also a reservation service for area lodging. lincolnwoodstock.com

Lincoln Woods, at Lincoln Woods Trail parking off Rte. 112, just east of the Loon Mountain main entrance. This comfy log cabin serves as a warming hut in winter and information center all year long. National forest rangers give personal advice about trails and campgrounds on the Kanc.

White Mountain Visitors Center, 800-346-3687, 603-745-8720. P.O. Box 10, North Woodstock, NH 03262; at base of exit 32 off I-93. visitwhitemountains.com/visitor-center/default.aspx

White Mountain National Forest Saco Ranger Station, 603-447-5448. Kancamagus Highway (Rte. 112), just off Rte. 16, Conway. Pick up campground information and a free map to eight terrific hiking trails that range from a half mile to five miles long. Saco Ranger Station is also the place to find out about historic Russell-Colbath House, an 1830 homestead located midway on the Kancamagus Highway, just west of Jigger Johnson Campground. Exhibits and costumed interpreters tell the story of the family who lived here.

Loon Mountain, 800-229-5666, 603-745-8111. Rte. 112, Lincoln. Not just for skiing: Ask about bike rentals and tours, horseback riding, in-line skating, and other activities in summer and fall. loonmtn.com

The Common Man, 603-745-3463. Pollard Rd., Lincoln. ($$) Simple country cooking and decor with a cozy fireplaced lounge. thecman.com/restaurants/common-man-lincoln/

Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train, 800-699-3501, 603-745-3500. Rte. 112, North Woodstock. Enjoy a five-course movable feast in a 1924 Pullman car or a 1952 Pullman Dome car. The train and its passengers embark on a two-hour journey along the Pemigewasset River. cafelafayette.com

Gordi’s Fish & Steak House, 603-745-6635. Rte. 112, Lincoln. ($$) House favorites are lobster, beef, and seafood. gordisfishandsteak.com

Peg’s, 603-745-2740. 97 Main St., North Woodstock. ($) Breakfast where the locals do (served all day).

Kancamagus Motor Lodge, 800-346-4205, 603-745-3365. Rte. 112 and Pollard Rd., Lincoln, NH 03251. Open year-round. 34 rooms. kancmotorlodge.com

The Mountain Club on Loon, 800-229-7829, 603-745-2244. Rte. 112, Lincoln, NH 03251. Slopeside accommodations right on Loon Mountain. Open year-round. mtnclub.com

The Mill House Inn, 800-654-6183, 603-745-6261. Rte. 112, Lincoln, NH 03251. Open year-round.

Woodstock Inn, 800-321-3985, 603-745-3951. 135 Main St., North Woodstock, NH 03262. Open year-round. woodstockinnnh.com

Comments
  • I like your prose about the New England being a little piece of heaven and the rocks holding it down from floating back up. Lived in NH for 28 years and miss it dearly. It truly is a piece if heaven on earth.

    Reply
  • American

    My bad… it was Mountain HOME Cabins. I often wonder if they are still open.

    Reply
  • American

    To Needel, Sylvia…

    I, too, grew up in Bartlett, though I am now in Saint Louis. I grew up on the side of the Haystack up behind the Moutain View Cabins. EVERYWHERE along the Kanc is all “touristy” now and it is sad. I have not been home for years, but the last time I was and travelled the Kanc, it saddened me to see the “improvements”. However, northern New Engkand, OUR northern New England, will forever be God’s grace to the Earth!

    Reply
  • Thank you for this wonderful article. It exemplifies everything I love about Yankee magazine – thorough historical research presented in an interesting and entertaining way. We’ve driven the Kanc many times and I thought I knew it, but you gave me lots more background information. Great job!

    Reply
  • Needel,

    I often wish the sign for Sabbaday Falls was nearly invisible. It’s a VERY popular tourist spot these days. When I was growing up in Bartlett, Sabbaday Falls was a spot where you seldom encountered another soul. Now there are stairs and fences. Still beautiful, but you have to share it with lots of tourists most any time of year.

    Reply
  • This is one of the best roads in the world to run on a motorcycle. Spent my honeymoon in Conway and we rode Kanc everyday. No matter what time of the year it’s beautiful. This is classic New England. I miss it a lot now that I’m away. Just shows that New England is a peice of Heaven and the rocks just hold it down to keep it from floating back up.

    Reply

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