Wild Highway: The Kancamagus
From Yankee’s Ultimate Guide to Autumn 2000
Anchored in the east by Conway Village and to the west by Lincoln, this scenic 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. The Kancamagus Highway 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 highway 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 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.