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

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

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Thursday, July 30th, 2009

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

  1. Don Gamache August 10, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    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.

    • Fran Blair September 24, 2015 at 8:58 am #

      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.

  2. Needel, Sylvia August 11, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    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.

  3. Chris Heckman August 11, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    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!

  4. American Heritage Renovations, llc. October 11, 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    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!

  5. American Heritage Renovations, llc. October 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

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

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