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

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.


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.

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.

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.

The Common Man, 603-745-3463. Pollard Rd., Lincoln. ($$) Simple country cooking and decor with a cozy fireplaced lounge.

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.

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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