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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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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

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.

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5 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.

  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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