History of Zealand Falls Hut
Zealand Notch, gateway to the Pemigewasset Wilderness, is thick with hardwoods and conifers, beaver ponds and streams. Looking off of Zeacliff on the western edge of the Notch, one can scarcely imagine barren swaths of land, charred hillsides, the smoke from lumber camps, and the rumble of log-laden steam engines moving in the depths of the valley. Little remains to indicate that a rail line ran straight through the heart of the notch, stretching south toward other similar lines in the Pemigewasset. Between 1884 and 1897, James Everell Henry dug into Zealand Notch, building on early successes in the lumber business on his way to becoming one of the most infamous lumber barons in White Mountain history.
Henry’s zeal for cutting over the entire area, combined with sparks from his locomotives made for a highly combustible situation. On Wednesday, July 8, 1886, a fire touched off by one of Henry’s trains started in the notch, destroying three of his camps and 12,000 acres of forest. Light from the fire could be seen at night as far away as Bethlehem, a distance of over 10 miles. Undettered, J.E. Henry & Sons ventured further into the valley in search of unharmed timber.
Although the fire had shortened the useful life of the forest for the company, they pressed on for a number of years. By 1892, Henry had moved on to fairer woods near Lincoln. His sawmill was left behind and for five more years it continued to mill lumber coming from other sites. The final chapter of Henry’s meddling in the valley came in 1897, when the mill itself caught fire and burned to the ground. The press, never truly sympathetic to J.E. Henry, sided with tourists passing the old mill and village site (around the junction of Rt. 302 and the Zealand Road). All felt they would have “little cause for regret if the entire colony had been wiped off the face of the earth.”
The woods were now quiet and empty of humans, but not yet free to make a recovery. They were caught in one last truly devastating conflagration. The fires of 1903 scarred land all over the state. Over 200,000 acres were burned, including 84,250 acres in the White Mountains. Having been an extremely dry spring, and with many areas littered with logging slash, the fires burned from early May until June 8 when heavy rains finally squelched the flames.
Over one hundred years later the forest reveals little of its tragic past, though it is easy to tell in this area when one is following the old railroad beds. In fact, this was the only way to enter the valley for years after the fire. A few trails had made inroads into the region, mostly skirting the edges of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. It was not until 1923 that AMC built the Zealand Ridge Trail (now known as the Twinway) to access the peaks around the valley. The following year a log shelter was established in the notch, on the edge of tiny Zeacliff Pond. This was certainly the beginning of a trail spree in the area and soon it was possible to traverse the valley from the Twin Range and Bondcliff to Ethan Pond.
Next came Zealand Falls Hut, a continuation of the Western Division of huts that included Lonesome Lake, Greenleaf, and Galehead. Zealand was built on the same plan as the latter two, with a central dining room and kitchen flanked by bunkrooms. During a three month building blitz in the summer of 1931, several tons of lumber, pre-cut at a Vermont mill, were hauled to the site by man, burro, and tractor. On May 25, the burros were brought up to their summer home in a coral on the Zealand Road. A Fordson tractor was used to ferry materials up the road to the corral. It was quickly nicknamed the “Zealand Hot Shot,” and hauled materials up the road and through the river with minimal complaint until it threw a bearing during a heavy June rain. Joe Dodge, who was managing every step of the construction, went all the way to Berlin for replacement parts. He returned to the tractor, stuck 3 miles up the road, and spent three days on repairs. After drying out the now sodden ignition system with a fire, operations went forward and all supplies were at the corral by July 6. When all was said and done, machine and beasts had hauled over 39 tons of materials. At the site the hut went up quickly. Numbered pieces of lumber from the mill were assembled and by August 24 most of the interior work was done and the exterior was coated with a creosote stain, as a wood preservative.
Zealand Falls was the only hut in the Western Division to be kept open as usual during World War II. Amazingly, 1945 was the busiest summer at Zealand since its construction. The hut’s popularity continued through the years. The Zealand Trail is relatively short and easy, the view from the hut is spectacular, and the roar of the waterfall above a glassy smooth pond is inviting. Another aid to the hut’s popularity was no doubt an article published in National Geographic in August 1961. Zealand Falls Hut was praised as a “restful, rustic cabin beside the falls of Whitewall Brook.” Almost all of the images used of the hut feature children, reassuring parents that the little cabin by the falls was perfect for family vacations. Due to these charms and the hut’s location, Zealand was the first hut to stay open for winter occupation, starting at the end of 1972.
When it comes to alternative energy sources, Zealand Falls Hut was an early adopter. A U.S. Department of Energy grant that also supplied Greenleaf Hut with a wind turbine funded the installation of a 1 kilowatt hydroelectric system in 1980-1981. Later, solar and wind power were added, making it the hut with the greatest variety of green technologies.
Since Zealand was built it has had the same capacity–36 guests. The building itself has gone through two renovations to add more space. In the fall of 1988 a dormer was added, running perpendicular to the original building. A lofted space was created in half of the dormer to house the croo, leaving the rest of the space over the dining room open to let in the light. During the renovation the building was jacked up to replace the foundation. The hut was expanded again in 2002 when a small side building was added to house new composting toilets.
Today the valley is silent, and the beavers are the only ones cutting trees. But before climbing to the hut, stop by the shores of Zealand Pond and try to imagine less swamp, with a smaller pond. Then imagine a full-blown lumber camp with low cabins and two sets of converging train tracks, all teaming with Italian and French Canadian lumbermen. During the railroad’s short existence a tourist train would occasionally pass through the region, rolling as far as Thoreau Falls. At this camp they would stop to enjoy “an appetizing array of hot doughnuts, coffee, and other good things,” observe the loggers, and admire Zealand Falls. The scene was not yet a burnt wasteland of dead stumps, and even with the lumber camp, passers-by could see the special charm of this woodland valley.
Read more about Zealand Falls Hut's history in Passport to AMC's High Huts in the White Mountains >>
Photos: AMC Archives