Abandoned Communities in the White Mountains

October 1, 2008

The roar of the Sawyer River nearly drowns out Karl Roenke’s voice. While he walks along the water’s bank, the morning sun peeks through the birch and spruce trees and casts light on a world that has lain dormant for decades.

The waterway seems to be the only constant in the area; once occupied by nearly 200 people, the land is now heavily wooded. It’s hard to believe that people—not just trees—once dominated this area. Yet Roenke knows a closer look will reveal pieces of the past. He takes a few more steps—and disappears into the brush.

“We walk on this land now and the regrowth is just phenomenal,” says Roenke, a heritage resource program leader for the White Mountain National Forest, speaking above the river’s gush. “People don’t know the vibrant history of it all.”

Roenke notices a gleam in the mud and points out a white ceramic piece. A few feet away near a fallen trunk, he discovers a black, glasslike shard that fits in the palm of his hand. “It was probably part of a vase or whiskey bottle,” he deduces before placing it back on the ground.

The most easily discerned sign of life is a few yards in front of him. The 61-year-old leads the way to a nearby clearing, site of a building foundation where a grocery store once stood. A black cast-iron safe sits within the foundation’s perimeter, another artifact that tells a story of life here long ago.

Time has concealed many signs of human activity. Situated in the south end of New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch (directly off of Route 302), the mill town of Livermore was shaped by the surrounding timber industry—its lifeblood—and the former Sawyer River Railroad. The town was officially dissolved in 1951, and Mother Nature has since moved in.

But it’s hard to forget or ignore the past. While towns like Livermore have gradually died, Roenke and likeminded individuals with a passion for such hidden, historicalgems believe their stories are worth resurrecting.

These advocates are discussing how to highlight historical sites in the White Mountains of New Hampshire such as Livermore and Thornton Gore, a former farming community. Though in its infancy, their “interpretive plan” could lead to the installation of informative signs at the sites. In the meantime, curious hikers can take their own trips through time, once they know where to look.

“All of these abandoned towns have a tremendous story to tell,” Roenke says. “Livermore is one of the better ones.”

Driving onto Sawyer River Road from Route 302, Rick Russack is surrounded by lands that have become, in his words, his obsession. The 68-year-old curator of the Upper Pemigewasset Historical Society has researched and gathered more than 8,000 photos of about eight former towns in the Granite State. He eagerly approaches the path leading to Livermore, about 2 miles up Sawyer River Road on the left.

“These places talk to me,” says Russack as he walks past the former grocery store foundation on his way to the Sawyer River. “If we don’t tell their story, it’s gone.”

Next to the river are two slender concrete beams 6 feet high. Skinny copper tubing—once enclosed within the concrete—is now partially exposed. The dilapidated structures once served as a water piping system for the town. Russack accesses Livermore’s other life source—its lumber mill—by making a right into the brush. Hidden within the dense forest is the mill’s foundation, 150 feet by 30 feet. Scattered bricks covered in moss and shrubbery fill the center. “Brick says powerhouse,” Russack explains, also noting that the mill housed steam engines. The mill was the last of three within the town; previous mills burned in 1876 and 1920 and were rebuilt.

Logging was the predominant activity when Livermore was incorporated in the late 1800s, and its railroad spurred new life into the region. Lumbermen, who used waterways to transport logs from forests to mills, saw the potential of the new transportation system. But they had one hurdle—land ownership. Much of the North Country and White Mountains region was state land.

According to C. Francis Belcher’s book, Logging Railroads of the White Mountains, New Hampshire Gov. Walter Harriman passed a law in 1867 that “sold and disposed of public lands” for practically nothing. The powerful Saunders family incorporated the Grafton County Lumber Co. and in 1877 began construction of the 8-mile Sawyer River Railroad, one of the smaller routes of the time since it stretched only from the Sawyer River Valley above Bartlett to the south end of Crawford Notch. Livermore became the Saunders’ part-time home; the family owned 30,000 of the town’s 75,000 acres, as well as a lavish, 26-room mansion.

The town’s population increased over the years (census records report 160 residents in 1890), but the Saunders kept close tab on its occupants; their family’s permission was needed before any individual could reside there. Today, the area shows few signs of the 2 1/2 story houses with porches that lined the river. Yet Russack can tell where land was altered. Following the river downstream, he notices non-native flora. “The lilac bushes would say to me, ‘This was a cultivated area,'” he says. Birch trees, found near the mill site, also offer clues of habitation, since they grow in disturbed areas.

An icehouse, engine house, blacksmith shop, grocery store, boarding house, school, and large barn dotted the area. (The school’s foundation is still present a mile past Livermore’s main site on the right side of Sawyer River Road.) Some of the mill workers lived on the opposite side of the river in the area dubbed “Little Canada.”

“Very little is known about Little Canada,” says Peter Crane, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Livermore and is director of programs for the Mount Washington Observatory. “There are no company records that have been uncovered. The earliest mill workers, loggers, etc., were from the Northeast and New Hampshire. As the decades went on, more came from Canada and overseas and changed the demographics of Northern New England.”Though Livermore’s inhabitants lacked the amenities of city life, they made the most of their surroundings. “Times were tough,” says Crane, who interviewed nearly 15 former residents for his dissertation, completed in 1993. “It was a hard life. They were in a very remote area, had very limited medical care, and had many discomforts. But many looked fondly back on growing up in the area, their families, and being close to nature.”

According to a 1982 article in The Reporter, a now-defunct newspaper based in North Conway, N.H., some workers weren’t comfortable with the hard labor of the logging camps and sawmill. Unable to tolerate the homesickness and physical exertion, they fled—that is, until the company hired a man named Sidney White to keep the recruits from escaping. During one incident, White shot an escapee in the leg, which resulted in a court case and a $3,000 fine to the lumber company.

Other residents recounted rosier experiences. James F. Morrow recalled in a 1969 Yankee Magazine article “sliding in the moonlight down the hill on Main Street without worrying about the traffic, the big thrill of riding with my mother on the cow-catcher of ‘Peggy,’ the old locomotive of the line, into the woods to visit my father.”

Some local people explored the surrounding area through AMC-sponsored trips, including one to Mount Carrigain documented in an 1879 Appalachia article. Using the already established railroad line, passengers would ride in flat cars with wooden benches during these excursions.

However, the railroad was predominantly used to boost the lumber company’s bottom line. The Saunders carefully husbanded their timber resources: Though clearcutting was a common practice of the day, Livermore’s operation used “selective cutting.”

“Striking down trees of a certain size was more conservative,” Crane explains. “It helped prevent forest fires because not a lot of slash was left behind, and it helped retain water better than areas that have been wiped clean. The Saunders represented the new age that was dawning—some greater sensitivity to the environment and looking toward sustainable yields, which is similar to the [USFS] forest management philosophy.”

The mill was a prosperous operation. (Belcher notes that loggers were able to cut over the area three times.) But a series of devastating events sealed the town’s fate. After a 1920 fire that burned the mill (which was later rebuilt), a heavy flood in 1927 damaged parts of the railroad bed and bridges. “Looking at census records, Livermore was well on the decline by the time the flood hit,” Crane says.

The mill officially closed in 1928. Many of the dwellings were sold for salvage, destroyed, or left to rot. The mansion burned down in 1965. The land, part of the White Mountain National Forest, is now under USFS control and uses include timber harvesting, recreation, and wildlife and watershed management. Only one private residence remains.

For Russack, Livermore’s history lies not only in personal accounts and crucial dates, but also in the landscape itself. “You can read a book about Livermore, but to get out here and step on the spot, it’s a different experience,” he says. “Each time you visit, you see something you didn’t see before.”

Leaves crunch beneath Russack’s feet as he follows an unmarked trail off of Tripoli Road, exit 31 off of I-93. With greenery abundant to his left and right, he walks about a mile in. Suddenly he points out a stone wall on the side of the trail that gives a hint of the history hidden by the trees.

“This was the town road,” he says. “And [the surrounding area] was all farmland. It was a farming community.”

Walking a tad farther, he comes to an eerie landmark on his left—tombstones of about 20 Thornton Gore residents. The dates of their deaths range from the early to mid-1800s, an era when farmsteads were established—and abundant—within the Pemigewasset Valley. Bordering the triangular-shaped town are five mountains; the area also lies within a narrow valley created by drainages of the Talford and Eastman brooks. According to a USFS report, Thornton Gore is “the largest, most integrated, and intact abandoned hill farm community on the National Forest.”

Nicknamed “The Gore” by locals, the area lies within the northernmost region of Thornton—east of Woodstock—and encompasses 2,600 acres. The first settlement occurred in 1804. From 1820 to 1840, the report says, “higher elevations were used for sheep raising and orchards. Groves of maple yielded nearly half a ton of maple sugar. Broad slopes were used for crops and pastures. Every farm owned a team of oxen, and the number of cattle tripled, producing 3,525 pounds of butter. Seventy-five percent of the farms produced wool.”

However, the 1860s saw alterations in land use and population. Increased logging occurred in timber lots, and a new sawmill was built. Small farms without substantial woodlots weren’t deemed as useful as they once were. By the late 19th century, farmers were abandoning the land.

In his book The Franconia Gateway, Bruce D. Heald further explains this transition in Thornton Gore’s history: “Inhabitants discovered they were becoming isolated from the outside world and, as the well-known restless longing for city life took hold of the younger generation, the farms ran down, the mills stopped, grass grew before the doors, and silence took the place of the busy life that had been.”

George B. James of the New Hampshire Land Co. purchased many of the remaining farms and the mill. (Remnants—including a dilapidated mill wheel–can be seen by following the same trail onward and heading right into the brush before the convergence of the two brooks).

Logging was the next chapter in Thornton Gore’s saga, but it was a brief one. The Woodstock and Thornton Gore Railroad was created in 1909 and logging camps were established, but operations ceased in 1913 when the mill burned down. The town became part of the White Mountain National Forest in 1916.

The USFS report, completed in 1988, was a push to include Thornton Gore on the National Register of Historic Places. But the site has not been added officially, and the USFS doesn’t have the money for archeological excavations. “Since we are required to manage all historical sites as if they were listed [on the national register], we haven’t put a lot of emphasis on spending the money to have it listed,” Roenke says.

Financial concerns haven’t quelled discussions of further promoting the White Mountains’ abandoned communities. Russack and Roenke met with Chris Thayer, AMC’s White Mountain facilities director, in May to see how a partnership among various groups might expedite this process.

“In an era of declining federal and state budgets, nonprofits, historical societies, private businesses, and individuals have to come together to inventory and attempt to prioritize physical sites for protection, stewardship, education outreach, and promotional value,” Thayer says. “The end goal of any plan should help to inform the public about the unique story behind a particular place, offer guidance for its ongoing protection, and spark interest in learning more.”

Russack would love to see signs or kiosks that offer historical tidbits and maps for self-guided tours. In the Livermore area, these could connect the site with a scenic byway that has already been designated nearby. “That’s established,” he says. “That’s recognized. So, why reinvent the wheel when you can link with existing programs?”

The next steps might include the creation of a steering committee to guide efforts, followed by regional committees to narrow down focus areas, Thayer says.

“Interpretation and partnership is huge,” Roenke says. “It can add to the hiking experience, it can add to the driving experience, and it can add to the land management perspective. Our goal is to let the next generation experience these areas—and not have it all changed.”

Fred Durso, Jr., is a former managing editor of AMC Outdoors.

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