The White Mountains, By Train

June 1, 2009

Lower speeds, longer vacations

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2009

The mountains may be the same as they were in the nineteenth century, but the trip there has changed immeasurably. Once tourists, mountaineers, laborers, and botanists climbed aboard their passenger cars at the Boston and Maine Terminal north of Haymarket in Boston or at the old Union Station in Portland, Maine, or Springfield, Massachusetts, and they steamed past the fields and forests of central New England—in those days, far more fielded than forested—on their way to the White Hills, as the White Mountains often were called. The trip was much slower than today’s ride up the interstate, but passengers did not have to deal with traffic jams or tolls, and they could pass the time in conversation or a book. The railroads made the White Mountains accessible to urban populations, ushering in an era of genteel tourism punctuated by the grand hotels that sprang up around the region. Although tourism is now an enduring feature of the White Mountains, its character has always been molded by how people get there. The era of railroads was indeed distinct.

Early American industrialists quickly recognized railroads’ potential after they were first developed in England. Trains could move freight and passengers more cheaply and quickly than horses or canal boats could, so Yankees strained to complete their first locomotive. The Tom Thumb, as it was named, began operating on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830, only five years after the first English train began regular operation.

States began issuing charters for railroads even earlier. The northeastern seaboard was the site of the first tracks, as the mines, mills, and ports fueling the Industrial Revolution were growing enormously and needed better integration. In the early days, state governments subsidized much railroad development because investors lacked confidence that the new system would become profitable, but by 1850, more investors were interested in railroads.

Several regional railroads soon sprang up to connect the White Mountains with northeastern cities. Chartered in New Hampshire in 1835, the original Boston and Maine Railroad was one of a half-dozen lines built to link Boston with Portland. After a series of mergers with an alphabet soup of short-lived, regional lines, the B & M became the dominant coastal company, and from this regional base, it spun a web of tracks across northern New England, stretching from Massachusetts into Canada. Although none of the lines that originally reached the White Mountains belonged to the B & M, it consumed almost all of them by 1895, save for the Maine Central Railroad.

The first thread of track to enter the White Mountain region belonged to the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which connected Gorham with Portland in 1851 after five years’ labor and $2,800,000. For $4.50, Bostonians could now catch a B & M train north, change at Portland, and arrive in Gorham in nine hours.

Rail access to the southern side of the mountains came more slowly. The Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad built a route extending through Laconia and Plymouth on its way to Woodville in 1853, but one still needed a stagecoach to penetrate beyond the Lakes Region. In fact, from The Weirs, just beyond Laconia, one could take the “Lady of the Lake” across Lake Winnipesaukee to Centre Harbor, where the stagecoach waited to make the journey’s final leg. By 1873, the B, C, & M extended as far north as Littleton.

The Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad was chartered in 1867 to run from Portland to Crawford Notch, where the owners planned for it to join their “Vermont division,” a western branch line. The task of construction was immense because the tracks climb nearly 1,400 feet through the notch, an average of 116 feet per mile between Bemis and Crawford House stations. Along the way, engineers built both the remarkable Frankenstein Trestle (named for a painter whose name was attached to the nearby cliff) and the Willey Brook Bridge, which both rise precipitously above the conifers. “No other railroad in this region traverses such wild gorges, or looks out on such majestic peaks, close at hand,” wrote Moses Foster Sweetser in his 1884 guidebook Sweetser’s White Mountains (James R. Osgood’s American Handbooks, fifth edition, 1884). The line was not complete until 1875, and shortly after the western branch was finished in 1877, the Portland and Ogdensburg went bankrupt. In 1888, after a succession of short-term leases, the Maine Central, itself the product of a merger, took over the line, evocatively christening it the Mountain Division.

Andrew Riely, a former Zealand Falls Hut crew member, is a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin.

The full text of this story may be found in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia.

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Andrew Riely

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