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  • by Tom Eastman

The Great Cut Through The Notch

A chasm of austere beauty, Crawford Notch has never been especially well-suited for those who are weak of heart, courage, or desire. It can be a tough and somewhat foreboding place, frequented by winds which mountain giant Ethan Allen Crawford once said blew down through the Narrows of the Notch with such violence that it required "two men to hold one man's hair on."

A history-rich area, the Notch brims with various gloomy tales which seem to hang above its granite walls like the clouds that frequently shroud the region in winter. The stories are those of Nancy Barton who froze to death at the brook which now bears her name while in pursuit of her deceitful lover, or the Willey family who perished in the great slide of August 1826, and of the climbers who have made their last ascents while trying to conquer the sheer wall of the Webster Cliffs on the eastern side of the Notch.

Such storm crossed and majestic areas often inspire great men to accomplish heroic deeds, and Crawford Notch is no exception. Timothy Nash's trek down the rough gorge with his friend, Benjamin Sawyer, and a rather unfortunate horse in 1771 was such an act, as it proved to the Royal Governor and Council that the Notch was indeed a passable yet twisting shortcut from the mountains to the sea. The blazing of foot and bridle paths a few years later by Abel Crawford and his sons, as well as their struggle to earn a living for themselves in the rough environment, also were nothing short of Herculean by modern standards.

The isolation and difficulties of life in the mountains were eased substantially with the building of the 10th New Hampshire Turnpike in the early 1800s. Chartered by the state legislature in 1803, the narrow ribbon of roadway was completed in a few years after considerable effort. Although crude and subject to washouts by mountain and spring torrents of the Saco River, the road played a great role in the development of northern New Hampshire, serving as an important trade and traveling route that opened the era of mountain tourism.

Great as the construction of the Turnpike was, its magnificence was superseded 70 years later by the completion of one of the most impressive engineering feats ever attempted in the White Mountains. Mountains of earth were literally moved and chunks of granite blasted off the walls of the mountainside for the project. When the men had finished with their work, the White Mountains had a new railroad, on which it snaked through the rough chasm of Crawford Notch for 18.5 miles. On August 7,1875, the first train on the newly laid mountain route of the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad arrived from Portland at Fabyan Station, symbolizing the successful completion of the most difficult railroad project in the state.

A drive up through Crawford Notch today affords a view of the railway, which is nothing less than awe inspiring. Built in an era when the Iron Horse was firmly establishing itself as the viable means of transportation of the future, the railway is a testimony to the persevering efforts of the crews who labored in difficult conditions to build her. Using hand tools, horse-drawn dump carts, black powder and wooden derricks, the Italian and Irish laborers recruited in Portland for the job carved out a path for the railroad where none had a right to exist.

The Portland & Ogdensburg's story began in the state of Maine in 1867 when a charter was granted to the company to construct a line from Portland, Maine, to Ogdensburg, New York. The route was thought to be a desirable one, since trains could transport Canadian grain from the shipping lanes of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway across New York, Vermont and New Hampshire to the year-round ice-free port of Portland.

Spearheading that plan were two enterprising brothers who shared a vision of mountain railroading and a tenacity for hard work. The sons of a lawyer who once served as the head of Portland's port authority and as a member of Congress, Samuel and John Anderson were the mainstays behind the P&O and its push through the mountains Samuel served as president of the railroad company, while John was the chief architectural engineer and supervisor of the project which became known as The Great Cut of the Notch.

Prior to the Civil War, railroads had been slow to receive favorable reception throughout the country. Accidents were said to be so frequent in the early days of railroading that the governor of New Hampshire urged the legislature to make the rail companies responsible for the loss of life or injury through carelessness. That climate had changed considerably by the time the Anderson brothers founded the Portland & Ogdensburg, however. The Iron Horses were fast, and their potential seemed boundless. By 1874, the state of New Hampshire had more than 800 miles of track, all of it owned by 32 companies and valued at $30,000,000.

The P&O received its charter from the New Hampshire legislature in 1869. Emanating from Portland, the rails reached North Conway in 1871 and Bartlett in 1874. For the next 18.5 miles, a monumental task lay ahead of the Andersons and the laborers recruited to carry out the heavy construction work. The project would take them more than a year to complete because of the numerous engineering and building problems peculiar to the Notch. As Jackson resident and noted railroad historian Ben English notes in his collaborative book written with Edwin Robertson, A Century of Railroading in Crawford Notch, gorges had to be filled or bridged, granite ledges blasted, and for most of the 10 miles between the Sawyer's River Station and Crawford Notch Station at the Gateway to the Notch, a shelf had to be made on the sides of Mounts Bemis, Willey and Willard on the west side of the Notch. In keeping with the history of past efforts in the wind-swept region, it would not be easy.

The first six miles from Bartlett to the Bemis Station were completed by August of 1874. Located at what is now known as the Notchland, the Bemis Station was named after a Dr. Samuel Bemis, a prominent Boston dentist who lived in the stone building currently referred to as the Inn Unique from 1869 to 1882. The six-mile section of track was completed much too late in the summer season to receive any substantial use from the tourist season, but progress was being made. Beyond the Notchland, the rails had been laid 10 miles along the route from Bartlett to the Frankenstein Trestle as well. Although that section of the railroad was not opened for use until the entire project was completed the following summer.

Construction work on the railroads generally took place from April to October in more hospitable areas such as the lower elevations of Mt. Washington Valley. In the cold, wind-swept terrain of the mountains, however, crews were not able to begin their tasks until late-May at the earliest, and generally had to halt all of their work by the first of October. Sleeping on portable bunkhouses located at the Sawyer's River and Bartlett Stations which had been supplied by the P&O, the laborers worked at both ends of the Notch. Between the Crawford Notch Station at the height of the Notch to Fabyan further West near the present site of the Bretton Woods Ski Area, much of the grading had been completed and all of the masonry work finished before the snows fell in the winter of 1874-75.

Ben English notes that in the pre-dynamite era in the United States of the 1870's, all blasting was accomplished by hand-drilling holes in the rock and then filling them with explosive black powder. In the modern world of electric drills and power tools, the idea of building a railroad path through the granite passages of the Notch by hand seems a formidable task at best, but the crews of the P&O proved just how much desire and muscle can achieve. Explains Ben, "The workers drilled in teams of three - one man would turn the star-pronged iron drill, while a man would stand on either side of him with a sledge hammers, taking turns pounding the drill until it had been bored three feet or so into the rock. they'd then pour in the black powder, set it off, and then move the rock chunks to areas where they needed fill for the roadbed."

In the days before cranes and other similar equipment, the railroad men used steam operated gin-poles to move the heavy granite chunks of rock onto small cart. A blacksmith forge was kept in operation 14 hours a day sharpening the iron drills used for the drilling, while coal was burned to power the stationary steam powered engines for the gin-poles.

669-feet above the village of Bartlett, the railroad engineers constructed the 500-foot long span known as the Frankenstein Trestle. Located three-and-a-half miles west of the Bemis House crossing, it carried the track 80 feet above Frankenstein Gulf. The impressive structure was originally made of iron, but was replaced with steel trusses in 1895 due to structural requirements which became necessary once heavier trains came into use along the line. The trestle continues to carry the trains across the gulf today, in front of the Frankenstein Cliff which juts out from the surrounding mountains, The cliff, gulf and trestle were all named after Godfrey N. Frankenstein, a Cincinnati-based artist who painted many scenes in the White Mountains, and not after the German monster.

Yet another remarkable engineering feat is the Willey Brook Bridge, located four miles west of the Frankenstein Trestle towards the Gate of the Notch, nearly 14 miles from Bartlett Village. From this point to the Gate of the Notch, the toughest conditions were encountered by the men who laid the rails in the summers of 1874 and 1875. The almost vertical cliff of Mount Willard left little room for the builders to position their track in the area, but once again, they proved that they were equal to the task. Using the fill and blocks taken from other portions of the route such as the Great Cut at the Gateway to the Notch, a shelf was put down alongside the steep mountainside. The shelf has held up extremely well over the last 100 years, and continues to provide passage for the Maine Central trains that use it today.

The Willey Brook Bridge was replaced in a matter of minutes in 1905 with a stronger steel girder bridge. The tracks in those days were far busier than they are now, making such a maneuver a necessarily hasty operation. The crews accomplished the task of rolling in the pre-built structure in an amazing time of nine minutes. Should the Guiness Book of Records ever feature a bridge installment category, the Willey Brook Bridge replacement warrants a recognition.

A little less than a mile and a half westward, the route finally reached its goal of the Gateway of the Notch. Located at an altitude of 1900 feet, the pass is 14.5 miles from the Bartlett station and four miles from the Fabyans Station near the Mount Washington Hotel. All told, the railroad built by the Andersons and the crew of laborers rises 1369 feet between North Conway and the Crawford Station over an 18.5-mile long stretch, with the grade running as steep as 116 feet to the mile for nine consecutive miles in the Notch. Then and now, it has been known as one of the steepest lines in the East. In terms of engineering difficulty, it compares with the building of the 6-mile-long Hoosac Tunnel of Western Massachusetts through the Berkshires in the 1870s along the Boston & Maine line.

According to Bradley Peters, director of Public Relations for the Maine Central Railroad, the Portland & Ogdensburg was a going concern for the first few years of its operations, but soon fell on hard times. The heavy business from the Canadian markets never really materialized for the P&O, as the already existing Grand Trunk Line had established a good hold on a large share of traffic. Much to the Anderson's disappointment, the P&O extended only to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, never reaching its intended end of the line in Ogdensburg. Like the Notch itself, the business world can be merciless and unforgiving of the weak, and in the 1880s, the P&O declared bankruptcy.

The Maine Central Railroad took over the P&O's line to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in 1888 under a lease agreement. In 1943, the Maine Central purchased the line outright, and continues to own it today. Although passenger and freight runs constituted the line's business during the heyday of the railroads, the Mountain Run is now considered an "overhead route," a term which Brad Peters explained means that the line is now used mostly for non-stop freight service between Portland and St. Johnsbury. Once there, its primary connection is with the Canadian Pacific or Lamoile Railroads. As for passenger service, the last run was on April 28, 1958 - its return is doubtful at best.

As anyone who lives near the tracks which cross through North Conway Village and alongside of Route 302 in Bartlett are well aware, the Maine Central operates one round-trip freight run on the former P&O tracks a day throughout the year. Although all of the station houses which once serviced the 18.5-mile stretch of the Notch other than Bartlett have long since passed out of service or sight, the Maine Central still employs local section foremen whose duties include inspecting the track and maintaining it when necessary.

During the cold and unpredictable months of winter, rail service in the mountains takes on an added dramatic sense of adventure. The role of the switchmen becomes especially important during that her time of the year, as it is their responsibility to patrol the tracks for ice chunks which have cascaded off the cliffs of the Notch onto the route. Snowfall amounts of less than eight or nine inches above the rails pose no real problem for the diesel powered giants that grind up the steep grades of the route today, but plowing is done when necessary. As Peters of the Maine Central explained, "The trains can get through in winter with no real problem with the snow. Our only potential difficulty with snow is when there's a snowslide over a particular area from a cliff - that's why we have track foremen."

Ben English remembers one blizzard that did pose something of a problem for the railroad, a great storm which hit the mountains in March 1950. The mighty train became stuck in the Notch heading west, unable to overcome the piles of snow. Armies of track crews arrived on the scene equipped with hand shovels to clear the track. The wood powered steam engines which used the tracks in the 19th century as well as those powered by coal for the first half of this century had far more tougher times against the elements.

"During the winter, we usually send up a few extra engines - helpers, they're called - to give the trains a lift up the Notch," Peters stated in discussing the problems of winter railroading in the mountains. At one point, he said that he saw nine diesel locomotives powering one train for such a purpose. "When it's cold in winter, you just don't get the power that you do in summer. The trains go through, though."

Like everything else that's been achieved in the Notch, it's just a matter of trying a little harder.


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