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by Kim Robert Nilsen

Counted nine fistfights, I did, going on at the same time just a good spit uphill from North Stratford village. Bottled up all winter in logging camp hovels and then turned loose to drive logs down the Connecticut River for months, the axmen I use to manage in the headwaters country needed fortification for the long pull south, down to the mills at Holyoke and Hartford. Bellies full of mash lightning, the loggers knuckled one another and swore oaths they couldn’t say to their skinflint timber baron employer, old man Van Dyke. The Bastard!

Forgive me, I didn’t introduce myself. The name’s, Jigger, Jigger Johnson. I was in Van Dyke’s employ for forty years, a walking boss in the logging camps up the old Indian Stream Territory. I bossed for him on the river drives in the Connecticut River drainage. Worked for other timber barons, too, the length of the Magalloway and down the Androscoggin. I was the best there ever was. But, you know, I turned 95 under the blue moon. I’d drown myself, sure, if I had to dance in my spiked boots now on a rolling river log.

Now where was I? Oh, yes, George Van Dyke. He was the king of tall timber, king of them all. The man had so much coin, investment stock and land holdings that he could put a gang to work for weeks digging a mighty furrow dead straight through a river oxbow at Colebrook. He’d change the course of the Connecticut so as not to shanghai logs in the bend, where it would always jam up so bung-tight that it took several boxes of dynamite and four days wages to free up the godforsaken log tangle. To the devil with that! Straighten the god-given river, he’d say.

North Country timber made the man, Van Dyke. Cut timber for him I did from Pittsburg Township on the Canadian line all the way down to that big railroad crossroads, Woodsville, a hundred miles to the south. But he wasn’t the only scoundrel who made it big. Timber made more than a few men wealthy on the northern New Hampshire frontier. Big woods and fast water, steam locomotives and icebox rail cars, soda ash and sulfite chemicals, tidal waves of milk and potatoes and immigrants, and all those highbrow tourists’ with their taste for mint julep and candlepin bowling; why, all that would conspire to change the Granite State’s northern jungle into an economic powerhouse that couldn’t catch its breath. I seen it all. Give me a few minutes of your time, friend, and I’ll tell you all about it.

You see, it was boom times up here, once. In just one generation––oh, roughly 1885 to 1910––we made the leap from hand-to-mouth to full-blown prosperity. In 1900, about the time Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the 46 United States of America, this here big isolated county where we’re sittin’––Coos County––was already a big kingpin in America’s headlong rush to become a global power. Imagine this, Coos was once the undisputed world leader in paper pulp capacity and in newsprint production. The sawmill with the largest volume output in all New Hampshire called Coos home. Just about the grandest dairy herd on this planet ruminated in a community called Hazen, once a town of few hundred. You can’t find it on the map no more. Today, its population is exactly zero.

Bear with me; I’m still pretty sharp, even though I’m wrinkled like a crabapple in winter. There’s so much to tell you.

Now, this land north of the mountain notches once boasted one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in North America. Not fibbing, I ain’t. Mountain folk at Berlin actually burned as many electric lights as the masses huddled around the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester. Innkeepers in town after town built 12,000 summer lodging rooms and suites to house the vacationing horde of genteel New Yorkers and Bostonians. Loggers harvested 30 million feet of spruce logs per year just for the young paper industry, never mind the sawmill trade. Shippers sent special unit trains chock full of lumber or ice and milk southward to the cities. More than a few farmers in Colebrook made darn good potato whiskey and grew a billion spuds that they made into landslides of shirt collar starch.

Now, those heady times in these mountains won’t have been so glorious had it not been for a fellow from Pennsylvania. A decade after Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to General Ulysses S. Grant, a wee bit of a chemist from outside of Philadelphia, one H. H. Furbish, got hold of an English invention and brought it up here to the backwoods. Furbish knew a Limey by the name of Hugh Burgess who invented a process of combining ground wood and caustic soda ash into a slurry. Burgess agitated the mixture. Lo and behold, the lignin glue that cements all wood fiber together in every living tree on earth liquefied. He rinsed the liberated wood fiber and pressed the water out of it. The loose flock stuck together into a thin mat. Presto! Burgess made himself paper.

You see, until that moment, paper production was a laborious endeavor, requiring pounded plant fiber, endless bales of rag cloth, and lots of time and toil. Burgess’ soda ash process needed only ground wood and a common earth chemical, that soda ash. His process was fast. The potential for the mass production of paper was not lost on the chemist from Pennsylvania, Mr. Furbish. So what does he do? Furbish goes in search of forests where poplar trees grow in abundance. He stepped off a Grand Trunk Railway train in the tiny hamlet of Berlin, on the east side of Coos. From the train windows he could see poplar stands intermingling with the cold-hearty spruce and fir of the trackless northern boreal forest. Within a few years, Furbish had two Forest Fiber Company mills on line on the banks of the Androscoggin River. The business had a total daily pulp wood capacity of some thirty tons.

But the promising wood-fiber mills were nearly stillborn, see. He started out producing far too much product than there was a market for in the 1870s. So tiny Berlin, population of little more than a thousand souls, had to hold its breath until the mid-1880s before a new technology could be shoehorned into a startup mill at the maw of the great falls of the Androscoggin.

The brothers W. W. and J. B. Brown––men with Portland pedigrees, investment money to buy up most of the local sawmills, and a nascent interest in the soda ash scheme––turned their backs on Furbish’s process, limited as it was to the use of low grade hardwood trees. They embraced a caustic sulfur molecule instead, one that, under heat and pressure, could very efficiently liberate wood fibers from softwood logs. Surrounded by a million acres of spruce and fir forest, the Brown brothers decided to channel a good share of their resources from their sizable Berlin Mills Company sawmill operation into something altogether new called the sulfite papermaking process, named for that Englishman, Burgess, but taken a big step forward by an American named Benjamin Tilghman. Tilghman liked to play with fire. His papermaking scheme used sulfurous acid, terribly corrosive stuff, you know, dangerous as all get-out.

Well, the Brown brothers built a big sulfite paper mill of great complexity in 1888 and fitted out with the new wonder technology.

Furbish couldn’t compete with the new sulfite works. So, he abandoned his soda ash effort and turned his attention to harnessing the power of falling river water at the millrace dams and the muscle of high-pressure steam. Just like God, who makes lightning bolts in the heavens, Mr. Furbish made electricity. Pretty soon Berlin matched Manchester light bulb for incandescent light bulb. The town glowed at night under the Milky Way, an island of electric brilliance huddled in the dark folds of the White Mountains. It was one hell of a sight to behold, I can tell you.

But paper was only part of the story up here in the north. Other marvelous things were getting a toehold, too. On the other side of Mount Washington, some thirty-five miles to the west, a young town a-building along the Johns River was running a high temperature, hot as the scarlet fever. Whitefield was a little farming town of 1,000 citizens on Abe Lincoln’s inauguration, but it swelled to nearly 3,000 in a generation, and no one knew how many men were bedded down in straw in the logging camps at Pondicherry reservoir and farther east.

Whitefield became something like an octopus. Three mainline railroads and narrow-gauge logging tracks snaked through the mountains and converged at mammoth sawmill complexes covering untold acres of ground just below and west of that quaint Kings Square in the center of town, with its fine whitewashed bandstand where the Whitefield Amateur Band played on summer evenings.

A family by the name of Brown, no relation to the Browns of Berlin, mind you, managed a truly huge conglomerate, larger and more varied than most in existence in the six New England states. Its primary business was the milling and sale of dimension lumber for the building trade. In 1885, the Brown factory alone ripped twenty-three million board feet of lumber from a gang of high-speed steam and water-powered blades. They also produced fine molding, clapboards, hardwood flooring, butter tubs, rain gutters, even masts for sailing ship. The buildings were first lit with gas lamps and then electric lights and ran day and night. Laborers by the hundreds earned an industry-busting annual wage of $500. That was good money then, boy.

Nearby stood the Libby Company sawmill buildings, eclipsed only by the Brown’s monstrosity. The steady flow of timber from the mountains spawned a dozen other woodworking businesses: a butter box plant, stovebox kindling kilns, dowel-stock turning firms, railroad tie cutters, a textile bobbin mill, a carriage maker and wagon fitter and more. The workers had to have rugged, well-made clothing on the job. That was no problem whatsoever in Whitefield. Snow & Baker, whose textile plant sat adjacent to the sawmills, employed a hundred women who stitched a world-renowned overall worn by just about every railroad hand, farmer, miner, and stevedore in America.

Now, wood from the forests may have been the fuel that sparked the economic boom in the North Country, but tourism fanned the flames. Yes sir. The growth of the tourist trade was simply remarkable.

Two miles north of those big Whitefield sawmills stood the Frank and Mary Dodge farm. The main house boasted a view like no other in the east––towering treeless summits that rivaled the Alps of Europe. The Dodge family took in their first guests because a stagecoach became mired down in a great blow in 1865. Thirty years later and they had built one hundred rooms and were adding floors one atop the other in their majestic Mountain View House.

About that time, the modest Dix House in wild Dixville Notch sixty miles to the north had just been purchased and it was expanded into a colossus, something they call The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel today. The Crawford House perched at the head of Crawford Notch always had an army of carpenters at work on new annexes. Fabyan House nearby, The Glen House, Profile House, Maplewood, Waumbek, and so many more were raised up all at once and gained in girth decade by decade.

You look skeptical. Don’t believe me? Well here, I’ve kept clippings from all manner of newspapers and periodicals. Read this one. “The pleasure houses of the fashionable tourists are full,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. I imagine you’ve heard of him?

Here’s another, from a New York Times social scene reporter. She typed this out in 1906: “The Hampshire Inn and the Elms at Colebrook are both opening in early June with the usual large patronage.” Now imagine that? Colebrook! Those guest rooms were the very farthest from the eastern metropolises, yet they were overflowing. And they might have had stiff competition had not the unfinished Metallak Hotel, a grand Victorian edifice, been blown off the hill overlooking town by a fierce April storm a decade earlier.

The North Country boom years, they brought a new sort of leisure clientele. When I was a youngster, roughing it on trails and riding horseback up the rough bridle paths to the summits of the high peaks was de rigueur among the tourist set. The writings of Thoreau and Longfellow were the rage, and guests longed to test their mettle against the mountains. But all that changed by the last decade of the century. The mountains became wallpaper. Few climbed them; it wasn’t fashionable any longer. Gentlemen and ladies of the Gay ‘90s demanded ice in their afternoon highball, bowling alley games, string quartets playing on sweeping verandas, and polo matches.

Speaking of polo, why, you should have seen the magnificent 6,000-acre Louis Hazen farm beneath Cherry Mountain, with its agricultural fairground buildings, and its horserace and trotting track. Sports flush with money used to play polo matches on the infield. Hotel guests flocked by carriage and train to see the competitions and bet on the races, only to find the steeds occasionally spooked by the incessant yammering of the logging, passenger and freight trains pounding through nearby Waumbek Junction, where several rail company lines and a logging railway converged in the span of just a few dozen yards. Sometimes the smell of dung from 500 head of Hazen’s award-winning Jersey cowherd wafted over the festivities. Truth be known, it was common knowledge that the Hazen dairy herd was the largest and one of the most productive Jersey dairy herds in all of North America.

And still that little town on the Johns River continued to add new businesses and new structures to its downtown. Just south of the old Whitefield and Jefferson Railroad depot, where big Baldwin locomotives once sat idling under a clouds of steam exhaust and coal smoke, stood a fancy new brick-faced dairy goods manufacturing plant erected by The Maine Condensed Milk Company. The firm processed raw milk, canned Baby Brand products, and shipped the goods by the boxcar load every day. The big agricultural business purchased milk from farmers as far north as the Canadian border, who shipped their bulk product in hip-high steel cans loaded aboard boxcars lined with cakes of river and lake ice. The firm paid out $11,000 in milk receipts every month once business reached full production in 1890. That was a lot of coin at that time.

Up in Colebrook, farmers talked-it-up about the coming of the Maine Condensed Milk Company plant to Whitefield, just fifty steel rail miles away. Farming was Colebrook’s sturdy backbone, and it was about to get a whole lot stronger. The main trading center for Upper Coos, Colebrook had already been crowned the “Potato Capital of New Hampshire” when the first iron horse pulled into the town’s newly minted railway station in 1887. Mountains of potatoes and potato starch could ship by rail, surely; but load ice aboard double-walled boxcars and milk could get to Whitefield unspoiled, could get anywhere, really. Hundreds of hill and intervale farmers within a few hours’ wagon ride of Colebrook’s depot responded extravagantly to the new market opportunities unleashed by the arrival of the railroad. Within a few years, they were shipping two million pounds of dairy per annum.

I think you’ll agree, the whole of northern New Hampshire was a beehive of hyperactivity. It was wild, hectic. But there was a cure-all for all that frenetic pace over at the county seat, in the shire town of Lancaster. A fellow there by the name of Parker J. Noyes––he was a lieutenant in the Great War between the North and South and the owner of a small apothecary––invented something he called an automated tablet machine. The first one, built in 1885, began kicking out standardized medicinal pills by the thousands every day. He set up packaging and bottling lines. The young firm couldn’t make Noyes Pectoral Syrup fast enough. It was spectacularly popular. Here’s an advertisement pamphlet of the day. Take a look. See that? It says, “Noyes Pectoral Syrup with Heroin should be placed at the head of cough remedies, as its sales exceed all others combined.”

Now, remember, I was talkin’ about Berlin early on. Well, Berlin needed that Noyes elixir in the worst way. International Paper swooped in to town and bought up the startup Glen Manufacturing Company in 1898, a plant conceived by Boston Globe and New York Tribune backers as the answer to their respective newspapers’ voracious appetite for newsprint. By the turn of the century, that mill was the largest newsprint processor on the seven continents. Staggering was I.P.’s need for raw materials. The mill had to grind, pulp and process 400,000 cords of wood per year to meet demand. More than 500 men were on the mill payroll alone, but each winter there were many hundreds more, axes and crosscut saws in hand, toiling in the woods, dropping timber on every damned mountain within fifty miles. Most of the farm land in the Androscoggin River valley was given over to the growing of hay to feed the many hundreds of horses needed just to pull the massive pulp sleighs full of logs to crude railheads or out onto river and lake ice to await the spring thaw and the log drives to the mills.

In the time it takes for a newborn babe to reach puberty, the little hamlet of Berlin was overrun with new citizens, swelling that wee burg from a little over a thousand folks to nearly 10,000, most cramming into hastily built boarding houses and triple deckers that, in many cases, housed four and even five generations of big extended families. Why did the Norwegians, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, and especially the French Canadians come in such numbers in so short a period of time? All you had to do was take a walk downriver a mile from the falls toward the lofty snow blanketed peaks of the Presidential Range. The Androscoggin River was unrecognizable, coated thick with factories, one atop the other, each bigger than the next. A dozen smokestacks rivaled the heights of the peaks. The rancid smoke they belched smelled like money. There was plenty of gainful employment to be had.

So quickly did that new city rise up from its rough wooden boardwalks that by 1904 merchants and the civic-minded alike decided to tear down many a wooden structure on Main Street, prone as they were to fire. They built big new four- and five-story blocks of granite, marble, and brick. In three years the infant town sloughed off its old skin and grew an entirely new one. I’ve been told that more than a million fares were paid one year on the shiny Berlin-Gorham Electric Railway, a trolley line. Now how’s that for growth?

Money grew on trees, but before long the “City That Trees Built” started running out of trees. So did the buzzing sawmills at Whitefield. I’ve got a stereopticon image of the village by the Johns River; it shows an industrial town ringed with stumps, not a single tree in sight all the way east to and up the flanks of the big mountain ranges. The company brass in Berlin hastily invested in new railroad track into the wilds of Magalloway, Lincoln Plantation and Paramachenee on Maine’s northwestern frontier. Spring log drives on the rivers were fine, but logging trains could haul year ‘round.

With all that prosperity came trouble. It came in the form of smoke on the wind. A family acquaintance of mine keeps an old letter from a Marian Pychowska, who was vacationing in the mountains back in 1886. Mrs. Pychowska wrote to say that smoke “had filled Crawford Notch and drifted way ‘round to Conway, while great yellow-brown volumes rolled up from the increasing fire, making the southern landscape all lurid.”

Ever advancing, ever larger armies of woodcutters left mountains of tree-crown slash in the woods. I was guilty of it myself, more than most. Lightning strikes and hot embers blowing from locomotive stacks would spark ever-larger conflagrations one year to the next. The worst was feared, and the worst arrived in the spring of 1903 on warm zephyrs that wicked the cutover forests of moisture. On the Maine-New Hampshire line east of Mount Washington, fire erupted in the Wild River drainage and consumed peak after peak of the Carter Range. West of the great 6,288-foot summit, the Zealand Valley resembled the gates of hell, so hot was a 10,000-acre blaze adjacent to a 12,000-acre burn that ran its course just half a decade earlier. Smoke was so dense from six major forest fires burning at once that an eyewitness––a citizen standing at the mill yard fence of the just completed Odell Manufacturing Company paper mill in Groveton village forty miles from the Zealand fire––admitted to a Coos County Democrat newspaper correspondent that evening darkness had descended at the noon hour and the air was unfit to breathe. In Manchester more than 100 miles to the south, wash hanging on clotheslines was coated gray with forest-fire soot. That’s God’s honest truth.

The fires brought brimstone from a hornet’s nest of angry citizens. The Reverend John E. Johnson, an Episcopal missionary, scrawled a scathing report about the fires and their cause. He wrote that lumbering had become “the boa constrictor of the White Mountains,” and that civilized men and women must rise up to “crush such an unmitigated outrage upon the rights of humanity.” Clear-cutting timber, he continued, “robs…the vast array of worshippers at nature’s footstool who turn to the White Mountains for health and recreation.”

Those fires charred 86,000 acres. The voices grew more strident with each new blaze. A well-regarded agricultural periodical of the time, the New England Homestead, called forth citizens to “organize a White Mountains forestry association. Talk alone cuts no figure. The lumber barons are united as one man; the vast public, if united as one man, can secure justice.”

Action was swift. Reams of legislation were written and signed into law in state chambers and federal halls. By 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Act, named for a prominent politician who hailed from Lancaster, and established the first landmark conservation district in the east: The White Mountain National Forest. But fire is swifter still. Many of the over-built Brown mills at Whitefield burned in a spectacular nighttime blaze. Horse-drawn firefighting equipment was no match for the flames. The Browns were spiritualists. They believe in God’s plan, not insurance. They didn’t rebuild and sold their remaining interests to Blanchard & Twitchell at Berlin. The family emigrated to Idaho.

Borden Company bought out The Maine Condensed Milk Company and operated the plant for the briefest period, when a worker noticed flames lapping under the eves. The fire reprised the Brown sawmills fire. Insurance? No sir. Borden pulled out of town, too.

Clear-cut forests were smoldering and mills lay in ruins. By Christmas of 1910 much of the North Country economy was collapsing in upon itself. The giant sawing operations in the region bowed to “King Paper” in Berlin and dwindled down to nothing. They’d lost most of their markets to western lumber merchants shipping Rocky Mountain lumber east on the nation’s rapidly expanding transcontinental railroad web.

George Van Dyke, capitalist lord of these northern Connecticut River watershed forests and the man who championed the straightening of the river to speed logs to market, died suddenly in 1909. Van Dyke’s driver rolled a touring car too close to the edge of a steep embankment overlooking a massive log jam in the sweeping dogleg bend at Turners Falls, Massachusetts. The earth crumbled beneath the tires and the auto pitched off the cliff. Van Dyke was dead by nightfall.

Six years after his death, old man Van Dyke’s patented log drives ceased to run the river altogether. The corn and potato whiskey bars dried up in North Stratford. Loggers could board trains now and turn to driving newfangled trucks and ugly duckling Lombard Log Loaders that looked like little steam locomotives with tractor treads. Mechanization began to cut woods job numbers dramatically, even as the papermakers thrived and increased production until the Wall Street crash of ‘29. But sawmill operators walked away from their mills, and hill farmers wink out quickly, one by one, as first steam and then gasoline farm tractors boosted productivity on the best bottomlands but killed off the little guys with pastures that grew stones better than food.

In-migration into the North Country stalled and reversed direction, particularly here in Coos County. The Boom Times went bust. People couldn’t buy a job. So they left. They are still leaving. Every single decade now for a full century this grand forested county has lost population. It’s a shame. It pains me to have to tell you that. I’ll be checking out soon myself, old as I am. But I don’t want to go. I love the place so.

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