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by Mike Dickerman
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Mike Dickerman photo A modern-day photo of the Zealand Valley, as viewed from the summit of Middle Sugarloaf Mountain near Twin Mountain.

I’ve long been fascinated by the era of the logging railroads of the White Mountains and much of what I’ve learned about this half-century or so of lumbering activity can be traced to the writings of two authors whose works have been published in a number of great books.

C. Francis Belcher’s, the longtime Appalachian Mountain Club official, and Vermonter Bill Gove, are considered the two most knowledgeable individuals when it comes to the history of logging railroads in the Whites. Belcher’s “Logging Railroads of the White Mountains,” which came about after he wrote a series of articles on the railroads for Appalachia Journal, is the best overall history of this colorful era in White Mountains annals. Gove, meanwhile, has penned three separate books on the logging railroaders, with a fourth and final tome slated to be published in 2010.

Time and again as I’ve undertaken historical research projects of my own I’ve come across many of the sources that Belcher and Gove used to piece together their respective histories. This has included magazine articles, newspapers accounts and stories, and privately published family histories. It came as quite surprise, therefore, recently, when I stumbled across an interesting logging railroad item that, as far as I can tell, neither Belcher nor Gove have ever cited in their books.

Specifically, I’m referring to an item that appeared in the Friday, Sept. 27, 1889 issue of the Littleton Republic-Journal newspaper under the heading, “Zealand Valley.” The article, which runs for nearly two full newspaper columns, reports on the first ever passenger train excursion up into the Zealand Valley on logging baron James Everell Henry’s long gone Zealand Valley Railroad.

Now I’ve read about this excursion before, because in 1898 writer J.M. Cooper recalled this trip into Zealand in an article appearing in the statewide Granite Monthly magazine. In fact, both Belcher and Gove cite Cooper’s article in their books. Cooper’s article, however, was written nine years after the fact, and besides failing to tell readers what year the trip actually took place, there are also several other important omissions and errors which would not be obvious to the reader if he or she had not first seen the contemporary Republic-Journal article written just a few days after the train ride into Zealand.

According to the Republic-Journal piece, this historic excursion took place in late September 1889, probably on Sept. 22 or 23, and included a host of invited guests who joined J.E. Henry and his three sons, John, George, and then 14-year-old Charles, for the daylong adventure. The guest list included, among others, Dr. W. C. Stoddard of Newport, Rhode Island, Alvin Mooney, conductor on the Bethlehem branch of the Profile and Franconia Notch Railroad, the aforementioned J.M. Cooper, who was representing the Bethlehem-based newspaper The White Mountain Echo and Tourists Register, W.F. Pingree, station agent at the Bethlehem Junction rail station, and the apparent author, George C. Furber of the Republic-Journal.

Furber wrote that the Henrys at that time owned some 50,000 contiguous acres in the valley and that timber being harvested was being transported by rail to the Zealand Mills along the Ammonoosuc River and to coal kilns situated close by the Zealand River. “The annual crop of timber cut averages 15,000,000 feet while 225 carloads of charcoal are burned and shipped yearly,” wrote Furber. “To do this vast amount of work 275 men are employed that live in camps located along the Railroad, and 200 or 300 horses.”

The Zealand-bound train – which consisted of one passenger coach (No. 55 of the Boston and Lowell Railroad) and Zealand Valley Engine No. 1, the “J.E. Henry” – began its trip at around 10 that morning “and was soon winding around the hills and valley alongside the Zealand river, whose full banks presented a beautiful sight,” wrote Furber. “It was a steep up grade all the way but the roadbed was excellent and we rode as quietly as on the best railways. The Henrys have been thorough in their work, believing nothing was to be made by slighting.”

As the train worked its way some seven miles up into the valley, stops were made at several points along the way, including at Camp 3, where passengers were allowed to “inspect” the quarters of the lumbermen and to feast on “a bushel of raised doughnuts just fried.”

“We soon passed through a long snow shed that has been prepared for the coming winter, and up a grade 285 feet to the mile, rapidly passing other camps and at the end of about seven miles reached Zealand Pond, a small body of water that can with a little labor be made a beautiful little lake,” continued Furber. “This point is about 1100 feet above our starting point and some 1,500 feet above sea level.”

The author then goes on to write that the Henrys apparently had grand plans for the immediate area surrounding Zealand Pond. These included construction of a hotel, which would be accessible by rail during the summer months. Now I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of those plans before as they are not mentioned in either Belcher’s or Gove’s books, or in the Cooper article appearing nine years later. That this interesting piece of information has escaped notice by some of the region’s best researchers is fascinating in itself and quickly led me to believe that Mr. Furber’s article has somehow been overlooked these many, many years.

Now space limitations won’t allow me to elaborate on the remainder of the train excursion, but I can tell you that passengers paid a walking visit to remote Thoreau Falls, which lies at the south end of Zealand Notch, and ate dinner at Camp 5 on their return trip. Interestingly enough, no mention is made of a destructive forest fire that ravaged portions of the Zealand area just two years previous, in 1886. If Furber’s concluding comments are any indication, in fact, this historic train ride left only a positive and lasting impression; one that is sure to resonate with hikers of today. “There is not one of our party,” wrote Furber, “but would at an early day embrace another opportunity to visit this attractive region.” Previously published.

Mike Dickerman is a longtime hiking enthusiast, award-winning columnist, and author or co-author of nine books related to the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. He lives in Littleton.

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