Ghosts of America’s Past

Today was a wonderful fall day in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and we set out for the summit of Mt. Israel. We were in the mood for a long circuit hike; so instead of retracing our steps, we descended via a trail that led us into the backcountry; and then we returned to our car via Sandwich Notch Road.

Sandwich Notch Road runs about eight miles from Center Sandwich to Thornton, New Hampshire. This road is the only one of its kind in America. Both its location and character have been unchanged from the early 1800s, when it functioned as a critical part of the heavily traveled trade route from the seacoasts of New Hampshire and Maine to the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont.

Sandwich Notch Road

Sandwich Notch Road

At its peak, over 300 families lived along the road. Once there were farms, sawmills, stores, taverns, and schoolhouses. Now all that remains is a cemetery and old cellar holes. Where once was open space, now is the densely forested Sandwich Range Wilderness of the White Mountains National Forest.

Life was hard. The Halls lost Ada, age 7, and Willie, age 11, within a month of each other in 1869. This photo is from a cemetery, in the woods off Sandwich Notch Road, that is protected by the American Antiquities Act of 1906.

One of the surviving stone cellars of a home.

One of the surviving stone cellars of a home.

America’s First Billboard? The writing carved on an overhanging rock on the side of the road advertises a general store and reads: P. Wentworth 6mls 1838

A Quaker minister, Joseph Meader, spoke on fair-weather Sundays from the top of Pulpit Rock to his congregation which would assemble below.

What happened? After the Civil War young people began to leave for an easier and more prosperous life in the mills of Massachusetts. The forest began to encroach on the cleared land until nothing remained. The value of a homestead fell to zero.

Talk about an impact on the community—but, there was nobody to bail them out. Of course, this cycle of the birth and death of a community was played out all over America. It was played out as technological innovations and industrial changes favored some communities over others and as preferences of consumers changed, and it played out for reasons that can never be fully understood.

To try to prevent any of this would have been sheer insanity. The thought probably never crossed anyone’s mind.

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9 Responses to Ghosts of America’s Past

  1. Steve P says:

    Barry,
    Beautiful pictures. They bring back memories of visits to my great grandfather’s home in Whitefield (about 20 mi away). I can also imagine retracing your route in winter and realizing the moment in Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”.
    I’m glad the spirits of those hardy folks of bygone eras still “haunt” some of us. Those who can appreciate the manner in which they lived can also draw inspiration from them. Knowing that some were happy despite hardship is a reminder that modern convenience and material pursuits are not what is important. I wonder who in the future will be inspired by current generations?

  2. Steve,

    It sounds like you may have walked these beautiful woods more than I. I love the long hikes and the many gifts it provides; stilling the monkey mind and being away from the internet for extended periods is priceless in these troubled times.

    The energy of the bygone era is palpable in the Sandwich Notch area and many of the locals trace their roots back many generations–a very rich heritage indeed!

    Indeed what will future generations learn from us? If we survive as a prosperous free nation, I suspect that they will be “advanced” enough to forgive our many errors.

  3. Tat_T says:

    Dr. Brownstein,

    I think you are at your best when you can take the most trivial situatons such as our present economy and put it into perspective with a nature context. These beautiful pictures and reminders of how our country once overcame a simple period of sluggish life provides quite a unique insight into our current economic troubles. They reminds us to stay steady and remember our basic simple needs, shaving away things we really didn’t need in the first place. When the dust settles, what we will find is a more simplex place full of life and beauty that we could not have imagined in the first place. Prosperity comes in many forms. Not all of it has to be in the context of dollars and cents. But it can also be derived in the form of simplicity and sense.

  4. Tat,

    Indeed, studies show that there is almost no connection between happiness and income/possessions. Of course those whose identity is built around their possessions are in for an especially rough ride.

  5. Tesh says:

    Mmm… beautiful pictures. I love autumn, and there’s a great sense of history to this post. Thanks much for sharing! I’ve always had a love for the lessons of the past; there is a great deal to learn from our progenitors. It’s sad to see things crumble with time, but I tend to learn more from those relics than from the punditry of the present.

  6. Skinny Ties says:

    You have inspired me. Thank you very much. Good luck with your site

  7. Greg LaPointe says:

    The Sandwitch Notch area is a beautiful and peaceful location, I’ve enjoyed going there many times and your pictures bring back pleasant memories. I have seen the ponds and some of the cellar holes and have visited the Hall family cemetary but I have never noticed that advertisement carved in the rock. I have something else to try to find next time I am up that way. Could you give a clue as to where I can find that rock? Thanks and I really enjoyed the pictures.

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