The 1400+ mile trail network in New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest is absolutely world-class. But it probably wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the logging companies that stripped much of the 800,000 acre White Mountain region of timber in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The waste wood from those clear-cutting operations caused massive forest fires that burned for years at a time. But public outcry eventually prompted passage of the Weeks Act which permitted the use of federal funding to purchase conservation land, resulting in the preservation of 6 million acres of forest in the eastern United States.
Once the forest fires had been put out and the railroad lines built by the logging companies had been dismantled, trail developers were quick to reuse the reinforced roads that the railroad companies had built to lay track as the basis for the major trunk trails and scenic routes that crisscross the White Mountain National Forest today.
If you’ve ever driven along the Kanamagus Highway, up Rt 16, or on Bear Notch Road, those were once railroad lines. The same holds for the Zealand, Wild River Trail, Lincoln Woods, and Franconia Brook Trails, and many others.
The comprehensive history of the Logging Railroads of the White Mountains is captured in a book by C. Francis Belcher, the first executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Club, which deserves much of the credit for consolidating the dispersed trails in the White Mountains into a consolidated and interconnected trail system.
While you don’t need to know the history of the White Mountain trail system to hike here, knowing where the railroads line were is a very valuable navigational aid when you step off-trail on wilderness day hiking and backpacking adventures. You can save a lot of energy and time by following abandoned railroad lines, or railroad grades as they’re called, which are still passable although they’ve been long forgotten.
While Logging Railroads of the White Mountains is out of print, you can still buy it used on Amazon for about $10 bucks. It has excellent maps of the White Mountain railroad routes in it (which I can’t scan and display due to copyright issues) and is a book that all serious White Mountain hikers and explorers have on their bookshelf.
Another excellent contemporary resource is WhiteMountainHistory.org which has many online maps of White Mountain logging railroad lines, including Bill Gove’s composite map of the railroads superimposed on a White Mountain trails map.
Gove is author of four books on New Hampshire’s logging railroads including J. E. Henry’s Logging Railroads: The History of the East Branch & Lincoln and Zealand Valley Railroads. J.E. Henry was the most notorious and innovative of the White Mountain logging barons.
While the hiking in the White Mountains is excellent, your explorations need not be limited by the trail system or climbing the 4000 footers. This region was also the crucible of American industry, entrepreneurship, and wilderness conservation, with valuable lessons that can be applied to our world today.