Logging Railroads of the White Mountains

Logging Railroads of the White Mountains by C. Francis Belcher
Logging Railroads of the White Mountains by C. Francis Belcher

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.

Railroad Ties on the Flat Mountain Trail
Railroad Ties on the Flat Mountain Trail

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.

The popular Lincoln Woods and Wilderness Trails were once logging railroad lines - map from 1915 Caltopo.com
The popular Lincoln Woods and Wilderness Trails were once logging railroad lines – map from 1915 Caltopo.com

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.

J.E. Henry's Logging Railroads by Bill Gove
J.E. Henry’s Logging Railroads by Bill Gove

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.

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  1. I own and have read all of these. It adds a new experience being able to imagine what was happening along trails you are hiking a hundred and twenty five years ago, 50 ton locomotives inhabiting the quiet valleys and huge mills and camps where only a clearing and maybe some relics and foundation fragments exist today. And after reading the descriptions of the way the forests were ruined by the logging methods of the era the recovery is quite amazing. I hope to explore more of the history illuminated by these books and others as I hike the trails.

    • Imagine what it would cost to build the trail system today if we didn’t have the old railroad grades.

      • That’s the truth. I wonder how many significant sections of new trail are even built these days. The forest service, state DEC’s and the non-government organizations struggle to keep open what we already have. You’ve written recently about that challenge. My club in the finger lakes builds short trail sections now and then rerouting around land closures and such, but a couple miles at a time at most and usually in pretty open woods. It is also exciting to see more and more rails-to-trails projects getting moving. In Ithaca the Black Diamond trail is well under way to becoming a great multi-use trail and in northern Vermont the old St. J & LC route is being built out. The eastern section is supposed to be open this month I think. I hate to admit I’m old enough to remember trains running on that railroad when there were still rails. We all should recognize the efforts of the government officials and representatives at all levels and the local organizations who have the sense, energy, and vision to support these projects for the common good.

  2. Cool stuff–and the old rail beds don’t go straight up the sides of mountains through giant boulder fields. Another reason to check out old maps.

  3. I’ve encountered a number of abandoned logging railroads in the Allegheny’s. They are always an exciting find, especially when unmarked. It feels like you’re rediscovered a piece of forgotten history.

  4. I always called those “Wilderness Ties”! Kind of a joke about our befuddled wilderness.

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