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Bethlehem, New Hampshire, United States
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12 March 2011

A Little Hike around Ammonoosuc Lake

Tucked behind AMC's Highland Center is the AMC's hiking trail named the "Around-the-Lake Trail". This 1.2 mile trail leads you around Ammonoosuc Lake which, according to some accounts, was originally named Merrill's Pond. Since the trailhead isn't located on a public road, I suppose it's not too surprising that I occasionally meet folks who are unaware of this very delightful little trail that can easily be hiked by even those with minimal hiking experience.

When I have limited time for hiking, I'll often hop in the car and drive 20 minutes down Rt. 302 from my home in Bethlehem and do a lap around the trail. And more often than not, I'll also include the Red Bench spur trail as part of my jaunt. This adds another 0.6 miles to the round trip, thus making it a 1.8 mile hike.  It's short, sweet, and perfect for certain circumstances! And, it's one heck of a lot better than working out on a treadmill (at least in my opinion)!

Just a few days ago I did the complete "workout" by doing the circuit around the lake plus the additional sprint up to the Red Bench and back. On the day of my jaunt, the Red Bench itself was partially submerged in deep snow. Although the view toward Mt. Washington was available from the Red Bench overlook, it seems that each time I visit this spot the view is becoming more obstructed by trees that are growing up in the line of sight. The trek around Ammonoosuc Lake provided the usual nice views. From the north shore of the lake you can see a hint of the cleft at the top of Crawford Notch formed by Mts. Webster and Willard. Also visible in the distance is just the very tip of Mt. Jackson, which is easier to spot in winter when snow covers its bare rock crown. And, at the northeast end of the lake, I even enjoy seeing the picturesque little bridge that crosses the spillway for the dam.

Shown below are a few snapshots taken on my recent trek.
The short hike briefly described above certainly leads you through an area of natural beauty. However, it also has many historic reminders such as the original Crawford House which once stood nearby and typified the grand-hotel era of the 19th century.

My Around-the-Lake jaunt at the top of Crawford Notch was done the day after I did yet another short hike in the vicinity of the Fourth Iron Tentsite which is located just below the Crawford Notch State Park. In a previous Blog report, I mentioned how the name "Fourth Iron" is related to the history of the railroad that runs through Crawford Notch. This led me to recall reading about how the completion of the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad in the 1870's was a key element to the growth of tourism in New Hampshire. It enabled thousands of people to use the railways to escape the cities during the summer months to spend time in the White Mountains at hotels such as the Crawford House.

All these thoughts prompted me to delve a bit further into the history of the railroad through the Crawford Notch. One of the many interesting sources of information that I ran across was an article written by Ben English & Rick Russack which is included on the WhiteMountainHistory.Org website. (Just as a side note to anyone not already aware, there is an excellent article about Ben English in the Winter/Spring 2011 edition of AMC's "Appalachia" journal.)

I learned that the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad (P&O RR) was chartered in 1867 and was taken over by the Maine Central Railroad in 1888. This rail line was intended to extend from Portland, Maine to Ogdensburg, NY, thereby connecting the Maine seacoast and the Great Lakes. However, it's the 18.5-mile section through Crawford Notch (from Bartlett to Fabyan) that most interests me. Some of this rail corridor survives today as the heritage railroad known as the Conway Scenic Railroad which transports tourists through the Crawford Notch.

It was interesting to reacquaint myself with some facts about the construction of the Crawford Notch section of track. It was considered as one of the engineering marvels of the time. The Crawford Station at the top of the Notch is over 1,200 feet higher than the station in Bartlett. Therefore, to create a grade that could be negotiated by trains, it was necessary to carve a shelf along the mountainsides to lay the track, and to build spectacular trestles such as the one near Frankenstein Cliff and at Willey Brook. This work was done with hand tools and horse drawn carts. Blasting the tons of rock was done with black powder since dynamite was not available in the US until about 1885.

I also found it intriguing to read that although the completion of the railroad through the Notch had a positive impact on tourist industry, it also served to open up the timber resources of the interior portions of the White Mountains. Lumbermen took advantage of the improved transportation and built their own logging railroads, which they then connected to the mainline tracks to ship their product to market. Not surprisingly, conflicts of interest eventually developed between the lumbermen (who were removing and selling the trees), and the hotel owners (who were selling natural scenery).

And just to complete my "loop hike" through railroad history, it was also interesting to read how another of my favorite short hikes is connected to all this. Located just a few tenths of a mile from my home is the dilapidated Maplewood Train Station (see photo below). I'll often take a short walk or XC-ski over to this old building. There was a time in the 19th century when passengers could board a train in Bethlehem which connected to P&O RR tracks at Fabyan, and thereby enabled travel to destinations in the Crawford Notch, plus other tourist destinations such as Mt. Washington.
SUMMARY: Perhaps this can best be summed up by merely saying that sometimes things happen in strange and unexpected ways. It was certainly unforeseen that two little hikes in the Crawford Notch area would end up generating a learning experience that further enriched my knowledge and appreciation for the White Mountains.


Mark Truman said...

Around the Lake is one of my favorite hikes. Every time we stay at Highland Center this is my morning sunrise hike each morning. On clear days the sunrise hitting the summit of Mt Washington as it drifts in and out of the clouds is one of the most beautiful sights in the Whites. I loved the Crawford Notch railroad history lesson too. So interesting to learn about the things that we see and take for granted.

1HappyHiker said...

Thanks Mark for taking a moment to respond.
Yup, if my history calculator is working correctly, it would seem that for about 175 years, folks like yourself have enjoyed overnight stays in the vicinity of the present-day Highland Center. Can one conclude that this is a pretty remarkable area to visit? :)

I'm glad to read that you enjoyed the brief history lesson that was incorporated into my Blog report. If you're not already aware, there's a lot of interesting history about the Crawford Notch in a book by Marion L Varney entitled: "Harts Location in Crawford Notch".