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Friday, March 27, 2009

Things That Never Were

Sunday Mountain Ski Area was proposed for this 1791 ft. mountain in Orford in
1962. Trail cutting began, but the project was abandoned.

This 1900-era post card shows a fanciful future for Bradford. Similar cards were published for other area towns. Needless to say the subway to Piermont "never was." (photo: Bradford Historical Society)

This 1934 map shows the proposed 260-mile scenic Green Mountain Parkway that was to stretch along the ridge of the Green Mountains. Area towns joined the rest of the state in voting down the proposal in a 1936 referendum (photo: Vermont Historical Society).

Originally published on January, 28 2009
Journal Opinion

January derives its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. The gift of seeing both the past and future was his. It is a time of reflecting on the past and making predictions for the future. With that in mind, this column reviews some of the local projects that were proposed, but never came to be.

This column will not deal with national events such as nuclear war or Y2K, catastrophes that were predicted, but never happened. It will not deal with those things that seem beyond proof. Lake Champlain’s mysterious creature Champ might fit that category. Two stories connected with the French and Indian Wars are the existence of Fort Wentworth in Woodsville and silver candlesticks buried in the Wells River area by departing Catholic missionaries. Did these happen? Apparently not.

This column will not deal with hoax. That includes the predictions of a terrorist attack on Bradford village in January 1932, reported in both local and Boston newspapers. It didn’t happen, but will be the topic of a future column. Several failed projects that will not be covered, for lack of information, are those that would have located the state Odd Fellows Home in Bradford in the 1890’s, an airport in Fairlee in 1934 or proposed development in Newbury that encouraged the adoption of zoning in 1969.

It could deal with fanciful predictions that Bradford would someday have a subway to Piermont or a trolley line to Chelsea, but it will not. These were the whimsical suggestions of postcards published for Bradford and other area towns around 1900 (see photo).

It will not deal with current projections. Whether Pierson Industrial Park will fill up with new industry or a sewer line or Bradford Square Mall will ever grace Bradford’s Lower Plain will have to wait to be seen. This column is not meant to hold up to ridicule visionaries who hope to improve their communities, even when the odds are stacked against them.

One of the earliest unsuccessful ventures concerned the location of Dartmouth College. Soon after its establishment in Lebanon, Connecticut, the college decided to relocate to New Hampshire. Many towns vied for it. Representatives of the college reported that “the inhabitants of Cohos on the Connecticut River were universally much engaged to have the school fixed there.” Rev. Joel Mann, son of the Orford’s first settlers stated, in an 1864 speech, that the town’s proprietors met in January, 1770 and voted “…that in case the college should be located in said township of Orford, to give and grant for its use 1000 acres.” They further voted 1000 acres and 100 pounds to Rev. Eleazer Wheelock, the college’s president, if he settled in Orford.

According to Wells' History of Newbury, men in both Haverhill and Newbury joined together to encourage Wheelock to locate in Haverhill. There were several months of negotiations, including lobbying influential parties around the state and "the promise of about 6000 acres of the best land in Newbury, Haverhill, Ryegate and Bath." So successful was this effort that, "The Haverhill party believed the prize already within their reach, when in August, 1770 they were astounded to learn that Wheelock had decided to locate the college in Hanover."

Despite the fact that these towns were closer to the natives the college was to serve, Hanover apparently had closer ties to the college trustees, and its offers were more generous. Rev. Mann declared how strange it was that Orford’s offer was not accepted considering how beautiful it was as compared to “the unsightliness and destitution of attractiveness of the place where the college now stands.”

Unfulfilled projects are often characteristic of economic bubbles. This is especially true of transportation booms. The United States experienced a canal building era beginning in the 1780’s, highlighted by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. That enthusiasm was felt in Vermont with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823. In 1825 the Connecticut River Company conducted surveys from Hartford, Connecticut to Barnet for the purpose of “removing all impediments” and thereby allowing small steamboats to use the river over the 219-mile distance.

The projected cost was $439, 827 for 17 miles of dams, locks and short canals. This proposal included $9,725 for a dam and canal opposite Bradford, $66,486 for “improvements near Newbury” and $19, 286 for a canal in Barnet. The report mentioned that “above Barnet the obstructions are very formidable.”

At about the same time, Wells’ History of Newbury reports, Boston capitalists “sought to gain the trade of the north country by constructing a canal from the Pemigewasset river in Wentworth to the Connecticut river in Haverhill, after improving the channel of the river as far as Wells River.” John McDuffee of Bradford surveyed the route in 1825. The difficulty of the project and opposition from the merchants of Haverhill Corners were enough to prevent this project from being built. There were also proposed canals to be built from Wells River to Lake Champlain and from Barnet to Canada. However, the railroad era began and these canal projects were shelved.

The railroad boom brought its own ill-fated projects. In 1860, Vermont chartered the West Fairlee Railroad Company, rechartering it is again in 1868. Topsham Sketches notes that in 1872, “the town voted to issue bonds for the ‘so-called’ West Fairlee R. R. provided it went through Topsham. This road was to pass from Fairlee up the Waits River through Topsham, then through Waterman Gap to South Barre.” Corinth also subscribed to the railroad and offered to buy capital stock of $40,000 if the line ran through Corinth. The History of Corinth, Vermont describes the venture as a “pipe dream.”

Proposals were also made to connect the main line in the Connecticut River valley with the copper mines in South Strafford and Vershire. In 1809, the operators of the Elizabeth Mine in South Strafford proposed constructing a line up the Ompompanoosuc River valley as a way of reducing the cost of shipping ore and supplies. The Vershire proposal started from Ware’s Crossing (present day Ely) and went around Lake Fairlee. All of these proposals were subsequently determined to be too expensive.

Haskins’ History of Bradford refers to “The Railroad that Never Was”, an 1893 proposal to build a railroad from the Black Mountain Granite Quarries to Bradford. The United Opinion of June 1893 reported that a special town meeting was held in Bradford at which $15,000 was voted to aid in the construction of the line on the condition that the company “build and maintain its principal granite shed” in town. The venture, Haskins concludes, “never caught on”, and the investors lost their money. That same year, according to Blaisdell’s Haverhill history, the French Pond Granite Railway Company was chartered. It was to haul granite from Briar Hill to Woodsville. Although a route was surveyed, other means of transporting the granite were used and the project was abandoned.

Examples of highways that were never built include the Green Mountain Parkway. This parkway, modeled after Virginia’s Skyline Drive, would have bisected Vermont along the heights of the Green Mountains (see map). It would have been financed largely by federal New Deal funds. The authors of Freedom and Unity, A History of Vermont refer to it as “one of the state’s most bitter public controversies.” The State Legislature authorized a state referendum on the proposal at the March 1936 Town Meeting.

The United Opinion of February 28, 1936 dismissed the arguments that the parkway would raise taxes or just benefit the western side of the state. One letter to the editor in that same edition stated that it seemed to be “too good an investment for good hard headed Vermonters to turn down.” But turn it down they did, 43,176 to 31,101. Locally, all towns voted against the parkway. It was the closest in Bradford: 120 yes and 126 no. Topsham had the largest percentage voting no, 128 to 37 yes.

The 1960’s saw area proposals for growth in the recreation and second-home markets. One such proposal was to build the Sunday Mountain Ski Area at a 1791 ft mountain in Orford. In a recent interview Ernest Gstell, who now lives in Wildwood, Florida, said that his company purchased 200 acres to begin the project around 1962. They also purchased the home of Johnny and Julie Guyer at the corner of Archertown and Indian Pond roads (see photo). With large equipment, and under the supervision of a Connecticut engineer, workers began to cut and mulch trees on the north side of the mountain for the lift line and trail system.( see photo) Lift foundations were in the works, when “Dad got ill.”, Gstell said. As his father was a major backer of the project, the company was sold to Boise-Cascade. Orford never got its ski area, to the dismay of some but not others.

Probably the largest building project was proposed by Boise-Cascade when it purchased the Lake Tarleton Club property in 1969. They wanted to develop over 4500 home sites with recreation facilities that included a ski area and a Robert Trent Jones 18-hole golf course. The appeal would be to the second-home market.

Concerns were raised by area residents about its environmental impact. Julia Fifield of Orford recalls that she and Bradford environmentalist Lucy Bugbee attended a hearing to express concerns about the proposed discharge into Eastman Brook and the Connecticut. Fifield remembered that a project spokesman said he would gladly drink a bourbon and water using the effulent from the project’s sewage treatment plant. The January 22, 1970 edition of Bradford’s North County Journal summed up the feelings of citizens who attended one of the information meetings as: “consensus of opinion seemed to be that the project would be a plus for the area.” However, the falling housing market and environmental concerns doomed the project. In 1977, a new owner’s smaller proposal for the property met a similar fate.

Not all projects since 1965 have to do with housing or transportation. School districts have been proposed, districts formed and then realigned. All present area union schools evolved through these stages before they opened. One short-lived study would have created what might have been called the Mt. Moosilauke District, a large interstate proposal encompassing a number of area towns.

Outside businesses have studied the area, but chose, for one reason or another, not to locate here. In 1975, Parsons and Whittemore, an international conglomerate, raised the prospect of building a huge pulp and paper mill in the area. It would have employed 1500 workers and brought a $20 million tax assessment to the host town. At meetings that February, both Piermont and Haverhill voters approved their town as a possible site. Richard McDanolds of North Haverhill indicated in a recent interview that his farm was considered as .a possible site for the mill.

One Bradford project that drew considerable interest was the building of a community swimming pool. Various proposals were made, beginning in 1967. The Community Club proposed a pool to be located on Memorial Field. The project was placed on hold. It was revived again in 1970. In both cases there were federal and state funds and community support. However, the fear that operating costs would exceed the community’s ability to support it, led to the demise of the proposals. Several generations of Oxbow High students believed that the courtyard at the school was really meant to be a swimming pool. Not so.

Looking back over these incomplete or failed attempts, it is interesting to consider the impacts if the outcomes had been different. What would a Dartmouth College and Sunday Mountain Ski Area in Orford, a huge second-home development in Piermont, a huge paper plant in Haverhill or Piermont and a Green Mountain Parkway have meant? Certainly not all would agree with the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these ‘it might have been.’”

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