Looking ahead to Crawford Notch

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Maine Central mixed train departs Crawford Notch station in June 1947. Philip R. Hastings photo
In the April 2004 issue of Trains, Editor Mark W. Hemphill assembled one of the magazine’s all-time great special issues, an entire edition devoted to mountain railroading. The issue paid lavish attention to the passes and summits that are often the defining test of a railroad.

Richly illustrated with elevation diagrams, the issue celebrated all the famous places across North America where railroads conquered obstacles: Gallitzin and Sand Patch, Tennessee Pass and Donner Pass, Sherman Hill and Beaumont Hill, Soldier Summit and Christiansburg Hill — too many to list here.

Mark was eloquent in his introductory mission statement for the issue: “This is where you see the drama of railroading at its most basic and extreme: where motive power, tonnage, track, geography, politics, and economics all intersect, where each is exaggerated and played to the hilt. . . . In no other place can you find so much ingenuity, spectacle, and truth.” 

I was glad to see the issue included Crawford Notch, the Maine Central’s famous crossing of the White Mountains of New Hampshire via the railroad’s Mountain Division. First constructed into the Notch in 1875 by what became the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad, the route was conceived by business interests in Portland, Me., as a way to connect the city directly with the Midwest and points beyond by virtue of a connection with the Boston & Maine at St. Johnsbury, Vt.

Three U18Bs and a GP7 lug eastbound tonnage through the Notch in the summer of 1978. Ben Bachman photo
Like all great railroad passes, Crawford Notch is rugged and beautiful, thousands of feet deep thanks to thousands of years of erosion by the Saco River. The railroad itself gains 1,623 feet in elevation over the 30 miles between North Conway and Fabyans, including a sustained 2.2% westbound grade over 18 miles. In the steam era it was the scene of countless battles of trains vs. gravity, a place where pusher engines needed to be always at hand.

You can still ride through the Notch in the tourist season, when the Conway Scenic Railroad runs its Mountaineer service out of its headquarters at nearby North Conway, N.H. Like all first-class heritage operations, it does a fine job of mixing history and scenery.

I’ll get a chance to see it for myself this September when I host the annual New England Fall Colors by Rail tour, sponsored by Trains and its partner Special Interest Tours. The eight-day tour includes plenty of iconic New England attractions, among them the Seashore Trolley Museum, Mount Washington Cog Railway, and the Maine Narrow Gauge Museum.

I’m especially excited by the prospect of riding through Crawford Notch. It will be a first visit for me, something I’ve been hoping to do after years of encountering Maine Central photographs in the Kalmbach library, notably those of the great Philip R. Hastings. A native New Englander, Phil made regular visits to the Notch in the late 1940s and came away with definitive images.

A pair of 2-8-2 pushers help Second 376 get over the hill in June 1949. Philip R. Hastings photo
Here’s how Phil described the Notch: “A train ride over the single iron of Maine Central’s Mountain Subdivision, which clambers up the west side or the canyon, provides the thrills of a roller coaster and an unexcelled view of surrounding White Mountain scenery.”

Phil’s photographs make that clear. Just look at one we’ve included here, showing Mountain Division action in June 1949 as Second 376 storms up the hill with the aid of two 2-8-2 helpers, giving aid to another 2-8-2 on the head end. The train is carrying 1,978 tons over 34 loads and 3 empties, which may not sound like much but at the time was barely short of the maximum rating for all three Mikados. 

The photo was made at Carrigain, a mile below famed Frankenstein Trestle, itself an MEC landmark. Named for Godfrey Frankenstein, a noted regional artist who often painted White Mountains scenes, the current trestle is a steel affair first built in 1893 and subsequently improved in 1930 and 1950. It spans a 500-foot crevasse at a maximum height of 80 feet and is also part of today’s Conway Scenic train ride.

The tourist train also crosses Willey Brook Trestle, another steel bridge vaulting a steep gorge. It’s also the site of the celebrated Willey House, a section foreman’s house unfortunately razed in 1972.

MEC 4-6-0 rolls northward with a local freight near Crawford Notch in August 1949. Donald Furler photo, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
I’m also including here a wonderful shot by Donald Furler, made on August 8, 1949, showing MEC Ten-Wheeler No. 369 clinging to the hillside as it hauls a local freight northward. The image is from the collection of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.

As a through route, the Maine Central never had much promise after World War II, and although it carried on valiantly in the 1970s through Crawford Notch — as illustrated by Ben Bachman’s thunderous photo here of GE and EMD hood units negotiating the Notch in the summer of 1978 — the railroad in 1981 limped into the hands of Guildford Transportation, which abandoned almost all of the Mountain Division by 1983.

Ben remembers getting that 1978 shot. “Part of the problem is that the Crawford Notch line is not very accessible to photographers and mostly hidden behind dense foliage,” he recalls. “Still, it was entertaining to hear those GE diesels going for broke on the 3% grade.”

Fortunately, along track owned by the state of New Hampshire and operated by the Conway Scenic, one can still experience a semblance of the Crawford Notch of old, the way it was long before Guilford showed up. I’m looking forward to discovering it this fall on the New England Fall Colors by Rail tour. I’m told we’re still taking reservations, so perhaps you can join us!

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