Sunday, November 27, 2016

On the Willey Brook Bridge

Want to see these photos in modern 3D with your smart phone? You can! Jump to the bottom of the article for instructions!

It is 1891, and the Maine Central line through Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is only sixteen years old. When it was originally built as the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad, the elevations the route had to climb on its passage from Portland through the Notch to Fabyans, and the harsh terrain it was to be built through, had led many to doubt it could be done in 1875. Our photo is one half of a stereoscope card which has two albumen prints mounted on it.

The Willey Brook Bridge was four hundred feet long, and the deck was a good hundred feet over the tumbling stream below, which descends to the Saco River. In the distance (the view is looking pretty much due north), the railroad curves around the flank of Mt. Willard, and Mt. Willey is back over the photographer's left shoulder. Today, this whole region is part of the very scenic Crawford Notch State Park. Of course, when our photo was taken, Highway 302 was also missing from the river valley!

The locomotive shown, Maine Central No. 101, was still practically brand new in this photo, having been built by the Portland Company only two years earlier. She remained in service (later renumbered No. 126) until becoming obsolete and sent to the scrapper in 1916. At its peak, the Maine Central operated over 100 American-type 4-4-0 locomotives, and while they'd been far outclassed in the first couple decades of the twentieth century, a few lasted until the 1930s. Maine Central itself began operations in 1862, and quickly became the longest railroad in New England. It remained an independent company until 1981, when it was absorbed into the Guilford system. In 2006, Guilford purchased the name and logo rights of the old Pan Am Airways, and is now known as Pan Am Railways. This rail line through the Notch, part of MEC's Mountain Division, was abandoned in 1983, but was picked up and is still operated by the tourist-based Conway Scenic Railroad.

The Victorian house at the north end of the bridge housed, from what I could find, Maine Central workers who maintained this section of the line. Some sources refer to it as the John O'Groats House (as in the village in Northern Scotland), others denote it as the John O. Groats House. None of the sources elaborate on when it was built nor when it was torn down.

The Willey Brook Bridge today, as seen through the lens of Casey Thompson (who graciously gave permission to use the photo here) on October 15, 2013 . Note that this is not your Grandfather's bridge! At some point in the past, it was rebuilt with heavier steel, using a different truss design. The General Motors EMD GP-38 shown here in Conway Senic colors was originally a Maine Central locomotive. The John O'Groats house is, of course, long gone.

The Willey Brook Bridge and Saco River Canyon
 from Google Maps. The site of the John O'Groats 
house is grown over.
The mountain, the brook and thus the bridge are named for the Willey family, who have resided in legend since the 1820s because of a disaster that befell that family. Sam Willey, Jr. and his wife and children ran a small inn along the road that had run through the Notch since 1803. In June of 1826, a summer storm led to a rather large landslide down the side of the mountain behind the Willey's home and inn, the mountain that would later be named after them. The landslide missed their home, but took a lot of the dirt, rocks and trees down to the Saco River. At first, the family was terrified, but then considered that it was not likely that a second slide would occur, and in the off chance that it did, Sam built a cave shelter just below the house that the family could evacuate to if need be.

Over-all, the summer of 1826 brought drought-like conditions to the White Mountains, up until late August. From the 27th to the 28th of August, an intense storm hit the mountains, dumping an unprecidented amount of rain on the area. The Saco River rose 24 feet overnight, and the dry mountains became saturated. A number of home and farms in the Notch were flooded or completely washed away. When the storm was over, friends of the family struggled to reach the site of the inn to see how the Willey family had fared. They found that another massive landslide had come down from the mountain above the house and inn, and the near-by meadows were deep with debris. The house and inn were undamaged, but abandoned, as if either the family had heard the sound of the slide and tried to flee to their shelter, or the opposite took place, they started climbing to escape the Saco flood which appeared that it might rise to where their house sat. Eventually, the bodies of Sam and his wife, two of their children and two of their hired hands were found in the debris field; three of the children's bodies were never found. The irony is that a large rock outcropping above the Willey house had caused the slide to break into two streams, which bypassed the house on each side. Had they sheltered in place, the mountain and brook would likely have had a different name.

Want to see these photos in modern 3D with your smart phone? You can! All you need is one of the popular cardboard VR viewers - more details can be found on this tutorial page - and to download the version of the card on the right to your phone.

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