The Profile & Franconia Notch Railroad opened in 1879. It was conceived and constructed in response to the need for swift and safe transportation of wealthy and newly emergent middle class vacationers to the resort hotels of the western slopes of the White Mountains. Entrepreneurs Richard Taft and Charles H. Greenleaf had purchased the Flume House in 1848 and the Lafayette House in 1852, and had built the Profile House in 1853, the same year that the White Mountains Railroad reached Littleton. Following the business model of the day, the White Mountains Railroad was leased almost immediately upon its completion by the expanding Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad, thereby facilitating direct connections to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other eastern cities to the heart of the White Mountains. Prior to the building of the P&FN RR however, the only way of reaching the hotels in Franconia Notch and the natural attractions of the area, such as the Flume and the Old Man of the Mountains, was by stagecoach, either from Plymouth (later from N. Woodstock), or from Littleton.
Travel Before the Coming of the Railroad
The Civil War brought a halt to all tourism-oriented construction in the White Mountains, but by the 1870s development had resumed. The BC&M extended service to Bethlehem and bought the leased WMRR outright in 1873. They opened the Mount Washington Branch from Wing Road, in the northern part of Bethlehem, to Fabyan in 1874. (A remarkable activity when one realizes that this construction took place in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1873, which was caused by a speculative bubble in railroads.)
Also in 1874, the Gale River Lumber Company constructed a standard gauge logging railroad approximately three miles into the woods, towards Franconia Notch, from the south bank of the Ammonoosuc River, at Pierce Bridge in Bethlehem. This railroad ended operations in 1878 when the logging was completed, setting the stage for the Profile & Franconia Notch RR.
Trestle on the Bethlehem Branch
Taft and Greenleaf saw the end of Gale River lumbering operations as their opportunity to secure rail service to their hotels, and in that same year, they incorporated and surveyed the P&FN RR to run south from Pierce Bridge to the Flume House, following the route of the old logging railroad to its end, then extending it. They built their railroad as a narrow gauge line, (with a 36-inch track gauge) presumably to speed construction and minimize expenses. Construction began in the fall of 1878 and the 9.46 miles of railroad was opened to an elegant little station at the Profile House in June of 1879. There was a passenger shelter at the Profile Golf Links and a wye track at both ends of the line for turning engines. The line was never extended to the Flume House.
At Pierce Bridge, the P&FN built a covered bridge over the Ammonoosuc to bring their narrow gauge trains over the river to meet standard gauge BC&M trains on the north bank, and to facilitate transfer of passengers, baggage and freight. This connection was named Bethlehem Junction. Two narrow gauge, wood burning, locomotives, Echo and Profile, were bought to provide service between Bethlehem Junction and the Profile House.
Two years later, the P&FN extended its line west from Bethlehem Junction to serve the Maplewood and other hotels along Bethlehem Street. This 3.38 mile branch extended to Park Avenue in Bethlehem, with an intermediate station at the Maplewood Hotel, opened in July 1881. This necessitated purchasing a third locomotive, known as Bethlehem, and additional passenger cars.
Following the railroad consolidation practice of the day, the BC&M was leased by the Boston & Lowell Railroad on July 1, 1884. A long, drawn-out, political railroad war raged at this time in the New Hampshire legislature, and eventually, the New Hampshire Supreme Court declared the Boston & Lowell lease of the Boston, Concord & Montreal to be invalid, for obscure reasons. The newly divorced BC&M then secured approval to merge with the Concord Railroad (Nashua - Concord) to form the Concord & Montreal Railroad in 1890.
Two problems existed for tourists arriving in Bethlehem, from the east, via the Maine Central Railroad through Fabyan: the P&FN was narrow gauge while the Maine Central was standard gauge, and Bethlehem Junction was on the Concord & Montreal line, at a much lower elevation than the Maine Central line west of Fabyan. This required that passengers change trains twice, at Fabyan and at Bethlehem Junction, and that baggage be unloaded from the Maine Central trains and be reloaded on the C&M for the trip from Fabyan to Bethlehem Junction, and then again onto the P&FN. To make the trip easier for passengers, the railroads created a transfer point at Zealand, a logging village and sawmill, six miles east of Bethlehem Junction. At Zealand, the lines of the Maine Central and the Concord & Montreal were in close proximity. By laying a third rail between the standard gauge rails - thereby creating a dual-gauge railroad - from Zealand to Bethlehem Junction, and by installing a short, very steep stretch of connecting track at Zealand the problem was resolved and passengers were saved one change of trains. The Boston & Maine Railroad leased the C&M in 1895 and converted the entire P&FN to standard gauge at the end of the 1896 tourist season, thus eliminating the second change of trains. Once again, all this activity took place in the environment of another financial panic that began in 1893, again related to railroads. The P&FN was known simply as the Profile Branch after the B&M assumed ownership.
1891 Timetable Including Zealand Transfer
In 1896, the Profile House published an Employee List, by name, including those who worked on the railroad. (Our copy is from the Bryant Tolles Collection.)
To accommodate the booming influx of wealthy vacationers, the Profile House was greatly expanded in 1906. Combined with the traffic to the hotels at Bethlehem Street, it became necessary for the Profile Branch to run as many as ten round trips a day between the Profile House or Bethlehem and the main line connection at Bethlehem Junction.
Traffic boomed on the Profile Branch until the First World War, but began to decline with the maturing of industrial development, changes in demographics, work and leisure habits, and the coming of the affordable automobile. The decline was rapid, resulting in the abandonment of the Profile Branch in 1921 and the Bethlehem Branch in 1925. The Profile House was destroyed by fire in 1923 and never re-built, but this disaster laid the foundation for Franconia Notch State Park.
The explorer can still find evidence of the P&FN today. Although nothing remains at Pierce Bridge due to reconstruction of US 302, one can find the abandoned roadbed to the Profile House site off the street leading to the landfill that now occupies the location of what was, in the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Following this trail south, it will cross Trudeau Road and a snowmobile trail, continuing towards the present day Cannon Mountain ski complex. The ski complex is located at the site of the Profile House. At the Governor Hugh Gallen memorial, reached before crossing the Interstate highway, if you look over the eastern side of the bridge, you can spot the abutments of the trestle crossing Lafayette Brook quite easily. On the west side of the highway, some of the roadbed remains near a maintenance building for the ski complex. This was near the site of the Profile House station. The Profile House station survived as a retail store for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, until it was demolished when Interstate 93 was built through Franconia Notch.
There is less evidence of the branch to Bethlehem; one can find the east-west route of the roadbed next to the Elm Street baseball field, running through a line of trees about a block north of Main Street behind the center of town. The wonderful Maplewood station still exists, overgrown in the woods, and sadly in derelict condition. It’s visible from Maplewood Road. Bethlehem station, moved from its original location and, shorn of its lengthy passenger canopy, sits in restored glory as a private home on Birchmere Street.
You can find Zealand Transfer if you have a fertile imagination and good hiking shoes. Opposite the Zealand campground on US 302, there is extensive cribbing holding back the embankment from sliding onto the highway; if you go to the west end of this cribbing, you can scramble uphill to the existing roadbed, once used by the Maine Central. At this point, you will note that the cleared forest is far wider than required for a single line of track, because it originally had to accommodate a standard gauge track, a narrow gauge track, and a platform between.
While you’re musing over what today seems a quaint little operation in the woods, recall that railroad employees in the late 1800s typically worked a twelve hour day, six and one-half days a week (time off for church on Sunday) in this intensely competitive, state-of-the-art, high-profile sector of the hospitality industry. Sic transit gloria mundi, (“thus passes the glory of the world") or something like that.