Table of Contents
THE OLD MAST ROAD
There is an old, well-traveled road, though now in many places blotted out by lumbermen's debris, which runs south from our valley, leaving the town road almost opposite the Passaconaway House. This old road runs past the foot of Square Ledge, through the Paugus-Passaconaway Notch to Wonalancet. This ancient road has long been known as the "Old Mast Road." Along this very road trees―gigantic pines and spruces―bearing the royal "broad arrow," were hauled from the slopes of Chocorua, Paugus and Passaconaway to the level country south of us.1 As the mast industry, called by many the most important and most picturesque enterprise before the Revolution,2 formed an important part of the early history of these frontier towns, let us take a nearer view of the mast-trade.
No one can understand the colonial history of New Hampshire who is not familiar with this great enterprise in which public administration and private business joined. The Spaniards had sought this continent impelled by lust for gold, but in only a few cases were they rewarded. The hardy British settlers, however, coined gold in the New World by an entirely different process. They found that the colonies could furnish spars and masts and even ships―”the best in the world"3―and by means of these stout, swift-sailing ships the gold of the Spaniard could easily be captured.
It is said that one, and probably the only, great thing the English king did was to place the "mast-trade" upon a broad and firm foundation. The government created a fleet whose sails whitened every nook and corner of the globe, a fleet which conquered the Dutch, outstripped the French, and which has commanded the seas ever since the establishment of the mast trade in our New England colonies. Industrious, skilful and energetic men came to this country to help promote this trade. Not only did New England supply the immense Royal Navy with masts, spars, and bowsprits, but the merchant marine was fitted out here also. We find that, in the later development of the trade, ships were built right on the New England shores for the express purpose of transporting the huge sticks4 hewn from the virgin forests.
We find the Provincial Government of Massachusetts, in, 1668, reserving for the express use of the Royal Navy all white pines which, one yard from the ground, measured two feet in diameter. King William also caused acts to be passed to this effect, and about this time appointed a surveyor, who was to mark every tree suitable for a mast with the "Broad Arrow of the Crown."5 In 1708, the Government of New Hampshire passed a similar law, and we find a heavy fine imposed for violation. Such legislation was odious to the hard-working settlers, and we have reason to suspect that on more than one occasion a noble mast was cut into kindling wood.6
The agents and contractors who carried on the great traffic amassed huge fortunes, but not so with the men who wielded the ax or the ox-goad.7 The felling of one mast would require scores of men, and thousands were employed by the agents; but because there was almost no business in the summer time, because the workers were supplied with the bare necessities of life and very poorly paid, the laborers were always anticipating their wages, and, as they themselves phrased it, "working for a dead horse." Thus they were kept in a poverty-stricken and dependent state.8 By such a system contractors heaped up enormous fortunes.
No matter how rigidly the mast laws were enforced, the experienced woodsmen could, with little difficulty, avoid the penalty although they broke the laws. It does seem as though in some cases they cut down the "favorites of nature"9 just out of spite. Then, too, because of the great number of these forest monarchs, many a mast tree must necessarily rot in the woods before the contractors could reach it. Yet, if it bore the "broad arrow," it must not be touched. Many, too, after being felled, were found to be unsound and were left to decay. All these facts seem to have been obnoxious to our hardy and thrifty New Hampshire settlers, and they fretted and chafed under the law.10 Conflicts between surveyor and squatter11 were bound to come out of such a state of affairs. At Exeter, the surveyor having arrived to seize some logs suitable for masts, was set upon by a party disguised as Indians and warmly flogged.12
In the legislation of the time all white pines were accounted as the property of the King, but provision was made whereby all towns granted before September 21, 1722, should be exempted from this restriction.13 Naturally disputes arose as to the boundaries of different towns and also a dispute between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This latter dispute, contrary to the terms of the charters, was decided by the King himself. He generously gave the decision in favor of the Granite State,14 as might naturally have been expected, since his economic interest was at stake. It is a fact that by this "just and non-partisan" decision, the best mast trees in the world were assigned to New Hampshire, which was subject to the mast-tree law. Had the "impartial" decision been rendered in favor of Massachusetts, these beautiful trees would have been the property of the different townships.
Let us now see how one of these long, straight trees was felled. A mast tree would have no limbs within eighty or more feet of the ground and would be in danger of splitting when it fell. Therefore, a bed or cradle was carefully prepared to receive it. The snow helped also, being so deep in winter that it not only covered all the rocks and boulders, but presented a soft bed for the tree to fall upon. Hence most of the masts were cut and decided out in winter. But in other seasons, when the ground was bare and stony, the lumbermen would cut down scores of small trees, and so pile them that, when the giant mast crashed down, it would nestle among the upright branches of the smaller trees. Thus the great tree was safely brought to earth. The prostrate log was then cut off in the proportion of a yard in length for every inch of diameter. Since each mast was at least twenty-four inches in diameter, it must be at least twenty-four yards, or seventy-two feet, long. If the slightest defect was found, the log might be cut shorter for yards or bow-sprits. If it proved to be unsound, it was either left or sawed up into logs.15
The transportation of these logs was a Herculean task for the engineers of those days. All the men for miles around were summoned and great crowds gathered to see the feat. The mast was rigged upon two pairs of wheels; sixteen and sometimes even forty yoke of oxen were chained in front; on each side, between the fore and hind wheels, two additional yoke tugged and strained. In this fashion the forty (or eighty-eight) animals, under the guidance of noted drivers, pulled and strained as one machine, the huge mast was put in motion and was slowly but surely dragged to the coast. Most of our New Hampshire masts were shipped from Portsmouth, which was the center of this romantic trade.16
Concerning the value of these huge sticks, considered by Europeans to be "the best in the world," we find that some New England masts, in 1644, were sold to the Royal Navy for from ninety-five to one hundred and fifteen pounds per mast. These masts measured from thirty-three to thirty-five inches in diameter at the butt. A premium of one pound per ton was usually paid on masts by the Royal Navy.17
So extensive was this trade that an entire fleet was constructed in the Colonies for the purpose of carrying the great sticks to England. These ships carried about a half hundred masts each, and were manned by crews averaging twenty-five men. The mast-ships plowed the seas until the breaking out of the Revolution in 1775.18
When, in 1727, Colonel Westbrook, then the royal agent, transferred the center of this trade from Portsmouth to Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, he effected a marked change in the industry.19 Although Falmouth's commercial importance was thus suddenly increased, Portsmouth's prosperity was struck an almost fatal blow. However, from the new center, the trade lasted less than a half century. The Revolution completely stamped out this greatest of all colonial activities.20 Since the United States became a nation these trees, like all others, have become the property of private landowners. Although the mast trade had grown up with miraculous rapidity, yet, once destroyed, it has never been revived.
Nathaniel Berry, of Birch Intervale, tells of masts and spars being hauled out from the southern slopes of the Sandwich Range.21 The older settlers of our Albany Intervale recall hearing their ancestors tell of the days when the King's Broad Arrow was blazed upon the big trees in this region. I have no proof that masts for the Royal Navy ever were hauled out over our end of the Old Mast Road, though probably they were dragged down the southern sides of the same hills. The town road was not built in the Albany Intervale until long after the Revolution. Unless the logs were run down the Swift River on the spring freshets, there would seem to have been no way of getting them out of our valley in colonial days. But we do know of huge masts being cut here in later times. Mr. Shackford used to tell us about a mast 110 feet long, and 2 feet in diameter at the small end, which was hauled out of our valley in his day. And we have other reliable testimony to mast cutting in our quiet intervale.
With the "Old Mast Road" beginning, or coming to an end, on the lot of land on which our little cottage now stands, we shall not soon allow to slip from memory the famous and once all-important "mast trade." The "Old Mast Road" more than once has been choked with the debris of ax and hurricane and fire. The Wonalancet Out-Door Club has done not a little to keep the trail open. Although just now the historic old path here and there loses itself in brushwood left by the lumbermen, it is only a question of time when "an highway shall be there, and a way"22 perhaps for the untiring "benzine buggy" of the summer tourist.
1. Compare Bolles: At the North of Bearcamp