Roadtrip on US-3: Beginning, Middle, End
A few weeks ago I talked about new buildings and freeways that opened along US-1 in 1962. And about a month ago, Roadtrip-'62 ™ looked at all the national forests and other national recreational lands along highway US-2. Today, I’m continuing a sort of count down (up?) of the US-numbered highways with a look at US-3. But just a short look, at the beginning, middle, and end of the route. There’ll be more to discover another day.
Highway US-3 is one of the shorter routes, covering only two states: New Hampshire and part of Massachusetts. It travels 273 miles south from the Canadian border near the headwaters of the Connecticut River, to reach Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neither our US-23 no US-6 roadtrips crossed US-3. At the US border between New Hampshire and Canada, the line runs along the top of a ridge that divides watersheds. The Canadian side flows northward to the St. Lawrence River, and the New Hampshire side flows southward into Long Island Sound or the Gulf of Maine, depending on just where you are. For that reason, the border crossings in this area are situated on mountain passes. From the US-3 crossing, you look out over much lower, relatively flat farmland in Canada…and a 13% grade sign on the highway, straight down! But we’re taking a gentler grade down, following the Connecticut River through forests and bogs.
Highway US-3 became New Hampshire's only border crossing back in 1938, when the road was constructed from Pittsburg to Canada. It still is the only border crossing. The highway is mostly through river valleys as we head south: the Connecticut River valley until we reach the White Mountain Range south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, then we cross the mountains and enter the Pemigewasset River valley before finally following the Merrimack River south as far as Lowell, Massachusetts. There, the highway leaves the rivers and travels overland to Boston. At the beginning in northern New Hampshire, we are in and near the Connecticut Lakes State Forest. The Connecticut Lakes are a group of four lakes, named rather unimaginatively First, Second, Third and Fourth Connecticut Lake. All lakes are north of the 45th parallel, the line half way between the North Pole and the Equator.
Most of the land in this part of New Hampshire was owned by International Paper Company or its predecessors in 1962, providing forest products and jobs to northern New England for over a century, though some parts have not been harvested since 1916. The property is still mostly privately owned, but the state has a working forest easement over much of the forest and even owns some outright. The highway offers us opportunities for wildlife viewing and scenic views along the roadway. Keep your eyes open for deer, bear, moose, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, and even river otters and beaver in the ponds and streams. Just south of Pitsburg and a few miles off US-3, the scenic Canyon at Indian Stream Gorge has a short hike. This scenic gorge has 80 feet high walls and a trail noted for steep drop-offs and slippery footing. A little farther south, outside of Colebrook, New Hampshire, is Beaver Brook Falls. This falls is a couple of miles east of US-3 in a roadside park. The falls is over 80 feet high and a more-or-less sheer drop along a cliff. There are hiking trails for viewing and a picnic grounds, which makes it a nice roadtrip stop.
One of the most scenic spots along the way hasn’t changed much: Franconia Notch State Park. One thing here that did change though is The Old Man of the Mountain, a natural stone profile on a mountainside. It was here in 1962, but the rocks collapsed on May 3, 2003. All that remains is small, rather lions-head shaped piece of rock where the face’s hair used to be. The notch is a narrow mountain pass. Today, both US-3 and the newer I-93 freeway traverse the eight miles of the notch, but in 1962 the freeway did not exist. Since it was difficult to get roads through the narrow mountain passes, most of the freeway was built right over old US-3, so we have to use I-95 today. The freeway was completed in 1988 and includes several roadside pull-offs in the park, often on pieces of old US-3, so you might get a glimpse of eagles that sometimes roost on the Eagle Cliffs, on the east side of the notch. The Pemigewasset River begins south of the pass, in some of the small lakes west of the highway. One small tributary of the river has formed the beautiful Flume Gorge, at the south end of Franconia Notch State Park. A boardwalk takes you beside a stream of waterfalls between the granite walls of the gorge. The gorge is only 12 to 20 feet wide but 70 to 90 feet tall and penetrates about 800 feet into the base of Mount Liberty. It was formed naturally by erosion of the Conway Granite formation. From the Flume Visitor's Center you can walk through just the gorge or take a two mile loop. There are several water features along the hike, including Avalanche Falls at the end of the gorge, Liberty Gorge, on a side creek, and Wolf Den, a narrow, one-way path down another side creek that involves crawling on your hands and knees and squeezing through rocks.
Route US-3 meets the F.E. Everett Turnpike farther south at Manchester, New Hampshire. Originally known as the Central New Hampshire Turnpike, it was approved by State Legislature in 1953, and the first nine miles around the city of Nashua were opened two years later. The section from Manchester south was opened in 1957, but US-3 continued on its old route and the turnpike was numbered as I-93 by 1962. The turnpike finally reached the Massachusetts state line in 1966, but even today, US-3 uses its old route to Massachusetts. Once in that state, US-3 closely follows the route of the early 19th-century Middlesex Canal. This 27-mile barge canal connected Boston Harbor with the Merrimack River and was completed in 1808. The canal was very successful until railroads were built in the area, forcing it to close in 1851. Some railroads were constructed over portions of the canal right-of-way, as were some roads, perhaps including portions of modern US-3. Significant parts of the canal are still visible though, and prompted the formation of the Middlesex Canal Association in 1962. The organization, which now has a museum in North Billerica, Massachusetts, has erected markers along portions of the canal's path. The surviving pieces of the canal are the subject of a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The Middlesex Canal Association.
In Massachusetts, most of US-3 has now been signed as MA-3A, due to freeways taking over the US-3 route. The first section of the Northwest Expressway opened in 1941 as a bypass of the existing US-3, but the onset of World War II delayed further construction. A freeway was intended to continue to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to terminate at the Inner Belt Expressway. The Inner Belt was intended to become I-695, but neither it nor the extension of the Northwest Expressway were ever constructed. Towns in Boston’s inner-ring suburbs successfully fought the extension of the US-3 freeway, so that it was only opened to Burlington, Massachusetts in 1955. Between 1960 and 1967, missing links near Lowell, Massachusetts were filled in, providing a freeway all the way from the F.E. Everett Turnpike to the Boston Outer Belt (MA-128). Unlike most major cities, Boston constructed almost none of the freeway system it planned in the 1950s.
The south terminus of US-3 has always been in Boston. The route still runs down Mystic Street and Memorial Drive, over the Boston University Bridge, to end at its junction with US-20. You can find loads of tourist attractions to see in Boston at Roadtrip-'62 ™’s recent post Things to See in Boston, Massachusetts in 1962. I hope you enjoy the trip!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2017 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
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