What Price Concrete?

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The American—or any other—heritage presupposes heirs. Heirs have a way of disagreeing on the treatment of their unearned estates. Some are whimsical enough to think they owe it to posterity to pass on at least the principal of their inheritance, as it was passed on to them. But others, eminently practical, argue that posterity’s interests (and, incidentally, their own) are best served by pursuing the fastest buck in sight. The heritage is sometimes simple and obvious, sometimes intangible, but it almost always suffers harm when the “practical” men take over.

Up in New Hampshire such harm is in the making. The threatened heritage is Franconia Notch, called by Harriet Martineau “the noblest mountain pass in the United States.” The threat is that modern status symbol and magnet of lovely federal money, an interstate highway. For most of the decade, Interstate 93 has quietly gartersnaked north from Boston, aimed at Concord, Plymouth, Littleton, and the Canadian line. Now its effortless, hillslabbing twin speedways have nosed into the valley of the Pemigewasset, which flows out of Franconia Notch. The roadmen intend to put the highway through the notch. Perhaps, for some 3,000 feet in the narrowest part of the notch, the four lanes may go into a “cut-and-cover” tunnel, leaving a slower road for sightseers on top.

A state park today, the notch is perhaps unique among the world’s mountain gateways in its uncanny blend of grandeur and grace. It winds between the scarred walls of Mount Lafayette and Eagle Cliff to the east and north, and the mass of Cannon Mountain to the west and south—Cannon, which has changed with the rise of winter sports from a great shaggy bear to a giant poodle clipped by a maniac; Cannon, which bears, high above the dark mirror of Profile Lake, New Hampshire’s trademark, the Old Man of the Mountain.

The Old Man is of course an optical illusion produced by a chance alignment of ledges and boulders, pretty impressive to primitives like Daniel Webster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and my father, but hardly to be valued in dollars and cents above a good highspeed artery to Montreal and the Laurentians. Or is he? At any rate, it is no secret that he is in poor health. Half a lifetime ago the boulder that forms his forehead had to be anchored to check its drift to the abyss. Geologists and conservationists have long cautioned that the Great Stone Face is an unstable compound. Lately an accredited investigator is understood to have told the governor of New Hampshire that he thinks the highway blasting will not injure the Old Man. Does anyone, including the governor, really want to find out?

Franconia Notch was not always a park. Two generations ago it was imperilled by other fast-buck operators- the lumber barons. Only devoted effort by a few men and women of vision, spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, finally turned back that threat. The Franconia Notch Reservation was brought into being by private contributions, including the nickels, dimes, and quarters of throngs of schoolchildren. I was one of them. In due course the reservation and the trust it represented were assumed by the state. Off and on for years there has been talk of making the area a national park, but the federal government has stayed its hand on the premise that New Hampshire is doing a good job. That was before the days of Interstate 93 and the highway barons.

It is not as if this were the only possible route, or even the best one, for moving large-volume traffic north and south at speeds that make even momentary glances at gorgeous scenery a lethal hazard. Anyone familiar with the trails and terrain of the upper Pemigewasset Valley knows that there are alternative routes, entirely feasible for road builders with modern equipment and techniques. Use of one of these routes might cost more today, but it would spare the notch for future generations.

Daniel Webster once said, in a purple mood, that in Franconia Notch God had hung out a sign to show that in New Hampshire he makes men. But a poet countered darkly that New Hampshire’s creator “taunted the lofty land with little men.” This is the moment of truth. Will New Hampshire prove the poet wrong, or tear down the signboard?