Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Step Over the Line - Part 2

Last week I wrote about the problems and inconvenience one encounters when the US-Canadian border runs through the middle of a populated area, in that instance the border separating Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Québec. This week I want to focus on the border where it occurs in an unpopulated and generally wilderness area; "the nearly invisible boundary . . . through lush hills that blurred the line no matter how aggressively it was chainsawed and weed-whacked," writes Jim Lynch in Border Songs. "From there, as thin as a rumour, the line cut through lakes and swamps and forest and fields." So I traveled to the far northern tip of New Hampshire, where, upon first blush, one side of the line does not look all that different from the other side . . . until you look (and listen) a little closer.

U.S. Route 3 begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from the campus of Harvard University, and continues north through that state before running the entire length of New Hampshire where it is also known as the Daniel Webster Highway. After passing through Franconia Notch, in the White Mountains, it becomes the principle highway serving Coös County and the Great North Woods. Once it reaches Lancaster, it parallels the Connecticut River and Vermont border until it reaches West Stewartstown, just across the river from Canaan, Vermont in the general vicinity of the 45th parallel. This latitude was designated by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, as the boundary of British North America - later Canada - and the United States between the St. Lawrence River, in update New York, and the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, neither the British nor the Americans could agree exactly where the parallel ran; there were discrepancies as much as 13 miles in one direction or the other, depending who one talked to. The matter was finally put to the King of the Netherlands who settled the dispute (sort of) by splitting the difference between the conflicting claims. In 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which ultimately defined the boundary, placed the 45th parallel along a line surveyed prior to the Revolution, in 1771-1774. But discrepancies remained, and still exist today.

The international boundary departs from the 45th parallel when it intersects Hall Stream, at Beecher Falls, Vermont, near its confluence with the Connecticut River. From there the border runs northward along the middle of Hall Stream, the northwesternmost headwater of the Connecticut River, until it intersects the height of land separating the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean (the Connecticut River flows 360 miles south to its debouchment into Long Island Sound) and St. Lawrence River, to the north, as defined by the Treaty of Paris. This stretch of the border was also disputed by Britain and the United States which led to the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Indian Stream.

While the United States recognized Hall Stream and the height of land as the official border established by treaty, Great Britain claimed all territory – 282 square miles - west of the Connecticut River and above the 45th parallel. The few hardy settler families who lived in this disputed territory found themselves taxed and otherwise harassed by both the British and American authorities and chose to take their destiny into their own hands. On July 9, 1832, the independent minded "Streamers" established the Republic of Indian Stream with its own constitution and bill of rights, legislature, courts, army, and currency. Over the next three years they lived in relative peace and quiet interrupted only by an occasional incident to remind all concerned that the dispute between Britain and the United States remained unresolved. Finally, in 1835, the republic’s legislature voted to throw its lot with the United States through annexation. The area was occupied by the New Hampshire militia, and in January 1836 Great Britain relinquished its claim and U.S. jurisdiction was recognized a few months later. The territory of the former Indian Stream Republic became the town of Pittsburg in 1840, the largest township in the United States. As with the dispute over the exact location of the 45th parallel, this territorial dispute between Great Britain and the United States was also formally resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

U.S. Route 3's original northern terminus was Colebrook, New Hampshire until 1926, but the highway was extended a few miles north to West Stewartstown, in 1928, and to the village of Pittsburg in 1937. From West Stewartstown, the highway and river turn in an generally northeastern direction, and arriving in Pittsburg, the river, now wholly in New Hampshire, flows through unbroken forests and past Lake Francis and the four Connecticut Lakes forming the primary headwaters of the Connecticut River. This is the Great North Woods in the truest sense. I am reminded of a scene in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate when Eugenie Rose Cheney (Janet Leigh) tells Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) that she once spent a summer at a camp on Lake Francis. Marco, who was originally from New Hampshire, responded: "That’s pretty far north." You can’t go much farther north before you find yourself speaking French.

Since 1940, the highway has run all the way to the international border at the northern tip of the state, its only official port of entry to and from Canada. Prior to that an unimproved gravel road built by Canadian customs (although on American soil) ran the last 12 miles from Second Connecticut Lake. Over 8,500 people, including U.S. and Canadian politicians and bands from both countries, attended the dedication of a new U.S. customs house after it was erected at the border in September 1939. The Boston Post described it as the "most sightly port of entry east of Chicago." It was closed during the winter, however, when the gravel road was covered by several feet of snow and impassable until the spring thaw. This really was the end of the road, in more ways than one. Even today, with a well-paved highway all the way to the border, it is an unforgiving place to those who do not come prepared for the wilderness conditions and unpredictable weather.

About three miles south of the border there is a small wooden cross along the edge of the highway. Here, on May 10, 1940, the body of an unidentified Native American man was found. According to records in Chartierville, a small Québec village a few miles beyond the border, the man used an alias when he stayed at a hotel in that town and registered with the Canadian authorities on February 22, 1940. He set off for Pittsburg, New Hampshire ill-prepared for the minus zero temperatures and deep snow and more than likely died of exposure many miles from his destination. His body was later buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in West Stewartstown and the cross, which has long been cared for by the U.S. customs agents stationed up the road, is often festooned with flowers and coins left by curious travelers. It is one of the few evidences of mankind along the final dozen miles of U.S. Route 3. Other than the paved highway this area has not changed much in the past 70 years. Just hills, forest, and water; certainly a lonely place to die without a name.

A couple of miles farther up the road, and just short of the border, one comes to Third Connecticut Lake. I first discovered this special place some 15 years ago, and I return here every chance I get during all seasons. It is a place I like to go to be alone. I have watched massive thunderstorms approach from the west over the height of land marking the border beyond the far shore of the lake. I have been there when an early January blizzard created whiteout conditions. Usually the only sounds I hear there are the haunting cries of a loon family carried along on a wilderness zephyr. Standing at the lake’s edge one can look north to the ridge saddle where U.S. Route 3 ends at the border, a solitary light marking the location of the customs station.

The northern terminus of U.S. Route 3 is perhaps one of the loneliest and isolated border crossings . . . at least on the American side. There are twin boundary monuments – even here there is an 18-inch discrepancy - a no man’s land - as to where the actual border is located. The granite for these and similar border pylons was mined west of here, in Beebe, Québec. In 1902, the International Boundary Commission chose granite to replace cast iron monuments from New York to Maine. The first monuments, beginning in 1843, were made of cast iron and there have been 18 different styles over the years. Stainless steel border monuments remain in use from Minnesota to Washington State and the Pacific Ocean, this due to the fact that the Americans prefer concrete (mined in Canada) while the Canadians prefer metal (manufactured in the USA). An American and Canadian flag fly nearby and an inspection station, one for each country, is situated on either side of the line. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has now installed a gate across the road which it can close at its discretion even though the border remains open 24/7. Otherwise, the border is marked only by the width and state of repair of the macadam roadway and by a 30-foot wide clear-cut swath through the surrounding woodland following the path of the border . . . the end of the Great North Woods and the American wilderness.

The Pittsburg customs station is a place to park to pick up a cell-phone tower down in the valley in Canada since there is no cell-phone service to speak of among the isolated hills and hallows on the U.S. side of the line. Here, too, hikers are free to wander the clear-cut swath to the top of a nearby hill, and in doing so they cross back and forth across the border a dozen times or more. The only physical evidence of the international boundary is the occasional metallic benchmarks anchored to rock ledges along the trail. Near the top of the hill known as Mount Prospect (elevation 2550 feet) the trail heads off into the woods on the American side, and from there it is just a short distance to Fourth Connecticut Lake, actually just a small pond, and the true head of the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England. "The Connecticut is not a majestic river," writes Walter Hard in his 1947 book about the river, part of "The Rivers of America" series. "It is, rather, a friendly stream, which invites intimacy and elicits affection." It’s why I find myself coming back here time and time again.

On the Canadian side, Québec Route 253 descends straight as an arrow down the long northern face of Magnetic Hill to Chartierville a few kilometers in the distance. A patchwork of dairy farms, cultivated fields and rolling hills stretch out to the horizon. "Geographically, culturally, economically, the difference between the two countries here on the New Hampshire-Québec line are astounding," Howard Frank Mosher writes in North Country: A Personal Journey (1997). "I don’t know this yet [he was just beginning his trip along the border when he passed through Pittsburg and wrote this], but in no place along the entire border, from Maine to the Pacific, will the contrast between the Canadian and the U.S. sides of the line be so abrupt and noticeable." Once over the line, there is no way to ignore the fact that you are in a new place. The Canadian customs agent greets you in French and all signs are posted in that language. Arriving in Chartierville, just a few kilometers over the border, you are hard pressed to find anyone who can speak a word of English. In fact, it is difficult to meet anyone who has been beyond that height of land to the south and the foreign country that lies beyond. Why go there? On the other side of the ridge in nothing but wilderness for miles. Montréal, Canada’s second largest city, and the largest French-speaking city after Paris, is less than two hours away to the west.

The border following the 45th parallel is an arbitrary line running west to east across the map. Here, however, on the rooftop of New Hampshire, the border follows a natural fault line between the Atlantic Ocean, to the south, and the St. Lawrence River, to the north, which also separates American wilderness from cultivated Canadian farmland. One may have the impression that this is a forgotten border . . . out of sight and out of mind. Not true. The woods are full of movement and other sensory devices tied to computers. Helicopters and aircraft patrol the skies as do unmanned drones. This border can be quickly sealed off, if it becomes necessary to do so. I try not to think too hard about this. I come up to this area to appreciate its isolation, its solitude, its end-of-the-road atmospherics. I walk down to the edge of Third Connecticut Lake. There is a freshening breeze as white clouds scud from Canada across the ridge into the United States and back into Canada, free as the wind guiding them on their journey. I listen to the loons ululating across the lake. There is no need to go any farther. I have arrived.

NEXT WEEK: A Place to Linger


  1. Nice story Steve
    I couldn't have described the feeling I get
    when I am up north any better than you just did.

  2. Fantastic post about a thankfully neglected area. Thank you very much for writing this and for the photos.