J.E. Henry and Zealand Valley

Tessa Stiven, the Zealand Naturalist, begins the story of the Zealand Valley with J.E. Henry. She explains that: “Despite being one of the biggest timber barons in New Hampshire, and one of its wealthiest men, there is not a single geographic feature in the state that is named after him. In his time he was despised and called ‘a wood butcher’ and ‘a mutilator of nature.’ The creation of the Forest Service and the White Mountain National Forest were in part a reaction to J.E. Henry’s treatment of the Zealand Valley.”

One-hundred years has erased many of the unintended monuments to James Everell Henry. His log-walled lumber camps have rotted, beaver have flooded his log yards, and the CCC scrapped the last of his locomotives. Along the AZ trail giant birches grow in park-like glades. Moose wander down his old railway. But, as Tessa tells the story of the landscape, J.E. Henry still throws a shadow.

He grew up on a rocky farm near Littleton in the 1840’s. When he was 15 a horse kicked his father in the face, destroying an eye. As the oldest son James became responsible for his father’s work, driving four-horse freight wagons 110 miles between Littleton and Portland, ME. There was no time for school. His father and three siblings died of tuberculosis in 1845. James began to make a living and a reputation as a shrewd horse trader. As he started his own family with his wife Eliza he tried his hand at farming potatoes, the oil business in Massachusetts, and growing wheat in Minnesota. Logging was the only venture he ever made money at.

By 1882 he had bought out his two partners and was the sole owner of a new logging operation in the Zealand Valley. Over the next 10 years J.E. had his lumberjacks empty the Zealand Valley of old-growth spruce. As there were no rivers big enough to drive the logs on he had a railroad built. Crews of Italian immigrants living on macaroni and bread chopped out roots, pulled stumps and graded gravel for the railbed. During the winter his woodsmen cut all the spruce bigger than 10” at the stump. Eventually the railroad reached 11 miles from the town of Zealand (near the current USFS campground) to Ethan Pond. His lumber was used in the construction of houses, stores and factories all over New England.

J.E. was no P.R. man. His business motto was “Do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it first” and he was quoted in a Colliers article as saying “I never see the tree yit that didn’t mean a damned sight more to me goin’ under the saw than it did standin’ on a mountain.” Had he been cutting further north, or in a more remote section of woods, he may not have been vilified any more than any of his timber-baron contemporaries. But both the Boston and Maine and the Maine Central railroads had tracks running near the Zealand Valley. These lines brought wealthy summer guests to the grand hotels at Crawford Notch, Twin Mountain, Bretton Woods and Fabyans. They passed by the town of Zealand with its steaming sawmill, immense log piles, and the stained drying laundry of Henry’s laborers.

J.E. never gave anything away. He collected and shipped the manure of his woods horses south to be sold as fertilizer. He charged his men for the equipment they broke. The food in his winter camps was so bad the lumberjacks wrote songs about it. He also decided he could make some extra money during the slow summer season by running sight-seeing trips on the Zealand Railroad.

He began these trips in 1887, one year after a forest fire, started by a spark from one of his locomotives, had burnt 12,000 acres in the Zealand Valley. While the area around Thoreau Falls remained unburnt and picturesque, the train ride in provided tourists with a clear view of the consequences of industrial forestry. In some places the fire had burned so hot that it incinerated the topsoil, leaving white granite exposed like bone.

The fires came at a time when the industry of the northcountry was beginning a shift that continues today. In 1889 the timber industry had revenues of 2 million dollars, while the tourism industry brought in 5 million. After J.E. Henry the American appetite for wood would no longer be supplied by the vacationland of Bostonians and New Yorkers. There were vast uncut forests further west and out of sight.

Tessa herself comes from one of the places that today feeds American paper mills, saw mills and lumber yards. She grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, surrounded by the largest temperate rain forest in North America. Environmentalists call BC the “Brazil of the North” for the clearcutting which happens there. Companies like Weyerhaeuser are the controversial modern counterparts to J.E. Henry.

In his excellent history “J.E. Henry’s Logging Railroads” Bill Gove, a retired forester, offers a defense of his subject. He writes, “Henry was one of those rare individuals who came from a poor family background and through personal drive, dogged determination and clever manipulation built an empire worth millions. The resource was there in front of him; the market was there demanding the product; all he did was put them together.”

As I hiked down the Zealand Trail in the morning fog I thought about the history of the valley. Before breakfast I listened to Tessa and Steve practice their morning wake-up song behind the hut. The building is almost swallowed by the forest (photo). The Zealand Trail follows the railbed that spruce logs on railcars once rolled down. The forest is returning. However, somewhere else it is being cut. Patches of Tessa’s home forest will become cardboard boxes, catalogs, pressure-treated porches and bleachers at baseball fields. The market will always demand product, and a company will be there to take a profit. We make the market. And where trees mean more, on the mountain or under the saw, is not a question to be asked only of the logger.