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Nicholas Howe: The Bypass Again, Again, Again, Again


There's something mythic about the by-pass that's supposed to keep the heavy traffic away from North Conway, and this is my fifth column about it. Is anyone listening?
We are the inheritors and custodians of one of the first great vacation destinations in America. Not many Americans took time off until after the Civil War, there was too much work to be done and economic security to be achieved. When the gentry did begin to seek cooler air for the summer season, they came north and hotels appeared like great white ocean liners moored on every pleasing promontory. Winter vacations began to take hold in the 1920s, and new details were added to the merchant economy that supported the summer hotels, but the pattern was the same, people of generally comfortable means came north to enjoy the mountain recreations of this region, and many of them traveled by train.
By the time the century turned its corner in 1950, roads were good, automobiles were comfortable and reliable, and people traveled more on their vacations. Our area used to be called The Eastern Slope Region, then some marketing hot-shot decided to call it The Mount Washington Valley. There was a logic problem there, but the name stuck, and it also underscored the problem. We live in a rather narrow valley that already had a river, a flood plain, two railroads, the Kearsarge village road, a major east-west highway, and a major north-south highway running through the valley.
The first bypass talk that I remember came at a meeting in 1957, and the next year an editorial said that we'd better solve our traffic problem before someone does it for us. In 1967, Joe Dodge described the situation with clairvoyant accuracy. Joe joined the AMC operations in Pinkham Notch in 1922, a time when there were two log cabins at the foot of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and one employee in Boston. He retired on the first day of 1959, moved to the West Side Road, and became a Conway selectman, but in 1967 he turned down another term, saying, "There's too much bitterness when you set out to make an honest decision. This town has a bunch of separate districts, each pulling for a different issue, and nobody wants to bend or let the other guy go first. The one thing they all really need is a zoning ordinance, and that's the only point they can all agree on – nobody wants it."
Joe said the main issue was "some sort of bypass for Route 16. There's a big need for that right now. When you try to look at what may be best in the future, you get into all the arguments. There are a bunch of options on a bypass road, it's getting to be a big argument, and I guess it'll go on for quite a spell."
We've been arguing about it ever since. Meanwhile, two major changes were sweeping America. We'd always been a producer nation and we bought what we needed, now we were becoming a consumer nation and we bought what we could be persuaded to want. At the same time, a rapid increase in the quality of summer and winter climbing equipment combined with an increased sense of environmental value and personal vigor.
North Conway village used to end at the little wiggle near the south end of Main Street, and from there to the 302 junction was largely unexplored territory. It was so empty that when I was a little boy I thought I might not survive until I reached civilization again at Howard Johnsons.
Then Conway turned its back on its high-end mountain assets, its traditional markets, its local ownerships, and its famous in-town airport. (I've heard people talking about that in Yugoslavia.) Instead, it was decided that he future was shopping, decision-makers dove for the bottom of the food chain, and we got The Strip with its transient bargain hunters, low-end service jobs, off-site owners, and exported profits.
This was a resounding success, if that's what you want, but why here when the same thing is available in so many other places? It was also the recipe for gridlock traffic, and soon the valley was a full-employment market for government agencies, diagram makers, circulation studies, and meeting enthusiasts, all trying to relieve the traffic congestion created by a failure to plan for success.
Then a good idea came to the valley, the North-South Road. It was easy to build, it didn't cost much, it didn't take much property, it opened some nice views, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do, it relieved traffic congestion. The only problem was that it stopped too soon. Why wasn't it extended along the rail line to meet Route 16 at the Scenic Vista?
The West Side Road already meets most of the needs of a bypass, so why not make a virtue of the obvious? The north end of the road turns sharply east to enter North Conway traffic. In fact, there used to be a floating bridge at exactly that point and I have a picture of it that's dated 1915. If the Westside Road crossed here it would meet the intersection of 16/302 in Glen.
As I understand the current plan, a bypass would duplicate the North-South Road, it would wreck three of the only real neighborhoods the area still has, it would pave over conservation land, and it would bring truck traffic right past the quiet side of the hospital.
It's also clear to me that my plan will never be adopted. I think that the suits who hold the purse strings want an expressway up the seam between New Hampshire and Maine, a Boston/Quebec City connector. And what the suits want, the suits usually get.

Nicholas Howe is a writer from Jackson. E-mail him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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