by Randall H. Bennett
Click here for Photos of Hastings
Known by hikers and travelers today for its location on a small plain at the junction of Evans Brook and the unpredictable waters of Wild River, the “town” of Hastings was unique for its twenty-mile logging railroad and for the fact that it was entirely located in Maine—in territory purchased as early as 1912 for what would soon become known as the White Mountain National Forest. Actually an unincorporated village in the township of Batchelder’s Grant, Hastings’ rise as a thriving lumbering community in the early 1890s and its abandonment around 1918 were brought about by events experienced by dozens of other, short-lived White Mountain company towns located to the west in the State of New Hampshire. Fortunately, the colorful story of Hastings, Maine, and the Wild River Railroad has been preserved in the recorded memories of those who worked there, in official documents and newspaper articles, and in old photographs that depict the fast-paced lives of those who found work—and sometimes a fateful end—among the forested mountains of Batchelder’s Grant in Maine and Bean’s Purchase in New Hampshire.
From D. B. Wight’s Wild River Wilderness (1971)
Those interested in locating physical evidence of the village of Hastings, which lies just over three miles south of Gilead, Maine, on Route 113 (a road constructed by the CCC in the 1930s over a shoulder of Speckled Mountain and through Evans Notch to the Cold River Valley north of Fryeburg) will need both fortitude and a keen eye, for the entire site long ago returned to dense forest. Nevertheless, the signs of a hard-used landscape that once supported an entire community with mills, houses, a store, a school and numerous other buildings are there if one looks closely. As always, it’s important to keep in mind that cultural sites within the White Mountain National Forest and the artifacts associated with them are protected by federal laws, and managed as a non-renewable resource that can never be replaced. It is a federal offense to disturb, alter, remove, or damage archaeological sites and objects.
The circumstances that led to the establishment of Hastings in 1890 date back at least to the 1850s, a time when the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad (soon to be merged with the Grand Trunk Railway) was pushing its way from Portland to Montreal through the Androscoggin valley and the nearby town of Gilead. In 1851, David Robinson Hastings of nearby Bethel, Maine, purchased several hundred acres of land near the confluence of Evans Brook and Wild River—including the future site of Hastings village. Two years later, lumberman Joseph Hobson of Saco, Maine, began purchasing land in the Bean’s Purchase (New Hampshire) section of the Wild River valley and soon began erecting dams on that waterway and some of its feeder streams. Despite frequent and damaging freshets that destroyed his dams, Hobson derived a lucrative income from the harvesting of trees on and around the eastern slopes of the Carter Range. By 1890, when he sold his Wild River holdings, he had amassed over 37,000 acres of timberland in the valley. In the meantime, David R. Hastings’ brothers, John Decatur (“Cate”) Hastings and Major Gideon Alfonso Hastings, had been buying up additional forest tracks in Batchelder’s Grant. Of these three, it was Gideon Hastings who eventually took a major interest in the Wild River valley, building a farm alongside Evans Brook after his service in the Civil War and improving the logging road to the railroad station at Gilead. By the mid-1880s, Hastings was doing an extensive business on Wild River, harvesting thousands of cords of hemlock bark that were supplied to large tanneries in Maine, and cutting vast quantities of virgin spruce for lumber (produced in his own sawmill) and selected hardwood trees for sale to wood-turning mills.
As it turns out, the man most directly responsible for the development of Hastings was Samuel D. Hobson of Island Pond, Vermont. In partnership with Eben C. Robinson and George H. Fitzgerald, Hobson (no known relation to Joseph Hobson) soon controlled all of Bean’s Purchase and in June of 1891, with his partners, formed the Wild River Lumber Company to carry on the business of cutting, manufacturing, selling and dealing in lumber, timber and other products of the forest. By this time, Hobson’s plans for the construction of several sawmills and a complete village to carry out this work were already well underway. On land obtained by sale from the Hastings family, Hobson erected his sawmill village, which included two stores, a large boarding house, a school, huge horse barn, blacksmith shop, an engine house, a post office and about twenty houses of varying size. Most buildings sported electric lights powered by a steam-operated dynamo located at the big sawmill. Within a short time, a birch mill and wood alcohol mill (which distilled hard maple, birch and beech into a liquid used as a solvent) were built alongside Evans Brook and added to the community. At its peak, Hastings claimed a population of over three hundred; with the addition of the many woodsmen who lived through the winter in at least six logging camps scattered throughout the Wild River valley, the entire venture involved nearly a thousand people—many of French or Irish heritage.
No doubt the most colorful aspect of Hastings’ short existence as a lumbering town was the construction and operation of the Wild River Railroad, which, from the beginning, was projected as the only way of reaching those timber stands near the headwaters of Wild River, some fourteen miles from the Grand Trunk Railway at Gilead. Of standard gauge, the railroad began operating in 1891 and continued to function—despite frequent washouts and numerous accidents—until October of 1904. Over the course of its short history, the railroad provided relatively easy access to trees on the steep slopes of Wild River’s major tributaries via spur lines that required numerous bridges and, in the case of the Moriah Brook Gorge, a long, spectacular wooden trestle. Both Shay and saddletank engines were utilized for the heaviest work, with a well-used 4-4-0 Portland Company engine employed for switching in the mill yard and making twice-daily runs to Gilead.
In 1898, with the realization that the supply of old-growth timber in the valley was rapidly coming to an end, Samuel Hobson and his associates sold their entire holdings (including Hastings village) to Daniel Emery of Portland, Maine. That same year, Emery created the Hastings Lumber Company, a name taken directly from the village rather than the Bethel family that still held substantial acreage to the east and south in Batchelder’s Grant. Under the management of this corporation, the sawmill at Hastings increased production to 65,000 board feet per day and the railroad was pushed to its furthest limit. By 1902, however, the denuded slopes east of the Carter Range had given up their wealth; great piles of slash made up of limbs and treetops lay scattered throughout the Wild River valley, creating a tinderbox situation waiting to ignite. The following spring, which was an especially dry one, witnessed some of the most destructive and widespread forest fires ever recorded in the White Mountain region, and the Wild River valley was not spared. What the fires didn’t destroy, flood waters did, so that by July of 1903, only that section of railroad track from Hastings to Gilead was still serviceable. Not surprisingly, by the fall of 1904, the Hastings Lumber Company discontinued operations. Purchased by the Hastings family, the sawmill continued to operate sporadically until about 1910, and the birch and alcohol mills a bit longer. By the end of World War I, the village of Hastings was deserted, and soon thereafter the buildings valuable enough for salvage were dismantled and hauled away. An era had ended.
Bennett, Dean B. Nature and Renewal: Wild River Valley & Beyond. Gardiner, Me.: Tilbury House, Publishers, 2009.
Gove, Bill. Logging Railroads of New Hampshire’s North Country. Littleton, N.H.: Bondcliff Books, 2010.
Wight, D. B. The Wild River Wilderness: A Saga of Northern New England. Littleton, N.H.: Courier Printing Co., Inc., 1971.