It sounds strange, but without Portland Harbor, there’d be no Mt. Washington Auto Road.
I learned this tidbit while riding up the famously steep byway on Thursday with my buddy Johnny Sideburns, a local comedian and fellow sidecar enthusiast. The 7.6 mile-long road sets aside a day or two every year during Laconia’s long-running bike week celebrations when only motorcycles are welcome.
We rode to Conway on Wednesday night after work and camped in our friend Poacher Bob’s back yard. We drank some beers, provided meals to about a thousand mosquitos and had a good night’s sleep under the moon and stars. Then, we arose early, had breakfast at Bea’s on Route 16 and headed for Pinkam Notch and the auto road.
We got to the mountain well before noon and started our ascent. I’d driven up once in my truck and been pretty freaked out, but by motorcycle it was actually much less scary. I had a clearer view around me and there was much more room to pass, even with my sidecar.
There was some question as to whether our crazy Russian sidecar bikes, called Urals, would make it up at all. The road rises 4,618 feet from its base altitude of 1,527 feet at the beginning, to 6,145 feet at the top. Our bikes are quite heavy and under powered. They also have a first gear that’s way too tall.
We were concerned about coming back down, too. The rear drum brakes on our rigs are about as effective has dragging a foot on the road. The front disc works great, but it’d be easy to boil the fluid if we hung onto them too much.
In the end, we got up and down just fine. We grunted the bikes along in first gear for some sections, trying not to look at the sheer drops just off the path. But we mostly rode up in second gear, being careful not to let off the gas, lest we smoke the clutch trying to take off again on a steep section. The weather was great, too, and everybody was friendly at the top.
But back to my story about the Portland connection.
It all started when Canada needed a way to get its midwest wheat shipped out in the winter when the St. Lawrence River was frozen. Portland had an all-season harbor, so they built a railroad line from Montreal to the Forest City in 1851. The Grand Trunk Railway, as it came to be known, ran that line right through Gorham, New Hampshire, just north of Mt. Washington.
To lure tourists onto their railroad line, the GTR also built a road to Pinkham Notch, a trail up Mt. Washington and a hotel in Gorham.
I guess the tourists must have started coming, because the Mount Washington Road Company commenced building its namesake in 1854. After some fits and starts, and a lot of backbreaking labor, the road opened to the horse-drawn public on August 8, 1861.
The first motor car went up the road in 1899. It was driven by Mainer (and inventor) F.O. Stanley — and he drove his very own Stanley Steamer, of course.
So, there you have it. Without Portland Harbor, there’d be no Mt. Washington Auto Road.