18th Century Road Still Survives in VT

Thu December 04, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

Over the rivers and through the woods lie many scenic roads, like Route 58 in Northern Vermont. Here is another installment in a series of occasional articles on interesting highways, roads and bridges in the United States.

“It sounds like Switzerland,” said my wife.

I had been telling her about Route 58 in the “Northeast Kingdom” of Northern Vermont.

In 1779, Col. Moses Hazen extended a military road, begun in 1776 by Col. Jacob Bayley, northwestward for approximately 50 mi. from near Peacham, VT, to a cleft in the Green Mountains, which is now called Hazen’s Notch. The purpose of the road was to attack Montreal or Quebec, but it was never completed beyond the Notch.

The colonial roadbuilders felled maple, spruce and fir trees, laying them crossways over muddy areas as a “corduroy” road resembling the vertical pattern of cotton corduroy cloth. They kept the roadway on high ground, avoiding the watery valleys as much as possible, sometimes propping up the wagon trail with logs as it ascended and descended through the steep virgin hills and mountains

Today, the Bayley-Hazen Military Road survives mostly as private land connecting farms in unpopulated areas, or as hiking trails. Some of the road lies under 224 years of leaves. However, you can still drive on the last segment of the road, a very scenic, to say the least, route between Lowell, VT, and Hazen’s Notch.

This “town highway,” Route 58, combines the thrills of Coney Island’s Steeplechase rollercoaster with the beauty of the Green Mountains in the Northern Appalachians. The steep, hard-surface dirt road extends approximately 11 mi. through the woods between the quaint New England towns of Lowell and Montgomery. Much of the first 6 mi. — between Lowell and the Notch — follows the path of the old military road.

“It’s very curvy, narrow, and quite steep; probably better suited to the mail carrier of the 1700s,” said George Decell, who is based in St. Albans, VT, in charge of maintaining District 8 of the state highway system. “You have to be very careful driving. The road must have been built by soldiers to be sloped to such a degree.”

Decell added that the road also has an old New England flavor: “In Lowell, it goes by the post office, old general store and storefronts which were once the center of town.”

Route 58 is closed to vehicular traffic from mid-November through mid-May. During the winter, people snowmobile and ski on it. Snow banks in the area are sometimes as deep as 36 ft.

The Notch is just 20 mi. south of the Canadian border.

The Northeast Kingdom

In 1949, State Senator George Aiken, visiting Northern Vermont, exclaimed: “This is such beautiful country here, it should be called the Northeast Kingdom.”

The beauteous 11-mi. of Route 58, through the spine of the Green Mountains, between two old New England towns of 700 people each, can be a highlight of a trip to this kingdom, which includes Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties.

“I photographed the road standing in the bed of my pickup truck,” said Rolf Anderson, president of the Hazen’s Notch Association, a non-profit conservation organization, based in Montgomery, which maintains 40 mi. of trails, including portions of the military road. “The picture shows the cliffs of Sugarloaf Mountain forming the background for the Notch. The colors are glorious “gold and red in the fall, shades of green in the spring and summer, and white landscapes with green firs in the winter.”

“The Notch has long been known for the rugged beauty of its steep cliffs,” said Diane Konrady of Vermont’s Travel and Tourism Bureau in Montpelier, VT. “Its distinctive cleft, and its remote northern location in a largely forested area, have made the Notch famous.”

In the Notch area, you can see, besides Sugarloaf, such wooded peaks as Haystack, 3,223 ft.; Belvedere, 3,360 ft.; and Buchanan, 2,940 ft. mountains.

In the town of Jay, approximately 8 mi. north of Montgomery, you can ski on Big Jay, a mountain 3,500 ft. high, and Little Jay, 2,790 ft.

The 263-mi. Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont, begins in Jay and crosses the military road near Lowell

The Northern Kingdom area shines with numerous lakes, ponds, streams, and offers great fishing. Lowell, Montgomery, Westfield and other towns have white-steepled churches in a Christmas card setting of hills, red barns and white farmhouses.

“The Northeast Kingdom is one of the few areas of Vermont, which still has the flavor of old Vermont,” said Lorie Vincent, regional marketing manager of the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Office in Barton, VT. “It has a rural feeling, very unspoiled in comparison with traditional tourist locations, but with plenty of bed and breakfasts. No outlet malls, but lots of handcrafted work.”

Route 58 is only a few miles west of exit 26 on I-91. Or, you can enjoy one of the most scenic routes in the country by taking I-89 south from Burlington to Exit 10 (Waterbury/Stowe) and then following Route 100 north through the mountains to Lowell, winding through Stowe — where the Trapp Family Singers grew up — Morrisville, Johnson, and Eden Mill.

Yet another scenic route — approximately 60 mi. through the Vermont mountains — is I-89 north from Burlington to Exit 19, following Routes 104 and 105 to Berkshire, and then taking Route 118 south to Montgomery Center. (Route 105 and several other roads also go up to the Canadian border; the Notch is 85 mi. southeast of Montreal.)

Hidden Road

Col. Bayley started the military road in 1776 near Wells River, VT, with the approval of Gen. George Washington, who wanted the fastest route for sending troops in campaigns in Canada. With a workcrew of 110 men, Bayley completed 25 mi. in 45 days to approximately 6 mi. beyond Peacham, VT.

The Peacham-Groton Road is thought to follow this original road for a few miles. The original roadbed is visible at the north end of the Route 5 bridge at Wells River.

Then, in 1779, Col. Hazen extended the road north for approximately 50 more miles to support a planned second invasion of Canada. Hikers say the route was sometimes so steep that Hazen’s men probably had to build the roadbed by filling dirt between standing trees and the hillside. This roadbuilding stopped abruptly at Hazen’s Notch when British troops captured Hazen’s advanced camp.

“People realized the British might use the road for their own invasion,” said Vincent.

She said the historic road, approximately 70 mi. long, went from Wells River to Peacham, Danville, Tickle Naked Pond, Joe’s Pond, Caspian Lake, Craftsbury, Albany, Lowell, and Hazen’s Notch. Some people have hiked the entire length.

Bayley and Hazen never made it to Canada, and their road built out of trees is mostly hidden and molded away, but Hazen’s Notch makes for a great scenic byways trip.