A fun resort town that has been transformed into a winter playground
Another winter attraction in Lincoln is the annual ice castle. This manmade ice structure is located at the Hobo Railroad. You can visit during the day, but at night the ice is lit up by colorful lights. Photo by A.J. Mellor
In my lifetime, Lincoln has been two completely different towns. When I was a kid, Lincoln meant timber. It was part of a world immortalized in books such as “Spiked Boots” and “Tall Trees, Tough Men,” a town where logs were brought to be worked in the mills that lined the East Branch River and shipped off to the cities — first as lumber and later as paper — on cars of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Pemigewasset Valley Branch.
Today, a new resort hotel stands alongside the river where the lumber mills were, and cars of the Hobo Railroad, full of kids and their parents and grandparents, travel the B&M railroad tracks. An open timber car brings skiers from the parking lot to the base lodge at Loon Mountain Resort.
Lincoln began as a “company town” built and owned by James E. Henry, who also built the East Branch and Lincoln Railroad to haul logs down from staging areas in the forests above. It began in the early 1890s, carved out of the forest alongside the East Branch, which provided water for power and later to work the abundant spruce into pulp for paper. The mill, houses, shops and railroad formed an industrial town that was once described as “Pullman, New Hampshire,” which turned out tons of paper daily. In 1922 the mill set a production record of 104.74 tons of paper in one day. Lincoln continued as an industrial town for nearly a century, into the 1970s.
The East Branch & Lincoln Railroad was the largest logging railroad in New England, built at a time when only steam locomotives were powerful enough to haul heavy loads of timber that distance over such challenging terrain. The last train hauled its load of logs down the mountainside in 1948, but the paper mills carried on until 1980, when closure of the Boston & Maine Pemi Branch sealed their fate.
The transition from a company town to a resort town didn’t happen overnight. There was tourism in Lincoln even when the logging operations were in full swing. Excursion runs, called “Blueberry Specials,” replaced the log hauling on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, when the East Branch & Lincoln Railroad carried guests from the Lincoln Hotel, along with other White Mountain tourists and locals, up to cut-over areas on the mountainside, where wild blueberries were one of the first plants to thrive after clear-cutting. Old coal cars were fitted with benches and awnings, and along with berry picking, the passengers were treated to a hearty lumberjack meal at a logging camp.
But the real transition came as the mills declined and construction began on the Kancamagus Highway between Lincoln and Conway in the early 1960s. Enter Sherman Adams, former governor of New Hampshire and also a former lumber operations director for Lincoln’s Parker-Young Company. An avid outdoorsman, Adams saw the potential for a ski area on the more than 100 square miles of wilderness area that the new road would open up. He envisioned ski trails on the sheltered, northeast-facing slope of Loon Mountain, and brought in former Olympic skier Sel Hannah to consult. The verdict was that it would be a good mountain for intermediate skiers, and its location close to the planned interstate highway would position it well in the market.
The rest is, as they say, history. Loon Mountain opened in December of 1966, and has continued to grow, recently adding an entirely new set of trails to challenge experienced skiers, for a total of 61 trails, with eight tree-skiing areas, six terrain parks, a superpipe and a halfpipe. Off the slopes, there are snowshoe and cross-country trails, skating, tubing and a winter zipline.
Loon Mountain Resort's ski train shuttle. Photo by Stillman Rogers
With the success of the ski area, lodgings and restaurants began to sprout in Lincoln, making it an attractive year-round destination. In the mid-1980s, soon after the Millfront Marketplace was built, a local group turned the former paper mill into the Papermill Theatre and produced four plays. It’s now called Jean’s Playhouse, which stages events all year long in a new state-of-the-art building that replaced the old mill.
The town center, where restaurants, lodgings and other businesses line Route 112, is close to the ski area, which has become a four-season sports and recreation destination. The gondola that carries skiers in the winter takes summer guests to the top for views and to explore the tumble of giant glacial boulders that form a natural funhouse of tunnels and caves. A restaurant at the top serves Caribbean-themed lunch specialties, and elsewhere at the resort guests can zipline over the river or climb in the Aerial Forest Adventure Park.
Inside The Mountain Club on Loon, the hotel right at the base of the gondola, the Black Diamond Pub offers a localvore menu that includes a long list of local suppliers and breweries. In the center of town, Gypsy Café is eclectic both in its décor and its food, which is inspired by Peru, Tunisia, Thailand and Argentina. Hidden just off the main road is one of the original locations of The Common Man, known for its warm atmosphere and new takes on old favs, such as chicken coated in a crispy blend of Parmesan and cornmeal, served with polenta and a ragù of roasted vegetables. The place in Lincoln that stops us every time, though, is Half Baked & Fully Brewed, a bakery and coffee shop with what may be the world’s best brownies, made from Ghirardelli chocolate.