Discovering Stark

Don't miss out on inns, bridges and waterfalls in Stark
The Stark Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Stillman Rogers

It was the quest for a waterfall that first took us to the little town of Stark, located in the Great North Woods Region between Groveton and Milan. Stark includes three villages — Stark, Percy and Crystal — between two vast areas of protected woodlands. The White Mountain National Forest covers the southern part of town and on the north Stark nudges into the Nash Stream Forest reserve. Stark sits astride the Upper Ammonoosuc River, alongside Route 110, and the other two villages lie north of both the road and the river.

Pond Brook Falls, a little-known but beautiful series of frothy cascades on the Nash Stream, is not actually in Stark, but just over the line in Stratford. We found the trailhead from Nash Stream Road in Stark, a road we reached from Route 110 via a turn just at the Groveton/Stark line. On these back roads, it’s hard to tell exactly when you cross from one town to another.

Stark began in 1795 as the town of Percy, in 1832 changing its name to Stark in honor of the hero of the Battle of Bennington. In 1852 the wilderness quiet of the little village was interrupted when the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad chose the Upper Ammonoosuc Valley as the route for their Portland-to-Montreal line.

Stark became a busy logging town, as the rail line provided handy transport for the wood that was stripped from the surrounding forests. The Nash Stream Valley was heavily logged in the early timbering days, but regenerated under more modern timber management, and was much later — in 1988 — purchased by the state with the help of the Nature Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The 40,000 acres of forested valley in the Nash Stream watershed, now secured as public land, is a varied habitat for hawks, falcons and smaller birds. We saw moose tracks along the short trail to the falls.

As the rail line declined, Stark’s boomtown days ended, but it was still a busy area for timber operations that fed the paper companies in Berlin and Groveton. At the height of World War II, Berlin’s Brown Company had lost so many employees to the army and higher-paying defense jobs that it couldn’t meet its quotas for the war effort. Meanwhile, the Unites States had agreed to take German prisoners of war captured by the British in North Africa, and although POWs were usually not required to work, a group of them was sent to the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Stark, where they cut timber for the mill.

The town and Camp Stark got along well, with the soldiers guarding the POWs welcomed by locals, and few escape attempts, none of them threatening. Locals occasionally brought gifts to the prisoners, some of whom were anti-Nazis who had been imprisoned at home and had been sent as unwilling soldiers to fight for the Third Reich in North Africa. There was so little animosity, in fact, that some of the former POWs have returned to visit Stark and long-term friendships developed that have extended into later generations.

Not far from the village of Stark, a sign beside Route 110 marks the clearing where the camp once stood. There’s little else left, only the stone fireplace and chimney of a long-gone building. Were it not for the very good book by Allen Koop titled “Stark Decency,” the remarkable story of Camp Stark would have faded into the past and been forgotten. You can see memorabilia related to Camp Stark, along with old photos of the town and some antique household items — a pre-plumbing bathtub, butter churn and molds, woodstove irons — at the Stark Heritage Center, open June through October.

The village of Stark is one of New Hampshire’s “postcard” settings, with a white clapboard church, a tiny cluster of buildings and a covered bridge over the Upper Ammonoosuc. The 134-foot bridge was built in 1862. When it was washed downstream in a storm in the 1890s, it was hauled back by a team of oxen and put on new stone piers. In the 1950s, when upkeep became so onerous that the town decided to replace the bridge with a new steel one, bridge enthusiasts raised such an alarm that the state helped pay for its restoration. It’s one of the few in the state with walkways on both sides of the interior, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Stark Village Inn. Photo by Stillman Rogers

Right beside the bridge, with its wrap-around porch overlooking the river, the Stark Village Inn is a small B&B with two double rooms and one single. You can launch a canoe right from the inn and paddle on a portion of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The mile or so above the bridge is a Class 2, but below the bridge and above the Stark put-in (about a mile up Route 110) the water is flat for several miles in either direction. (Gord’s Corner Store in Milan rents canoes and can shuttle you from the take-out back to your car.)

Above the tidy village scene is the granite ledge called Devil’s Slide. It’s a devil of a climb, although a short one, but a more interesting hike is to Devil’s Hopyard. It’s in the White Mountain National Forest, and the trail begins at the South Pond Recreation Area, a good public beach and boat launch just east of town. Devil’s Hopyard is a ravine filled with a jumble of moss-covered boulders dropped there from the melting glacier. A miniature version of Lost River Gorge flows under the boulders, occasionally visible and elsewhere gurgling somewhere underfoot. The ravine and trail end at a solid cliff.

Categories: Our Town