Saturday, January 30, 2016

Ghost Roads of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 29, 2016.

When is a road not a road? It might be surprising to know that New Hampshire towns frequently have the decomposed remains of abandoned roadways snaking through their uninhabited woods. Sometimes surveyors stumble upon them and this is what has recently happened in Exeter. Old roads, usually called ‘highways’ in the old town records, are problematic for the landowner because technically they still guarantee right of way to the public, which can prevent the new owner from using the land to, say, erect a building. As Susan Sack, a legal services counsel, wrote in New Hampshire Law of Local Highways, Streets and Trails, “once public rights of way are established, the rights of the public should last indefinitely, unless a formal public decision is made to discontinue them.” This is true even if the road has been abandoned for over a century and no one in living memory can recall the road being used. The only way to get rid of a road is to have the voters agree to discontinue it.

Exeter has been down this ghost road issue twice before. In 1979, the town voted to discontinue an ancient and abandoned roadway called “Jolly Rand Road.” It was further voted to turn the road, which had deteriorated into nothing more than a woodland path, into a scenic trail for hiking. Another road, Garrison Lane, was partially discontinued in 1999. Both of these roadways were abandoned when other more efficient roads were laid out and this was the fate of the ancient road system rediscovered in 2015.

There was at one time a garrison house at the elbow of the old Garrison Lane. According to Elizabeth Knowles Folsom, who wrote about it in The Colonial Garrisons of New Hampshire, in a 1937 publication by the New Hampshire Society of the Colonial Dames of America, it was built by Daniel Young in the early 1700s. It appears as the home of Peter Cushing on the 1802 map of Exeter. Garrison houses were sturdy buildings designed to withstand attack and designated as a local stronghold should the need arise. They were sprinkled around towns in New England to protect the citizens. Mrs. Folsom listed three such buildings in Exeter – the Gilman Garrison, still standing on Water Street and currently owned and maintained by Historic New England; the Sewall Garrison on Epping Road just opposite the Park Street Common; and the Daniel Young Garrison, which she said was “taken down many years ago.” There were three ways to approach the Daniel Young Garrison – Garrison Lane, the two branches of which met at the house, and another unnamed road system that further branched out to Brentwood Road and an area known as ‘Great Meadow.’ The Great Meadow portion was abandoned before 1802, when Phineas Merrill laid out the first reliable map of Exeter. When it was discovered recently the surveyors unofficially named it “Three Rod Road” because of its width. The other branch, for which there is more documentation, was designated “Garrison Road” for its proximity to the site of the old garrison and the now discontinued elbow of Garrison Lane. The only physical evidence for either of these roads were crumbling rock walls in the woods.

So, were these roads or just farmer’s paths? Determining the history of ancient and abandoned roads can be tricky. Garrison Road clearly appears on the 1802 map, but it took some digging to find out if it was actually a town road. Indeed, in the town records there are entries for both the Garrison Road and Three Rod Road as early as 1699. Garrison Road, although nameless, is mentioned again with a more specific layout in 1746, although the language can be hard to cut through. “A highway should be laid out for the use of the town from the highway that leads by Daniel Youngs dwelling house to the great meadows through the lands of the persons here after mentioned in this return & it being of particular service to them having by an instrument under their heads bearing date with this return quited there right to all the lands as mentioned in the bounds of the said way.”

Luckily, there have, over the years, been other attempts to find old roads. In New Hampshire we are lucky enough to have the Oscar Jewell Collection of Road Layout Returns at the State Archives. State Archivist Brian Burford explained the collection in a 2014 article in the NHLSA Newsletter, “It has been my understanding that Oscar Jewell was hired in the 1930s by the State Highway department to research the legal rights to roads, as the state highway system became more and more extensive. State roads were generally local roads that the state assumed the responsibility for maintaining. The state wanted to know what legal rights the towns had to the roads they were taking over.” There in the Oscar Jewell collection at the NH State Archives was the page with our Garrison and Three Rod Roads – still on the books in 1930s as actual roads. Although the roads disappear from our town maps by 1845, and were thoroughly abandoned to traffic by that time, no formal discontinuance had been approved by the townsfolk.

There are other maps that can be used for locating roads. I was enchanted with a series of maps made in the 1950s called the “White Pine Blister Rust” maps. These were created to track the progress of a fungal disease then spreading through the forests of North America. The maps provide fairly detailed descriptions of the woody areas of the state. Although our Garrison Road area isn’t covered in this series of maps, they are a good resource.

Are there other ghost roads in the woods of Exeter? It’s possible. A comparison of our maps has only indicated that Jolly Rand and Garrison Road were dropped by 1845, but there could be a few that weren’t placed on the earlier 1802 map due to disuse. Each time one is discovered it provides us with a little mystery into our earliest history.

Image: The 1802 Map of Exeter by Phineas Merrill, showing Garrison Road (highlighted in red to the right). The one below it and to the left is Jolly Rand Road.

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