The Bureau of Trails announced last week they will not turn a section the Presidential Rail Trial, or PRT, into an ATV trail for now. The announcement caused an audible sigh of relief in Randolph, where residents organized to protest the proposal. The proposal didn’t include opening up the PRT beyond Jimtown Road in Gorham, but Randolph residents said they were concerned riders would continue beyond the legal boundary. Many said they already do.
The clear divisions about this issue, depending on where people live, make for an interesting picture of the challenges that will face the North Country in the future.
In November Berlin opened city streets to ATVs, and there was a lot of celebration that this effort finally bore fruit. A few months later Randolph residents celebrated with a similar enthusiasm, but their’s was because they succeeded in keeping the trails closed to ATVs. What a difference 10 miles makes.
Residents consider the North Country a region, but in the typical New Hampshire sense—not united enough to impinge anyone’s freedoms. Protecting all those individual freedoms, however, has it’s communal costs, which the region has experienced for decades.
I used to work at an ambulance service as an EMT. The bulk of the community we covered was two towns geographically comparable to Berlin and Gorham. There was a distinct distrust between the two towns I could never understand, to the point where fire departments were reluctant to call each other for aid. The ambulance and school systems were integrated, but not the fire or water department, and I could never understand why. I was 19 or 20 at the time, but even then it seemed more was wasted than gained in such a rivalry. Memories that went back further than mine seemed convinced this was the only way to do things; I was never so sure.
Someone told me Berlin/Gorham is in many ways more attached to Maine than New Hampshire. The mountains formed a barrier, they said, and the river acted as a highway when the communities were young. The Lewiston Sun Journal used to report heavily on what happened in Berlin/Gorham some time ago, backing up that claim. It makes sense: as you go north from Brunswick along the Androscoggin you hit mill town after mill town. Berlin would have been one more along the line.
I grew up in Maine and went to college there, though I’ve lived in the Conway area for the last seven years. The differences between the two states are pretty stark, and so understanding which had more influence on the region is critical to understand how to attack the problems facing it. New Hampshire is about the individual. Live free or die does not imply disparate communities banding together, impinging upon their individual freedoms, for the common good. The mill mentality, however, and the isolation Berlin has endured for a century, have always stuck me as much more willing to pull together for the good of the community. Someone told me in an isolated region like Berlin you don’t have the privileged of ignoring your neighbor, so you learn how to get along.
But how far does that extend? Driving from Lancaster to Errol makes it hard to consider Coös County a cohesive unit. The distances aren’t huge, but the terrain is, and all of the sudden lumping solutions into one big initiative becomes daunting.
But the alternative is for many communities to fend for themselves. Groveton and Errol don’t have many of the assets the Berlin/Gorham corridor has; what will become of them if such efforts are abandoned?
But what is most troubling is the inability for communities minutes apart to reach a consensus on what they are going to do to survive. Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer are a region unto themselves. They are the Androscoggin Valley, and what ensures the survival of one ensures the survival of them all. The socioeconomic disparities may convince some people they can divest themselves of this connection, but as Randolph residents are learning with the closure of the Gorham Rite Aid and Shaws, even if their community isn’t in decline the ramifications of the valley as a whole affects them. For wealthy residents it means they have to travel to Berlin or Lancaster to fulfill their prescriptions; for poorer residents it might mean they lose their job.
Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer don’t have to agree on everything. ATVs are clearly more divisive in some communities than others, and it wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests to shove a solution down an adjacent community’s throat. But the Androscoggin Valley has to unify enough to approach the problems it faces head on, with every municipality on board. The future of the Gorham mill, with it’s 200 plus jobs, is uncertain, and the region can ill afford to let the petty differences derail their future for the next century.