By Murray Carpenter
From our April 2022 issue
Broad, perfectly crowned, elegantly graded, and topped in crushed stone, the Golden Road is an expressway of a logging road, with nary a 10-degree turn along its 96 miles. After arcing northwest from Millinocket to the southern edge of Baxter State Park, it runs alongside the West Branch of the Penobscot, past Chesuncook Lake, then follows the North Branch to the border with Quebec at Saint-Zacharie. It’s a key artery in what’s likely the nation’s largest private-road system, offering easy access to Maine’s north woods to anyone with even a decent sedan.
But 50 years ago, all this was different.
When Dan Corcoran joined a survey crew in 1972 for what Great Northern Paper called its “West Branch Haul Road,” some sections were little more than a line on a topo map. Most access was traditional — that is, via canoe, as the Wabanaki navigated the woods for thousands of years, as Thoreau saw the country in the 1850s with his Penobscot guides, and as most recreationists still traveled up north prior to the ’70s.
“There weren’t many roads back then,” Corcoran says. “We had to travel up lakes and then hike in. Sometimes, we got flown in by floatplanes to the closest point we could get to. Long walks. We were in the woods all day.”
The road was critical to the operations of Great Northern, then Maine’s largest landowner, holding some 2 million acres. The company ran its last log drive on the West Branch of the Penobscot in 1971, shortly after the state legislature mandated an end to the practice within five years, citing environmental impacts from logjams and debris. Beginning in ’72, every stick of timber from Great Northern’s West Branch lands would travel to the corporation’s Millinocket mills on a truck.
The Golden Road became the backbone of the company’s proliferating road system, earning its nickname from a common joke that it cost so much to build, it must be paved with gold. Corcoran estimates each mile cost $40,000, not counting the construction of three major bridges. The volume of gravel alone — enough to lay a road 28 feet wide, with crushed rock a foot deep at its crown, for nearly 100 miles — was colossal.
“Shifting from the log drives on the rivers to the log drives on the roads was a tectonic change, really, for the half of Maine in the unorganized territories,” says Jym St. Pierre, who worked for the Land Use Regulation Commission from 1978 to 1989. “The whole network of roads that appeared with startling rapidity around that time really changed the character of the Maine woods.”
Among other things, those networks opened the north woods not only to loggers but also to vacationers — a familiar presence up north since 1966, Corcoran says, when I-95 reached Medway. “That connected 70 million people within a day’s drive to Millinocket, on a highway system,” he says. “The Golden Road was completed [to Canada] in 1975, and that connected Millinocket to 10 million acres of north woods.”
Soon, thousands of new visitors were driving the Golden Road and other logging roads. By the mid-1980s, logging trucks and pickups en route to job sites were sharing the roads with Volvos full of hikers and school buses packed with whitewater rafters. By then, Corcoran was a Great Northern resource manager, tasked with studying the growing use. In the early 1970s, he says, some 20,000 people visited the West Branch region annually. By 1985, the number surpassed 150,000.
“The Golden Road is like an interstate highway,” says Brian Bouchard, president of Hampden’s H.O. Bouchard trucking company, which hauled wood for Great Northern until 1991. The traffic included some massive rigs: Bouchard’s father, the late company founder Harold Bouchard, designed a massive triple trailer for the Golden Road known simply as “the Big One.” Because of the road’s crown, Bouchard says, truck drivers liked to stay toward the center, to minimize the risk of tipping over. Recreationists didn’t always understand such practices. “Then you’ve got everybody and his brother using that road,” he says. “In my opinion, it was somewhat dangerous for them and nerve-racking for the truckers.”
Dan Legere, who ran Greenville’s Maine Guide Fly Shop from 1982 to 2020, had a front-row seat to the changes the Golden Road provoked. He remembers visiting the West Branch region with his parents even earlier, in the 1950s, back when it took two days just to get to Greenville from their home in Alfred. “You could go nowhere without a four-wheel-drive vehicle — that was just a requirement,” Legere says. “I remember traveling around, it was a chore to get to places. There were always culverts out and so on, so you carried a shovel and a jack. But the Golden Road — now, you can go to all those places in a passenger car if you want.”
Among the new visitors to the woods were a growing number of anglers. “There was tremendous pressure put on those trout ponds,” Legere says. “For the ponds that were traditionally known for bigger trout, when a road got put in close to it, people descended on it. Back then it was limit fishing. You fished until you had your limit.”
These days, that pressure has let up some. North Maine Woods Inc. — formed in 1971 to manage the nascent surge in recreationists — has seen camping and fishing visits diminish substantially since the late 1990s. Since the Millinocket paper mill closed in 2008, followed by the East Millinocket mill in 2014, logging traffic on the Golden Road has plummeted. And Legere says many of the trout ponds recovered nicely after state agencies imposed protective regulations. “Those ponds are full of beautiful trout,” he says, “and they are not getting used very much — they are seeing very little traffic.”
Both Legere and St. Pierre acknowledge that the Golden Road has let legions of Mainers and others experience the magic of the north woods, even as it diminished its wildness. In fact, St. Pierre says, the road and others like it have, ironically, helped create a constituency supporting more land protection and better forest management.
“The thing that’s extraordinary in Maine is that we do still have big woods,” he says. “Even though it’s not as remote as it was, and even though it’s not virgin forest everywhere, it’s still extremely significant, on a national and global scale, to have that large an extent of virtually undeveloped forest.”