Tuesday, September 22, 2015

John J. Glessner, Builder of Roads

In September 1915, exactly 100 years ago, a New Hampshire newspaper entitled The Spur published the following short article about the Glessners’ summer estate, The Rocks:

“Every motorist who journeys through the White Mountains comes to know ‘Glessner roads.’  These are the thoroughfares crossing and adjacent to The Rocks, the magnificent estate of J. J. Glessner, of Chicago, between Bethlehem and Littleton, which is regarded as the show place of the hills.  Each road has been placed in fine condition at a cost of much time and personal thought as well as money.  Not a little of the cash expenditure has gone into a substantial wall of cobble stones and granite, four feet high and nearly as thick, which defines the ‘Glessner roads.’  All along the walls shrubs and flowering plants flaunt their colors against the gray background.  The Rocks, which was created by throwing several old farms into one large estate, is stocked with blooded cattle, sheep and hogs and there are also many fowls of high quality.”

The Glessner roads attracted a good deal of attention, and various descriptions of them appear in numerous newspaper articles both in New Hampshire and in Chicago.  Travelers would note that they always knew exactly when they came upon the Glessner estate because of the roads and their beautifully crafted stone walls. 

An article which appeared in The Littleton Courier on October 24, 1907 provided interesting information on the creation of the roads, with a bit of road building history and geology thrown in for good measure.  We reprint it in its entirety.

The Glessner Roads a Boom to Bethlehem
Rebuilt by Chicago Millionaire in Most Permanent Manner

Two very important pieces of road work have been done in Bethlehem this year, one by the town, taking advantage of the state aid law, and the other by J. J. Glessner, the Chicago millionaire, who has been rebuilding the main highway between Bethlehem and Littleton, for nearly the entire distance where it adjoins his estate.

The work done by the town, in making a ten foot fill at the foot of what is known as the big hill, widening and straightening the road, and taking off some of the grade at the top, has already been described in the Courier.  The work done on the same road by Mr. Glessner is fully as extensive, covers a much longer stretch, and changes a very bad piece of road into one of the finest stretches of highway in the entire state.

In fact during the last few years Mr. Glessner has rapidly been acquiring fame as a road builder.  He is now able to show three miles of probably the finest road in the White Mountains, all within or adjoining his own estate and all public road, although it was all built or built over by Mr. Glessner at his own expense.

During the present fall he has been working on the half mile of road on the main highway from Bethlehem to Littleton and during most of that time has had a crew of seventy men, thirty horses and twenty oxen engaged on the work.  Part of this road looks like pictures of the modern French or the old Roman roads, and it is built fully as solidly as the Roman roads used to be, in fact, after the same plan.

Macadam and other modern authorities on the building of roads have pronounced Roman methods extravagant, but it is noticed that when the Romans built a road they built one to stay, so that if permanency is considered they were not so extravagant.  Moreover, the use of large amounts of heavy stone is not so extravagant as it might seem on Mr. Glessner’s part, since all of the rock comes out of his own fields.  In fact, for several years he has been cleaning up pastures and making them into mowing land, and the rock that he has pulled out of the pastures has gone back into the roads. 

There is no dearth of rock anywhere in New Hampshire, and certainly not in Bethlehem, nearly all of which is declared by geologists to be nothing but a terminal moraine.  The glaciers made one of their last and longest stands in New England here near the foot of the big mountains, and they unfortunately left their debris of rocks and boulders strewn all over the town.  Mr. Glessner did not exactly originate the idea of pulling the rocks out of the field and putting them into roads, for the town of Bethlehem made use of the same idea quite a number of years ago, but by putting on a big crew he has carried the idea farther than anyone else ever did here, and has undoubtedly built some of the finest roads.

Starting in a moderate way a good many years ago, Mr. Glessner has gradually bought up surrounding farms for one reason and another, until he now has probably the largest, as well as the finest, private summer estate in the White Mountains.  He has not done this to make a park and fence himself in, but has generally bought additional land to prevent timber from being cut off, when such plans were on foot, in order to keep the locality around “The Rocks,” his summer home, from being spoiled from a scenic point of view.  Having extensive farms, he farms extensively, and is one of the largest employers of labor in this vicinity.  Through these farms quite a number of old town roads used to run, and several years ago Mr. Glessner secured permission to build these roads over about as he saw fit.  Needless to say the town was very glad to have him assume the work, and has shown its gratitude by conferring upon the roads the name of “The Glessner Roads.”

One of those roads leads to Franconia, and is on an entirely new layout as far as it goes through Mr. Glessner’s land, the old route having been abandoned for a better one.  The portion built by Mr. Glessner is three-quarters of a mile long, and is a solid stone, bottom highway 25 feet wide.  On one side, for quite a distance, runs one of the most massive stone walls in New Hampshire, six feet thick on top, about 10 feet on the bottom, and in many places 13 feet high.  It was made entirely of stone taken out of the adjoining field.

Road to West Farm, 2013

On another road near by, leading to the West farm, is a beauty spot where a cut was made through a knoll, to avoid a bad grade.  The cut was forced upon both sides with some very fine stone work, and when the sun shines through upon the white birches and other trees it furnishes a very pretty sight.

The most important work done on the Littleton-Bethlehem road by Mr. Glessner this year has been an extensive fill of quite a stretch of road over some low land, where bad travelling had generally been the rule.  At the lowest place the road was filled in six feet with stone and the stone wall on each side was carried three feet higher, the wall in places being ten feet high on the back side, or side towards the fields.  The wall is three feet wide on top and is strongly built.  The road is 25 feet wide between the walls, and four teams, by actual test, can pass abreast.  This wall extends for 400 feet, and at one part describes a beautiful curve, a curve is all the more wonderful from the fact that it was laid out by eye, no instrument being used. 

As has been previously said, the method used by Mr. Glessner in his road building is practically the old Roman method, so much criticized by modern writers, and undoubtedly generally impractical today under present conditions and with the tremendous mileage to which public roads have now attained.  Unless it is desired to make a fill in the road, an excavation of several feet is first made, and Mr. Glessner’s men and oxen then begin to dump in immense stones taken out of the nearest fields.  A fairly level course is made of these and then another layer of somewhat smaller stone is dumped on.  Then comes a still smaller layer, and then last the stone work is leveled and all openings are filled in with very small stone, so carefully and thoroughly placed that animals can be driven over it without hurting their feet.  Then the rock is entirely covered and the road finally shaped up with a good layer of “hard pan,” which packs solid and is practically impervious to water.  Drainage at each side is always provided for, the roads are well rounded, and these features, combined with the solid foundation of rock underneath, and the impervious layer on top, give an ideal road.  It is probable that these roads will have to be resurfaced more often than Macadam roads, but the resurfacing will not be so expensive and there is no probability that the sub-structure will ever have to be renewed.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Glessner are very popular with all who know them, as they are exceedingly democratic.  They know by name every employee who works on the place any length of time, and seldom fail to have a pleasant word for each when they pass.

Many of the walls still stand today, defining the boundaries of the original estate.  They stand as a testament to the enormous efforts undertaken by John Glessner and his crews to provide roads for travelers that were both beautiful and pleasant to drive upon.

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