If you are in a rush to get somewhere than NH Route 119 is not the road for you.
Chock-full of curves, dips and rises, this 40-mile-long hilly highway just north of the Massachusetts border connects the towns of Rindge, Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Winchester and Hinsdale and is more for motorists who enjoy meandering. It’s perfect for stopping to explore classic New England town commons, antique shops, covered bridges, and old mill buildings along the way.
Beginning at the Massachusetts state line in Ashburnham, after nipping the extreme southwest corner of New Ipswich — a mere 75 yards — Route 119 makes a 10-mile run through Rindge mainly as a wide two-lane, unremarkable stretch of motor way.
The real character of the road begins in Fitzwilliam. Here you will find a teardrop-shaped town common bordered by a split rail fence that contains a three-tiered cast iron baroque fountain. Surrounding the common are handsome, historic homes.
But the real show-stopper is the white-spired town hall with its clock and belfry tower. This impressive building, originally a Congregational Church, burned in 1816 shortly after its dedication but was rebuilt in 1817. The bell survived the fire but was later cracked in sounding an alarm. When it was later recast, 300 silver dollars were added to its metal in the belief that the bell's tone would be improved.
Leaving the common, Route 119 moves past the entrance road to Rhododendron State Park and makes a roller coaster plunge into Fitzwilliam Depot, once a shipping center for Fitzwilliam's granite industry. The first quarries were opened in 1845, and the coming of the Cheshire Railroad in 1848 turned Fitzwilliam into a small commercial center for more than 50 years. Pink-white granite from Fitzwilliam was sought after because of its seamless, fine grain.
At one time six quarries operated in town at the same time. Stone cutting became an important business for Fitzwilliam as well.
From Fitzwilliam Depot, the road makes a near-hairpin right turn and continues along a densely wooded stretch, dipping and bending, bobbing and weaving on its cell-phone-reception-challenged way. But here is where the driving fun begins. So, put both hands on the wheel, and buckle up as trees close in, creating a dense green corridor, broken only by the occasional house.
Three miles beyond Fitzwiliam Depot, Route 119 crosses the Richmond town line. The road dips and moves past Tully Brook Marsh and then rises to meet Monument Road where the Metacomet-Monadnock (M-M) Trail comes in from Massachusetts.
The M-M trail is a long-distance hiking trail that extends 114 miles from the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to Mount Monadnock. From Monument Road, the trail runs in conjunction with Route 119 for the next 0.2 mile.
Look closely and you can see white rectangular blazes on the telephone poles. The blazes disappear as the M-M Trail turns right to follow Old County Road and then continues on its way to the summit of Mount Monadnock.
Just beyond Old County Road, a wild ride awaits as the east-to-west road makes a long gradual drop for approximately one mile. Route 119 then moves back uphill and continues as a straightaway to a flashing yellow light at the intersection of Routes 119/32 in Richmond.
At the northwest corner of this intersection is the site of the former Four Corners Store, for decades the center of the community. The business closed in 2013 and the building was demolished two years later.
In years past, horses and wagons were tethered to granite posts while their owners stopped in the store to socialize or do business. Everett Page was the owner in the early 1900s, and when he died his wife ran the store until Aug. 24, 1938, when it was struck by lightning and burned down. In 1939, the store was replaced and lasted for nearly 75 years until its closing.
After leaving Richmond, Route 119 begins another long descent for a mile into a narrow, forested valley where the steeply sloped hillside crowds the side of the road. The road levels out then rises to crest a hill where there is a glimpse of the Green Mountains of Vermont to the west. Behind you Mount Monadnock's bald pate rises above the forested hills.
From the crest of the hill, Route 119 makes another roller coaster plunge for more than a mile into Bennett Gorge. Roaring Brook parallels the road to the left here.
The road continues through the narrow valley bordered by the steep wooded hillside and crosses the town line into Winchester. After moving past Evergreen Cemetery — Winchester resident Persis Foster Albee, the first “Avon Lady” who is credited with creating the company’s system for distributing products, is buried here — Route 119 reaches a stoplight at the junction of Route 10 in Winchester, a town built on both sides of the Ashuelot River.
Take a few moments to admire the brick Winchester Town Hall built in the Romanesque-Revival style with a crenelated tower that resembles a castle. After making a left turn, the road begins a concurrency with Route 10 (Main Street) for a half-mile to a four-way intersection of Routes 119/10/78.
Route 119 turns right and crosses a bridge spanning the Ashuelot River. There is a good chance you will see kayakers knifing through the calm waters. The road straightens out, the river paralleling the highway to the left, and comes to the red roofed 169-foot two span upper Ashuelot Covered Bridge built in 1864. This is a town lattice truss-type bridge with pedestrian walkways on both sides.
Route 119 narrows as it passes through the village of Ashuelot, old red brick mill houses hard by the road. The river has changed its demeanor, now spiked with boulders, white-capped water swirling around the sides of the large rocks. From the mid- to late-1800s, the Ashuelot River was active from a standpoint of manufacturing, boasting numerous textile and paper mills.
One mile farther up the road, across the Ashuelot River are the remains of the Paper Service Ltd. Mill, which was active for more than 100 years producing tissue paper for garment and gift wrapping. The mill was destroyed by floodwaters when the river burst through a small hydroelectric dam during tropical storm Tammy on Oct. 9, 2005.
Route 119 continues past the Reservoir Trailhead for Pisgah State Park. This is a popular staging area for large trailers and RVs and is one of six trailheads accessing the 13,300-acre state park.
A mile beyond the Reservoir Trailhead the road crosses the Hinsdale town line. Steep hills, with glacial boulders scattered among the trees, defiantly slope down at 45-degree angles to meet the edge of the highway as it continues through the narrow valley.
Just before entering downtown Hinsdale, the road comes to an old brick building on your right. It was here in a machine shop in 1875 where George A. Long built a steam-propelled four-wheel vehicle fired by hardwood charcoal.
Inside the building, on the walls, are the rusting iron pulley wheels that once held belts to generate electricity for manufacture of the crude automobiles. Wooden buckets were made here before the Civil War, and during World War II, wooden gun stocks were fashioned for the Army.
In Hinsdale, check out the post office (1816), which originally contained a village store. The two-story wooden structure is purported to be the oldest continually operated post office in the United States.
At first, the mail was delivered by horse and wagon and there were no paved roads. In the mid-1800s, nearby Brattleboro was connected to the railroad and mail was moved that way.
Leaving Main Street, Route 119 continues past Hinsdale High School, then turns north and runs along the Connecticut River for five miles. After moving past several popular fishing spots, the road veers away from the river and widens.
Shortly, Mount Wantastiquet comes into view. If you look closely you can detect a prominent precipice, with a talus slope at its base, on the east side of the mountain known as Mine Ledge.
The road arrives at another stoplight at a Walmart Supercenter. To the right of Walmart is the site of Hinsdale Greyhound Park, which closed in 2008. It was formerly known as Hinsdale Raceway, a horse racing track that began operation in 1958.
Route 119 passes by three fireworks stores. Soon the long shoulder of Mount Wantastiquet becomes more pronounced, and after reaching a yellow blinking light, Route 119 crosses two nearly 100-year-old green truss bridges spanning the Connecticut River and ends its journey in Brattleboro.
Most motorists crossing the bridges have no idea that an entertainment center known as "Island Park" once existed on an island between Brattleboro and Hinsdale. Now barely noticeable, except for footings, Island Park consisted of a 1,200-seat grandstand, a pavilion for dancing, movies and bowling, a boat landing and a refreshment room.
Here, too, was a baseball field. A series of floods took away the buildings and the pavilion was eventually torn down. In 1927 more than half of the island washed away.