Die and Less: The Ghost Town of Livermore

September 15, 2015 — I like my ghost towns with spooky names, but sometimes ironic ones are just as good. Like the ghost town of Livermore, New Hampshire.

It's located in the White Mountains, that grand bumpy patch of state that pulls vacationers from across New England and beyond, especially in the Fall. It’s a great place to be a ghost, a town, or a ghost town.

Livermore was established in 1876 to support a logging industry. At its most populated, there were between 150-200 sawdust-covered residents. Plus itinerant lumberjacks. The business was owned by a family of Harvard-educated Boston lawyers named Saunders, and the town itself was named for Samuel Livermore, a New Hampshire senator related to the Saunders by marriage.

Things were going good, trees were dying, people were New Hampshiring, but things eventually went the way of all things, sped up by a flood in the late 1920s that damaged infrastructure. By 1928, there were no more mills, but it took another two decades before the town fully ghosted, around 1950, just before the dawn of the American television sitcom, which would have smoothed over so much for the Livermorians.

I’m not going to wax romantic. It seems like there's not too much in the tale. But now, as a 65-year-old ghost town, it’s an exciting place. Even if it is just some overgrown masonry by a river.

The place is almost unsatisfyingly easy to get to. Route 302 cuts through the middle of White Mountain National Forest, and about halfway along that (before Frankenstein Cliff if you’re coming from the south) is a well-maintained dirt road called Sawyer River Road, which parallels its namesake. About two miles in, the road splits the ghost town in half.

We visited this past June, and the trees were fluffy and green and pretty selfish with what they were hiding. So the first evidence visible to us from the car was a gray stone corner jutting out above the road on the non-river side. We pulled over and climbed up to see what turned out to be a small foundation. According to this invaluable map, that would make it part of Livermore’s school. We paralleled the road for a bit back the way we had come, through an almost impenetrable tangle of brush and saw overgrown pieces of other foundations here and there. Nothing too interesting, honestly, in the grand scheme of ghost towns.

But then we crossed the road and clambered down the embankment toward the river. Here, in a much more open patch of forest, is where every kid in Grafton County should be taking his or her senior pictures.

A dramatic hunk of red brick rose into the green forest canopy like a massive chimney. This was what was left of the Livermore powerhouse. Between it and the river were the remnants of a cement saw mill, grey and mossy like the ruins of some ancient druid edifice of obscure purpose. The decaying walls and structures were somewhat maze-like and still defied the forest around them, despite their crumbling condition. It was the perfect set for two rebellious teenage outcasts from a CW show to sit down and complain about how much the world sucks.

It’s also where I got the greatest sense of history and loss about the place. I could imagine people punching clocks here. Sweating here. Making lives for their family here. Today, the errant hiker walks across its bones.

We climbed up and down the ruins until we were satisfied that we’d explored every crevice, and then headed in the direction the aforementioned map told us to go to see more ruins. But we ran into something unexpected.

Here’s the weirdest thing about this ghost town. In the middle of these forested ruins is an actual modern residential property. A house, I believe is the term. The lawn was verdant and well-maintained. A truck was parked in the driveway. Kids were playing in the backyard. And here I was jumping around looking for snakes and traces of long-dead men and women, feeling exhilarated and maudlin at the same time. Some of the ghost town even seems to be on their property, including the foundation for the town store, which you can tell by the rusting hulk of a large safe overturned in its center and which I only approached through a zoom lens so as not to trespass.

Since we didn’t want to cut through the property, we went back up to the road, passed the house, and then dived back into the wilderness on the other side of its border. Here and there we saw random items from civilization, a rusted bedframe, pipes sticking out of the ground. On both sides of the the river were tall stanchions of some sort that probably was how they piped in water into the town. We also saw the large foundation of the Saunders Mansion itself, which lasted until 1965 when it burned, burned like a wicker cabinet.

I know I'm doing a bad job of establishing the humanity behind these ivied hunks of worked stone. So I’m going to send you elsewhere for that, to the backstory of the place as laid out in a 1969 issue of Yankee Magazine, when the corpse of the town was still relatively fresh.

Once we were done exploring the ghost town, we hopped back into our car and drove away. Finding the place so easily might have been slightly unsatisfying, but being able to throw our sweaty, bug-bitten carcasses back into air conditioning and Procol Harum tunes was a great relief, and the way every ghost town trek should end.