Using Lidar imagery to help research old roads
Article written by Kerry Hardy
I grew up rambling through the fields and forests of mid-coast Maine and it’s been a long-standing hobby of mine to try and understand the many sections of abandoned roads that one encounters in this part of the world. Occasionally I’ll give a slide show on the topic; at one such recent event a fellow came up and told me that I should have a look at the LIDAR imagery on the MEGIS (Maine Geographic Information System) website.
Like most people, my first reaction to the LIDAR images was one of surprise and delight—what an amazing view of the landscape, with the tracks of the glacier still so clearly printed on the earth’s surface!
The above photo shows the three principal mountains of the Camden Hills—from left to right, they are Ragged Mtn., Bald Mtn., and Mt. Megunticook, with Mt. Battie welded on to its southern end. The lines of glacial drift leave no doubt as to the path along which the ice sheet receded. This one photo does a better job of telling that story than any number of words could hope to.
As I clicked the toggles to remove more and more of the extraneous information (town lines, road names; basically everything except the raw imagery) and looked more closely, other features began to jump out at me—specifically, old foundation holes and old sunken roads running through woods and over mountains where no roads exist today.
Here, finally, is a tool that allows one to see through superficial screens such as vegetation, political boundaries, and modern route designations—in fact, to almost see through time itself—and view the earliest earth-works in the area. I was quickly drawn in to this mysterious gray landscape and spent a good deal of time scrolling around my home region of the Camden Hills. Whenever I found an image that explained a particular feature, all I had to do was zoom in, take a screen capture and presto!, I had another short story to add to the larger narrative of our earliest roads.
Here are a few examples, all from the Camden Hills area, of how the LIDAR images help me solve riddles.
The above image shows the coastal portions of Camden and Rockport, and I’ve added two lines of my own:
The red line shows the first road voted into acceptance by the Town of Camden, around the year 1795—at which time Rockport was not yet a town.
The yellow one traces the abandoned c. 1890 railroad line that ran from the limestone quarries on Simonton Road to the gigantic limekilns that used to burn year-round, around the clock, at Rockport Harbor. Though the railroad is long-abandoned and overgrown, the earthwork that formed its bed still shows with perfect clarity—as the next image shows.
Let’s return to that “first road” in Camden, shown with the red line in the first image. At its most northerly point, the road crossed the Megunticook River; at its western extremity, it runs along Hosmer Pond. There are two good reasons for these waypoints. The first reason is the grist mill established at the foot of Megunticook Lake by William Molyneaux c. 1790. The second reason is that two of Camden’s earliest settlers, Nathaniel Hosmer and Samuel Appleton, lived in a cabin on the shore of what is now Hosmer Pond. Later, Samuel Appleton moved farther inland to a place near the border of today’s Hope, Maine (formerly Barrettstown) and the town of…Appleton!
If we zoom in and look at the northern part of Camden’s old loop road, the following features appear:
A. Molyneaux’s Dam. Molyneaux Road crosses the river in a shallow section about 150’ downstream from the dam.
B. Abandoned roads in the woods, which were probably used by squatters living in the wooded hills of Mount Megunticook, in order to get to Molyneaux’s Mill, and perhaps ultimately to Camden.
C. An abandoned section of road along the river, which seems likely to be older than Molyneaux Road (inferred by its more direct line towards Camden).
D. An abandoned road from Camden to Barrettstown. Notice how the road seems to disappear into a swamp, and emerge on the other side! In fact, the true solution is that the road is older than the dam—which raised the level of Megunticook Lake roughly 14 feet and flooded the old road to Barrettstown.
The LIDAR images often allow us to arrive at some fairly precise dates—especially when we can find a section of submerged road such as this.
Here’s one last example – a close-up of the so-called ‘French Road’ in Lincolnville (after a family of early settlers by that name). Nobody lives on the road nowadays, but as you can see from the numbered foundation holes in the image, there were indeed houses here once upon a time.
I’ve been studying this spot because a 1759 military map shows a road, commissioned by Gov. Bernard of Massachusetts, that was cut to carry men and supplies over the Camden Hills. Several fellow enthusiasts and I are trying to re-establish the line of this road, and the LIDAR imagery provides some tantalizing hints—for instance, the faint line of a sunken road between the French Road and the 1930’s-vintage CCC road through the state park. This very faint trace, along with several like it in the vicinity, suggest promising places to visit in person, with a metal detector in hand, in hopes of finding dateable metal relics along the roads or near the foundation holes.
We are finding the LIDAR images to be a crucial link in the chain of research, one which helps us make the very best use of our limited time afield, and allows us to see the landscape through a very different lens than any we had before.