The Bypassed East

United States Geography

A map of America's eastern seaboard reveals a lack of large cities along the coast north of Boston. Few major overland routes extend inland from this coast, and interior cities are generally smaller than those along the ocean. This area, comprising northern New England and the Adirondacks of New York, can be referred to as the Bypassed East.

The Bypassed East is near, even astride, major routeways, but not on them. Ocean transportation can easily bypass the region, putting it in a transportation shadow that has produced slow regional economic growth and even stagnation.

Southern New England is a part of metropolitan America. Northern New England, for the most part, is not. It is much more like Canada's Atlantic Provinces.


Much of the Bypassed East is beautiful. The Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contains some of the most rugged topography in the eastern United States. The extensive shoreline thrusts out into the Atlantic and meets the ocean's waves with a heavily indented coast that mixes dramatic headlands with many small coves bordered by rocky beaches. Large empty areas, almost totally lacking in settlement, are only hours away from some of the largest cities on the continent.

Most of the Bypassed East is a part of the northeastern extension of the Appalachian Uplands. However, the structure of the area bears little surface resemblance to the clearly delineated ridge and valley system of the southern Appalachians.

The Adirondacks, in northern New York, are a southern extension of the Canadian Shield. This broad upland was severely eroded by continental glaciation, so that the surface features are generally more rounded than angular. Although elevations in the Adirondacks are not great, the areal extent of this highland is considerable.

A large upland plateau covers most of New England. This upland is old geologically and has also been heavily eroded by moving water and ice. One result is that elevations throughout the region seldom top 1,500 meters. Widespread scouring by continental glaciers rounded most of the hills and mountains across the plateau. Only where elevations were high enough to remain above the moving ice can one find more rugged mountains.

The two major mountain areas of northern New England are the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Green Mountains are lower in elevation, less than 1,500 meters at their highest, and their tops are well rounded. The White Mountains, by comparison, rise to 1,900 meters, and their upper slopes are rugged and steep.

Farther south, where the upland plateau has been heavily eroded by flowing water, several isolated peaks stand well apart from the major mountain areas to the north. The largest of them is Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. Monadnock is a name given to all such areas of hard rock that have become low, isolated mountains as the surrounding rocks were removed by water erosion. Mount Katahdin, an equally dramatic monadnock, dominates the landscape of its portion of central Maine.

Although northern New England (with New York) draws character from its mountains, its people find their homes and their livelihoods in the valleys and lowlands. The largest such areas are the Connecticut River Valley between New Hampshire and Vermont, the Lake Champlain Lowland along the northern Vermont-New York border, and the Aroostook Valley in northern Maine. A number of smaller lowlands border the seacoast, and innumerable streams have sliced the plateau throughout the area.

The Bypassed East is a place where polar, continental, and maritime weather systems meet, and the result is a climate that is seldom hot, often cold, and usually damp. Because of its location on the eastern side of America, the wind systems tend to push continental conditions into the area and to limit the maritime impact on the location. The substantial climatic difference between coast and interior is further increased by higher inland elevations.

The Labrador Current that flows southward along the Bypassed East is cold. Even in late summer, only the most intrepid swimmers are willing to dip themselves into its waters for more than a short time. Still, the climatic conditions along the coast are moderated substantially by proximity to the water. The growing season near the coast is as much as 70 days longer than the interior average of 120 days. Average midwinter temperatures at coastal sites are often 3 to 6C higher than at nearby interior locations. Midsummer temperatures, in contrast, are slightly higher in the interior.

The maritime influence brings frequent cloud cover and fog, particularly along the southern coastline, which serve to cool temperatures further during the summer. It is consequently difficult to grow crops that require summer heat and sunlight.

Almost all parts of the region receive substantial precipitation, usually between 100 and 150 centimeters annually. Precipitation is usually scattered evenly throughout the year. Snowfall is generally substantial, with most places receiving between 25 and 50 percent of their total moisture in the form of snow. Most interior locations average at least 250 centimeters of snow annually. Winter snowcover near the coast is sporadic, with frequent thaws and bare ground, but snow covers the ground inland for three to five months each winter.


The Bypassed East is not an easy place in which to live and work. Its harsh climate, hilly terrain, and thin, rocky soils limit agriculture, except in a few particularly blessed locations. Few mineral resource deposits of substantial size have been found until recently. Coupled with a small local market and relative isolation, this has limited the development of manufacturing. The advantages that the area does offer thus become relatively more important.

This was not always the Bypassed East. Its foreland location, jutting far out into the Atlantic Ocean, meant that its shores were among the first parts of the New World encountered by European explorers and settlers. By the mid-17th century, many of the small harbors of central and southern Maine housed British villages. Settlement was kept out of the interior by the American Indian population until the middle of the 18th century.

To the early European settlers, the rich fishing banks off the coast of Maine were immediately important. The banks, shallow areas 30 to 60 meters deep in the ocean at the outer margins of the continental shelf, underlie waters that are rich in fish. Their shallowness allows the sun's rays to penetrate easily through much of the water's depth, which encourages the growth of plankton, a basic food for many fish. Cold-water fish, such as cod and haddock, are abundant. Using this resource, the early settlers began a substantial export of salted cod.

The other prime resource of the region was its trees. The white pine was dominant in the forests of New England. A magnificent tree, it reached heights in excess of 60 meters and stood straight. Its wood was clear, light yet strong, and easily cut. Almost all of the virgin forests are gone now, and the second- and third-growth forests that remain are short and insignificant in comparison. Forest resources allowed the state of Maine to become a center for ship construction.

Agriculture was the third major occupation of the early settlers, but farms tended to be small and production limited. Early farming was primarily a subsistence activity.

The peak of agricultural development in northern New England probably came just after the start of the 19th century. But two developments elsewhere in America soon began to pull people off their farms, first in a trickle, then in droves. One was the opening of the West. Settlement moved beyond the Appalachians onto the rich farmlands south of the Great Lakes early in the century. Then, in the 1820s, the construction of the Erie Canal, and later other canals farther west, made the markets of the East Coast more accessible to western farmers. The poor farms of upper New England rapidly lost what little market they had to crops imported from places like Ohio and Indiana. New Englanders left their farms and joined the migration westward, exchanging bad land for good.

A second blow to the region's agricultural fortunes also occurred during the late 1700s and early 1800s with the development of manufacturing in southern New England, where the Industrial Revolution began in the United States. Industrial growth created a great demand for labor. That demand was first met with New England farmers seeking the higher wages and steady income offered by manufacturing employment. An increase in child and female labor, particularly in the textile mills, further enhanced the value of manufacturing work over farming.

Agricultural decline has continued across most of the Bypassed East for the last 150 years. Today, less than 10 percent of the land in the three states of northern New England is in farms; 100 years ago, the amount was closer to 50 percent. Until the last decade or two, many northern New England towns had patterns of population decline that lasted for a century or more. Farming retreated off the slopes, allowing them to return gradually to forest. Even in the valleys, soils were often too infertile, the climate too cold, and the farms too small for successful agricultural production.

Where farming in the Bypassed East remains important, it tends to specialize in single-crop production and to be concentrated in a few favorable locations. For example, the acid soils of Washington County, in northeastern Maine, support one of America's major centers of wild blueberry production.

While agriculture is found in a number of other locations, two significant areas of agricultural production in the region deserve special notice. One of these is the St. John-Aroostook Valley, an area of northeastern Maine and western New Brunswick (in Canada). The area's silty loam soils are ideal for potato growth, and the short growing season encourages a superior crop that is used widely elsewhere as seed potatoes. Large-scale, mechanized farming predominates.

The valley's potato growers have gone through a difficult period during the past several decades as a result of a declining market demand for potatoes and a preference on the part of consumers for the potato products of Western growers. As a result, poultry and eggs, mostly from large producers in south-central Maine, now account for half of the state's agricultural income--double the potato's share.

The second area is the Lake Champlain Lowland, whose proximity to Megalopolis gives it a substantial market advantage over more distant areas for the sale of milk, a relatively high-bulk, low-cost product that spoils easily and cannot be stored for any extended period. The Champlain Lowland supplies milk to both New York City and Boston. The area's summers are mild and moist, a climatic condition that encourages the growth of fodder crops. These cool summers are also well suited to dairy cows.

Vermont has long led the United States in the per capita production of dairy products. Dairy farming accounts for 90 percent of the state's agriculture, and much of it is found in the Champlain Lowland.

In much of the Bypassed East, the land is in trees, so lack of a large-scale wood-products industry may be somewhat surprising. However, earlier uncontrolled logging and limited organized reforestation meant that much of the forest that replaced the original trees is of poor quality for both lumber and pulp production.

An exception to this pattern of limited output is the pulpwood production of northern Maine. Here, on some of the most inaccessible large tracts of land in the eastern United States--where a small number of private owners control most of the land--forest industries remain important.

Fishing also remains an important, if troubled, part of the economy of the Bypassed East. Maine lobstermen account for about 80 to 90 percent of the total U.S. lobster catch, and the state also leads in sardine production.

There are two kinds of ocean fishing in the region. Inshore fishing, the most important, uses small boats and requires a relatively small capital investment, with lobsters and cod the most valuable catch. Deep-sea fishing on the banks off the coast requires far larger boats and more capital investment. Most fish caught on the banks are bottom feeders such as cod, flounder, and halibut.

Offshore fishing has recently been threatened by the high demand for domestic petroleum in the United States. Fears of pollution from offshore oil drilling in the country's rich fishing banks were overruled in 1979 when the Department of the Interior granted exploration leases to several oil companies, and major resources of petroleum and natural gas have been discovered.

Mining other than for offshore petroleum and natural gas in the Bypassed East is not currently of great importance. This was not always the case. Iron ore has been mined in the Adirondacks for more than 100 years, and the reserves there are still substantial, but total output from the mines is relatively small.

The igneous and metamorphic rocks of northern New England have made the area an important producer of building stone for years. Many granite quarries operate in central Vermont and along the central coast of Maine. Vermont is also the leading marble-producing state in the United States. The value of all of these rocks is small compared to the minerals industries found in other parts of the continent, but it is still an important element in the economy of the two states.


By a slight majority, most of the residents of the Bypassed East are urbanites. However, the region contains few substantial urban areas. The two largest cities of northern New England are Burlington, Vermont, and Lewiston, Maine, both of which have about 40,000 residents.

The small size of the major regional centers is a good indication of what may be the greatest single reason for the relatively low per capita income levels found in the region. Most higher-income occupations in the United States are urban based, and this area lacks urban occupations. Although they are less than half of the total, a high percentage of the work force is engaged in primary occupations, which are traditionally among the lowest paying in America. The absence of a large local market and poor access to major urban areas means that primary industries have not served as the foundation for the development of a more broadly based manufacturing economy as they have elsewhere in the United States.

Nevertheless, there seems to be reason to anticipate that the economy will grow in northern New England. The 1980 U.S. census indicated that Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont were the only states outside the South and West to grow at a rate above the national average. In the 1980s, New Hampshire continued to grow at a rate well above the national average, and Vermont and Maine were only somewhat below the average.

There seem to be several reasons for this shift in regional population fortunes. One is the gradual northward growth of Megalopolis. As the cities of the urban region expand, as new peripheral areas urbanize and become a part of urban America, and as people search farther outward to find residences away from the large cities, the Megalopolitan periphery has been pushed steadily northward in New England.

Northern New England is also attracting a number of new manufacturing facilities, which tend to be light industry with medium-sized work forces. In part, they are locating in the region because the employers and their workers find the small-town and rural environments to be good places to live. Also, the construction of several interstate highways into the region during the 1960s has provided greater accessibility.

Tourism has been northern New England's boom industry since the mid-20th century. Fishing, skiing, canoeing, and just driving around looking at the beauty of the place--all of these are a part of this tourist growth.

The economy of the Adirondacks area is also heavily dependent on tourism. Lake Placid, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, is but one of many ski areas. The state of New York oversees much of the area through its Adirondack State Park, America's largest state park.

Strung along the seashores and around the lakes, and strewn across the mountains, is a growing collection of vacation homes--second homes for the well-to-do. They are occupied by the owners for a few months or a few weeks each year and then rented for as much of the rest of the time as possible to help pay the purchase and upkeep costs. In a number of the counties of northern New England, there are more of these part-time dwellings than there are permanently occupied houses.

Finally, many of the coastal communities of Maine, the small college towns of Vermont and New Hampshire, and old villages throughout the region have become popular retirement centers.

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Source: U.S. Department of State