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Defining the Upper Valley: Dartmouth Geography Researcher Seeks the Public’s Input

  • Photographed in Hanover, N.H., on December 9, 2016, Garrett Nelson is a geography post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth who studies how people perceive their communities. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Garrett Dash Nelson, top, is a geography post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth who studies how people perceive their communities. Above, an online mapping project Nelson set up has drawn a wide range of ideas about the Upper Valley’s boundaries.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2016 10:00:07 PM
Modified: 12/19/2016 4:41:59 PM

Any geographical place not enclosed by a fixed boundary is liable to be somewhat amorphous, open to interpretation.

Even New England, a region of smallish states and tidy little towns laid out in the 1700s, is full of vaguely defined locations. Where exactly does central Massachusetts turn into western Massachusetts? How great is Greater Boston? What, exactly, is “Down East?”

And for that matter, what are the borders of the Upper Valley? Is it just a handful of towns along the Connecticut River, or is it a wider region that looks to the core towns of Hanover, Lebanon and Hartford for employment?

Garrett Dash Nelson, a post-doctoral fellow in geography at Dartmouth College, said there are a number of ways to try to answer that question. We could look to the historical record, back to colonization or even earlier, for example.

Instead, Nelson has adapted an idea from a project that mapped out Boston’s neighborhoods — another place where lines of demarcation aren’t always clear — and chose to ask people who live here what the Upper Valley looks like. He set up a website on which anyone can draw their conceptions of the Upper Valley and comment about the boundaries as they see them.

As with every descriptor that lives only in the popular imagination, Nelson said in a recent interview in Dartmouth’s Baker Library, “there’s no consensus on where it ends.”

The site,, went up in November, and so far, the lines people have drawn have been, well, kind of all over the map.

“I’ve been struck by how almost every map is centered on that … four-town area,” Nelson said. “But then the diversity of responses stretches out pretty considerably.”

Based on the maps people have drawn, some view the Upper Valley as a narrow strip, or even just the four core towns of Hanover, Norwich, Lebanon and Hartford. But some people drew maps that extend as far south as Walpole, N.H., and Westminster, Vt., and as far north as Littleton, N.H., and Waterford, Vt. At least one person drew the western boundary out to Rochester, Vt., which is about a 50-minute drive from White River Junction. Rochester might seem far from the core Upper Valley towns, but it isn’t quite in the orbit of Rutland, Waitsfield or Middlebury, either.

Many of the people who drew their versions of the Upper Valley on Nelson’s map didn’t comment, but some did, and what they had to say gets at both the solidity of the Upper Valley’s boundaries and their vaporousness.

“I’ve always thought of the ‘Upper Valley’ as more of a feeling than a science; therefore my choices of UV towns are as difficult to explain as melancholy or joy,” wrote one respondent who drew a big, generous Upper Valley. “It’s an explanation so lame that it’s bound to make you cringe, but it’s what I’ve got right now. This project is excellent, by the way.”

“We lived west of Woodstock, Vermont for over 40 years,” wrote another person, who conceived of the UV as a narrow band of towns on either side of the river. “We referred to the river-bordering towns as the Upper Valley. We didn’t consider ourselves part of it, although we knew we shopped and worked there. Now, we live in Lebanon, so we’re in the thick of it.”

The only person who signed a statement was none other than former longtime Valley News reporter and editor Susan Boutwell, who now works at Dartmouth College. She noted the newspaper’s coverage map, and that it incorporates school supervisory unions in both states. She was among a handful of people who drew maps and said that the Upper Valley is essentially the Valley News’ coverage area.

While the idea of a region centered on the Connecticut River dates to Colonial times, the geographic term is more recent, and more prosaic.

“It’s a marketing ploy,” said Steve Taylor, a Meriden native, a former editor of the Valley News and former New Hampshire Agriculture commissioner. The paper’s founders coined the term “Upper Valley,” assigning the term to a vague region carved out of the northern half of the Claremont Eagle’s territory, Taylor said in a telephone intervew this week.

The first issue of the Valley News, published June 9, 1952, calls the paper, in all capital letters on the front page banner, “A daily newspaper, published at West Lebanon, for Lebanon, White River Junction, Hanover and the Upper Valley area.” And the editorial in that first day’s paper says, “... the Tri-Towns and the Upper Valley wanted a daily paper of their own.” Nowhere is the term explained, nor are the boundaries set out.

The paper’s sense of its territory grew over the years, Taylor said. It didn’t include Claremont or New London or Grantham, which seemed far afield in 1952. The interstates came through in the late 1960s and early 1970s and helped carry the paper farther out, to Randolph, Haverhill and New London.

The legitimacy of “Upper Valley” as a regional description is questionable. For starters, there’s something that sounds a bit sniffy about it, as in “upper crust,” or “upper middle class.”

“It’s still kind of a sore point with older folks in Claremont,” Taylor said, a resentment of the implied elitism of the Hanover-Lebanon axis.

Taylor, who was 13 when the newspaper first appeared, pulled no punches about the name it bestowed on his region: “It’s a preposterous term.”

That seems indisputable. What exactly is “upper” about the Upper Valley if it ends at Haverhill? What would you call the Connecticut River Valley farther north? The Upper Upper Valley?

Even so, the name has stuck and now has a momentum of its own, independent of its origin.

“That connection between a sort of branding device and a geographical descriptor is not uncommon,” Nelson said. (New England itself was “a creation of anxious marketing boards in the early 20th century” who felt a need to establish a regional identity for the six northeastern-most states, Nelson said.)

Even those imaginary boundaries have weight, he said. “It’s definitely the distinction between here and there,” he said.

That sounds like a joke distinction, he noted, but it’s an important one. “It has so many consequences,” he said.

It has a bearing on political legitimacy and on how people view their neighbors. For example, if people in Hanover don’t believe the Upper Valley extends west of Hartford, Norwich and Thetford, or east into Canaan and Enfield, the town becomes something of an island.

And given how transportation has changed since town boundaries were laid out, maybe those neat squares on the map don’t make as much sense as they did in a 17th-century, European-style agricultural economy, Nelson said.

“The jurisdictional boundaries don’t match up to the boundaries of how people live,” Nelson said. Regional planning becomes difficult if towns don’t feel like part of a wider region.

The sense of a wider region around the core towns seems pretty well ingrained.

Every year, at the start of Leadership Upper Valley, a series of workshops for people moving into leadership roles, Steve Taylor and Kevin Peterson put up a map of the Twin States and ask participants to put a sticky note on the town they live in and to say whether they live in the Upper Valley.

“You get someone from Claremont and they say, ‘I don’t live in the Upper Valley,’ ” said Peterson, a Lyme resident and a senior program officer with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. But there are sub-regions — Lower Cohase in the Bradford area or the Precision Valley covering Claremont, Newport, Windsor and Springfield — within the Upper Valley, Peterson noted.

Nonprofits and social service organizations have developed their own maps of the Upper Valley. Peterson puts up those maps for the Leadership Upper Valley participants. The most generous of the maps comprises nearly 70 towns.

Peterson said he thinks the Upper Valley is likely to continue as a key descriptor, noting that while some bistate institutions have fallen by the wayside, many others are still going strong, including two bistate school districts. “That in itself is evidence of its temporal durability,” he said.

The Upper Valley was at the edge of Nelson’s awareness when he was growing up in Nashua. He graduated from Nashua North High School and went to Harvard. His undergraduate thesis was titled “Towards the New Ruralism,” and studied a handful of rural areas in the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine.

“I’ve been thinking about the world in terms of maps as long as I’ve been thinking about the world,” said Nelson, who is 30.

Since the 1950s, geography has been on the outs in the Ivy League. Led by Harvard, which decided geography wasn’t a sufficiently scientific discipline, all the Ivy League schools got rid of their geography departments, except Dartmouth.

As a result, most geography research is done at big Midwestern land-grant universities. Nelson earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. But Dartmouth not only has one of the larger geography departments in New England, it has a strong focus in historical geography, which is what Nelson specializes in. He’s a member of the college’s new society of fellows and is in the first year of a three-year appointment.

In addition to his work on the Upper Valley, some of his other computer-assisted mapping projects have received public attention. The website Atlas Obscura recently picked up on a paper Nelson co-authored with Alasdair Rae, of the University of Sheffield, England. The headline kind of says it all: “Here Are the Real Boundaries of American Metropolises, Decided by an Algorithm.”

Ideally, more people will go to the website and draw their personal view of the Upper Valley’s borders, Nelson said. With 43 respondents, so far, the information on the site already allows him to draw some useful conclusions, “but more is always better with data like this,” he said.

Where the research goes from here is uncertain.

“I’ll probably leave this site up indefinitely,” Nelson said. People’s views of a region are dynamic, constantly in motion. And the more people respond, the more the data might be useful to policy makers trying to understand the region. “Maps like this make the argument that people in this area have interests in common,” Nelson said.

Nelson, who arrived in the Upper Valley in August and is living in Lebanon, is just getting started. He plans to keep looking at New England, and at larger areas, to create maps with interesting narratives.

“Both the hyperlocal and the all-encompassing worldview have interesting stories to tell,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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