Travelers from Chartierville, Que. had to pass through the border crossing at Pittsburg. For 27 years, they talked to Marty Hewson before driving south.
This article was first published Jan. 11, 1995 edition of the New Hampshire Union Leader.
PITTSBURG – On the road to Canada, 12 miles past the last utility pole, 23 miles from the village and 74 miles from the last McDonald’s, the unplowed snow on U.S. Route 3 gives a clue as to what kind of day Marty Hewson was having.
Just one set of tractor trailer truck tires has cut through the powdery snow in the southbound lane; no one has traveled to the border since the last plow cleared the way a few hours ago.
“I’ve had a couple of snowmobiles, a pick-up truck and logging truck, which you must have passed, come through here today,” says Hewson, who has guarded New Hampshire’s only border crossing with Canada for more than a quarter of a century. “There aren’t a lot of people traveling today.”
Travelers leaving the U.S. over this remote and lonely border don’t have occasion to meet Hewson. It’s when they come back that they have to stop and for thousands of travelers over the past 27 years, it is Hewson who determines whether they are coming into the country within the legal limits.
But at the end of the month, Hewson is retiring from his position as a customs inspector at the top of the state. The calendar in his office, highlighted in yellow on the Jan. 31 date, says it all: “Adios, Amigos.”
Hewson came to Pittsburg in 1968, after transferring from the Border Patrol to immigration. When he took up duty at the station, the uniform he wore, which included a handgun, holster and Stetson hat, earned him the name ‘Cowboy’ among the locals down in the village of Chartierville.
“Along with that, I wore cowboy boots, which I wore when I was with the border patrol in Brownsville and El Paso,” he said. “Everyone wore them down there to keep the snakes from biting you at the ankle.”
For the most part, he said, he came to know most of the people who come through and for those he didn’t, he always had the time to make sure they were not smuggling guns, alcohol or people into America.
“Some people think that at a little place like this, no one will suspect anything, but we have more time at a place like this,” he said.
The mere isolation of the crossing has precluded a lot of important and headline grabbing busts, although Hewson had his share.
In the 1970s, he was kept busy looking for drugs in the cars of men and women who traveled to Canada, recalling those days with a grimace at the dirty bodies he had to search. More than 25 years of reading body language taught him who was hiding something and who was not.
Although passing through Pittsburg is the quickest route to reach Quebec City from Boston, there are no other major attractions nearby that would require someone crossing there. Hewson learned that simple questions about destinations told a story of their own.
“I had a van come through here a few years ago; the guy driving was alone,” Hewson recalled. “He said he was on his way to Waterville, Maine. Well, I thought to myself, that to get from Montreal to Waterville, you don’t come through here.”
Further questioning determined that the man was a mechanic who was on his way to Maine to help repair a transmission. But the van was devoid of tools, except for a screwdriver in the glove compartment and his hands were “as smooth as yours are right now.”
To further arouse Hewson’s suspicions, the man said he was planning on returning later that night.
“I told him it takes a lot longer to repair a transmission than an afternoon,” he said. “I gave him a two day pass and radioed the border patrol.”
A few miles down the road, the border patrol stopped the van and ound instead the driver and five Jamaicans, who had walked behind the border station while Hewson was questioning the driver. The Jamaicans were deported and the driver got himself some time at a federal prison.
Another couple of visitors earned some prison time and a one-way ticket out of the country in an incident that stands out vividly in his mind, involving a Chinese woman in the trunk of a car.
“A car came over one day with a Chinese girl and two guys – one was a Greek from Billerica, Mass.,” he recalled. “They said they had spent a couple of nights in Montreal, but when I looked in the car, I didn’t see there was any luggage and I thought that was odd.”
So he had them get out of the car and set about doing an inspection of the vehicle. Eventually, he found a partition that had built into the back !of the car, cleverly camouflaged.
“I really had to look for it, but I got my finger in the crack of it and pulled and there was a woman in there,” he said. “I backed out and drew my gun.”
A search of the American man in the car yielded a loaded pistol in an ankle holster.
“I don’t know if he had planned to use it,” he said.
The woman in the trunk was deported; the others spent time at a federal prison. Ironically, had the woman stowed away in the trunk sought legal admittance into the country, it would have been Hewson who would have been reviewing her application, up until a couple of years ago.
“My job was to adjudicate applications from Chinese people who wanted to bring relatives over into this country,” he said. “I did that for 17 years.”
Up until two or three years ago, that was how Hewson passed time at the border station. He would review reams of information filed with the Immigration Department and ultimately decide situations, such as whether a family in Chinatown could bring a grandmother to this country.
“I got to know a lot of people one on one,” he said. “I used to give them my phone number so I could answer any questions they had. I got to know quite few Chinese people and for two years, my wife and I were invited to Boston to celebrate Chinese New Year’s. That’s how well I was known in Chinatown.”
But that aspect of his job was turned over to an adjudication center in St. Albans, Vt., leaving Hewson, at time, a lot of time on his hands. Regulations forbid television at the crossing station and although the Canadian customs is a stone’s throw away, visiting with that country’s border agents is out of the question, because neither side can leave their building.
Just after 1 p.m. this day, the first vehicle to come by in hours was a state truck who had plowed the last 12 miles of Route 3, stopping where it turned into Provincial Route 257. Hewson waved at the driver and waited for the next car or snowmobile to come through. Despite the seemingly slow pace, Hewson never yearned for an assignment at a busier port of call. He grew up in a small border town in upstate New York and when he was in the service, he was stationed for wo years in a remote area in British Columbia.
“Loneliness and isolation doesn’t bother me,” he said. “We had children and Pittsburg was a good place to raise them. If I want to go anywhere, I can get in my car and go.”
At 1:30 this day, two snowmobilers halt at the border station. They are a couple from Weare, who were up snowmobiling for the day, had lunch in Chartierville and were returning home. A short time after, two more snowmobilers from Moultonboro and Madame Landry from Chartierville pass through.
Hewson is regarded with affection down in the Quebec community of 250 that borders Pittsburg. When townspeople people put together a book to mark its 125th anniversary, they devoted a page to the border station and a picture of Hewson.
Over the years, he figures he has come to know most of the people in that community, as well as ‘regulars’ who’ve gone over the border to get things not readily available in this country. There are devotees of a curd cheese that squeaks when its eaten and is produced a few miles away and a couple from Bow, who periodically come north for a visit to a grocery store in La Petrie.
“The woman likes Red Rose tea and she can only get it up here,” he said.
And there are the Canadians who come in droves on spring and summer nights to watch the moose come out just down the road in the famed Moose Alley.
When Hewson locks the door of the border station for the final time at the end of the month, he will leave with no regrets. He and his wife plan to travel and spend winters in North Carolina. Summers he will spend doing some work for the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace down in Colebrook.