Laconia: City on the Lakes

Photo Courtesy of Bill Hemmel

Laconia Aerial Photo Courtesy of Bill Hemmel
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A Bit of Laconia History

Laconia was established as a city in 1893. In 1855, Laconia had been incorporated as a town from lands at Meredith Bridge, Lakeport, Weirs and from a part of Gilmanton. The town's name was likely taken from the name of the original company formed by the Captain John Mason and the Masonian proprietors in order to sell parcels to the original colonists during the colonial era: the Laconia Company. Laconia is the county seat for New Hampshire's Belknap County which was established by the legislature in 1840 (and named in honor of one of the most notable historians of the state, Dr. Jeremy Belknap). Prior to the establishment of Belknap County, the area now Laconia was in Strafford County (1773 -1841) and prior to that, the area was originally in Rockingham County (1771-1773). Belknap County originally was made up of eight former Strafford County towns: Alton, Barnstead, Centre Harbor, Gilford, Gilmanton, Meredith, New Hampton and Sanbornton. Currently, Belknap County includes Laconia (from Meredith in 1855) and ten towns.

The native inhabitants had long established one of the region's largest settlements at the Acquadocton Village located at the point now known as the Weirs, named after the wooden fishing weirs of woven branches set in the waterway at that point by the native peoples. The Weirs location had been visited by Europeans as early as 1652 by the Endicott surveying party, a point now marked by Endicott Rock. The Europeans did not return to permanently settle the area for quite some time owing to the series of colonial wars being waged across northeastern America during this period between the English (along with their Indian allies) and the French (along with their Indian allies). The last of these wars, the one Americans commonly call the French and Indian War, was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The township of Gilmanton was granted east of the Winnipesaukee River in 1727, and a colonial fort was built in the location now Laconia in 1746. European colonists, however, did not finally settle in the Laconia area until 1761, that settlement being called Meredith Bridge and situated in what is now downtown Laconia.

The settlement was for the most part self-sufficient, the settlers producing their own food, clothing and other necessities. The main trade center for New Hampshire was Portsmouth and the settlement was connected to Portsmouth by a road initiated by Governor John Wentworth, who wished to have a route from Portsmouth to Canada other than the Connecticut River. That road is the route now along Pease Road and Parade Road and on through town along Pleasant, Province and (in part) Main streets to Route 107. Starting in 1765, lumber, wheat and corn mills were quickly established near what is now Mill Street. Taverns soon followed on what is now Parade Road (Farrar Tavern, 1782, and Davenport Tavern, 1785).

Manufacturing mills began to appear early in the 19th century; indeed, in 1800, the Bean Carding Mill was built. In 1813, the Avery Mill was opened. The importance of the thriving settlement to the region can be seen by its selection as a site for the court, built about 1822. In 1832, regional industrial growth based on water power was marked by the building of the Belknap Mill. Currently restored but nearly unaltered, this textile mill, still standing in the heart of Laconia, is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and is the oldest such structure in the United States. (A second distinction for the Mill is that its water-powered wheelhouse from the early 1900's that once supplied electricity to the downtown area is the last of its kind in America.) At the formation of Belknap County in 1840, the courthouse was designated the county court, establishing the settlement as the county seat .

This period was also notable for the expansion and improvement of the regional roads with many major routes being established. Not only did the roadways in the region improve throughout the 19th century, but railroads also arrived in the area. By 1849, there was rail service provided by the Boston-Concord and the Montreal Railroad through Laconia to Lake Village, the Weirs and Meredith. During the same period, steamboats were appearing on Lake Winnipesaukee. The first such vessel, built at Lake Village in 1833, was the S.S. Belknap (like the county, named for Jeremy Belknap). In 1848, the Winnipesaukee Steamboat Company was formed.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, industry grew in Laconia in many different areas of endeavor (lumber, textiles, shoes, hosiery, knitting machinery and needles for knitting machines); the increasing labor needs of the region were met in large part by immigration of French Canadians, many settling in East Lake Village. Among the emerging industries for the region was tourism, spurred by the growth of the railroad and the steamship lines. Lodging needs for these tourists were met by boarding houses and large hotels. Transportation needs within the city for tourists and residents alike during this period were met by trolley cars and the Ranlet Car Company, at first a builder of railcars, played an important role in the city's development. The car company became the city's largest employer, expanding to the building of trolley cars and subway cars. The Laconia Car Company was operated from 1848 through to the 1930's.

With the city's growth as an industrial center came a growing need for fire protection and early private fire brigades were set up in the city by manufactures to protect their facilities. The services of these fire brigades were made available to the public as well by the companies which had set them up. The main incentive for establishing this service was the Great Fire of 1860 which destroyed most of the property on Main Street from Mill Street to Water Street on November 21 of that year. These private fire-fighting companies were well established by the 1870's with fire houses, men in uniform, and up-to-date equipment. A horse-drawn Amoskeag Steamer (a steam-powered water pump) and its fire brigade were photographed in Laconia in 1875. In 1888, a photograph of a large fire company is notable for its two hose wagons and its hook and ladder. Upon the establishment of Laconia as a city, the City Council as one of its first acts voted to have the Weirs firehouse built and that structure was complete in 1894. Fire brigades and, later, departments were called in by telegraph and, later, by telephone. In winter, equipment was placed on trains to get it as close to the fire as road conditions would allow. It is worth noting that there were two major disasters in the early 1900's: in 1902 there was an explosion which destroyed the Masonic temple and the adjacent livery stable. On May 26, 1903, a fire destroyed Lakeport, with fire companies being brought in by train from as far as Dover, NH, to fight the Great Lakeport Fire.

As electricity came to the area (thanks largely to the abundant water power available), the horse-drawn trolleys were replaced with electric ones and the last horsecar run was made in 1898. The car building shops continued to operate until they closed down in the 1930's, but other manufacturing remained in the area into the 1960's. The heavy industries eventually relocated, but Laconia revitalized its downtown during the 60's and 70's and now the region has light manufacturing and high-tech industry as well as a solid base of professionals and service industries. Very important to the area now, of course, is the four-season tourist industry.

 

 

 

 

 

(written by Diana Ferguson (1999), compiled from the following sources: Comments (not dated) of Philip Mason Marston, Late Professor of History, University of New Hampshire (provided by the City Manager's office); the Gale Memorial Library museum collection, Laconia; Chief George Landry of the Laconia Fire Department; New Hampshire Manuals (the "Red Books"), 1893, 1905, 1941 and 1977 (published by the Office of the Secretary of State of New Hampshire); New Hampshire, Crosscurrents in History, by Nancy Heffernan (1988); Columbia Encyclopedia (1993); and, Laconia, by Warren D. Huse (1995), from the Images of America series. Photographs throughout site prepared by Everett Ferguson from the following sources: the Gale Memorial Library museum collection, Laconia; Laconia Historical Society calendars from the Gage Memorial Library, Laconia; Laconia, by Warren D. Huse (1995), from the Images of America series; Everett Ferguson photographs, marked EF.)

 
 
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