The History of Nashua
This place, at the confluence of the mighty Merrimack, the meandering Nashua River, including Pennichuck Brook and Salmon Brook, just north of that location where the ancient north-to-south running Merrimack River takes its dramatic northeastern bend, has been inhabited for some 8,000 to 10,000 years. Spanning from today’s Concord, NH, down to Lowell, MA, and eastward to the seacoast, the Pennacook people lived and died in this place for thousands of years.
Here in the 1640’s, John Eliot "Apostle to the Indians", colonial English land speculators, soldiers, and eventually settlers encountered the great Emperor or "Bashaba" of the Pennacooks, Passaconaway and his son Wannalancit. "In 1659, a grant of 400 acres, lying at the mouth of Salmon Brook, was made to John Whiting…The land which lay between Salmon Brook and the Merrimack River was called "The Neck", and for greater security the "housne-lots" of the first settlers were laid out adjoining each other, and within The Neck."
In 1673, the Township of Dunstable, Massachusetts Bay Colony was chartered. The land area comprised some 200 square miles of land reaching up to the Souhegan River in today’s Merrimack, NH down to Tyngsboro Massachusetts and west to Hollis, NH, and east across the Merrimack River including Hudson & Litchfield, NH. The settling families came from Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, Woburn, Billerica, and Chelmsford.
The 50 years spanning 1675 through 1725, were years of open warfare in ancient Dunstable, Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was referred to in ancient documents as "the front of danger". King Philips War, Queens Anne’s War, Prince Williams War, witnessed terrible massacres and constant bloodshed at this place; it was a time of building Garrison-Houses, (the so-called Queen’s Garrison House once stood on today’s Otterson Street) and settlers never venturing beyond the homestead door without bearing firearms. Some of Nashua’s legendary names, figures, and locations were born of this wartime era including "The Harbour Pond" (todays’ Main Street Marketplace), the Hannah Dustin Monument on Alld’s Street, the Hassell Family Massacre Monument on Almont Street, the so-called "Indian-fighter" John Lovewell, and most famous the name for the north bank of the Nashua River, "Indian Head", which resulted from an Abenaki warrior carving the face of an "Indian" into a tree following a legendary 1724 battle. The seven Dunstable men who were killed in that battle are all buried at the Old South Burial Ground located on today’s Daniel Webster Highway south.
In 1746 the new Massachusetts-New Hampshire state line was incorporated, and interestingly it ran east-to-west thorough the ancient township; therefore there came to be a Dunstable, Massachusetts south of the line, and Dunstable, New Hampshire north of the line. The new town center of Dunstable, NH was established at the location of today’s Rivier College. Today, a monument stands there to mark the location of the colonial town Meeting House.
The boat was christened "The Nashua" with much parade, and the village which had until then been called "Indian Head" received the name of Nashua Village.
In 1748, Thomas Shepherd was engaged by the township to build the first bridge over the Nashua River, it was at the site of today’s Main Street Bridge, and it was a "tole-bridge"; this resulted in the laying out of today’s Main Street Nashua River at the so-called "ancient ford-way" which was located close to the confluence of the Nashua & Merrimack Rivers, at the site of today’s iron railroad bridge; for at that time Alld’s Road (now Street) was the main road north along the Merrimack River.
With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the men and families of Dunstable, NH were present from the very first days of the glorious struggle. When news of the Battle of Lexington reached Dunstable by the afternoon of April 19, 1775, many men rushed to arms and hurried to Concord, MA to participate in driving the English back to Boston. Within less than a week of the Lexington-Concord battles a company of 66 men was organized at Cambridge, MA under Capt. William Walker of Dunstable, New Hampshire. Fox’s History of Nashua states, "The whole man population of the town at this time between the ages of 16 and 50 was only 128; so that nearly one-half the able-bodied inhabitants must have been in the army at the first call of liberty, a month before the Battle of Bunker Hill. From no other town in New Hampshire was there so large a number in the army…" The soldier names included, Lovewell, Whitney, Blanchard, Lovejoy, Roby, Clogstone, Harris, Lund, Greeley, Butterfield, and Harwood, to name a few.
It is a little known fact that no less than half the men who fought on Bunker Hill the day of June 16, 1775 were New Hampshire minute-men. Many Dunstable, NH men were on Bunker Hill that day; William Harris the young drummer boy, Paul Clogstone who eventually died from his wounds, and most memorably Col. Ebenezer Bancroft; thought to be the last man on Bunker Hill, and being the man who apparently killed English Maj. John Pitcairn who led the march on Lexington & Concord. Bancroft is buried at the Old South Burial Ground on Daniel Webster Hwy. south, the ancient Bancroft family homestead once standing at the site of today’s Pheasant Lane Mall.
The 18th century agrarian township of Dunstable, NH’s only viable transportation link to the rest of the country was the Great Boston Road, today’s Main Street, Daniel Webster Highway, and old Route 3A running through Chelmsford, Billerica, Woburn, etc. Nashua’s and southern New Hampshire’s cultural, economic, social, and political foundation has from the very beginning been directed through and connected to Boston; eternally on a north-south orientation, and eternally serving as the "Gateway" or center point of travel and economic/cultural transmission between Boston and Concord, NH, along the majestic Merrimack River Valley. Nashua never looked eastward to Portsmouth, NH for its growth or orientation; never was there a great road connecting Nashua and Portsmouth.
Today’s Nashua served as the mid-way stopping point for the stage coaches running between Boston and Amherst, NH (which was the shire-town or county seat of Hillsborough County at that time). In 1800, the population of Dunstable, NH was about 750, the main business was the keeping of taverns for the teamsters traveling the Great Boston Road. At this time there were three village centers in Dunstable; The Centre Village (today’s Rivier College), The Harbour Village (at Salmon Brook), and Indian Head Village (today’s Library Hill). The taverns included Pollard’s at the town "Centre", Tyler’s Tavern at "Indian Head", Monroe’s Tavern at the "Harbour", with about four others along the Great Road (Main Street). There were some small family-run mills on Salmon Brook and the Nashua River for sawing timber, carding wool, taning hides, and many small family farms and orchards.
The coming of the Middlesex Canal in 1802 profoundly changed the relatively isolated Township of Dunstable, New Hampshire from that time on. The Middlesex Canal was a transportation canal of 26 miles in length. It connected, by water, Boston (Charlestown Harbor) with the Merrimack River at Chelmsford, MA. Where once the transportation of raw materials, such as timber, bricks, lime, granite, wool, and farm produce, from New Hampshire and Vermont proved too costly and unpredictable to engage in, now the canal provided the infrastructure, predictability, and affordability to open the country to unlimited commerce with Boston and the entire world. The canal boats were large affairs, some 75-80 feet long, and able to carry many tons of raw goods out of New Hampshire and Vermont, and likewise deliver consumer merchandise & manufactured goods up from Boston into New Hampshire and Vermont.
As Nashua historian Charles Fox wrote in 1848, "In the spring of 1803 a canal boat was built in the village, by Robert Fletcher Esq….and was looked upon as a wonder. It was the first ever built in this vicinity for regular transportation of goods…It was launched on the 4th of July…The boat was christened "The Nashua" with much parade, and the village which had until then been called "Indian Head" received the name of Nashua Village. That may be considered the birth-day of Nashua." It was also on that day, July 4, 1803 that the "Father of Nashua", born in Andover, MA, graduate of Harvard University, Dunstable, NH’s first lawyer, and all of 26 years of age, Daniel Abbot Esq. emerged as the iconic leader of the new and progressive commercial-mercantile community called "Nashua Village".
In 1821, the experimental cotton textile manufacturing township of Lowell, MA was planned and launched just 10 miles down river on the Merrimack. Boston capital, the Middlesex Canal, the mighty Pawtucket Falls, and the driving patriotic desire to attain economic independence from England by advancing domestic manufacturers, resulted in the establishment of the American Industrial Revolution.
Daniel Abbot, the Greeley brothers, Jesse Bowers, Timothy Tyler, and other Dunstable, NH commercial and government leaders witnessed and contemplated the extraordinary founding of this new industrial city just down the river. Between 1803 and 1823, they had prospered for some 20 years by the commercial-mercantile activity from the Middlesex Canal and other advances. "Nashua Village" at Dunstable, NH also had the advantage of the Middlesex Canal, the Great Boston Road, the materials to build massive cotton textile mills such as brick and timber were close at hand, the relatively flat land plain between Salmon Brook and the Nashua River for a new town, the labor pool from the surrounding farms of New Hampshire and Vermont, and most importantly and absolutely necessary "Nashua Village" had the natural wonder and massive power source of Mine Falls. Ultimately, they hired John Lund to survey the land, they as quietly as possible acquired massive tracts of land between Mine Falls and the Great Road down to the mouth of the Nashua River, and in 1823 chartered the Nashua Manufacturing Company.
The Nashua Manufacturing Co. immediately hired Asher Benjamin of Boston, recognized as one of the founding "Fathers of American Architecture", to plan, design and build the new manufacturing township of Nashua Village. Benjamin planned out the urban-grid street system- (seemingly the first in New Hampshire), the location of the massive textile factories, the laborers boarding houses, the mercantile lots, the 1825 Olive Street Church (sadly gone), the 1826 Unitarian Church (a national treasure), the Old Brick Schoolhouse on West Pearl St.; thus here was New Hampshire first large planned manufacturing township.
On February 2, 1828 the Nashua Gazette reported, "There are few villages that have increased more rapidly than Nashua Village, since the establishment of the factories in this place. The Nashua Manufacturing Co. first dug a canal of three miles in length between Mine Falls…to this village. They also commenced building a machine shop…and a cotton factory of 4 stories…which contains 120 power looms…consumes 600 bales of cotton daily and produces 1900 yards of cotton cloth daily…and employs 190 men and girls. The following year they commenced to build a second factory(between both buildings) they will contain 9556 spindles and will weave daily 8000 yards of cotton…(They) have also built 48 houses or tenements…there are now about 20 stores and 2 taverns…Two churches have been built. It is impossible to examine the factories in this place when in operation, and not view with astonishment the silence, order, and decorum which so universally prevails…It has been objected to Manufacturing Establishments, that vice and immorality are more apt to prevail there…we can bear ample testimony to the correctness of the morals of its inhabitants…The number of inhabitants in this village four years since was about 100, there are now about 1200."
Between 1823 and 1836, Nashua Village at Dunstable, New Hampshire was a "port-township". For it was the canal boats that brought the raw cotton and mercantile goods up from Boston Harbor, and transported the finished textile goods back down the Merrimack River and Middlesex Canal. The steamboat "Herald" plied the waters between Lowell and Nashua in these early days.
In 1836, Nashua Village once again demonstrated its revolutionary character, for in that year New Hampshire’s first railroad, The Nashua & Lowell Railroad was chartered. It was built and completed in 1838. The first locomotive engine ever seen in New Hampshire was in Union Square, Nashua Village in October 1838; it was then described by eyewitnesses as "a super-natural wonder". Union Square was enthusiastically renamed Railroad Square. December of 1836 also marked the point that the ancient Township of Dunstable, New Hampshire was left to history forever, and the new industrial culture was firmly advanced by officially adopting the community name as the "Town of Nashua, New Hampshire".
What came to distinguish Nashua from places such as Lowell (1821), Manchester (1839), Lawrence (1845), and other emerging industrial towns was Nashua’s diversity of industries and manufacturers. No doubt, "cotton was king" in Nashua, but by the 1840’s machine shops, iron foundries, railroad shops, manufacturers of locks, bobbin & shuttles, edge-tools, sash & doors cutting machines, and paper-printing & cutting machines, and more were concentrating on Water Street, East Hollis Street, and the Railroad yards.
In 1842, the Town of Nashua, New Hampshire divided into two separate townships resulting from feelings of insult and impropriety of selecting the location of the proposed new Town House or Town Hall. The residents north of the Nashua River were enraged over the site selected on the south side of the river. They hired Franklin Pierce (future US President) to legally represent them, and in late 1842 the New Hampshire legislature approved of the chartering of the new town on the north side of the Nashua River, Nashville, New Hampshire. After 11 years of hard-feelings, economic and political damage, and loss of regional community standing, the two owns came together, resolved their differences, adopted a city charter form of government and thus the City of Nashua, New Hampshire was introduced to the world in 1853.
In Edward Charlton’s 1856 book "New Hampshire As It Is" he describes the City of Nashua, "For variety and perfection of mechanical skill, she yields the palm to none of her sisterhood of the Granite State cities. Cotton manufacturing, though important, owes less for her than the combined benefits of other manufactures. Artificers in wood and iron, in cards, paper, leather; builders of ponderous or curious machines, makers of edge tools, locks, and shuttles; forge-men, foundry-men, and artisans of every degree and multifarious callings, together swell the sum of her benefits until the cup of her prosperity runs over."
Eventually, it was, as it is today, Nashua’s superior central location and proximity to many New England destinations that made the city the second largest in the State of New Hampshire. By 1878, six major railroad lines interconnected at Nashua. From Nashua manufacturers could ship freight and product anywhere in the world affordably and easily. It was the great economic and industrial expansion that followed the American Civil War that propelled Nashua forward to new heights.
Between 1865 and 1900, the great waves of immigrant people from across the entire globe came to work and settle their families in Nashua. African American families had been a part of the community since colonial days; the people of Ireland began arriving in the late 1830’s and in great numbers after 1846; French-Canadian families arrived from Quebec after the American Civil War and eventually became the largest "ethnic group" population in the city; young men from Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Armenia, Romania, Russia, began arriving in the late 1880’s and their families followed by the 1890’s. The Jewish neighborhood and the first Synagogue building (1899) erected in New Hampshire was located at Cross & Lock Street on French Hill. The Irish community led by the legendary Father John O’Donnell built the 1856 Church of the Immaculate Conception on Temple Street; this was Nashua’s and one of the first Roman Catholic Church’s built in New Hampshire. Nashua’s first French-Canadian Roman Catholic Church was the 1873 St. Louis de Gonzague on West Hollis Street; and the 1913 Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on Ash Street was Nashua’s first Greek Church.
Both WWI and WWII proved to keep the great textile mills, machine shops, foundries, and railroads going strong. However, a way of life and industry was changing forever in the Merrimack River Valley. By the 1930’s the massive Marrimack Manufacturing Co. in Lowell MA, and the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester, NH were coming to their demise. The great New England textile industry was heading south financially and literally. America’s southern states were building new textile mills, had few if any labor unions, had cotton in state (why transport it up north?), had cheaper access to coal, improved railroad facilities, new cities, and good ports to export from. The New England textile empire collapsed and would never come back.
The Nashua Manufacturing Company though substantially resilient and still profitable finally was acquired by Textron, Inc. of Rhode Island, and in September of 1947 liquidated. Some 2,000 Nashuans of a total population of 25,000 were permanently out of work and the city that was created to manufacture textiles had to adapt and reinvent itself or slowly decay into blight and community disintegration.
From this seemingly catastrophic event, a new city of innovation, advancement, and modernity was reborn. The now legendary men of the Nashua New Hampshire Foundation organized their efforts for love of their city and home, purchased the millions of square feet of empty textile mill buildings, and set about attracting new, diverse, and progressive industries to the "Gate City". Companies such as Nashua Plastics, Bagshaw Co., Sprague Electric, Doehla Greeting Cards, Edgecomb Steel, and most noteworthy Sanders, Inc. came to locate in the city. The old Nashua Gummed & Coated Paper Company reinvented itself as Nashua Corporation with new and advanced products. Instead of slowly dying from the loss of the textile mills, the loss brought about the nationally recognized rebirth of the City of Nashua.
With the construction of the US Interstate Highway System (the F.E Everett Turnpike) in 1956, the rise of automobile-oriented suburban development patterns, the abundance of open developable land around the historic urban core, and the affordability of new residential housing, Nashua’s population began to rise rapidly throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.
As more families came to reside in Nashua and Southern New Hampshire, large retail developments followed in their wake. Daniel Webster Highway South and Amherst Street (RT. 101A) were still country roads in the late 1960’s, but with the opening of the Nashua Mall in 1970, and the Pheasant Lane Mall in 1986, and shopping plazas along Amherst Street Nashua became an economic powerhouse as a regional tax-free retail shopping destination.
Today, the City of Nashua has a population of approximately 89,000; its 36 square miles of land are close to full "build-out"; and it enters the 21st century with more promise and potential than at any time in its long and distinguished history. Nashua’s legacy as a community of innovation, advancement, experimentation, invention, enterprise, diversity, culture, tradition, and youth stands as strong as granite, as powerful as our rivers, and as eternal as our land. The "Gate City" will go forward and continue to make history.