History of Lebanon

Lebanon has had many beginnings, most of them lost to history. One of its first was around 11,000 BCE, when the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered millions of square miles across North America under a mile of ice, retreated north to once again expose Lebanon’s soil to the air. Another beginning was when, around the same time, the first humans settled in what would later become New Hampshire. Paleoindians took advantage of the newly accessible land and the influx of wildlife into the area, and would call the region home for millennia.

 Another beginning was when glacial Lake Hitchcock, which covered much of West Lebanon, drained around 10,000 BCE. As told by the Abenaki, Ktsi Amiskw, the Great Beaver, built a dam to block the Connecticut River. He hoarded the waters for himself and flooded the upper river valley, causing drought throughout the lower valley. The warrior Gluskabe fought and defeated Ktsi Amiskw, releasing the river to nurture life downstream and uncovering rich farmland upstream.

 Untold other beginnings followed as the descendants of New Hampshire’s original inhabitants grew and thrived. Western Abenaki inhabited Vermont and New Hampshire during the Woodland period, which lasted from around 800 BCE until the arrival of the European colonists around 1600 CE. The confluence of the Mascoma and Connecticut Rivers made Lebanon valuable territory for the Abenaki: easily accessible by water, with rich soil, a relatively long growing season, and abundant wildlife for hunting. The Abenaki—including the Sokoki, whose territory was centered around Northfield, Massachusetts, and the Koasek, who were centered in Newbury, Vermont—lived seasonally in Lebanon, returning to their winter villages for the long harsh season.

One of the Abenaki’s last beginnings was first contact with the Europeans, who arrived initially as traders and explorers, and later as invaders and colonizers. North America’s indigenous people suffered massive population loss in the 17th and 18th centuries as European colonists introduced catastrophic illnesses to New England. Warfare further reduced the diminished population, and by the time of Lebanon’s charter in 1761, most of the region’s Abenaki residents had either retreated north to one of the few surviving communities or assimilated into colonial society.

 The beginning about which we know the most is when European colonists began moving to Lebanon in 1761. The first of these settlers were already familiar with the area, having passed through Lebanon via the Connecticut River during the French and Indian War. The colonists petitioned Governor Benning Wentworth for a charter for a new town in 1761. He granted the request, despite the fact that the land was unceded and still belonged to the Abenaki people. Four colonists wintered in Lebanon in 1762, and the first colonial family moved to Lebanon the following year. By 1767, Lebanon’s population was already 162, ushering in 20 years of growth: by 1790, Lebanon would boast a population of 1,180.

Lebanon’s growth was made possible both by the rapid influx of new colonists and by the water-powered mills that supported the growing population. The town’s first mill was a sawmill built by Oliver Davison in West Lebanon in 1763. Until the completion of Lebanon’s first gristmill in 1766, residents would transport their grain to Fort Number 4 in Charlestown, New Hampshire—a roundtrip of 70 miles, testifying to the vital importance of a gristmill to the fledgling community. These early mills were soon joined by other sawmills and gristmills, as well as by cloth mills. By 1817, Lebanon was home to 20 mills, relying on the energy of the Connecticut and Mascoma Rivers to power their production. Industrial centers developed across Lebanon: in East Lebanon at the foot of Mascoma Lake; at the foot of Benton Hill west of Colburn Park; in Scytheville at the base of Slayton Hill; and in Butmanville, near the confluence of the Mascoma and Connecticut Rivers. These mills produced furniture, metal tools, machinery, and, increasingly as the century progressed, woolen textiles.

Transportation played a critical role in Lebanon’s continuing growth in the 19th century. Lebanon’s central village grew up around the intersection of the Fourth New Hampshire Turnpike (modern US Route 4) and the Croydon Turnpike (modern NH Route 120). The new turnpikes connected Lebanon with neighboring communities, while the Connecticut River provided access to the region’s major population centers and, most importantly, their commercial markets.

 The most important transportation development, however, was the arrival of the Northern Railroad in 1847, connecting Lebanon with Concord and Boston to the southeast, and, several years later, with Burlington and Montreal to the northwest. Once the railroad reached West Lebanon the following year, it became the village’s defining feature. Residents worked onboard the locomotives, built and maintained the railyard, and labored in the booming agricultural and manufacturing industries that now had nearly unlimited access to the largest cities in the northeast. The trip to Concord was transformed from a full day’s journey into one of only several hours, and a journey to Boston was reduced from six days into just one. The effect on Lebanon’s residents was immediate and dramatic, but the effect on its industry was incalculable. Lebanon’s industry was no longer restricted to the local market or subject to costly and slow transportation by river or via an unreliable road system. Thanks to the railroad, Lebanon's mills and manufacturing (not to mention population) boomed in both number and scale throughout the second half of the 19th century.

 As Lebanon expanded, however, so too did the scale of its tragedies. Lebanon’s first large-scale fire devastated East Lebanon at the foot of Mascoma Lake in 1840, destroying the burgeoning hub and permanently relegating the area to the shadow of the Lebanon central and West Lebanon villages. The second such fire in 1887, Lebanon’s first “great fire,” leveled the central village and nearly all of its industry. However, this fire proved insufficient to quash the village’s industry, which was largely rebuilt within five years. It did, however, serve to concentrate manufacturing into the woolen mills that would dominate Lebanon’s industry for the next three-quarters of a century.

The woolen mills played a large part in Lebanon’s growth throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Mills like the Lebanon Woolen Mill and the Everett Knitting Works would employ hundreds of Lebanon’s residents over multiple generations. Lebanon’s population surged as more families and individuals moved to town to work in the mills, including hundreds of immigrants from Quebec. The success of the mills helped to establish Lebanon as an influential regional powerhouse, and the influx of new residents from a variety of backgrounds and cultures transformed the once homogenous town into a more diverse and inclusive community.

The importance of the woolen mills in Lebanon’s industry and culture proved dangerous, however, as the woolen industry experienced a sharp decline in the first half of the 20th century. Lebanon’s mills began closing during the Great Depression, and the city’s last textile mill closed in 1963. At the same time, rail travel was being superseded by automobile travel, and railroad passenger service to Lebanon ended in 1965. The city rallied in the face of these industrial and commercial challenges, however, and new manufacturing, engineering, and medical industries developed throughout the 20th century. The loss of the railroad was tempered by the construction of Interstate 89, which brought new travelers to Lebanon and boosted the area’s automobile service and tourism industries. 

The second half of the 20th century was in many ways defined by Lebanon’s response to these dramatic changes and by its unique balance of resiliency and adaptation. In 1956, Lebanon voted to become a city, and the first City Council elections were held in 1957, with the first Council installed in January 1958. Lebanon’s status as a city was therefore still fresh when it faced one of its most serious crises in 1964, when Lebanon experienced its second “great fire.” The fire destroyed most of the Hanover Street commercial district, which was then declared a federal disaster area: 20 buildings were destroyed, 20 businesses and 100 residents were displaced, and two people were killed. In the aftermath, the city acquired federal urban renewal funding to convert the formerly bustling main street into a pedestrian mall.

The final decades of the 20th century represented a period of increasing diversification in Lebanon and the Upper Valley. The industries that had begun to develop as the mill era drew to a close continued to grow, and engineering and medical innovators came to dominate the area’s industry. The nascent commercial district in West Lebanon, built on what had once been some of the city’s most fertile farmland, expanded into a mile-long shopping and entertainment hub. Lebanon’s population began to diversify as people from different backgrounds and countries moved to Lebanon and came to call the city home.

Today, Lebanon honors its past while adapting for the future. The city boasts a population of over 15,000 residents, with a daytime population of more than double that number. Many of Lebanon’s former mills have been converted into commercial venues and residences, and the railroad tracks that once served as the region’s major artery of trade and transportation have been converted into recreation paths and trails.

For more information about Lebanon’s past, please visit the Lebanon Heritage Commission and Lebanon Historical Society websites below, or contact the City Historian via the Boards & Committees Contact Form (under Heritage Commission).

Adapted from Lebanon by City Historian Nicole Ford Burley (Arcadia, 2023)

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