See also A Lebanon Timeline
A Brief History of Lebanon
Excerpts from the 1993 Master Plan
Much of Lebanon has a natural definition consisting of two distinct northern New England towns nestled in valleys rich in natural and human history. This landscape provides a clearly-definable “sense of place.”
The Mascoma and Connecticut Rivers meander through or alongside the City with quiet waters and stretches of turbulent waters. The Mascoma River serves a dual role of linking the eastern and the western ends of the City and of partitioning the north from the south. The Connecticut River serves as a landmark that defines the City limits on the west and ties the northwest section of Lebanon with the southwest corner.
Lebanon is characterized by ridgelines surrounding the bottomlands of these rivers. In the Mascoma basin, Crafts Hill, Quarry Hill, Signal Hill, and Mount Tug form the northern rim, while Bass Hill, Storrs Hill, and Farnum Hill define the southern boundary of the valley. Mount Finish, Bald Hill, Crafts Hill, and Colburn Hill define the eastern rim of the Connecticut River Valley. These prominences trend on a north/south axis and give Lebanon’s terrain a strong, undulating form. These major ridgelines and especially certain prominences such as Storrs/Farnum Hill, Mount Support, Mount Tug, and Signal Hill lend natural definition to the City.
In this natural setting Lebanon took form resulting in its present cultural landscape. The City’s early use of land resembed the historic European development pattern that is, a dense urban center surrounded by agricultural uses and forested open spaces. Two such urban centers now exist, one in central Lebanon and the other located in western Lebanon. It is within these areas that the commercial, civic, and dense residential land uses emerged and continue to function.
Lebanon was one of sixteen towns on the Connecticut River to receive a charter from Benning Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire in 1761. In that year, four men settled on the bank of the Connecticut River near what is now Wilder Dam; the first family arrived the following year.
The settlers constructed a sawmill on the Mascoma River in the western end of town in 1763 and a bridge in 1767. Early settlers built cabins on the intervales. The oldest surviving house in Lebanon today, the old Hall place on South Main Street in West Lebanon, was built in 1766. The first schoolhouse, a log structure built in 1768 on the King’s Highway in West Lebanon, west of the present airport, was also the town’s first public building. Four years later the first meetinghouse was built on Seminary Hill in West Lebanon, destined to stand only ten years before being moved to a new location on Farnum Hill.
From a town with 162 inhabitants in 1767, Lebanon grew to 1,579 inhabitants by 1800. A blend of agriculture and industry has characterized Lebanon since its incorporation. The town’s early development was based on subsistence farming with industries producing lumber, flour, and cloth. The initial pattern of settlement was southward along the Connecticut River, but gradually moved from the River into Farnum and Storrs Hills.
During the period between 1800 and 1830, subsistence farming was transformed to commercial farming as transportation along the Connecticut River was supplemented by the completion of the Fourth New Hampshire Turnpike, linking Lebanon to the seacoast, and by the incorporation of the Croydon Turnpike in 1804, allowing fast transport of food products. The convergence of the rivers and these turnpikes in Lebanon along with the White River Turnpike and the Hanover Branch Turnpike supported a number of inns and public houses in town along these well-travelled routes and provided an excellent location for industrial development.
Spurred by the 1828 tariff which protected domestic wool, sheep raising dominated agricultural activity in Lebanon until about 1845. Grazing and other farming activities reduced the town’s woodland to less than 20% of the area of the town as compared to 80% in 1800. By 1850, a marked shift in population, characterized by rapid growth of the urban population and slow decline in the rural areas, was apparent in Lebanon as well as most of New England.
Unable to compete with the western wool industry, the town’s agricultural emphasis subsequently focused on dairy herds rather than sheep. Two creameries were established in Lebanon in the 1880s. Dairy farming continued to be the chief agricultural pursuit through the 20th century. With the reduction in pasture land due to dairying, Lebanon began to return to its predominantly wooded state.
Beginning about 1800, business activity in Lebanon shifted from the Connecticut River to Payne’s Mills, known later as Lebanon City, located at the outlet of Mascoma Lake in East Lebanon. Initial development here, along Hibbard and Great Brooks, was prompted by the construction of a dam, sawmill, and gristmill in 1778. The establishment of a textile mill, wool carding establishment, slate quarry, and furniture factory increased the village’s importance until a fire in 1840 destroyed most of the mills. They were never rebuilt, returning East Lebanon, as it is known today, to its rural character.
Another nucleus of population began to grow in what is now Lebanon Center following the construction of the Town Meetinghouse in 1792. The first industry here was a gristmill, followed by fulling and linseed oil mills. Not until the middle of the century were the assets of the Mascoma River utilized and urbanization begun. The demise of East Lebanon, the superiority of the water provided by the Mascoma River, and the availability of railroad transportation all encouraged the growth of Lebanon Center.
With the exception of a decrease during the 1830s, Lebanon maintained slow but steady population growth between 1800 and 1860. The decade between 1860 and 1870 resulted in a 26% increase in Lebanon’s population, reaching 3,094 in 1870. During this period large numbers of French-speaking Canadians immigrated to Lebanon to work in the mills.
Also significant was an 1866 town resolution which extended a hearty invitation to manufacturing capital; two important Lebanon firms – Carter and Churchill and H.W. Carter and Sons – were founded during this period.
The industrial development of Lebanon Center after 1848 was characterized by three basic industries centering around iron, wood, and wool. By 1887, iron factories had been reduced to specialization in fewer items, since Lebanon could not compete with other manufacturing areas with ready sources of iron and coal.
A major fire in 1887, which destroyed some 80 buildings on 12 acres in Central Lebanon, was largely responsible for completing the evolution from furniture factories to woolen mills. Nearly the entire manufacturing community was destroyed. Many residences, tenement houses, commercial buildings, and enterprises, including the furniture businesses, never resumed operations. Growth of the woolen mills was further advanced by labor advantages stemming from the untapped labor supply of women, the superiority of the soft water of the Mascoma River for bleaching and dying, and the increased capacity of the dams upstream.
The concentration or variety of industry was never to match earlier levels after the fire. Smaller shops and mills gave way to larger operations. Despite the effects of the fire, Lebanon population between 1880 and 1890 increased by 12.2%. Rapid growth of other industries lessened the impact of the disaster which had left some 600 people unemployed. The 1890’s saw an additional 24% increase in growth, bringing the population to 4,965 persons in 1900.
Private water and telephone services were introduced in 1883 with electricity following in 1890. This period of growth was also characterized by a building boom, evidenced in commercial structures such as the National Bank and the Whipple Block in Lebanon Center, as well as many existing residences.
Despite difficult times during the Depression, the woolen industry maintained an important role in Lebanon’s economy through the 1940s and 1950s until the closing of the Mascoma Mills in 1953. The arrival of the E. Cummings Tannery in the late 1930s which located on the site of what was once Lebanon’s largest mill, insured that downtown Lebanon would remain an industrial center. The Tannery closed in 1980 and was razed the following year.
Major transportation developments including the completion of Lebanon Airport in 1942, the construction of Interstate 89 through town to connect with Interstate 91 across the river, and the abandonment of the railroad have made it possible for industries to establish in outlying areas instead of at sources of power and rail transportation which once dictated the location of industries.
A new charter establishing the city of Lebanon with a mayor-council form of government was approved by the State Legislature and adopted by the voters in 1957.
Lebanon’s second major fire, in June 1964, destroyed 20 downtown buildings and caused an estimated $3 million worth of damage in much the same location as the fire of 1887. Destroyed were most of the city’s late 19th century mill and commercial structures, replaced several years later by a pedestrian mall, new traffic patterns, and newly built streets and bridges.
Lebanon’s railroad era was brought to a close with the end of passenger service in the 1960s and the subsequent abandonment of the freight lines in the 1980s. Additional development of roads resulted in changes in population distribution. Many areas formerly considered rural are now becoming desirable locations for residential housing subdivisions. West Lebanon, whose growth was influenced by its railroad station and river crossing to Vermont, has grown into an urban center in its own right and beginning in the 1960s became a regional shopping center. Lebanon has maintained steady population growth in the 20th century.
While the 1960-70 decade saw the smallest population gain in Lebanon’s history (4.6%), the ensuing decade of the 70s saw the rate jump to 14.5%. The development of Lebanon’s own commercial base, as well as the expansion of Dartmouth College and Mary Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover and the V.A. Hospital in White River Junction, fueled the major portion of this increase.
Development in the 1980s included additional growth along Route 12A and a number of housing projects. The decade of the eighties concluded with the City approving the relocation of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center to Lebanon. DHMC opened in 1991 and is now the major employer in the City.