Historic Walks - Laconia River Tour

Laconia River Walk

Between 1825 and 1925, the Merrimack River watershed in New Hampshire and Massachusetts was one of the nation’s most productive industrial centers. The largest source of water was Lake Winnipesaukee, which occupies 72 square miles. The lake’s outlet, the Winnipesaukee River, dropped nearly 200 feet before it joined the Pemigewasset River 20 miles south at Franklin to form the Merrimack. Four industrial towns – Laconia, Tilton, Northfield and Franklin – developed along the banks of the Winnipesaukee. Laconia is the largest with a land are of 20 square miles. This Riverwalk is designed to introduce some of the changes that Laconia experienced. We hope you enjoy the Riverwalk on foot, in a car, on a bike or via canoe or kayak. THE RIVERWALK The Riverwalk, a solid black line on the map at the bottom of the page, is a moderate 1.03-mile stretch that can be started at any site. A shorter route, dotted line on the map, is a .3-mile walk. The properties marked with an asterisk (*) in the text are listed on the National Historic Register.

1. Avery Dam – near pedestrian bridge. About 1791, Daniel Avery built a wooden dam to control the water to power local mills. In 1949, it was replaced by a concrete structure. In 1976, the State Water Resources Board and Allen-Rogers Corporation (#18) funded six electronically controlled gates. Today, Algonquin Power Systems, Inc., manages the operation. On the other side of the river are the areas of the original Franco-American neighborhoods, at Avery Hill, east of Union Avenue; in the Winter Street area; and in Lakeport. For years, many people walked down the hill to work in the mills.

2. Busiel Mill* – One Mill Plaza Built in 1853, with later additions, this mill became Laconia’s largest hosiery company for a time. Mill owner John W. Busiel helped introduce “Shaker knit” socks here. After the knitting industry declined, clocks, electronic relays and organs were made here. In 9171, One Mill Plaza, Inc. bought the building and converted it for office use. The adaptation won an award from the American Institute of Architects. According to historian Bryant Tolles, this mill is “one of the most striking and best designed small Victorian mill complexes in New Hampshire.”

3. Belknap Mill* – The Mill Plaza According to architectural historian Richard Candee, the Belknap Mill is one of the nation’s most important mills. (See Factory Architecture.) It was built in 1823 to manufacture wool and cotton cloth. In 1861, during the Civil War, it was one of the first mills in the country to convert from weaving to knitting. Socks were made here until 1869, when the mill was converted in a cultural center. The bell in the tower was cast by George Holbrook, an apprentice to Paul Revere. The hydroelectric power plant was added in 1918. During Urban Renewal, many mill buildings surrounded the Belknap Mill were demolished, including one between the Belknap Mill and river. The Belknap Mill Society was the first organization to receive federal funds and an award from the National Trust for preserving an industrial structure. The effort was covered in LIFE and Yankee magazines and the comic strip Archie. For tours of the building, ask at the lobby or call (603)524-8813.

4. Rotary Riverside Park – Beacon Street East Mill buildings were removed here to create a parking lot in 1969. In 1994, the Belknap Mill Society (#3) conducted a feasibility study funded by the NH State Council on the Arts to convert the parking lot into a park. Laconia Rotary Club led the effort to raise $171,000 in cash and in-kind gifts. Architect Paul Mirski, whose adaptive use design of the Belknap Mill won a national award, designed the bandstand. The city donated labor and equipment and maintains the park. The Belknap Mill Society and the Downtown Association plan concerts sponsored by the Laconia Putnam Fund. This project won Laconia Rotary Club and the city awards from the governor in 1998. It won the Belknap Mill Society a National Museum Service Award from the Institute of Museum & Library Services, presented at the White House in 1998.

5. Stewart Park – Union Avenue Stewart Park was once the site of stores and factories, including the Gilford Mercantile and Manufacturing Company, followed by the Clow and Cormier hosiery mills. The park was dedicated in 1973 and named after Paul N. Stewart, who chaired the Laconia Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which controls the city’s Urban Renewal projects.

6. 84 Union Ave – Erected in 1922, this building was once part of a complex owned by the Pitman Manufacturing Company, the city’s largest producer of wool and cotton hosiery for a time. Established in 1868 as Pitman, Tilton & Company, the company had 250 employees by 1890. The building located at 100 Union Ave. was also part of the complex and was used for offices as well as to board socks (a heating process to give socks their shape before packaging).

7. 89 Union Ave – This structure was originally occupied by the Beaman Box factory, which for a while produced 100,000 boxes per year for hosiery and needle companies. Part of the Laconia Needle Company was later located here followed by J.H. Valliere Plumbing & Heating and Precision Mechanical Contractors.

8. 117 Union Ave – About 1880, Warren D. Huse moved his business here to manufacture knitting machines. (A 1904 Huse knitting machine is on exhibit at the Belknap Mill, #3). The business expanded to include the manufacture and repair of engines, yarn winders and bicycles, and the sale and installation of plumbing and heating equipment. Laconia Needle Company also occupied this building from 1907 until 1962, when the Beauchaine Company took over the property. Vernitron-Beau Products Division later manufactured electronic components here until 1988.

9. Sluiceway Gate – Behind the Busiel Mill This gate controlled the flow of water that once powered mills. A canal, or sluice, carried water from the river above the Avery Dam to the Busiel (#2) and the Belknap (#3) mills. Water passed through archways at the base of each mill to turbines under the buildings to power machinery. During Urban Renewal in the 1970s, the canal (#10) was closed and archways were filled.

10. Perley Canal – indicated on map Between 1800 and 1830, Stephen Perley built a canal to carry water from the river above the Avery Dam (#1) to power mills. Perley was a farmer who also managed a general store and several sawmills. As the town grew, he established shops that made nails, starch, linseed oil and cotton cloth. He was also involved in the Belknap Mill (#3). The Perley Canal connects the Winnipesaukee River, near Church Street, to the complex once owned by the Laconia Car Company. Today, the canal is a concrete tunnel that runs beneath the city. To trace the canal, begin at the parking lot behind the Post Office (1917-1919) and cross Beacon Street East to Canal Street. Turn left on Main Street and then right over to Beacon Street West to the former Laconia Car Company Complex (#18). The canal ends there at the water-driven turbine.

11. John W. Busiel House* – 30 Church Street The rectory of St. Joseph Church since 1929, this house was constructed in 1865 for John Weymouth Busiel and his wife Julia M. Tilton. At the time, they had three grown sons. Busiel came to Laconia in 1846 and ran a hosiery mill here until his death in 1872 (#3). His eldest son Charles, born in Meredith in 1842, was Laconia’s first mayor and later became a governor of New Hampshire. Laconia architect Arthur L. Davis designed the house as a “French villa.” He was a well-respected architect, whose design was accepted for the New Hampshire pavilion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

12. Laconia Public Library* – 693 Main Street Built in 1901-1903, the library was designed by Boston architect Charles Brigham. According to architectural historian David Ruell, it is “New Hampshire’s most important Romanesque Revival library building.”

13. Laconia Passenger Station – Veterans Square In 1848 the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad reached Laconia, allowing residents to travel to Concord for 80 cents and Boston for $2.30. Established in 1889, the Concord & Montreal Railroad funded many grand passenger stations, including this one, built in 1891-92. New York architect Bradford Lee Gilbert designed the building in the Romanesque Revival style. The city widened the street to accommodate increasing traffic and provide a new gateway to the city. After railroad passenger traffic declined, the city bought the building in 1958. The Chamber of Commerce moved its offices here in 1966. Now privately owned, the station is home to stores, offices and restaurants.

14. Evangelical Baptist Church* – Veterans Square After the First Congregational Church on South Main Street burned in 1836, a new building was erected on a site between today’s Stafford House (1913) and the library (#12). Architect Arthur L. Davis remodeled the church in 1871. After damage from a fire and explosion in the Masonic Temple (#15), the church was sold to the People’s Christian Church Society (later the Evangelical Baptist Church) and moved to the present location in 1903. The city then widened Church Street. In 1938, a hurricane destroyed the upper steeple and belfry, which were replaced the next year. The wing was added in 1957.

15. Masonic Temple – 653 Main Street When the Masonic Temple was built in 1892, Main Street was primarily residential, and many people wondered why the Mount Lebanon Lodge chose this location. The next year, Laconia was incorporated as a city, and the post office, as well as city offices, were moved to the building. A hardware store occupied one area on the first floor and stored dynamite in the basement. In 1902, a fire resulted in a massive explosion. The temple was rebuilt on the site in 1903.

16. Piscopo Block – 633-637 Main Street Built in 1925-26, the Piscopo Block was one of many business ventures of Benjamin Piscopo and helped make Main Street more commercial. A drug store, a bookstore and a series of music stores occupied the site over time. Piscopo was born in Italy and immigrated to Boston as a teenager. He made his fortune in real estate and bought a summer residence in Winnisquam. Later, he built a house in Laconia on the corner of Pleasant Street and Gale Avenue. Prior to his death in 1926, Piscopo paid more city taxes annually than anyone else.

17. Colonial Theater Building – 615 Main Street Benjamin Piscopo, a real estate developer, built the Colonial Theater in 1913 – 1914. Until he built the block behind the theater, Canal Street was primarily used as a shortcut between Beacon and Main streets. The theater originally had 1,400 seats. Early programs included vaudeville acts and motion pictures. The stage was used for recitals, meetings, high school graduations and cooking classes. From about 1980 to 2000, the owners operated it as a movie theater. The Perley Canal (#10) runs beneath part of the building. Walk along Main Street and look for a drain cover in the sidewalk to see a sign of the canal.

18. Laconia Car Company Complex – Water Street and Beacon Street West In 1848, the C. Ranlet Car Manufacturing Company (later called the Laconia Car Company) established its business here. The complex includes 54 buildings with woodworking shops, foundries, painting shops and warehouses on 14 acres. By 1899, the company was consuming 4 million feet of lumber per year to make railroad cars and later trolley cars. By 1912, the industry was the city’s largest employer, with 1,000 workers. After the company closed in the early 1930s, the site was divided among other businesses. Allen-Rogers owned a large portion from 1934 to 1999. Its factory, partially powered by a water-driven turbine at the end of the canal (#10), made a variety of wood turned products, including golf tees and eggs for an annual children’s program at the White House. New owners closed the company in 1998 and began negotiating with the city to sell the water rights to Algonquin Power Systems, Inc., which maintains the Avery Dam today (#1). Text by Mary Rose Boswell. Reproduced with permission from the Belknap Mill Society.

To order copies of the full Riverwalk brochure contact the Belknap Mill Society at The Mill Plaza, Laconia, NH 03246. (603) 524-8813

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