The Northern Railroad is historically one of New Hampshire’s earliest and longest railroads and also one of the state’s more important railroads in terms of the amount of freight carried and linear area served. It ran 69.6 miles between Concord, New Hampshire (mile marker 73.33) and White River Junction, Vermont (142.9). The Northern was the fifth railroad to operate in the state. The earliest, the Nashua & Lowell Railroad was chartered in 1835 and began operations in 1838 and was followed by the Nashua & Concord Railroad which was also chartered in 1835 but did not begin running until 1842. When the Northern Railroad was completed, there were about 450 miles of railroad in New Hampshire, about five percent of the entire railroad mileage in the country at that time. According to historian Dr. James Squires, “of the several Granite State lines that had been chartered and constructed during the 1840’s, none was better built than the Northern, few had superior advantages from the passenger and freight standpoint, and only one or two others were as financially stable and profitable”.1
In 1843 a convention was held in Lebanon to discuss the possibility of building a new railroad to connect the existing tracks at Concord with the rail lines which were converging at White River Junction in Vermont. In 1844 the New Hampshire Legislature approved a charter for the Northern Railroad to be built between Concord and the Connecticut River. There were twenty-one incorporators and fifteen thousand shares of stock were authorized. The new corporation was given the right to acquire land by eminent domain. Surveys for the railroad were begun in 1844. The first meeting of the incorporators was held in July 1845.
Several possible routes were studied for the railroad. A southern route would have passed through the Contoocook and Warner River valleys to Lake Sunapee, then extended up to Mascoma Lake and down the Mascoma River to Lebanon. A northern route would have taken the railroad up the Merrimack and Pemigewasset River valleys to Plymouth, then up the Baker and Oliverian River valley to Haverhill and Woodsville. The route chosen was the middle route, following the Merrimack River as far as Franklin, which was then the most important on the line owing to its water power. This route was also reportedly chosen because of the gentle grades between Boston and Franklin and because the first president of the company, George W. Nesmith, was a Franklin resident.2 The route west of Franklin was however encumbered by steeper grades and physical and political impediments. In response to opposition from the Shakers, the railroad deliberately skirted the Shaker community on the south side of Mascoma Lake in Enfield. The Shakers, who also owned stocks in the railroad, are said to have donated land on the opposite shore and a sum of money toward the purchase of a locomotive that was named “The Shaker”.3
1 James Squires, “The Northern Railroad of New Hampshire: 1844-1848,” B & M Bulletin, 1996, 13-14.
2 Henry McFarland, “Concord as a Railroad Center,” contained in James O. Lyford, History of Concord , New Hampshire, from the original grant in seventeen hundred and twenty-five to the opening of the twentieth century (Concord: Rumford Press, 1903), vol. 2, 888.
3 Roger Carroll, Lebanon, 1761-1994: the evolution of a resilient New Hampshire city (West Kennebunk, Maine: Phoenix Publishing), 71.