The railroads created a national economy in which goods could be shipped cheaply almost anywhere near a rail line and the beginning of an international economy. In 1880, just 11 years after the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Plymouth paper reported that Wilder & Co., the Ashland paper mill, was shipping paper to China via San Francisco.
There are winners and losers in a national economy. In agriculture, the farmers of New Hampshire, particularly the hill farmers around here, lost out. They could not compete with mid-western and southern farms, which had better soils and longer growing seasons. Neighboring agricultural towns Bridgewater, Holderness and New Hampton went into long population declines that actually began before the railroad arrived but were certainly accelerated by the new economy. The declines lasted into the 1920s or 1930s when their populations bottomed out and started to grow again. Bridgewater's population dropped from 784 in 1830 to 151 in 1930. New Hampton went from 1905 people in 1830 to 692 in 1930. The same decline can be seen among Ashland's farmers, but Ashland's population went in the opposite direction, growing from 885 in 1870, the first census after the formation of the town, to 1412 in 1910, then hovering in the 1300s and 1400s through World War II. The population increase was due largely to the growth of manufacturing here.
The combination of railroad access with the waterpower of the Squam River made Ashland a good place for manufacturing, which had already begun before the railroad arrived, with a paper mill in 1810 and woolen mills by 1840, but the railroad made it much easier to bring raw materials in and to ship finished products out. Whether it was woolen textiles, gloves, paper, boots and shoes, lumber, or leather board, most of Ashland’s products were made for the larger national market, not for local consumption by the few thousands of people who lived nearby.
It is hard to quantify how important the railroad was for various mills. But the prime example was the large late 19th century paper mill on the mill pond below Winter Street, one of the last mill sites developed on the Squam River, but clearly the one with the best connection to the railroad. Paper mills needed to haul in large amounts of raw materials. In the case of Wilder & Co, that was cotton, and wood pulp, wood already ground into pulp at a pulp mill, like the one at Livermore Falls. Later mills on the site also used scrap paper, which was recycled into new paper products. The products made by the Ashland paper mill included newsprint, wrapping paper, toilet paper, tissue, egg cartons, paper towels; all essentially disposable paper goods, made in large quantities to sell at low prices, which had to be shipped as cheaply as possible to markets throughout the country. So the inexpensive transportation provided by the railroad was essential to the paper mill and helped it flourish as one of our major industries for almost a century.
Part 10: This presentation of The Railroad in Ashland was delivered by David Ruell to the Ashland Historical Society on September 12, 2019 in the Ashland Railroad Station Museum.