In retrospect it is remarkable how quickly the railroad network developed in New England and how quickly it reached Holderness village. The Boston & Lowell Railroad, chartered in 1830, was the first New England steam railroad to actually be completed, with the first train arriving in Lowell in June, 1835.
The Nashua & Lowell, the first New Hampshire railroad, was chartered in 1835, after the Boston & Lowell was completed and was opened to Nashua in 1838. The Concord Railroad was completed from Nashua to Concord in 1842. Concord became a railroad hub, with the Concord & Claremont RR to the west, the Concord & Portsmouth RR to the east, the Northern RR up the west bank of the Merrimack to Franklin and then east to Lebanon and White River Junction, and the Boston, Concord & Montreal RR, which had a grandiose name, but the main line actually ran from Concord to Wells River, Vermont, up the east side of the Merrimack from Concord to Tilton, than along the Winnipesaukee River and Paugus Bay through Laconia to Lake Winnipesaukee and Meredith village, then through the Lake Winona - Ames Brook gap in the hills to Holderness (now Ashland) village, up the Pemigewasset valley to Plymouth, then northwest through the Baker River Valley and Oliverian Notch to Haverhill and the Connecticut River.
The Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad was incorporated by the state legislature in 1844. Obadiah Smith was one of the incorporators named in the bill. Residences were not given in the bill, but the only Obadiah Smith in New Hampshire in the 1840 and 1850 censuses is our Obadiah Smith, the builder of the Whipple House, so at least one Ashland person was an early supporter.
Construction of the BC&M RR began in Concord in February1846 and proceeded north in sections. The first section opened to Sanbornton Bridge, now Tilton, in May 1848. The railroad reached Meredith Bridge, now Laconia, in August 1848, and Meredith village in March 1849. Foggs Crossing in New Hampton became the end of the line on July 5, 1849. Service to Holderness Village began on December 3, 1849, to Plymouth in January 1850 and to Warren in June 1851. The BC&M stalled there for nearly two years because of opposition from a Vermont railroad, the Connecticut & Passumpic on the west side of the Connecticut River that did not want any of its traffic siphoned off by a New Hampshire railroad. Finally the BC&M RR bought an existing privately owned highway toll bridge over the Connecticut and rebuilt it in Woodsville as a two tier bridge, with a highway in the lower level beneath the railroad on top of the roof. The BC&M finally opened to Wells River, Vermont on May 10, 1853.
Other railroads were built as branches of the BC&M Railroad. The most important to our story is the Pemigewasset Valley Railroad, completed from Plymouth to North Woodstock in 1883, and extended to the new mill village of Lincoln in 1892.
The BC& M RR never made much money and did not pay any dividends to its shareholders in its first 36 years of operation. So in 1884, it was leased to the Boston & Lowell RR for 99 years. The Boston & Lowell did begin to modernize the line, (note the picture of the locomotive Ashland, built for the BC&M in 1877, with the Boston & Lowell name on it). However, there were BC&M stockholders who did not like this arrangement with the Boston & Lowell, and fought the lease in court, resulting in a judicial decision invalidating the lease in 1889. So, that same year, the legislature approved the merger of the BC&M RR with the Concord RR to form the Concord & Montreal RR, effective January 1, 1890. The new railroad did invest in the old BC& M line including building new railroad stations, as in Laconia, and remodeling old stations, such as our railroad station. However, the C&M RR only lasted as an independent corporation for five years. In 1895, it was leased to the Boston & Maine. (In 1919, the C&M was formally merged into the B&M.) With the 1895 lease of C&M, the B&M RR came to control most of the railroad tracks in the state. By 1897, of the 1193 miles of track in the state, 1122 were controlled by the B&M Railroad, a virtual monopoly.
In 1903, the first paved road in Ashland was built from the railroad station to the downtown, which gives some idea of the importance of the railroad at the beginning of the century. (The concrete road was preceded in 1887 by a concrete sidewalk from the depot to the downtown.) More evidence of the national importance of this railroad came during World War I, when soldiers were detailed to guard the local railroad bridges against saboteurs. But, as the 20th century progressed, particularly after World War II, the automobile and the truck essentially replaced the railroad. The B&M contracted its service, abandoning one unprofitable line after another. In 1954, the Baker River valley section of the old BC&M main line northwest from Plymouth was abandoned, and the tracks were torn up in 1955. The various branch lines connecting the remaining BC&M main line to Franklin, Belmont and Alton had previously been abandoned, leaving a single dead end line that ran from Concord to Lincoln, the old BC&M main line to Plymouth and the Pemigewasset Valley RR north of Plymouth.
On October 24, 1959, passenger service ended north of Laconia. I-93 opened to Ashland and Plymouth in 1964. Freight traffic became more and more sporadic and had pretty much ended by 1970. In 1971, the B&M applied for permission to abandon the entire Concord to Lincoln line. 1973 saw serious damage to the line by floods including a 50 foot chasm in Ashland.
On October 30, 1975, the State of NH used its eminent domain powers to acquire the Concord to Lincoln line from the B&M, in large part to save the Lincoln paper mill, which needed rail service to continue operating. That however proved a lost cause, as the paper mill closed anyway. Commercial use of the line has practically ceased. The state did repair the line. But, eventually a new use was found for the line. After dealing with different railroad operators over the years, North Stratford RR, Wolfeboro RR, New England Southern RR, the state leased the line from Northfield to Lincoln to the tourist railroad owned by the Clark family, known as the Plymouth - Lincoln RR, the northern portion from Plymouth north in 1987, and the southern section from Northfield to Plymouth in 1991. The company operates two tourist railroads under the brand names of the Hobo RR, out of Lincoln, and the Winnipesaukee Scenic RR, out of Meredith. During the fall foliage season, the Winipesaukee Scenic RR runs trains from Meredith to Plymouth which stop at this station, so for about four or five weekends a year, the station is once again full of travelers. The rail line is used in winter by snowmobiles, sometimes a dog sled, and is one of the main snowmobile corridors in the state. So today this railroad is largely used for recreation. But we are very fortunate to still have the railroad complete with tracks and working trains. Most of the state's railroads are gone or survive only as rail trails, like the Northern RR.
Part 1: 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.