Discover Historic Newport

Visit the birthplace of Thanksgiving and learn about New Hampshire's mill industry past
The only two remaining Concord &Claremont Railroad covered railroad bridges are located in Newport. Photo by Stillman Rogers

Newport isn’t far from us — it’s only 36 miles north of Keene — but when we head in that direction, it’s usually to ski at Mt. Sunapee, meaning we turn off short of Newport. We decided we were due to investigate this almost-neighbor, and November seemed like the perfect time.

Newport is the birthplace of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the editor of the then-popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, who convinced President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. It had been celebrated in various states for some time, but until the Civil War, it was not a national holiday. During her 40-year tenure as editor, Hale also campaigned to have the Bunker Hill Monument completed and wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Hale was born in 1788, only 22 years after Newport was settled. (The charter was granted to men from Rhode Island, hence the choice of Newport for a name.) After the French and Indian Wars ended with the British capture of Montreal, the Connecticut Valley became a safer place to live and settlers began moving north. Cornish, Claremont, Plainfield and Charlestown were settled not long before, but Newport was the first town not along the river; the only access was by trail. The closest gristmill was in Charlestown, until Benjamin Giles built a sawmill and gristmill on the Sugar River in 1768 in what’s now the village of Guild.  

Newport was still a pretty small settlement in 1788, and the area was only loosely connected to the rest of the New Hampshire colony. There were no settlements to the east, and only seven years earlier at Newport’s town meeting, residents voted to join 33 other towns in seceding from New Hampshire and joining Vermont. That only lasted a year: In 1782 George Washington dissolved the union of Connecticut River towns with Vermont, and Newport was back in New Hampshire.

Giles’ mills were the first of many that would take advantage of the continuous drop in the Sugar River to power machinery. The Sugar River Mill was established in 1847, and by 1870 it was producing 800,000 yards of flannel a year. In 1867, Granite State Mills opened in Guild, only a few hundred yards from Giles’ gristmill. It later became Dorr Woolen Company, a name well known to wool hobbyists and professionals. The mill is no longer operating, but the Dorr Mill Store in Guild today stocks the country’s largest selection of woolen fabric, as well as tools and other supplies for rug braiding, hooking, wool appliqué and needle felting.

There’s a state historic marker in Guild, not far from the Dorr Mill Store, commemorating Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Another at the corner of Route 10 (North Main Street) and Corbin Road remembers Joel McGregor, New Hampshire’s last surviving Revolutionary War soldier. He served in the Continental Army for five years, some of that time held by the British as a prisoner of war, and later moved to Newport, where he died at age 101.

Corbin Covered Bridge is a 96-foot wooden bridge. It was built in 1845. Photo by Stillman Rogers

We passed his marker on the way to Corbin Covered Bridge, just up Corbin Road. The 96-foot wooden bridge, built in 1845, was destroyed by an arsonist in 1993 but rebuilt the following year in a tremendous effort by Newport residents and their neighbors in nearby towns. Nearly 10,000 people gathered over the three days it took for a team of oxen to pull the replacement bridge across the Sugar River, where it stands today as a National Historic Landmark.

Newport has two other historic covered bridges of interest to both railroad buffs and covered bridge collectors. Both are rail bridges, and they lie not far apart, crossing the Sugar River farther downstream. Wright’s Bridge and the Pier Bridge are the only two remaining of the original 13 Concord & Claremont Railroad covered railroad bridges, and they are now part of the 9.5-mile multi-use Sugar River Rail Trail from Newport to Claremont. The Pier Bridge, at a span of 216 feet 7 inches, is the world’s longest covered railroad bridge. New Hampshire has five of the only eight remaining covered rail bridges in America.

The Pier Bridge Preservation Project, formed to preserve these rare structures, is only one of Newport’s several local preservation initiatives. The Governor Francis Parnell Murphy Museum, a relatively new project, tells the story of the Newport shoe magnate and philanthropist who became a two-term governor of New Hampshire in the 1930s.

Since the 1990s, Newport has struggled to keep the integrity of its Main Street commercial district, where brick mercantile blocks and several public buildings show the town’s mid-1800s prosperity. The centerpiece, the distinguished Eagle Block on Main Street, narrowly escaped planned demolition, and a several-year plan to revitalize Main Street has included both public and private initiatives — an agricultural class at the high school worked on beautifying the common’s landscaping.

The Old Courthouse Restaurant, photo by Stillman Rogers

We stopped for lunch in one of the historic Main Street buildings, The Old Courthouse, a restaurant housed in — as you might guess — the former county courthouse. Built in 1826 to house the Sullivan County Superior Court, it later served as a school and grange hall, then was renovated to house the district court. Since 2004 it has been the home of The Old Courthouse, a destination for creative dishes based on locally sourced ingredients. Dinner starters range from shrimp tacos to New England corn fritters with Stetson’s maple syrup; entrée choices might include pan-seared sea scallops with blueberries and white zinfandel, or chicken sautéed with peaches, black pepper and capicola. For lunch I chose the Courthouse Club: roasted turkey with bacon from Claremont’s North Country Smokehouse.  

Categories: Weekend Trips