Nashua: History

Canal, Mills Establish Nashua

Long before European settlers ventured into the Merrimack River Valley, the 14 tribes of the Algonquin Federation lived there. They fished in the rivers and streams, hunted in the heavily wooded forests, and harvested pumpkin, squash, and corn from the sandy soil of the plain. The first white men to penetrate the Merrimack's wilderness came in 1652 and were scouts from the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent in search of the colony's northern boundary. An area of 200 square miles around present-day Nashua was then declared for the colony. Trading and land grants followed, and the first permanent settlement, called Dunstable, was founded in 1673. The hostility of the Native Americans toward the encroaching settlers flared into a series of "Indian wars." The fighting was so constant and so fierce that Dunstable could count a citizenry of only 25 persons some 50 years after the town was founded.

In 1741 a boundary settlement placed Dunstable within New Hampshire. Growth was slow, hampered by difficult transportation, poor soil, and the loss of many men to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Then, in 1804, the Middlesex Canal opened, making Dunstable the head of navigation on the Merrimack River and connecting the city with its most important market, Boston. The first to seize advantage of the town's location was Daniel Abbot, a lawyer. In 1823 Abbot and his partners chartered the Nashua Manufacturing Company, a mill run by water power to make textiles. At one time, the Nashua Manufacturing Company was the largest producer of blankets in the world, employing one-fifth of the city's workers. In addition to the Yankee farm girls who worked in the mills, the steady work attracted first Irish and then French-Canadian immigrants. Over time, the Nashua Manufacturing Company laid out the city's streets, built its Olive Street Church, encouraged business enterprises, and erected homes and boarding houses for its workers.

Dunstable changed its name in 1837 to Nashua, the name of one of the tribes in the Algonquin Federation. The city briefly split in 1842 over the location of a new town hall, but the factions were reunited in 1853 when the city became chartered. The Civil War followed and the Nashua mills produced thousands of suits of cotton underwear for the Union Army soldiers.

Economy Diversifies Following Mill Closings

The railroad had put Nashua on the line between Concord to the north and Boston to the southeast. Ethnic groups seeking work in the mills, including Greeks, Poles, and Lithuanians, used the trains to reach Nashua. The mills prospered and so did the mill owners, who erected their stylish mansions along Concord Street. In the twentieth century the advent of synthetics and competition from the southern mills combined to bring the New England mills to their knees, including the Nashua Manufacturing Company. In 1948, just four years after receiving a government award for service to the military during World War II, the mill shut its doors. The blow was made more severe because the area's largest employer, Textron, also shut down its Merrimack River Valley operation after the war. More than 3,500 Textron workers were left jobless and thousands of feet of mill space stood empty.

Through the efforts of an organization called the Nashua, NH, Foundation, Nashua's impending economic disaster was averted. Sanders Associates, among others, elected to occupy the mill space and helped diversify the city's economy. Heavy industry was attracted to the area in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the service and high-technology industries in the 1970s and 1980s. While some manufacturing firms have recently left Nashua, new employers have cropped up to take their place.

In the past two decades, Nashua's evolvement into a regional commercial and industrial hub has positively impacted the city, resulting in the expansion of employment, housing, educational facilities, and medical services. In his 2004 State of the City address, Mayor Bernard Streeter called Nashua a "premiere city," one that is considered by other New England cities to be "progressive" and "citizen and business friendly."

Historical Information: Nashua Historical Society, 5 Abbott Street, Nashua, NH 03064; telephone (603)883-0015