Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lumber town: Berlin, New Hampshire


Berlin is a mill and paper town on the Androscoggin River in northern New Hampshire. Situated north of the White Mountains, it is about four hours drive from Boston and seems to be far away from anything.

Berlin was once a thriving industrial city. Prosperity in the early 20th century came from timber harvesting, lumber mills, and paper factories. Workers were a mix of ethnic groups, with many being French Canadians. Many families spoke French exclusively, and schools taught English a foreign language. Sadly, since World War II, the town has been on a steady decline, and a large paper mill closed recently.

Immigrant families lived in wood double- and triple-deckers. You find this type of semi-mass-produced housing in former industrial cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, but the architectural style was also used here in New Hampshire. I don't know how residents heated in the past; possibly boilers in the cellar used coal (brought in by railroad). Life in these tenements must have been dreary, but at least the men and women had jobs and dreamed of a better future. Some participated in winter sports. In 1882, a group of Scandinavians founded the nation's first ski club, named the Nansen Ski Club in honor of Fridtjof Nansen, the explorer who in 1888 skied across Greenland. Today, much of this housing stock is seedy and many units are empty.


You can still see elements of a prosperous past. The beautiful Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church overlooks the city from the west side of the valley.

It's interesting that the cornerstone was laid before the Bolshevik revolution.

July 2015 update: a friend sent me an article from the April 25, 2015, Conway Daily Sun,  The article states that the church was built by Russian immigrants who came to Berlin in the early 1900s to work in paper mills. By 1915, there were 300 Russian men in town, and in March of 2015, Father Arcady Piotrowsky of Cleveland was assigned to Berlin to help found the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church. (They liked long names then.) The church's icons may have been some of the last to leave Russia before Czar Nicholas II was overthrown. During the 20th century, the parish dwindled, and  the church closed in 1963. It remained empty for 11 years. In 1974, a family of one of the original founders asked to hold the funeral service at the closed church, and parishioners refurbished the domes and paintings. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

This factory/warehouse was sheathed with zinc plates patterned to look like cut stone blocks. This type of busy pattern, resembling limestone blocks, must have been popular in the late 1800s because early-vintage cinder blocks were also molded with this design.

I think this kind of sheathing was most commonly used before the 1940s. By the 1960s, aluminum siding became more popular than steel sheathing because it was lighter and easier to install.

I have seen other buildings with zinc sheathing in other parts of the country. One was a church in Johnson City, Texas, where Lyndon Johnson went to services. The old airport terminal near Tallulah, LA, where Delta Airlines started decades ago, had zinc roof tiles shaped to look like clay tiles.

It's sad to see a town like Berlin heading downhill, but what can replace traditional industries that employed a large workforce? Berlin was once called "Papertown,"but that era ended years ago. The last paper mill in northern New Hampshire, the Fraser Papers mill in Gorham, south of the Berlin-Gorham line, just closed. In Berlin's case, prisons provide some employment but the employment numbers are minor compared to the thousands who once cut and processed timber. You can read about Berlin in Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin,_New_Hampshire

All photographs taken with a Fuji F31fd digital camera.

8 comments:

  1. I just moved here. This town is taking its dying breath. Id recommend staying away if you have to work for a living.

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  2. These pictures of Berlin are not even close to depicting how the city really is.. all of the buildings you posted are now demolished.

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    1. Aw, that sucks. There were some cool buildings in this blog, especially the Russian church.

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  4. Even though this post is years old i have to say your prediction is wrong. Berlin has taken a upwards slope and will be for years. The roads are being redone and many old useless buildings demolished. We also have the ATV festival and Camp Razor that bring thousands of people here a year and has boosted the economy so much that that is the reason the roads are being redone. Berlin New Hampshire is crawling out of it's depression with the help of new buisness and even more becasue of the community.

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    1. That is great news, and I'm glad to hear it! I have not been to that area in several years, but the next time I am in the Northeast, will try to make it to Berlin.

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  5. The once stately Costello Motor Inn, the old Toussaint Bakery, Sainte Anne's Church, along with the Russian Orthodox Church and half a dozen others, including Ange Gardien, are all defunct or converted to "Student Art Museums" and community centers. Notre Dame Arena collapsed under the weight of snow killing young hockey fans. Perhaps it has been strengthened, but the renovations are rather late for those who perished. The hospital is understaffed; the Library has had the hours of the Librarian cut back for budgetary reasons; the High School guidance counselors are, or were for many years, non-certified, perhaps many teachers as well. The Catholic High School closed many years ago. Petty pilferage of public funds rears its head at times. The Androscoggin flows behind City Hall...above first floor windows! Bridges must be on their last legs. The annual festivities, referred to by one commentator above, are brief and last only a few days, leaving the town to roving motorcycle gangs and derelicts. Public relief is minimal and Brown Company is long gone,...once the employer of thousands in its heyday. The Nansen Ski Jump, with a rickety wood frame, may not even be safe to visit, let alone ski on it! And drugs, smuggled up Highway 16 or on incoming trains from Maine, permeate the local youth culture, taking a serious toll. Many buildings have been demolished, and others need to be...but few are being rebuilt or modernized. A sad state of affairs for the North Country!

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