Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850 to 1877
Compiled by Tom Sullivan and Louise Troehler
By mid century Keene was a thriving village with a population of 3,392 people. Direct rail lines linked Keene to Boston and service to New York. Keene’s position as the most important town in Cheshire County was firmly established.
The Ashuelot Railroad line from Keene to the Connecticut River south of Hinsdale was opened.
The Central Square common was fenced for a park and trees were planted.
The Ashuelot Railroad line began operating, which open rail traffic from Keene to the Connecticut River Railroad.
The first telegraph lines and service arrived in Keene.
The New Hampshire Union Railroad was incorporated to run from Keene to Concord via Hillsboro Bridge. When the grantees met for their 1st meeting, however, they decided that the cost of the project would be higher than its projected use, so the enterprise was abandoned.
Keene celebrated its centennial anniversary of its organization under New Hampshire charter. Five hundred dollars was raised at the annual town meeting to pay for the celebration.
The Keene school district leased the unsuccessful Keene Academy for their new High School.
The old glass factory at the north end of the town on Washington Street, an important landmark for nearly 50 years, was destroyed by fire.
During these four years nearly one hundred buildings were built in Keene. The railroad became a local fixture and the city’s industrial life quickened its pace. The streets and square were not yet paved, but nearly every business block was equipped with a permanent sidewalk covering or canopy. The town’s two weekly newspapers printed news received by telegraph.
Knowlton and Stone Hardware was established and remained a downtown fixture for more than a century.
During the 1850s many Keene people traveled westward. The California Gold Rush was one reason. But many Cheshire County residents headed to new agricultural lands in Kansas.
The present day Cheshire County Court House was erected on Court Street, and is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. It replaced the county record’s structure that was built in 1824. The architect for the new Court House was G. J. F. Bryant of Boston.
The voluntary library association became known as the Keene Public Library. (Public meaning publicly funded at $5.00 a share.)
The Municipal Gas Works was established, with connections to public buildings, some street lamps, and many private homes.
The local YMCA was organized. Men went there to read and listen to lectures. Although the organization became inactive in 1869, it was revived again in 1885.
The population in Keene was 4,320.
The following account was written around 1860 by a correspondent from the Christian Freeman.
“Nearly in the middle of the county, on a broad plain where once was the bottom of a lake, surrounded by hills, is the smart and beautiful village of Keene. Its broad, straight, well made streets and sidewalks; its many large and ornamental trees; its elegant dwelling houses and fine gardens; its convenient ‘Square’ and miniature park render it absolutely the handsomest village of the size in the Eastern States.”
The legislature authorized Keene to establish a waterworks and make contracts with individuals and corporations for supplying water and to establish rents, charges, and tolls.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 shook the Cheshire County region. People responded quickly to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers for the Union Army on the 15th of April.
At a mass meeting in Keene, two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, speeches were heard from both political parties. It was reported to have been the largest meeting ever held in the Central Square. One Union Army volunteer summed up the crowd’s feelings by saying: “They talk of fratricidal war! Traitors are not our brothers or cousins!”
Lieutenant Henry C. Henderson, Keene’s recruiting officer, left with a company of 67 recruits for Concord.
A company of 72 men and a 3rd company of recruits of 62 men left Keene for Portsmouth. They were led by Captain T. A. Barker.
November and December
Camp Brooks, known today as Wheelock Park, was used for a meeting place for the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment. On Thanksgiving Day, the soldiers were given a scrumptious feast. On Christmas morning, the regiment marched down Main Street to the railroad station to go off to war.
Keene served as a recruiting station throughout the war.
Industries produced supplies for the armed forces. Faulkner & Colony made woolen uniforms and blankets. Life was difficult during this period because of food scarcities and a struggling economy.
Keene sent 584 men into military service, 48 of whom gave their lives during the war.
Great jubilation came to Keene with the end of the war. People celebrated in the streets. The celebration soon ended in sadness as word of President Lincoln’s assassination reached Keene.
Keene observed the National Day of Mourning for President Lincoln.
The New Hampshire legislature passed an act that established the City of Keene, subject to a vote of the town.
The citizens of Keene voted not to become a city by a 411 to 241 margin.
Fire destroyed the entire group of buildings on the east side of Roxbury Street to the Town Hall.
Bank robber Mark Sinborn escaped from the Keene jail.
The town voted to purchase Goose Pond to meet the demand for aqueduct water. During the following year they began construction of the waterworks.
Keene observes its first Memorial Day.
Keene voted to build a Civil War soldiers monument and authorized two thousand dollars for its completion. This was not enough, however, and an additional five thousand dollars was appropriated.
A city charter was again rejected by the town at their annual meeting.
The first municipal water system was completed.
The population of Keene was 5,971.
The Civil War soldiers’ monument was erected in the common. Martin Milmore of Boston was the sculptor of the eight-foot bronze figure of a Union infantryman.
James Scollay Taft founded Hampshire Pottery.
Keene Natural History Society was organized.
John A. Wright started making Wright’s Silver Cream. The company was incorporated under J. A. Wright & Company in 1893.
City charter apporved by legislature.
At the town’s annual meeting, the residents voted to adopt a city charter.
City officers and officers from five wards were elected.
The chosen officers were organized as a city government.
Keene Public Library was incorporated into the city, thereby becoming a free library without fees.
The first postal letter boxes were installed in Keene at the railroad station.
Keene Humane Society was organized.
Horatio Colony was elected the first mayor of Keene.
Keene celebrated the Centennial with the rest of the nation.
The new High School was dedicated on Winter Street.
Tom Sullivan teaches elementary school in Keene and Louise Troehler is a HSCC volunteer.