The History of Alton, NH
1770 - 2015
This article is a revision of the 2004 edition of one first entered on the Town website, i.c. 1770-2004. It will remain the same with some changes as noted in italics.
"A Portrait in Granite" was the description of Alton by historian Barton M. Griffin. With its five mile frontage along the Alton Bay shoreline and bordering the Town of New Durham; Alton was originally part of New Durham Gore a name derived from its rocky terrain carved into the mountains, more specifically Mt. Major. First settled in the middle 1770's, the early settlers were successful after eight petitions to the Court to change the name to Alton in 1796, and in March of 1797 the Incorporation Ceremony took place. Three Selectmen were elected to oversee the business of the Town. The 1790 census showed 445 residents in Town. Alton has been referred to as South Alton, The Village, West Alton, East Alton and The Bay.
The Town is in Belknap County and envelopes the southeastern point of Lake Winnipesaukee and includes the southeastern side of Wolfeboro Harbor and all of the largest islands in the southeast end of the lake. Alton contains 63.9 square miles of land area and 19.3 square miles of inland water area.
The last census report in 2010 reports a population of 5250 residents with Alton ranking 64th among New Hampshire's incorporated cities and towns. And according to statistics from the NH Employment Security, there are over 226 employees working within municipal services and the schools. The Town budget is $6,169,810 not including the school budget. A new high school was completed in 2006 with the first graduation held in June.
During the years that followed Incorporation, citizens concentrated on proving their Town a worthy community. Roads were built, land was cleared and the first Meeting House was erected. By 1840 the Village of Alton in the center of Town finally came "into being".
Today there are over 87 miles of town maintained roads and there are State highways including Route 140, Routes 28 and 28A and Route 11. The nearest interstate is approximately 26 miles to either Rte 95 or I-93.
In 1847 rail lines were established and trains began bringing passengers and freight to Alton and Alton Bay. The railroad was in existence until 1935. The railroad connected to the Lakeport Line and several stations and stops existed on the way to Laconia. Some of these smaller stations are now private homes and some have been moved. More recently the Loon Cove Station is now on the site of the former Alton R.R. Station.
By 1860, the Alton community had stores and industries of almost every description. Entrepreneurs and businesses flourished. Boarding houses and farms were prevalent. At the beginning of the 20th century, twenty-five one-room school houses existed throughout Alton. The most famous industry was the invention and manufacturing of the corkscrew by the Rockwell Clough Company established in 1875. By 1903 the company was producing over thirty million of these items world wide. In 1863 the Adventist Campground held their first camp meeting in Alton Bay.
The current Town Hall was constructed in 1894 at a cost of $15,098. The brick edifice with its tower brings the building height to eighty-five feet high. At the top is the Thomas E. Howard clock which has hands more than three feet long on all four sides. The clock strikes every hour on the hour. At one time the Fire Whistle was also contained within the Tower and a jail cell in the basement. Today the Town Hall houses Administrative Offices, Land Use, Tax Collector, Town Clerk and the Supervisors of the Checklist. In past years, the lower level was used for the Police and Fire Departments. Other uses at the Town Hall included a Bank and Library. Some remember it as the Opera House, with plays, movies, live shows, dances and graduation ceremonies being held in the auditorium. The basement area now composes a room for the town's computer servers and other related equipment.
In 1915 the Public Library had over 1,213 books. Today the Gilman library has a collection of more than 24,000 books and reference materials and offers computer services for the public.
The Town's first telephone switchboard was installed in 1884. Alton now has six telephone exchanges. By 1920 the days of using kerosene lamps was over, electricity was being supplied by the White Mountain Power Company. Currently power is supplied by Public Service of NH, NH Electric Cooperative and Wolfeboro Power. A Post Office opened adjacent to the shoe factory on Main Street. After the factory fire in 1930, it was relocated. Today the main Post Office is on School Street and a smaller office is still operating in Alton Bay.
Tourism has long been the leading business for Alton since the middle 1800's. Most visitors come for the Lake. Lake Winnipesaukee had many spelling issues, but in 1937 the NH General Court legalized the spelling as Winnipesaukee, translated carefully the name means "Deep Water in a High Place". The Lake is 504 feet above sea level. Many islands on the lake exist within the Town's boundaries. There are other smaller bodies of water in Alton none as popular as the "Big Lake".
The M/S Mt. Washington comes into port at Alton Bay The original "Mount" was a steamer built by the Boston and Maine Railroad constructed at Alton Bay during 1871-2 and was the largest vessel on the lake. Travelers could come by rail to Alton Bay; board the Mount to Wolfeboro and other ports to continue their journey north to the White Mountains or other points. After the original Mount burned at the Weirs, a new ship was brought to the Lake and renamed Mount Washington. The present M/S Mount Washington was reconstructed to carry more tourists and continues to offer cruises bringing its passengers from port to port during May through October. The port in Alton is the site of the original Alton Bay R.R. operations.
Attractions for visitors to Alton are within close proximity of the lake and other natural resources. Thousands of tourists pass through and visit Alton especially during the summer and fall seasons. The Merrymeeting River meanders from Alton Bay and offers boating and fishing enthusiasts many recreational activities. River Lake Road and Letter S. Road were built along its banks. From Letter S. Road one can observe the old railroad trestle stonework and the Merrymeeting Dam. The railroad line continued along the river through a tunnel under the current Rand Hill Road before it arrived at the Alton Bay Station.
The views from the summits of Mt. Major and Straightback Mountain offer spectacular scenery and the hikers can pick blueberries in season on their way to the top.
Alton has a Board of five elected Selectmen and they appoint a Town Administrator who is a full-time staff member. Since Alton is an SB2 Town, a deliberative session is held in February which is similar to Town Meeting where the Warrant Articles are reviewed and discussed with the public. Elections are held in March and voters will also vote on the Warrant Articles at that time.
Alton has a Police Department located on Depot Street, and the Central Fire Station ambulance and emergency services are located on Route 140. Other stations include East and West Alton. Fire and police boats are moored at the Bay in the event they are needed for emergencies on the islands.
The Town's Water Department is also located on Route 140. The Water Reservoir is on Bay Hill Road.
The Town has a Parks & Recreation Commission which utilizes the former volunteer Alton ambulance building which has been constructed on the site of one of the last remaining little schoolhouses. The Gilman Museum sits on land which previously housed the Alton Shoe Factory. The Highway Department is situated on Letter S Road close to the site of the former Wentworth Mills. The landfill, now referred to as the Solid Waste Center is located on Hurd Hill (Route 28A) in East Alton.
The American Legion Post occupied the former Savage Tavern on Main Street for many years and the small square in the center of Town was dedicated as Monument Square. The town's veterans are honored each year on Memorial Day. Today this historic tavern is occupied by small businesses.
Our Downtown area is comprised of a cemetery, banks, restaurants, realtors, financial institutions, Gilman Library, Community Church, Police Station, Town Hall, a medical clinic, food markets, hardware and building supply stores and Alton Town Hall. A larger and newer Cemetery is located on Route 28S, and there are many other historical cemeteries located throughout Town.
Old Wolfeboro Road at the Junction of Route 11/28A from its access on Main Street is a major thoroughfare to the Route 28 bypass for those traveling east and west. Elderly Housing and the Gilman Home for the Aged are on this road.
Alton Bay has a more seasonal ambience, with a Chamber of Commerce, the Christian Conference Center, restaurants, marinas, post office, realtors and craft shops, municipal swimming facilities with parks and campgrounds. Every season, The M/S Mt. Washington comes into port picking up passengers at the site of the former Railroad Station. The station now serves as a Community Center.
Located on the Suncook Valley Road (Rte 28S) is the newly constructed Prospect Mountain High School welcomes students from Alton and Barnstead. The former Central School on School Street continues to house classes from Kindergarten through Grade 8. Over 700 students are enrolled in the Alton School System.
St. Katherine Drexel Church is located on Route 28 in East Alton; this replaced the St. Joan of Arc Church which was destroyed by fire in 2000.
Through the years the Town has had many very generous benefactors. Among the most well known is Oliver John Morrison Gilman who made bequests to the Gilman Library and established the Gilman Home for the Aged (this is currently the Oliver J.M. Gilman Home Fund for the Elderly). Others include Harold & Pearl (Bassett) Gilman, The Clough Family and William Heidke. Citizens and groups have donated towards our Churches, and Schools, and continue to do so.
The Town is fortunate to have so many residents who are generous and civic minded; who are willing to volunteer their services and expertise. Committees have been instrumental in developing the B & M R.R. Park, establishing a Milfoil Committee to work towards eradicating milfoil and making improvements to municipal buildings and public areas with updates to the Town's Master Plan.
REFERENCES & NOTES:
Revised, Patricia A. Rockwood, 2012
The History of Alton , Barton McLain Griffin, Alton, NH 1960
Economic & Labor Market Information, NH Employment Security, 2012
New Hampshire Town Names, Elmer Munson Hunt, Noone House, 1970