Long Lost Lewiston, Vermont

Submitted 3 months ago
Created by
David Callaway

No longer even a dot on a Vermont map, Lewiston, a once bustling hamlet of Norwich on the western side of the Ledyard Bridge, is today almost non-existent. A group of warehouses, the railroad station house, a brick home that for many years housed Dartmouth’s pottery studio, and the old oil depot are all that remain of the community where much of Norwich’s early history began. In its day, Lewiston was the industrial park and transportation hub for Hanover and Norwich. “Lewiston was a busy place,” claims a long time Norwich citizen. “It really was.”

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In the summer of 1765, Norwich’s first settlers, Nathan Messenger and his wife, built a cabin on the western shore of the Connecticut River directly across the river from Hanover where Foley Park is located today. In the fall of that year, the John Hutchinson family canoed across the river with their household goods and family cow to join the Messengers. Mrs. Messenger, at her home on the Norwich side of the river, “was made aware of the arrival of the Hutchinsons by hearing the cry of their baby from the opposite bank.” She said in later years, “this was the sweetest music she ever heard, breaking the stillness of her solitary life in the woods.” 

But the quiet did not last as more pioneers moved to Norwich. In 1767 Dr. Joseph Lewis arrived from Old Lyme, Connecticut, and settled on the Vermont shore just a stone’s throw from the Hutchinson homestead. Dr. Lewis was just twenty one and with a young man’s energy became the area’s first doctor and continued to practice medicine in the area for fifty-five years. On horseback he traveled to Thetford, Sharon, Hartford, Strafford, Lebanon, Lyme and Hanover. In the winter he hiked to his patients’ homes on snowshoes. “No plea of inclement weather or poor health was made in order to shirk his duty in visiting the sick.”

Along with his busy practice Dr. Lewis established an inn at the river bank and began a rope ferry service between Hanover and Norwich which was “toll free to the clergy and College officials.” The area began to prosper. Norwich’s Blood Brook flowed eastward toward the Connecticut River and provided a source of power for a tannery and shoemaker. Dr. Lewis purchased a 100 acre lot along the river that included a grist mill and saw mill on the brook. Before long Lewis was the major landowner in the growing industrial area and eventually the hamlet’s namesake. 

Lewiston had the advantage of being settled at one of the narrowest crossings on the Connecticut River, a brisk trip between either Hanover or Norwich. With an increase in traffic the rope ferry was replaced by a toll bridge in 1796 which collapsed in 1804. Two more toll bridges were built before the Ledyard Free Bridge was opened in 1859. It was a sturdy covered bridge that was the first free bridge to cross the Connecticut River and was in use until 1934 when the increase in automobile and truck traffic forced the bridge to be replaced. The latest Ledyard Bridge was built in 1998.

Improvements in transportation continued to nourish the growth of Lewiston in the mid 1800’s. Along with the road traffic from the Ledyard Bridge, Lewiston became a railway hub for Norwich and Hanover. In 1848 the Passumpsic and Connecticut Railroad laid its tracks through Lewiston on its way to Wells River. In the 1880’s The Boston & Maine Railroad took over from the P&C line and built a new passenger station in 1884 that is still in use today as a private club. 

Lewiston flourished with the arrival of the railroad that connected citizens with the outside world in ways that seemed impossible just a few years earlier. President Grant stopped briefly at the station in 1869 and President Rutherford B. Hayes made a whistle stop in the summer of 1887. Residents of the area could purchase a ticket from Lewiston to New York City changing trains only once at White River Junction. In 1898 a post office opened in Lewiston at the general store. The mail arrived by train in the morning and afternoon. Families took the train to White River to shop and on Saturdays rode the “Peanut” train to the picture shows in White River. 

A big portion of the rail business was associated with Dartmouth College. In 1907 Dartmouth used 4,000 tons of coal to heat the campus and it was all delivered to Lewiston. Passenger trains ran from the Lewiston depot to Dartmouth football games at Yale or Harvard. In 1901, on the 100th anniversary of Daniel Webster’s graduation from Dartmouth, returning alumni were greeted warmly at the station. “The old Norwich station is painted Dartmouth green,” wrote one graduate, “and was covered with profuse decoration, the B&M RR. Co. having made special appropriation for it.” The Dartmouth travelers were piled high on a horse-drawn coach and bounced up the hill to the campus. 

Lewiston was prosperous, according to a 1926 survey of the area conducted by the Boston and Maine Railroad. A person walking in the area would have seen an ice house, where 100 pound blocks of ice cut from the river in the winter were stored with sawdust and sold for a penny a pound in the summer. There was a creamery where farmers brought down more than 180 milk cans a day for the milk train which stopped at the depot at 7 p.m. on its way to Boston from St. Johnsbury. There was also Thompson’s Grist Mill, Kibling’s General Store and Post Office, Thompson’s Coal Yard, homes and barns. A half mile up the road was the speakeasy “Buckets of Blood” and a brothel. It was true; Lewiston was a busy place!

Lewiston’s fortunes were always linked to transportation. Bridge traffic and its railway hub nourished the town. But as times changed its location became its downfall. The Lewis Road between Norwich and Lewiston rose quickly after it crossed the railroad tracks and then turned towards Norwich. It was a narrow road and dangerous for walkers. During the springtime mud season, the road became nearly impossible for a horse drawn wagon to climb. The poor road isolated Lewiston from the center of Norwich. But there were bigger problems for the hamlet.

The Wilder Dam opened in 1949 and created a reservoir that was nearly 45 miles long. Lewiston’s location on the river, “which had for so many years positively influenced its growth, became a liability as parts of its shorelines disappeared under back-up water from the new Wilder Dam.” The widened Connecticut River flooded fields in Lewiston and forced citizens to move. The original site of Dr. Lewis’ first home was covered with 16 feet of water. 

With improvement in Vermont roads following the 1927 state-wide floods, passenger trains saw a steady decline. The post office which was located in Lewiston’s Raycraft Store closed on April 30, 1954. Mail was still delivered to the Lewiston Station, but it was trucked up to the new post office in Norwich. In 1959 the The Boston & Maine Railroad finally closed the train station in Lewiston and what remained of the passenger and freight business shifted to the Union Depot in White River Junction. 

In 1964 Interstate 91 was making its way into Vermont. While most agreed that an interchange was needed for the Hanover/Norwich area, there was a heated debate about where to locate the new cloverleaf. Some suggested that the interchange be located five miles north of the Ledyard Bridge, others felt that an interchange in Wilder was sufficient. In the end, after years of debate, the town voted 347-311 to accept the interchange in Norwich. The vote spelled the end for Lewiston. 

On April 17, 1967 much of Lewiston was razed to make way for the interstate and the access roads to Norwich and Hanover. The end did not come easily for many. “More than two hundred years of history was brought low this week when the village of Lewiston was leveled by bulldozer and flame,” wrote the Hanover Gazette. “All that remains is a ritual sowing of the site with salt. I have never seen a town killed before. It is not a pretty thing, however green the grass may grow over the grave.”

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