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The History of Hanover’s Churches Includes a Spectacular Fire

  • A photograph of the charred remains of Hanover’s old White Church, which burned in 1931. 						Courtesy Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College

    A photograph of the charred remains of Hanover’s old White Church, which burned in 1931. Courtesy Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College

  • A photograph of the charred remains of Hanover’s old White Church, which burned in 1931. 						Courtesy Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College

When the 136-year-old Church of Christ at Dartmouth College — The White Church — burst into flames in the middle of the night on May 13, 1931, it was a spectacular sight. The whole structure was very quickly involved as the dry old timbers exploded in a sea of fire. Minutes later the vestry next door was also ablaze. Sparking red-yellow flares, shooting high into the black night sky, were seen miles away. Soon the steeple dramatically collapsed, heightening and expanding the fiery inferno.

In 1932 I was a child living about half a mile from the church. Though young, I was old enough to be frightened when I wakened that night to see the reflections of the fire dancing on the walls of my bedroom. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window. The southwest sky was ablaze with red-gold flames reaching upward, sinking and rising, dominating the night. Finally, comforted by my mother, I went back to bed and restlessly watched the reflected flames dance around me.

The White Church wasn’t Hanover’s first church. Within five years of receiving the 1761 Charter that made Hanover a reality, the town fathers had built a “log hutt” on the banks of the Connecticut River. Visiting ministers, some coming by canoe, preached at the makeshift church, as did professors from the young Dartmouth College after its founding in 1769. Right from the beginning the log hut, as well as other early New England churches, was used for purposes other than religion. Official town meetings and other local events were held in the churches/meeting houses. The Hanover proprietors — those who had signed the original town charter and owned shares of the town’s land — hired the ministers. Most of the proprieters lived in Connecticut and many of them never lived in Hanover.

In 1770 the town meeting voted to create the “first church of Hanover” and “to pitch a place for a meeting house.” They also voted to install a “settled” minister.

Two years later, their first full-time minister, Eden Burroughs, arrived from Connecticut. He was paid 50 pounds a year, half in cash, half in grain. There was still no church building so Burroughs preached in a local barn. In 1773 a church building project was undertaken — in Hanover Center, which was presumably the center of the parish. It was also the place where land had been given specifically for a church.

Eleazar Wheelock, Dartmouth’s first president, was active in bringing the Hanover Center church to completion, but in 1771 he also founded a church in the college district — meetings were held in a college building. Since the building was too small for Dartmouth’s first commencement in 1771, the ceremonies were held outdoors. They were followed by a dinner consisting of a whole oxen, roasted on the college Green.

Though the earliest churches had had no specific affiliation, the college church, with 27 members, became Presbyterian.

In 1774 President Wheelock moved to a new home and his old house became College Hall. Located somewhat in back of the area now occupied by Dartmouth Hall, the old house was substantially enlarged to serve students’ academic as well as spiritual needs. The reconstruction of the former Wheelock home had been hastily done and the building had not been well maintained, so by 1789 College Hall was in poor condition. Concerned, the college trustees voted to build a new chapel. The students took matters into their own hands; in January of the following year, in “a nocturnal visitation,” they tore down the old College Hall. Within five months the college had built a new chapel, 50-by-39 feet, located southwest of the present Dartmouth Hall. Named the First Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, it had a famous ‘whispering hall’ with acoustics so perfect that the slightest sound could be clearly heard by everyone in the congregation.

By 1791 plans for a new larger church were under way. It was to be located “a little north of the parade grounds,” in front of, and to the southwest of the present Baker Library.

The church, 60-by-60 feet, with balconies, soon to be dubbed the White Church, had a sounding board over the pulpit to improve accoustics. The finished roof was slate, the interior painted “white with a tinge of blue.” The college contributed funds with the understanding that the church could be used for commencements and other Dartmouth events. Most of the money was raised by the sale of pews “at auction at [the] Inn of General Brewster.” The galleries were reserved for Dartmouth students and trustees and the college agreed to pay for any student damages as well as one dollar a year per student. The church was dedicated in 1795, music provided by Dartmouth choral groups.

The Burroughs church in Hanover Center, meantime, had problems that led Burroughs to create another, separate church. Finally, in 1805 when Burroughs left the Hanover area, his congregation joined the White Church. This new influx brought the church membership to 68. It

was at that time that the White Church officially became the Congregational Church at Dartmouth. (In 1906 the church reclaimed its original name and became the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College.)

In 1841 a vestry/parish house was built next door to the church and people began to refer affectionately to it and the church as “the cow and the calf.” The vestry was important to my young life. It was where I attended kindergarten, walking the few blocks from my home by myself. It was there that I fell in love for the first time. Freckled, plump Billy and I would walk partway home from kindergarten together, until our directions diverged, and then stop to argue about which one of us would walk a block or so with the other before returning home. (Our love was destroyed in first grade when our friends teased us.)

The vestry also presented a serious problem for small children because its doors were massive and heavy. I can clearly remember standing on the vestry porch waiting for an adult to help me so I could attend kindergarten or Sunday School. Sometimes a student would stop by and open the door for me. A 10-year-old friend of mine became an Episcopalian because she couldn’t open the door — the reason was a secret she shared with her friends, but never with her parents.

There were many changes to the church through the years. The old square pews were cut in two, an organ was added and in 1869, pews were improved ­— “cushioned and widened being too narrow to sleep on with safety.” The church itself was enlarged in 1877 and again in 1880 when major renovations were made by the famous architect Sanford White, who was brought to Hanover by prominent Hanover resident Hiram Hitchcock. Hitchcock paid for the new organ and also for part of the renovations. He is the same Hitchcock who endowed the early Hanover hospital in memory of his beloved wife, Mary Hitchcock.

Obligatory daily chapel attendance for Dartmouth students ended in 1903, but they were required to attend Sunday Vespers until 1924. (Author and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, class of ’24, claimed he was twice thrown out of Dartmouth for failing to attend.)

Dartmouth built Webster Hall in 1908 and broke all its connection with the affairs of the White Church as they no loner needed it for college events.

All these many years later my mind’s eye still holds the image of the flames from the historic church fire, dancing and leaping on my bedroom wall. The fire took away a piece of Hanover’s early history. It also destroyed a dream of President Hopkins of Dartmouth, who had hoped that one day the old church could be moved to the site of Rollins Chapel, replacing Rollins, which many considered an eyesore. On the plus side the church’s disappearance gave Baker Library, three years old at the time of the fire, a more open site from which to dominate the campus, and the present Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, erected in the 1930s, carries on all the old treasured traditions.

Primary sources: “A History of Dartmouth College and the Town of Hanover, NH,” (to 1815), by Frederick Chase, Vermont Printing Co., 1891; “A History of Dartmouth College,” (1815-1900), by John King Lord, The Rumford Press, 1913.

The writer is a resident of Hanover.