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New Book Shows Claremont’s Golden Age, and Change

Claremont — What will Opera House Square, the mill district and Pleasant Street in Claremont look like in 100 years?

The answer is as uncertain today as it was in 1900 when streets were dirt, people traveled by horse and carriage, or train, and electricity was rare. Claremont was a manufacturing and farming hub with a growing commercial base; the possibility for growth and prosperity seemed endless.

But technological innovation the last 100 years brought economic change, and politics and fires reshaped the cityscape from its center to outlying areas in ways no one could have predicted.

A mill where immigrants toiled long hours in textile jobs is now home to an upscale hotel and a computer company; gas stations and convenience stores have replaced stately hotels on Pleasant Street, and there are shopping centers on Washington Street where farms and private residences once stood.

That change comes alive in Images of America Claremont, a new photo book by Claremont Historical Society President Wayne McElreavy. The photos take the reader back in time when Claremont’s mills hummed with activity along the banks of the Sugar River and Pleasant Street was the main commercial center.

There are 233 photos, culled from more than 500 that McElreavy considered. Most are between the years 1880 to 1920, though there is one chapter on the Hurricane of 1938.

“I was just trying to show what Claremont looked like during its age of prosperity, when it was the center of the area,” McElreavy said during a recent book signing at Violet’s Book Exchange. “I tried to get each section (of the city) represented.”

The book is divided into chapters on businesses, schools and churches, the mills, sports and leisure, the worst hurricane to hit New England, and the 150th anniversary of the city charter in 1914.

Many photos bear no resemblance to what may be at a location today, but other scenes can be identified, even if time has brought change.

The city’s most recognizable landmark, the Opera House and city hall, are shown in a series of photos. They begin with the meetinghouse that was built in 1785 on Maple Avenue then moved to the present-day site of the Opera House in 1790. Over the next nearly 100 years it was modified, enlarged and renovated. In 1895 it was torn down and the building that is there today was finished in 1897.

There are also several photos of Stevens High School, beginning with one in 1870 — two years after it was built — and ending with a 1929 photo that shows the building much as it looks today.

The mills chapter looks at Sullivan Machinery Company, later Joy Manufacturing, Monadnock Mills and the Coy Paper Mill, among others.

The Brown Block, Hotel Moody, and the Hotel Belmont are just a few of the recognizable buildings in the downtown.

“I looked for photos so people could see all the changes downtown,” said McElreavy.

Born in Vermont, McElreavy, 57, grew up in Claremont and has been buying and collecting old photos, postcards and other memorabilia related to the city for 30 years. “I have a Stevens yearbook from 1899,” he said.

Originally McElreavy intended to use his postcard collection, which numbers more than 700, but the publisher wanted photos only so he used ones from his collection and others owned by the historical society. The book is part of a series called “Images of America” from Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, S.C.

The historical society “kicked around” the idea of such a book for years but just never got around to putting it together, McElreavy said. In consultation with Arcadia, the society made the commitment and McElreavy began working on the book in earnest in February. “It turned into a lot more work than I thought,” he said.

Many of the photos required significant research to accurately write the captions. “I had to go through vital records and search births and obituaries,” said McElreavy.

In the foreword, McElreavy gives a thumbnail sketch of Claremont’s beginnings and follows it through its most prosperous times of the early 1900s. He describes the politics behind the decision to build I-89 through Lebanon instead of Claremont, and the economic effects still being felt today.

A few aerial shots of the mill district and Tremont Square — later Opera House Square — provide an easy reference for comparison to what we see today. With all the change, a lot remains of the past. Hotel Moody, though its facade is new, still stands, as do many of the churches and schools. Except for the shrubbery, the Fiske Library looks much as it did when it was built in 1903.

There are also pictures of two of Claremont’s worst fires, the Tremont House, which burned in 1879, killing three, and the Brown Block fire in 1887.

For McElreavy, the shot of the ski jump on the hill near the airport is his favorite. “I like that one because I never saw it before,” he said.

The book is available at several locations around the city or by contacting the historical society at claremont_historical@yahoo.com.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.