Berlin Expanding Beyond Mill

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 18, 2001

Berlin, N. H., is a town of contrasts.

The Androscoggin River, wild and unfettered at the towns outskirts, calms down as it flows through Berlinharnessed and humbled by the machinery and smokestacks of the Public Service of New Hampshires hydropower plant.

A vacant shopping mall stares blankly across the river to a breathtaking chain of the White Mountains. But there are signs of change. The old brick buildings downtown, empty of commerce for decades, are sprouting shops devoted to bicycling or outdoor equipment. Utility poles bear bright-green banners proclaiming, Welcome to Berlin, the City that Trees Built.

Berlin is indeed that town, going back to the mid-1800s when William Brown built the Riverside mill. By 1900, the worlds three largest paper mills were in the Androscoggin Valley. Berlin was home to more than 23,000, many from Europe and Russia. The immigrants brought with them some of the Old Worldthe fine Italian stonemasonry evident in the 480 angels adorning St. Annes Church, for instance, and the Norwegian sport of cross-country skiing.

Berlin had two opera houses, an orchestra, and three theaters. It was the first northern New Hampshire town to have street lighting, and a trolley ran between Berlin and Gorham, a few miles south.

It was a booming mill town until the Great Depression, and thats when the debacle occurred, says Norman Charest, Berlins economic development director.

International Paper, a major employer, closed its doors. Brown Paper nearly did but found new owners. The job base shrank. The omnipresent smell of chemically decomposing wood spawned the self-deprecating phrase, Portsmouth by the Sea, Berlin by the Smell. Berlin developed an inferiority complex.

You see the same thing in grazing and mining towns out west anywhere people are tied to a single industry, says writer Sandy Wilbur, who has spent 30 years observing Berlin from neighboring Milan. Over the years, it seemed like the underpinnings of the town fell away.

The citys young fled for opportunities elsewheretoday Berlins population stands at 12,000.

If you had to give the town a mentality, it was extremely defeatist, Wilbur says. Sometimes that attitude gets in the way of trying to create something new.

The mill is still central to Berlinits closure would have an $85 million impactbut the idea that the citys natural attractions and heritage can be a new source of economic life is taking hold. Following mill layoffs in 1992 that cost 200 jobs, the town began studying its assetsa diverse culture, a rich history, and a scenic river.

What emerged from that self-scrutiny was the Northern Forest Heritage Park, a living history recreation of a 19th-century logging camp partially complete with a blacksmiths shop, supply store, and horse hovel. Over the next few years, a bunkhouse and mess hall will be added. Opposite the park, the Brown House Museum explores the ecology, papermaking, and hydropower of the valley.

Targeted tourism doesnt have to be like Cape Cod, Wilbur says. If you have a place thats beautiful, you dont put in a water slide.

A 500-seat amphitheater at the rivers edge already has hosted timber events, drawing lumberjacks from the Northeast and Canada to logrolling, woodchopping, and ax-throwing contests. Festivals celebrating Berlins diversitythe Norwegian Syttende Mai and the French Festival du Boishave found a home. Park director Joan Chamberlain envisions bateau rides along the river, arts and crafts festivals on the grounds, and movies by moonlight.

This kind of thing puts energy into a community where the only conversation before was the mill, Chamberlain says. Berlin is transitioning from a mill city to a city with a mill.

Hard on the heels of the park, Berlins Main Street Program, in its third year, is one of 16 in New Hampshire drawing support from the national self-help initiative designed to help resuscitate downtowns, sponsored by The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Its a lot of little things like beautifying parks, holding sidewalk sales, and holiday parades, says Patti Stolte, program director. Were not going for a home run right out of the box. Its going to entail just staying the course.

A home run may be in the works, however, with plans by a local entrepreneur to rehabilitate the former Albert Opera House into retail, restaurant, and living space. It will, supporters recognize, take time.

I see us eventually diversifying our economy, attracting entrepreneurs, and turning arts and traditional crafts into jobs, Chamberlain says. Maybe well find those 200 lost jobs.