Lancaster is located in a broad floodplain of the Connecticut River between the high plateau of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and the peaks of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Considered the Gateway to the Great North Woods, Lancaster is the largest population center south of one of the wildest and most scenic portions of northern New England. Traditions of working outdoors and opportunities for four-season recreation flavor regional life. Settlements founded on logging and farming still convey the feel of their 19th century roots while they also support a lively modern culture. Among them, Lancaster retains its historic architecture in its revitalized downtown.
Lancaster is the Waypoint community for an area that includes the towns of Northumberland, Stark, Jefferson, Whitefield, Dalton, Randolph, and Littleton, NH, and Lunenburg, Guildhall, and Maidstone, VT. Its Waypoint Interpretive Center is located downtown in an historic building just a block off Main Street with a backyard view of the winding Israel’s River.
The designated Byway routes in the Lancaster area are Route 3 and 135 in New Hampshire and Routes 102 and 2 in Vermont.
Nature and Scenery
Viewed from the west, Lancaster’s downtown is seen against the dramatic backdrop of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, snow-capped from November to May. Nearby, atop 2,059-foot Mount Prospect, the former summer estate of John Wingate Weeks testifies to the work of one of the leading environmentalists of the early 20th century.
For all its colorful history, the 19th century logging industry in the northern Connecticut River Valley created an environmental disaster. The sale of all public lands in New Hampshire to logging interests by 1876 resulted in such widespread deforestation that a state commission was appointed in 1881 to investigate. One of the outcomes of the destruction was the founding, in 1901, of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Weeks, a conservationist, a U.S. congressman and senator (and Secretary of War under Presidents Harding and Coolidge) saw that all the forest lands in the eastern half of the United States were privately owned, and many were in poor condition. Largely due to his efforts, in 1911 the U.S. Congress passed the Appalachian-White Mountains Forest Reservation Bill, also known as the “Weeks Act.” The law empowered the federal government to purchase private lands and create a system of eastern national forests to protect watersheds and their natural resources.
Week’s legacy is visible from the Mount Prospect Tower, built in 1912, employed as a fire tower, and named a National Historic Lookout in 1992. The State of New Hampshire has preserved the house and grounds as the John Wingate Weeks Historic Site, they provide a 360 degree panorama of mountain splendor, including the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Kilkenny Range, the Percy Peaks, and the upper Connecticut River Valley. The site is part of Weeks State Park.
The history of the Lancaster region is one of the use – and conservation – of natural resources, in the form of logging as well as the protection of forests. A factory in Groveton until recently continued the long tradition of papermaking, which inspired the logging of the wilderness in the 19th century. Innovations in technology have led the way to improvements in winter travel, from snowshoes to snowmobiles. The past feels immediate in places like the Guildhall Village Historic District and the Old (1799) Meeting House (603-636-1450) on State Street in Groveton.
A moment in the past can be found at the Wilder-Holton House, now the museum of the Lancaster Historical Society. The house – the first two-story dwelling in all Coos County – was built from boards planed and nails wrought on the site, in 1780.
Among the historic bridges in the area are four covered bridges, including the Mount Orne Bridge that spans the Connecticut River between Lancaster and Lunenberg. The Mechanic Street Bridge spans Israel’s River in Lancaster. In Northumberland, the Groveton Bridge with its multiple trusses spans the Ammonoosuc.
The nearby White Mountains and the forested terrain around Lancaster provide excellent opportunities for outdoor sports such as hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, and snowmobiling. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile water trail tracing historic Native American travel routes across the Northern Forest, celebrates the region’s rich human heritage and diverse natural environment. The Canoe Trail follows the Connecticut River to its confluence with the Upper Ammonoosuc in Groveton.
In the White Mountains, visiting European skiers popularized skiing at such resorts as Sugar Hill, the site of the first ski school in the U.S. In 1940, a skiers’ guide listed 49 “ski towns” in New Hampshire and 31 in Vermont.
Among the state parks in the area is Lancaster’s Weeks State Park which includes the conservationist’s summer retreat atop Mount Prospect. Because of Secretary Weeks’ prominent role on the national scene, his house became the setting for many distinguished gatherings after it was completed in 1913. Among the more prominent guests was President Warren Harding, who visited for several days in 1921.
Built as a summer retreat and as a testament to Weeks’ affection for the locale of his ancestry and birth, the Mt. Prospect estate typifies a spirit of private land conservation often seen in New Hampshire at the turn of the century. At that time, many of the state’s less profitable farms were being abandoned. Private investors who preserved and maintained the land often purchased these. The Weeks estate was part of this conservation movement. In 1910 Weeks bought several farms on Mt. Prospect, including the land at the summit. The Weeks estate is one of the best preserved of many grand summer homes built in New Hampshire during this period. Now, house and lands are a public park.
The other state parks in the area are: