Laconia Railroad Station: Keystone to Laconia’s Success

Story & Photo by Barbara Neville Wilson

On August 22,1892 when a brass band ceremoniously marched station master E.O. Cook from the Plain Jane old Laconia railroad station, across the road to the imposing new station of red sandstone-trimmed grey granite, few people may have realized the political significance of that short walk. But Charles A. Busiel certainly did.

It’s stated nowhere, but perhaps that day Busiel was leaning on the gold-headed cane he had received just two years prior when the 50 years-in-the-making Lake Shore Railroad was finally opened between Alton Bay and Laconia. He was a mastermind of that undertaking, too.

This new station, echoing the design of seats of power throughout the nation, sat at the junction of two rail lines, the north-south Boston, Concord and Montreal, and the east-west Lake Shore Rail. Here was potential to join the state to the Atlantic Ocean, Canada, Boston, and all points west. Was there also potential to greatly multiply the investment he had in both railroads? His joy must have been hard to hide.

And was he thinking of how the station was the perfect entryway to the Laconia that would be pronounced a true city in the very next year? A city where he would hold the mantle of first mayor? Was he even so brash as to imagine the station as the next best steppingstone to the governorship of New Hampshire itself?

“Hindsight,” as they say, “is 20/20,” but even if we are simply trying to reduce complex events to simplistic motives, there is no doubt the Laconia Railroad Station is an artifact of 19th century political intrigue and competition. Contracts were signed for the erection of the station in April of 1891, less than a year after the opening of the Lake Shore Railroad, and in quick order, the railroad moved the previous station across the way, and removed a warehouse. Four homes were razed and a total of seven properties were bought in whole or portion to expand the footprint of Depot (now Veterans) Square. It’s hard to imagine now, but where a monument now stands, there was once a brick house, a beloved home.

The location was within a stone’s throw of the prominent Congregational Church, of which Busiel was an active member, and Busiel’s own residence, and within blocks of numerous Busiel relatives. Busiel was also integral in the development of the Richardson-inspired library built a decade later across from the station, made possible through a bequest from Napoleon Bonaparte Gale.

A cadre of Italian stoneworkers was hired, and the station completed in a swift 16 months.

Built in the fashionable Romanesque Revival style made popular by Henry Hobson Richardson, the station referenced imposing buildings in other prominent cities, such as Trinity Church in Boston; the Sever Hall at Harvard University (Busiel’s alma mater); the Glessner House in Chicago; and the New York State Capitol in Albany.

125 years after its dedication, the Laconia Railroad Station remains an architectural icon. Built of gray granite with red mortar, trimmed in russet sandstone, the roof of slate tiles is complemented by terra cotta details. An imposing square rotunda offset by a hammered craftsman-style “L” on the chimney tops the building. The entrance features a weather-protecting porte-cochere, topped by a whimsical eyebrow window and the 50-foot tall general waiting room reaches grandly to light-pouring clerestory windows. The tile floor and oak walls and chrome-painted trim echo the granite and russet colors of the exterior. A sandstone fireplace and carved oak, combined with abundant natural light make the waiting room a welcoming space in any weather.

According to the 1899 Illustrated Laconian: History and Industries, “the Laconia depot at the time of its construction, was pronounced by competent judges to be ‘without doubt, all things considered, the best structure of the kind in America.’” Interestingly, it was equally unique in 2001 when R. Stuart Wallace and Lisa B. Mausolf noted in New Hampshire Railroads: Historic Context Statement that of a once half dozen architecturally notable stations in New Hampshire, Laconia and the station in North Conway were the only stations still standing. This is particularly impressive considering the radical demolition accomplished by urban renewal in Laconia in the mid-20th century.

In 1944, fifty years after its opening, a Laconia schoolgirl referred to the “expensive and magnificent” Laconia Railroad Station. And perhaps she was echoing her elders who may have seen in the station a dream unfulfilled. Just three years after the Laconia station was dedicated, the rail line from Concord to Montreal was taken over by the Boston and Maine. From being a state peppered with railroads–Wallace and Mausolf report that in the early 20th century “almost everyone lived within 25 miles of a railroad,” New Hampshire became the scene of consolidation and abandonment.

Although the railroad continued to be popular during the summer tourist season, Laconia never became the mecca Charles Busiel may have imagined. Boston and Maine deferred north-south passage to its lines in the eastern portion of the state, and the Lake Shore line was promoted primarily for tourism. The lines became increasingly derelict and eventually travel was discontinued.

Charles A. Busiel passed away in 1901, after having served New Hampshire as its 54th governor. Decades later, succeeding Laconia officials walked in his footsteps and proved prescient. Even before the last train rolled through Laconia in 1965, they had begun transforming the beautiful railroad station into a beautiful edifice for town offices, and today, small businesses. The station remains an attractive landmark.

“Celebrate Laconia” is planning a ceremony to mark the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Laconia Railroad Station on August 19.

Additional research for this article came from: The Rail Lines of Northern New England by Robert M. Lindsell; “Historic Buildings: Laconia Railroad Station” by Kathi Caldwell Hopper (The Laker); The Up-Country Line by Edgar T. Mead; and “Laconia Railroads” by Edythe Chamberlain in Historical Essays on Laconia, NH by Students of Laconia High School for Stephen Shannon Jewett Prize, 1944.

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