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Coos County History
Coös County, named for the Indian word for pines, cohos, encompasses the entire northern section of the state, covering 1,804 square miles, 20% of the land area of the state of New Hampshire. The Abenaki word, also spelled cowass, cohoss, and coo-ash, was used to identify inhabitants of the region. Those living in the area were customarily know as “Coo-ashe-aukes”, or “dwellers in the pine tree place.”
The first reference to the area is found in the 1704 records of New Hampshire, which names the area “Cohoss – a large and valuable tract of land along the Connecticut River.” Over 90% of the land is forested, 24% of which is either State or National Forest. The area is well known as an outstanding area for recreational ski areas, campsites, picnic grounds, snowmobiling, fishing, and hunting. More than half of the moose population (2,600 out of 5,000) and the bear population (13,500 out of 25,000) are in Coös County. The twenty towns and one city are chiefly located along the Connecticut and Androscoggin River Valleys.
The first white settlers of the area arrived in 1763. Once a pathless wilderness claimed only by wild animals and the Indians of the Abnaki tribes, the population had swelled to 3,000 when the county was established in 1803. Growth in the North Country during the 19th century was quite rapid, at least 3 times that of the state as a whole. Although the population reached 39,000 by 1930, it has since diminished to less than 35,000.
Coös County is the northern-most of the ten New Hampshire counties, isolated from the rest of the state by a mountainous terrain. The average number of days without killing frost averages from 100 to 120 days in the northern tip, limiting agricultural development. Seventy-five percent of the county is characterized by steep to very steep slopes. Mt. Washington is one of the major attractions of the county, as the highest peak in the northeast at 6,288 feet above sea level with the most severe weather conditions ever recorded.
Coös County is unique in many ways. It is bordered by Canada to the north, Vermont to the west, Maine to the east, and Grafton and Carroll counties to the south. In addition to being the largest of the state’s ten counties and the one with the smallest population, it also has 23 unincorporated places, geographic entities with no formal government. The County, serving as the local governing board, prepares individual budgets for the 17 unincorporated places which are outside of the White Mountain National Forest. Since 1988, as the result of state legislation, it has become responsible for the transportation and education of the students, and for entering into contracts with abutting towns for police, fire, solid waste, and other municipal services. A voluntary planning board developed and administers the zoning, site plan review, and subdivision regulations.
Historically, Coos County’s economy was largely tied to two principal activities, manufacturing and tourism. Lumber, wood products, and paper were traditionally strong industries in the North Country. “For a hundred years, paper manufacturing had been the mainstay of the economy of Coos County and New Hampshire’s Great North Woods. But now the region’s residents are contemplating the possibility of a Coos County future without paper. In 1957, paper manufacturing employed approximately 7,810 workers in New Hampshire. Fifty plus years later, while total employment in NH has burgeoned, paper manufacturing will be but a shadow of what it once was providing less than a third of the number of jobs it furnished in 1957.” The loss of more than 350 jobs in the closing of the Groveton Paperboard mill in March 2006 and Fraser Paper’s Burgess pulp mill in Berlin in May, and with the closing of Wasau Paper Corp. in Groveton, assures that the long-term steady decline of paper manufacturing in NH will continue and accelerate into the near future. Presently, that means Coos has only one mill still in operation, Fraser Paper located at Cascade Gorham, with no long-term guarantees being offered.(1)
Although Coos County offers many interesting tourist attractions: Mt. Washington Cog Railway, Mt. Washington Auto Road, Franconia Notch Parkway area, Mt. Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, Mountain View Grand Resort, Several Museums, and ski areas along with great restaurants and shopping areas, this industry does not bring the same kind of wages the paper industry brought to the county. A large number of residents are employed in construction, banking, trucking, retail trade, education, county government, and health services. The county is home to hospitals in each of the three major population centers; Colebrook, Lancaster, and Berlin.
“It is a hard reality to accept that the pulp and paper industry will no longer be the cornerstone of the North Country economy, because that industry is embedded in local culture and lore. The region is at a major crossroad. It will need to develop a new consensus about where it is going and what it will become.”(2)
Further, according to the study by the NH Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau, Coos County Perspectives Executive Summary, “Federal, state, local officials, business and community leaders are now making plans to ease the recovery of the North Country from the current and future paper industry shocks.”
1Coos County Perspectives…NH Dept. of Employment Security
2Richard S. Brothers, Commissioner-NHES