Once within the hunting range of the Native American Abenakis tribe, the town was chartered in 1774 as "Lloyd Hills." In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the original grant could not be found and this lack of documentation proving clear title deterred early settlement. Nevertheless, in 1787 the first permanent houses were established. For reasons uncertain, the town came to be known as "Bethlehem" and was eventually incorporated on December 25, 1799. In 1800 there were but thirty-three families in town and the only industry was agriculture. Perhaps the early settlers would have perished had not the Indians kindly taught them some of the nuances of survival in the North Country. In the mid-1800's Bethlehem had its own grist mill and had diversified its industry to include five large sawmills and two starch factories. By 1850 the population had grown to 950. Since then, almost 150 years later, the population has little more than doubled.
In 1805 the "Old Man of the Mountains" was discovered and in 1819 a path was created to the summit of Mount Washington. In the early 1800s, as in present, Bethlehem was conveniently situated between tourist attractions. This helped set the stage for Bethlehem to become a thriving resort area. Today you can easily reach Bethlehem by Interstate 93 as well as several State highways.
By the mid 1870s, Bethlehem had evolved into a booming tourist town. The summers bustled with activity. Seven trains arrived daily, bringing guests from Boston, New York, and points beyond. Some 30 resort hotels were filled with tourists eager to experience the scenic beauty and breathe the clean mountain air. Many wealthy families built summer "cottages" of grandiose proportions.
The annual Coaching Parade, begun in 1887, endured for almost 50 years. People traveled great distances to see the lavishly decorated horse drawn coaches compete for prizes. About 1911, decorated automobiles began to appear in the parade... a harbinger of things to come. The horizons for tourists were vastly expanding. No longer did they have to limit their travels to the confines of railroad tracks. The tourist was liberated to explore new destinations and many of the old guests stopped coming to Bethlehem. Fortunately, beginning around 1916, a few Jewish families became summer visitors seeking relief from their hay fever symptoms. As a matter of fact, the National Hay Fever Relief Association was founded in Bethlehem a few years later. By the mid-1920s, the Jewish community grew significantly, helping to keep hotel rooms full. Although in much fewer numbers, Chassidic Jews can still be seen today, traditionally dressed, taking a summer stroll on Main Street.
Most of the old hotels have disappeared but several of the cottages remain - some as private homes and other as inns or B&B's. The art deco style Colonial Theatre, built on Main Street in 1914, still opens for the summer season. A wonderful booklet, "An Illustrated Tour of Bethlehem Past & Present" offers a description and history of several points of interest.
Today Bethlehem has a diverse array of lodging and dining establishments as well as some unusual shopping opportunities. Just minutes North of Franconia Notch, the town offers a superb destination for outdoor sports and activities and provides an ideal home base for visits to the many nearby White Mountain attractions. Perhaps you just want a break from the pace of a different lifesytle. Whatever your reason for coming, the Town of Bethlehem welcomes you!