The Northern US is home to countless small towns, many of which have played important roles in not just the stories of their home state but the country as a whole. These stand-out communities offer unique opportunities to delve deeper into the past in their well-preserved historic districts.
Explore these authentic "living museums," and you’ll gain insights into the architectural, cultural, and social milestones of America's past that are all too often overlooked by travelers, who instead head to the region’s larger cities for their history fix. From the Galena Historic District in Illinois to the fascinating maritime legacy of Bath in Maine and countless other stops along the way, these small towns in the Northern United States have well-maintained historic districts deserving to be explored.
Galena is in the pretty hill country of northwestern Illinois and played an important part in the state’s lead mining industry, a fact that’s reflected in its name, which refers to the natural mineral form of lead sulfide. The ensuing attention led to a flurry of construction, much of it preserved in the Galena Historic District, including Dowling House. Constructed in 1826 and the town’s oldest building, this impressive stone structure, originally a trading post, is now a museum offering a look at the life and times of the Midwest’s first settlers.
Hudson, New York
Founded in 1785 by New England whalers and named after Dutch explorer Henry Hudson, Hudson is one of the most picturesque towns in Upstate New York. What started as a whaling community grew swiftly into a port and trading center thanks to its position on the wide Hudson River, bringing with it a prosperity that’s reflected in the grand architecture of its historic district.
Take a walk along Warren Street, a stretch of meticulously preserved 19th-century buildings, and you’ll find the Hudson Opera House, constructed in 1855 and the state’s oldest surviving theater. Another must-visit historic attraction is Olana State Historic Site, the stunning Persian-influenced home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church, who designed it.
Quite rightly regarded as one of the prettiest places to visit in New England, Woodstock, VT, was established in 1761 and has managed to retain its village-like appeal. The entirety of Woodstock's village center has been designated a National Historic District. It is a visual delight for its many well-preserved examples of Federal, Georgian, and Greek Revival architecture.
Highlights include the Woodstock History Center, housed in a beautiful 19th-century building with displays and artifacts related to local history. Operating since 1871, Billings Farm & Museum, one of the country’s oldest dairy farm, is also worth checking out, as is the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, which tells the history of conservation in America.
Stillwater is often referred to as the "Birthplace of Minnesota," a title it earned for its early settlement and importance as a transportation hub along the St. Croix River. From here, everyone from lumberjacks to fur traders and settlers ventured forth to stake their claim and make their fortune, many moving even further westward to the newer territories of the West Coast.
Downtown Stillwater is an impressive site that offers travelers plenty of historic sightseeing opportunities. Highlights include the Washington County Historic Courthouse, constructed in 1870 and one of the oldest still-standing courthouses in Minnesota. Although a little newer, the iconic Stillwater Lift Bridge is a landmark worth photographing. Constructed in 1931, this unique vertical-lift bridge connects Minnesota to Wisconsin and boasts intricate ironwork and panoramic views of the river.
Often referred to as the "City of Ships," Bath's history is deeply connected to the nation’s shipbuilding industry. Many of the town’s most important buildings, including those in the fun-to-explore Bath Historic District, bear evidence of this maritime legacy. You can learn more about this at the Maine Maritime Museum. Situated on the banks of the Kennebec River, it’s home to interesting exhibits depicting the evolution of shipbuilding in the region.
As you stroll the downtown historic district, look out for the Sagadahoc County Courthouse, built in the 1800s and notable for its brick façade and tall spire. While you can’t visit Bath Iron Works (1884), it’s worth grabbing a shot of what is one of the country’s oldest still-operating shipbuilders.
Overlooking Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, Petoskey Downtown Historic District was established in 1986 and consists of over 100 important buildings constructed between 1872 and the mid-1920s. Start your visit in the town’s Gaslight Shopping District, a charming area of Victorian-era architecture, including old homes and shops illuminated by attractive gaslight lamps.
Other highlights include the Little Traverse History Museum, housed in the former Chicago and West Michigan Railroad depot, with exhibits focussing on local history, the region's Native American heritage, and the influence of author Ernest Hemingway, who spent summers here.
Together, these attractive old towns have done a superb job of preserving their pasts. With streets lined with centuries-old buildings and fascinating museums designed to share their unique stories, these small towns in the Northern United States have some of the best historic districts in the country.