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Preserving the History & Heritage of Lake Winnipesaukee & Vicinity



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Reprinted from the
Weirs Times, By Lorrie Baird

We are sitting in the living room of Dave Spooner, whose father bought Diamond Island in 1934. The conversation turns to 1947 – the year a pivotal precedence was set on the island that lasted into the 1970s!

“Harry Truman and the War Department had a problem,” recalls Dave. “They needed to camouflage submarines so the enemy couldn’t see them, even from high in the sky. They needed to conduct highly secretive experiments so that sub commanders would know to which depths to go…during all kinds of weather conditions…so airplanes couldn’t see them. They called Dr. Quimby Duntley, the head of M.I.T.’s Optics Department down to Washington D.C. because he had been recommended for the job. Since my father was a graduate of M.I.T. he knew Dr. Duntley, and when the government suggested that Duntley conduct these experiments on a carrier, Duntley said, ‘No! If you want me to do the experiments, I’ll do them on Diamond Island on Lake Winnipesaukee.’ He knew he could do the experiments here because the water was so clear,” Dave explained.

And that’s how Dr. Quimby Duntley, the U.S. Navy, and M.I.T. came to Diamond Island to conduct secret experiments, and these experiments lasted until 1955! Arrangements were made for the Navy to lease the property on which the experiments were conducted and Carroll Spooner built a tall observation tower near the island’s yet-to-be completed “Lagoon” which is the Spooner-preferred word for “breakwater.”

When Quimby Duntley and his wife Mabel first arrived at Diamond Island they camped out in a tent, but a generator was brought to the island to help with the experiments. “Somewhere during this time, Dr. Duntley left M.I.T. and went with Scripp’s Institution of Oceanography. The next thing we know they’re working underwater on one of the first laser beams ever produced!”

A metal “laser track,”looking much like a miniature railroad track, or a small horizontal ladder, was constructed on the beach before it was submerged in the lake. “They put a long tube under the water with a cement foundation on the bottom. Winnipesaukee Marine would come and lower the tube into the water every spring and take it out in the fall,” recalls Dave. “It had a window where you could look out and see the lake. The experiments were always conducted at night of course and through the window they could aim the (laser) beam of light on the track and move the ‘target’ back and forth on the track.”

Both Dave and his wife Joan went down into the tube and Dave said, “The fish would come right up to the beam!” Joan’s surprise was all the plankton in the lake she said, “but we were told it keeps the lake clean!” Joan added, “Those poor divers, they all ended up getting sick or getting pneumonia. Every year five or six of them were sick…working in the cold water for hours at a time, and all done in the night.” This program of research on underwater lighting by submerged light sources, including the underwater laser experiments, were made on Diamond Island in 1964 through 1966.

As for that metal laser track, it is still visible today. Underwater divers have long speculated as to its purpose. Joan recalls that the experiment site drew so much attention that long after the experiments ended, “Scuba divers were out there all the time. We couldn’t even get out of the boathouse to go to the mainland some of the time and Dave would have to get them to move. And sometimes the divers lit up the lake like Times Square at night.” In his “Lake Winnipesaukee Cruising Guide” published in 1984, author David Buckman notes that in Blaisdell’s “Three Centuries on Winnipesaukee” published in 1936, the work near Diamond Island was recorded as “light diffusion experiments.” He also made note of local barges reportedly hauling some “strange looking devices” to the island, sparking much curiosity about the nature of the experiments. Buckman further noted, “Local divers report that a railway lies along the steeply sloping bottom.” Buckman ends his excerpt on Diamond Island with a warning for boaters to heed the “Keep Out” signs posted on the northwestern tip of the island.

“When this laser project was completed…it took about two years…the U.S. Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory Center leased the property for experiments,” said Dave. In 1966 the U.S. Navy acquired the Diamond Island facility, and in 1969 began experiments in underwater optics and acoustics at the site. “I remember that one of the naval officer’s boys was a ‘free diver.’ They found a lot of old cups and plates that people threw out of the old hotel.” Dave went on to say that the depth between Ames Farm and Diamond Island is about 65-feet. The waters between Diamond and Welch are about 185-feet deep. “Never once have I seen any of them out there on the deep side of the island. We really don’t know what the Navy was doing out there.”

Joan added, “We were given a book full of technical reports that were long and impossible to understand, but our condo had a fire and I think that book was lost in it.” Both Joan and Dave said they were grateful that the extensive Spooner family photo album chronicling their family history on Diamond Island was not lost in the fire. Many of those photos were professionally done, taken by well known Record American photographer, Don Robinson.

A Diamond Island Guest Log also survived the fire, in which Joan Hamilton’s signature appears on August 10, 1957. The year before, Carroll Spooner leased out lots to seasonal guests. Soon afterward, with his property taxes steadily mounting and after having the island surveyed, Carroll gave the lessees the option to purchase the land. “Everyone who was leasing bought their lots,” Joan noted.

To stay at Diamond Island was to want to come back again. Over the years, some guests recorded their Diamond Island experiences, and other’s their sentiments: “All kinds of weather, but just one kind of true New England hospitality, the special Spooner brand, ala Diamond Island”…Ruth and Chet Hathaway, August 21 – 24th, 1960. The following year the Hathaways returned to Diamond Island and Ruth wrote this untitled poem:

Up the hill through woodland trails,
Down to the shore toting pails,
On the porch absorbing views,
‘Round the table (dis)cussing news.
Eating, sleeping, having fun,
What if the old pump doesn’t run?
We’re here on Diamond Isle -
And that’s enough to make us smile.

Then there was this entry:

“We’ll never find words to tell you both how much this has meant to us all – a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration in the most beautiful spot in the world thanks to the kindness and generosity of the Spooners.” Elizabeth I. Holt.

Also recorded in the Spooner family album’s photos, was much eating, celebrating, enjoyment and play on Diamond Island through the years – with the possible exception of closing up time. Dave Spooner smiles and shakes his head marveling at the number of friends his father managed to recruit to close up the camp over the years that he owned Diamond Island. Not only did they come to help, but they actually returned after successfully completing what became a closing down ritual every Columbus Day weekend. “Everything had to be done just so; precise, and in just the same way every year,” Dave chuckled.

Not only did they come, but guests of Diamond Island sometimes gave the Spooners gifts of gratitude. The uncle of Clem Sawtell, a frequent guest on Diamond Island, happened to be the famous painter of Native American Western Art, DeCosta Smith. Clem gave Carroll and Sarah Spooner an original painting by his uncle. “It hung in the log cabin for years,” notes Joan, “and nobody ever bothered it.” Once the Spooner’s insurance agent discovered what the painting was worth, and that it was hanging year ‘round in the family’s summer cabin, the insurance agent shouted, “Get it out of there right now!” A print of the original that was eventually sold, still hangs in the Spooner living room. A portrait of Carroll Spooner standing on the top of Diamond Island and painted by a Navy Captain as a gift, hangs today in the home of son John Spooner. So whether guests came to stay on the island, to conduct experiments, or to simply help close down for the season, each one was part of the Diamond Island family and many expressed their thanks for the Spooner hospitality with heartfelt appreciation.

One guest who didn’t sign the Guest Log was actor Lloyd Bridges of TV’s Sea Hunt fame. “The Duntleys invited him back to the island for a cookout after he performed at the old Gilford Playhouse,” said Dave. The Spooners still recall the surprise when they saw Bridges in person. “He was only about five six or seven. He looked a lot taller on TV!” Jayne Mansfield performed at the Playhouse too…but they never invited her out!” Dave joked. Dave was never told about how much money was involved while the U.S. Navy and others conducted experiments on Diamond Island up to the early 1970s, but it was clear that the lease revenue helped to pay the island’s taxes. “After the Navy finished, we thought that was the end of the leasing,” said Dave. It was an arrangement that worked well for both the lessees and the Spooners over the years. For example, through their lease agreement, Fred Pinkham, who worked on the island for M.I.T. provided a shuttle service. “All we had to do was flash the lights and Fred would come to pick us up and take us to the island,” Dave recalled.

Just when the Spooners thought there would be no more leasing opportunities, the University of New Hampshire asked to lease the property to conduct research off the island using a miniature submarine. “UNH conducted soil sample and testing experiments. They had originally planned to go to the Artic and were doing pre-experiments for that Artic expedition, but the government funding dried up. One day when we went to UNH to sign some papers we were told that the whole basin between Mount Major and Gunstock and Rattlesnake and Diamond Islands was a hollow created by a volcano which formed many nutrients for the fish to feed on and that’s why there’s great fishing there!”

Dave and Joan were married in 1958 and Joan smiles as she recalls, “My father-in-law said to us, ‘pick any lot you want on the island.’ So we picked a lot half way down on the Broads side of the island because there was nobody else around. It was the worst spot we could have picked! Water came running down the hill and moved the camp every year!” And Joan and Dave weren’t alone long. In a couple of years they had neighbors on both sides of their island property. In 1965 daughter Carol Lee was born followed in 1967 by son John David.

Because Dave wanted the children to “have what he had” growing up on Diamond Island, Joan stayed summers with the children while Dave returned home to Westford Mass. to work during the week and returned to Diamond Island on the weekends. It was with great anticipation that the children watched for their father’s boat to come into view on Friday afternoons, Joan recalls. “The kids didn’t join Scouts or anything like that because they had everything on the island – their cousins to play with and even Sunday ‘Chapel Time’ on the hill where we all sang songs and held a Sunday service. The girls also had gymnastics…and every week we had to go see another show.”

Carroll and Sarah Spooner spent summers on Diamond Island with their friends and family until 1982. Both parents lived with Dave and Joan in Westford Massachusetts when in 1983, Sarah died on her 94th birthday. Six days later, Carroll passed on as well. Just three days after Sarah’s funeral, the family gathered again for Carroll’s service.

With the passing of Carroll and Sarah Spooner, a chapter in Diamond Island’s history was closed. As for David and Joan, they continued to spend summers on the island until 2001. Today, there are 19 private cottages on Diamond Island but one thing has not changed says Joan, “They still don’t have electricity on the island… nobody wants it!” Another Diamond Island tradition also lives on; every Sunday during the summer Dave and Joan enjoy breakfast at Ames Farm. And in the background Diamond Island sparkles like the little island jewel it still is.

Did you miss Part One? Read it here.