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Preserving the History & Heritage of Lake Winnipesaukee & Vicinity
 
 

STEAMBOATS


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AN INTRODUCTION



Old Jeb shifted his chew inside his wizened cheeks, spat reflectively in the general direction of Lake Winnipesaukee, and observed, “That boat ain’t much like the ones I see when I was a boy.” He shook his head regretfully at the sleek lines of the diesel steamship Mount Washington II and the scores of summer vacationers that were crowding her decks. Jeb allowed as how all the romance had gone out of Winnipesaukee steamboating since old Captain Leander Lavallee, of the Mt. Washington, died. “These boats, they jest go around and around,” he said sadly, “no races, no nuthing.”

When Jeb or any of the other Lakes Region old-timers start to spin their yarns about the steamboat rivalries of a century ago, the listener can understand how they might feel that a lot of the excitement has gone out of boating on New Hampshire’s biggest lake. In those days it was closer to being shipping —a serious business, part of the commercial transportation system of the region —rather than the scenic recreation it is today.

Its history reads like a chapter out of the clipper-ship days, when storms and shipwrecks, races and rivalries were all in the day’s work. Even the names of those old steamers had a romantic cast: the Maid of the Isles, the Lady of the Lake, the James Bell, the Governor Endicott, the Minneola, the Belknap, the Chocorua, and the grand old Mount Washington. And each boat has its own legends of romance and misadventure.

Steamboating on nineteenth-century Winnipesaukee was big business. Compared with the dusty dirt roads that linked the towns of the Lakes Region, water travel was fast and luxurious, and steamboats were the accepted form of transportation there for decades. Railroad stations even today are a common sight on the public docks of Winnipesaukee towns, where train passengers were transferred to one of the railroad-owned steamboats for the next leg of their journey. The lakeside towns were laced together by boat lines, with railroad boats joining the larger towns, and smaller craft acting as connecting carriers between the islands and smaller villages. On any day in the mid-1800’s, a dozen or more steamboats belched soot into the air as they carried freight and passengers around and across Lake Winnipesaukee.

Commercial shipping first began on the lake over two centuries ago, when canoes and sailboats were used to carry freight between the lakeside settlements. But Winnipesaukee is a difficult lake to navigate in sailing craft, and the lives of those early mariners were made dangerous by uncharted reefs and bewildering currents. It soon became obvious that a more reliable form of transportation was needed if boating was to become commercially successful. The first answer to the problem was a bulky, seventy-foot flatboat built by a trader named Pattern. This was the fabled “hossboat,” New Hampshire’s first contribution to the powerboating industry. Two horses walked their endless way around the lake on a treadmill connected to two large paddle wheels, and the craft was maneuvered by a steersman with a large sweep oar and foot-brakes for the paddle wheels. The horse-boats soon replaced sailing craft for transportation and remained in use until late in the nineteenth century, when they were used to haul wood for the boilers of the steamboats.

Shipwrecks were the distinguishing feature in the life of Winnipesaukee’s first steam Hampshire’s first contribution to the powerboating industry. Two horses walked their endless way around the lake on a treadmill connected to two large paddle wheels, and the craft was maneuvered by a steersman with a large sweep oar and foot-brakes for the paddle wheels. The horse-boats soon replaced sailing craft for transportation and remained in use until late in the nineteenth century, when they were used to haul wood for the boilers of the steamboats.

Shipwrecks were the distinguishing feature in the life of Winnipesaukee’s first steamboat, the Belknap. Two years in the building, the Belknap was a prodigious effort for the Lakes Region shipbuilders —ninety-six feet long and thirty-three feet wide on the decks —and was powered by a steam engine salvaged from an old saw mill Her first misadventure happened the day she was launched at Lakeport in 1833. Full-ahead was located where reverse should have been in her crazy-quilt pilot house, and the proud ship plowed backwards into a raft of logs instead of sailing majestically out into Paugus Bay. The trouble was soon located, however; the Belknap finished her maiden voyage on schedule and continued to operate on the lake for eight more years, until another raft of logs again caused an accident that finished her career for good. On that cold October day in 1841, the lake witnessed its first serious shipwreck, and another one of its 365 islands received a name.

It was late in the season, when the nor’easters make boating hazardous on Winnipesaukee just as they do for seamen everywhere. The Belknap was sailing out of Center Harbor that day, towing a raft of logs that slowed the ship down to a speed of about three miles an hour. Somewhere between Six Mile Island and Birch Island a gale struck the steamer. Unable to make any headway with her heavy burden, the Belknap swung onto the point of a small island, smashed against submerged rocks and sank almost immediately. Although the machinery was later salvaged, the hull still remains on the lake-bottom near “Steamboat Island,” as it has been called ever since.

During the eight years of the Belknap’s service, other steamers were put into service on the lake, all of them powered by old locomotive or sawmill engines. About eight were built altogether, fashioned along the scow lines of the Belknap; they were noisy and clumsy, but they proved that scheduled steamboat transportation was a practical and profitable business. Population was growing, the railroads were coming and businessmen recognized the need for inter-town transportation. But by the time that the Belknap made her last voyage, all the early sidewheelers had been either worn out or destroyed, and steamboating on Winnipesaukee came to a standstill for several years while the region waited for a newer type of common carrier.

The new era started at mid-century with the construction of the famous Lady of the Lake, which was to bring with her the railroad interests that were one of the greatest factors in the development of marine transportation on Winnipesaukee. The Lady, constructed in 1849 at Lakeport by the Winnipesaukee Steamboat Company, was a 125-foot craft with a spanking new steam engine —the first boat to be designed completely for commercial lake travel. Thousands gathered from all over New Hampshire to witness the launching of the new vessel, and four hundred rode with her on her maiden voyage from Lakeport to the Weirs, Center Harbor, and Wolfeboro. Hardly had the Lady docked again at The Weirs before the Concord and Montreal railroad company began negotiations to buy the boat, and Winnipesaukee steamboating entered its most romantic years.

The Lady had no rival on the lake, and business boomed for the Concord and Montreal system. This was a bitter pill for the company’s competitor, the Cocheco railroad company that served the southern part of Winnipesaukee. That system, seeing its business disappear under the drawing power of the C&M’s sidewheeler, ordered a new ship to be constructed at Alton Bay, and the competition was under way.

The rivalry that resulted from the launching of the Chocorua by the Cocheco railroad company was a long and bitter one. The Chocorua was immediately forbidden docking facilities at the Weirs, home territory of the Concord and Montreal system; in counter-measure, the Cocheco added Meredith to the ports-of-call for their ship. The fight was on, and the lake was divided into two domains, each actually going under a different name. One end of the lake was called “Winnipesaukee”—the name that was legally adopted by the state legislature in 1931—while the other half went under the more tongue-twisting title of “Winnipeseogee.” The captains of the rival steamers were loyal company men, and they usually gave the “full ahead” signal when the two boats met on their parallel runs from Center Harbor to Wolfeboro. The smoke-stacks belched and the boilers hissed, while passengers and crew cheered on their favorites —but the Lady was unquestionably the better craft and could usually steam rings around the Chocorua.

The railroad rivalry had been under way for only a few years before a new and more luxurious steamer was put into operation on the lake. Privately-owned and so attractive that she took quite a chunk of business away from the company boats, the Jim Bell was outfitted even to the extent of window blinds for comfort and wooden roller bearings for silent operation. Not caring for this type of competition, the Boston and Maine company —which by this time had absorbed the Cocheco system —purchased the Jim Bell and retired her from active use as a passenger-carrier. The fast-growing company received two benefits from this move: the Jim Bell was stationed at The Weirs, where it could encroach on the home territory of the Concord and Montreal, and the ship also turned in a neat profit from excursion trips and moonlight cruises. So, although the Jim Bell never had a fair chance in the commercial competition, she did have the distinction of becoming the Lakes Region’s first tourist boat, and pioneer in an industry that would completely displace commercial lake boating before too many years had passed.

The purchase of the Jim Bell gave a boost to the Boston and Maine, but Captain Wiggin of their Chocorua was still smarting under the repeated defeats his boat was taking at the hands of the faster Lady. He stormed at his company to provide him with a better vessel, and the company realized the value of his demands when it took stock of the drop in business it was suffering because of the Lady. Finally, in 1871, the up-and-coming Boston and Maine company gave the go-ahead signal for the construction of another ship, and leading boatbuilders all along the Atlantic coast were consulted. They were determined that the new vessel would be the latest word in speed and luxury.
The ship was built and launched at Alton Bay, where she was christened the Mount Washington, a name that was to become one of the grandest traditions of Lake Winnipesaukee. The Mount was a remarkable ship when she was launched in 1872, longer and faster than any boat ever seen on the lake up to that time, and one of the fastest sidewheelers ever built in the United States. A single gigantic piston, with a diameter of forty-two inches and a stroke of ten feet, drove the Mount at better than twenty miles an hour. One of the largest ever used on a mobile engine, the piston drove the sidewheels by means of a picturesque “walking beam” atop the superstructure. When the Mount was hull-down behind one of the lake’s hundreds of islands, all the on-looker could see was the tall smoke-stack belching soot into the sky, and the walking-beam tilting up and down, down and up, as it lifted shafts to turn the giant paddle wheels. The engine developed over 450 horsepower at top speed —enough speed to leave the redoubtable old Lady in its wake.

Even though the Mount far outclassed the Lady of the Lake, their rivalry continued unabated for eighteen more years. The captain and the crew of the Lady pushed themselves ever harder in their efforts to regain some of their lost business, until by 1890 the vessel ran three round trips a day from June 4 until October 20. She began her day’s work at 5:30 a.m., sailing from Wolfeboro to Long Island, Center Harbor, Bear Island, and The Weirs. Arriving back at Wolfeboro at 10:20 a.m., she sailed immediately on her second trip, which finished at 3 p.m. The third and last trip of the day started at 3:30 and finished at 7:30 p.m. —a fourteen-hour day for captain and crew, not counting the time involved in firing up in the morning and cleaning up at night. Yet despite their gallant efforts, the Lady was a losing proposition when stacked up against the Mount Washington. She made her last trip in September of 1893, after which she was destroyed by her owners, and the Mount Washington was left alone as undisputed queen of lake travel.

While the Lady and the Mount were still fighting their unequal battle for lake supremacy, a new type of steamer was introduced to Winnipesaukee. Driven by means of a screw propeller, it was more efficient than the bigger boats, although it could not compete with the sidewheelers when it came to speed. These new steamers were intended primarily as connecting carriers and excursion vessels, for the tourist business was becoming ever more important to the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.

The first screw-driven steamer constructed especially for Winnipesaukee was the Minneola, launched five years after the construction of the Mount Washington. A tremendous crowd flocked to Lakeport to see the new ship launched, for her New York builders had announced that the Minneola could reach a speed of ten miles an hour, a fantastic claim for the still-unproven screw propeller. But the Minneola lived up to her billing, and reached a speed of ten and one half miles per hour on her maiden voyage, making her the fastest ship on the lake apart from the two railroad sidewheelers.

Most famous of these propeller-driven boats was the Maid of the Isles, an expensive craft that cost her Wolfeboro builders $16,000 in 1877. The Maid was a fast little boat, and there is reason to believe that she once beat the Mount Washington in one of the many races between the early lake steamers. The contest took place between Three-Mile Island and Center Harbor, with the smaller ship passing the Mount near Becky’s Garden and docking at Center Harbor a scant minute before the sidewheeler. Partisans of the Mount Washington, however, claim that the Maid “ambushed” the bigger boat, lying in wait for her with a full head of steam, and that the Mount had no time to get up speed before being passed by the Maid. Most of the old-timers will claim that no boat could beat the Mount when she didn’t want to be beaten.

The Maid also had the distinction of being sent to the bottom of the lake twice before her career ended. The first sinking occurred shortly after her construction, when loose boards allowed water to fill her hull, sinking her off the Wolfeboro Navy Yard. After a long delay, the $16,000 craft was finally raised and sold at public auction for the sum of fifty dollars. The investment was a profitable one for her buyer, since the Maid continued to serve as a connecting carrier for ten more years, until she sank once more while tied up at Lakeport. Again the sturdy boat was raised and was towed to Center Harbor the next summer, where a group of Independence Day jokesters set her afire and ended her career for good.

When the Maid of the Isles was destroyed around the turn of the century, the boating era had also reached a turning point. The Concord and Montreal system passed out of the scene in 1893 after the Lady of the Lake made its last voyage and the Boston and Maine railroad soon met a more serious type of competition as the age of the automobile began to unfold. Roads were improved, the Model T Ford rolled off the assembly lines, and the commercial value of the steamships began to lessen. By the time the Armistice was signed, ending World War I, steamboating as an adjunct of commercial transportation was on its way out.

In the early 1920’s, the Boston and Maine officials decided to move out of the steamship business. The Mount Washington was sold to her captain, Leander Lavallee; the railroad’s other steamers had long since been destroyed by fire or shipwreck or old age. Used for the more leisurely business of carrying summer vacationers as an excursion boat, the Mount continued in operation until December 23, 1939, in one of the grandest traditions of the “vacation paradise” of the Lakes Region. Millions of tourists from all over the world rode on the old sidewheeler, and thousands of cameras snapped pictures of the giant wheels and the unique “walking beam”. The 67-year-old vessel had become a traveling legend before that cold winter day when an unexplained fire swept through the docks of The Weirs and sent Winnipesaukee’s last steamship to the bottom.

The Mount Washington has gone, and with her a century of New Hampshire’s most colorful history. Old Captain Lavallee is dead, the lakeside railroad stations are being torn down, and pleasure boats now have the big lake to themselves. Winnipesaukee’s steamboat days have given way to a new age, but the old romance and legend still exist in precious faded clippings and photographs and in the nostalgic memories of old-timers like Jeb.

 
 
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