Preserving the History & Heritage of Lake Winnipeasukee & Vicinity
 
 

THE EARLY STEAMBOATS


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From "Three Centuries on Winnipesaukee" by Paul Blaisdell- 1975



Stephen C. Lyford, with Ichabod Bartlett, well-known lawyer, were the moving spirits of the group which started construction of the "Belknap" in 1832. Construction work was done on a slightly sloping hill near Park Street in Lake Village. Work progressed slowly, and one winter passed before the launching in June of 1833. The finishing touches were added after the boat was in the water. A contributing cause to the slow progress of the building was the fact that the project was so much larger in scope than any of the previous boat building attempts. The "Belknap" was ninety-six feet long, had a seventeen-foot beam, and was thirty-three feet overall.

Another cessation of building activity came when a Mr. Bell, of New York, who was directing the construction, was drowned by falling from the dam at Lake Village. Incidentally, this is the first drowning accident on Winnipesaukee of which there is record, and the date of June 12, 1832, is given for this mishap in Lancaster's "History of Gilmanton." Messrs. Clark and Lufton, who were working with Bell, continued the building through its completion.

Little ceremony attended the actual launching, although a considerable crowd gathered; but much remains concerning the first trip of the steamboat. A general invitation to a free ride was extended to Lake Village inhabitants, and on the day of the trial voyage many were there to enjoy this thrill. Not a few were ladies, and all were proudly escorted on board to marvel at this new wonder. When all was ready, a first attempt was made to start. Something was wrong, though, for, instead of going ahead and putting her nose out into the open water, the "Belknap" went backwards, only to crash into a raft of logs before a stop could be made. A flurry of excitement passed over the passengers, and many were ready to abandon the boat; but examination disclosed that no harm had befallen either hull or machinery. No record remains of the reason for this first steamboating adventure, but whatever the cause it was removed, and on the second attempt the "Belknap" steamed triumphantly over the waters of Paugus Bay. It is said that five or six miles an hour was the top speed for this craft. The "Belknap" is also said to have been very noisy, the sound from her exhaust being audible for several miles on a calm day. The first crew of the boat was comprised of Charles Bell as master mechanic; Perkins Drake, a stage coach driver, as pilot; Levi Cowdin as engineer; and James Jewett, captain. Jewett thus receives the distinction of being the first steamboat captain on Winnipesaukee. On July 9, 1834, the "Belknap" started regular passenger and freight trips on the lake, running between Lake Village, Meredith, Center Harbor and Alton Bay.

Possibly I have made this first Winnipesaukee steamboat seem a little too grand. The "Belknap" actually retained the scow type of construction, and its engine was taken from a sawmill. The boiler was set in brick, and the moving parts of the sidewheel machinery were exposed above decks.

There has been some dispute as to the claim that the "Belknap" was the first steamboat on the lake, and it may be that her rival for this honor suffers only from a lack of accurate records. Every definite bit of data gives the "Belknap" first place. In any event the "Jenny Lind," which some have held to be the first, was certainly the second steamer placed in service.

Langdon Thyng hit upon the idea that a locomotive engine could furnish motive power for a boat, and he purchased a small, discarded locomotive that had been used to haul gravel trains during the railway construction. Little remains of knowledge of this craft save that it attained a five-mile-an-hour speed and was exceptionally noisy, an attribute of all these early steamers. While under way it puffed and blew in a halting rhythm that could be heard for many miles. Considerable more is told of the locomotive which became a steamboat, particularly as to its names. "Cork Leg" was its first appellation, though the origin of this sobriquet has escaped all memory. Later the more dignified name of "Widow Dustin" became attached to the little locomotive, but the young boys of the locality called it the "Widder," and this was its most frequently used title until it was dismantled.

These craft were of Winnipesaukee's first fleet of steamboats. To tell the history of each would be but repetition. All were scow-shaped side-wheelers with sawmill or old locomotive engines. George K. Brown and Perley R. Brown, who owned a summer "hotel" on Long Island, had a steamer called the "Long Island." Otis Folsom, also of Long Island, skippered the "Dolly Dutton," a craft built by William Guptil of Wolfeboro. The "Mayflower," built at Wolfeboro, and the "Naugutuck" were other scow-shaped steamers. The "Seneca," with Uriah Hall as captain, was another early steamboat; and it is remembered as having run aground on Goose Egg Rock, that treacherous spot in Moultonboro Bay. Hall later built the steamer "Ossipee."

Mention of the "Dolly Dutton" brings to mind the favorite Winnipesaukee tales about Aunt Dolly and her ferry from Meredith Neck to Bear Island. In fact, the end o£ Bear Island near Horse Island is known as Aunt Dolly's Point, it being the site of the house once occupied by Dolly Nichols. Aunt Dolly was a character known far and wide in the lake region, for she sold cider and rum to the fishermen. and her home was frequently a rendezvous for erring husbands who imbibed too freely while displaying their piscatorial prowess. Of no less renown are Aunt Dolly's muscular feats, for she often rowed to The Weirs for a barrel of rum, and, when she secured it, she swung it up on her shoulder and carried it down to the waiting boat. When she reached home, she would pull the barrel up into her lap and take a drink from the bunghole. At other times, before leaving Weirs, she is known to have lifted the barrel above her head to drink from it in full view of those on the dock. Save when Aunt Dolly was on an excursion to Weirs, she operated a hand propelled ferry between Bear Island and Meredith Neck, providing the first route for public access to this large island. This was probably the first ferry service on the lake. So great was her fame that not only the Point but also the islands in the cove on the west side of Bear Island are named for Aunt Dolly.

Equally interesting is the legendary origin of Becky's Garden, the smallest charted island in the lake. An early settler of Center Harbor had several daughters, of whom the loveliest was Rebecca. While her sisters were frivolous and spoiled, Rebecca was a model young lady, and she beautified the surroundings of her father's house by her care of her garden, of which she was justly proud. One day her father's cattle escaped, and, before they were noticed, they had laid waste the beautiful garden plot. Rebecca was heartbroken, and her father, by way of consolation, offered her as a gift any one of the numerous islands in the lake which she might care to choose. Her sisters clamored for the same dower, and their father finally consented, giving Becky her first choice. This caused her sisters to be so envious that Becky decided to choose the smallest island she could find, and selected the one which bears her name today, an island that is scarcely more than a bush-covered rock. The other daughters picked out large, verdant islands.

The story of Becky's choice travelled far, as stories will; and a wealthy young farmer in the vicinity became so interested in hearing of the unselfish young maiden that he sought her acquaintance, and, finding her an attractive young lady, wooed and won her for his bride. Thus it was said that Becky's Garden, though the smallest of islands, produced the greatest results. Today, each year, a model house, complete in every detail, is placed on the island to distinguish it as inhabited despite its size-all in memory of the unspoiled Becky.

But two of the scow steamers had particular bearing on future Winnipesaukee boating, the "Winnipesaukee" and the "Belknap." The former was the first steamer of the Lamprey family, Robert and Lanson Lamprey building her in the traditional form and using a sawmill engine. As boating continued its evolution on the lake, this craft was repaired extensively by being cut in two and having twenty feet added to her hull length. At the same time the then conventional type of bow was added and the boat placed back in passenger carrying service. In 1880 the "Winnipesaukee" sailed from Alton Bay on an excursion trip, carrying a capacity crowd. The craft had scarcely passed Little Mark Island when a strong northwest wind swept down across "The Broads." Her navigators attempted to continue the voyage, but the extensive repairs to her hull had been faulty, and she was weak where the new twenty foot section was joined to the old planking. The boat started to break up under the terrific pounding of the waves, and, in an effort to save the lives of all on board, she was run into Rolins Cove on Smith Point. This move was successful; but it was some time before her passengers or crew recovered from the fright of their experience. When the facts of the near calamity became known, the state of New Hampshire took its first steps toward jurisdiction over boats operated in the public carriage of passengers. The next session of the state legislature saw a provision made for the inspection of steamboats operated for hire, in chapter 100 of the Laws of 1881. This act became effective January 1, 1882. Since that time inspection of all types of public boats has become mandatory.

The "Belknap" has not only the distinction of being the first steamboat on Lake Winnipesaukee, but it likewise was the victim of the first steamboat "disaster." In October of 1841 the boat was coming down the lake between Six Mile and Birch Islands, towing a raft of logs said to contain between twenty and twenty-five thousand feet. A northeast wind was steadily rising, and with marked suddenness the overcast skies lashed the lake into full fury. Under fair conditions the steamer was able to make only two or three miles an hour towing such a large raft; and on this day, when the wind caught the raft in back of the boat, all headway was lost; and the raft swung by the steamer towing the now helpless "Belknap" toward the point of an island. Some claim that even then the wreck might have been averted had the engineer not mistaken a signal bell from the pilot house and sent the engine ahead when the signal was for reverse. Two or three minutes later the craft struck the rocks, filled with water, and settled on the shallow bottom. The log raft was cut away and every effort was made to release the boat; but in spite of all attempts the craft remained securely wedged. The machinery was removed, and the hull, containing only the brick foundation for the boiler, was left where it had struck. Even to this day, when the water is calm, a little grappling will bring up a few splinters of wood from the "Belknap's" hull. I hesitate to tell this, as I would dislike to see a sudden influx of souvenir hunters picking at the bones of this Winnipesaukee pioneer. From the day of that accident the island where it occurred has borne the name of Steamboat Island.

No further attempts were made to operate steamers in regular passenger service until 1848-49, when the Winnipesaukee Steamboat Company built the "Lady of the Lake" at Lakeport on the plot of land formerly occupied by Hezeklah Bickford's machine shop. The "Lady of the Lake" was the first Winnipesaukee steamboat to exceed one hundred feet in length, measuring one hundred and twenty-five feet from bow to stern with a beam of thirty-five feet. This craft contributed much to the richness of Winnipesaukee's boating history when she was taken over by the Concord and Montreal railroad, and opened the navigation rivalry between New Hampshire's two leading railway lines.

The construction of the "Lady of the Lake" along the more conventional lines of side-wheelers marked the end of the scowshaped steamer on the lake; but, like the horseboat, a few of these old-timers remained in service with their use confined to infrequent passenger excursions and freight trips.

 
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