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
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
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
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.