Glittering within New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, itself created by the likes of Little Squam, Silver, Squam, Waukewan, and Winnisquam lakes, is Lake Winnipesaukee, one of the three largest to lie within the borders of a single state. And plying it for three-quarters of a century is its flagship, the “M/S Mount Washington.” A cruise on this very, and venerable, symbol is obligatory for becoming acquainted with the area.
Sandwiched between volcanic Belknap and Ossipee mountains, the glacially-formed and spring-fed lake was first discovered by white men in 1652 when surveyors dispatched by the Massachusetts Colony to determine its northern boundaries realized that the point they sought lay three miles up the Merrimack River. Embarking on a secondary expedition in a sailboat, they reached the village of Aquadoctan, then the largest Indian community in the area, located in the north and west foothills.
The point itself, marked by a plaque on today’s Endicott Rock, stands in present-day Weirs Beach, named after the triangular, rock-and-log-fishing trap found nearby. The 72-square-mile lake of Winnipesaukee, with a 25-mile length, one- to 15-mile width, and 182.89-mile shore line, equally derives its name from an Indian word which has several translations, including “the smile of the great spirit,” “beautiful water in a high place,” and even “smiling water between hills.”
Encircled by the major port towns of Alton Bay, Center Harbor, Meredith, Wolfeboro, and Weirs Beach, and comprised of 274 habitable islands, it is a magnet for summer tourists, offering an array of accommodation types, restaurants, shops, water sports, and boating activities.
Because of its size and its number of communities, intra-lake transportation had been vital and integral to its existence, whether it be for passengers, freight, or mail, since surface, lake-perimeter conveyance, particularly during pre-motorized days, had been laboriously slow.
The first such aquatic surface vehicle combined the buoyancy of a hull with the horsepower of the actual animal. Two such horses, positioned at its aft treadmill on an open, 60- to 70-foot boat, turned its side paddle wheels as they trotted, producing a two-mph speed.
Further integrating travel models, railroads strategically positioned stations next to steamboat docks, facilitating passenger interchange.
One of the lake’s first such boats, the 96-foot-long, 33-foot-wide “Belknap,” was inaugurated into service at Lake Village in 1833, propelled by a retrofitted sawmill steam engine. Redirected onto rocks by gale force winds eight years later, it sank from sight.
Succeeded by what became a virtual symbol of the area, it passed its wake to the “Lady of the Lake.” Constructed by the Winnipesaukee Steamboat Company in 1849, the 125-foot-long boat was launched from Lake Village and carried 400 passengers during its maiden voyage to the Weirs, Center Harbor, and Wolfeboro.
But even the “Lady of the Lake” could not covet the crown earned by its competitor, the “Mount Washington,” which became reining queen after the elderly lady herself had been retired in 1893.
Powered by a single, 42-inch-diameter piston which generated 450 hp, the wooden hulled, side-wheel steamer was launched in 1872 from Alton Bay and exceeded 20-mph cruise speeds.
Technology climbed a step on the “Mineola.” Constructed in 1877 in Newburgh, New Hampshire, it was both the first propeller—as opposed to paddle wheel—steamer and the first to have been large enough to carry both passengers and cargo.
What was to become the end of the “Mount Washington’s” long, illustrious career in the 1920s only became its beginning. The Boston and Maine Company, its owner, withdrew it from service, but Captain Leander Lavallee, unable to accept the icon’s demise, purchased it and operated lake excursions for tourists during the summer months until even this resuscitation abruptly lost its air when a fire unexplainably erupted at the Weirs train station and spread toward the dock where it had been moored only two days before Christmas in 1939, reducing it to a mostly submerged char and ending its career in the very water which, for 67 years, had ironically given it life.
Still undeterred, Lavallee could not see its name sink with it. Citing the $250,000 of an all-new design as prohibitive, he embarked on a search for a second-hand “Mount Washington II” replacement instead that was ultimately located on Lake Champlain in the form of the “Chateaugay.” Built in 1888, the iron-hulled, side-wheel steamer, owned by the Champlain Transportation Company, had been operated between Burlington, Vermont, and Plattsburgh, New York.
The $20,000 price did not pose an obstacle, but the 150 miles of surface transport to its new Lake Winnipesaukee home did. Since he only needed the hull, he reduced it to 20 severed sections and transported them on flatbed rail cars on April 3, 1940. It only provided part of Lavallee’s intended flapship.
Insisting on no longer manufactured steam engines, he acquired a second boat, the “Crescent III,” for $25,000, cannibalizing it and transplanting its vital, engine, boiler, shaft, and propeller arteries into his new aquatic creation.
After an extensive process of naval engineering symbiosis, the reconstructed, repackaged, twin-screw “Mount Washington II” was baptized with Lake Winnipesaukee waters when it was floated out at Lakeport on August 12, 1940.
In sheer size, this hybrid, given birth by two parental boats that had never even met each other, was slated to rein supreme—and long. Stretching 205 feet from bow to stern, it weighed 500 tons, was propelled by two screws, and featured a 35-foot beam and seven-foot draft.
According to its 1941 summer timetable, it offered exactly the type and style of service Lavallee had envisioned for the original steamboat’s successor. It operated two daily round trip excursions, except on Sundays, on the 65-mile run from the Weirs at 08:00 and 13:00, calling at Bear Island, Center Harbor, Wolfeboro, and Alton Bay. Passenger fares were set at $1.00.
As the venerable and seemingly timeless symbol of Lake Winnipesaukee, which reflected Lavallee’s almost-infinite vision, it neither ceased to sail, nor evolve. Indeed, its hybrid assembly would only characterize its continual dry dock surgery.
In the spring of 1946, for instance, it was retrofitted with two, 615-hp Enterprise diesel engines, facilitating the conversion of all previous steam equipment to electrical, and visibility was improved with the elevation of the wheel house from its former second to a current third deck location.
Five years later, removal of its boat deck enabled passengers to be accommodated on the now reconfigured third deck.
Yet, its most extensive reconfiguration, mimicking its very hull-sectioned birth, occurred on October 31, 1982 at its Center Harbor shipyard and winter headquarters, when the Winnipesaukee Flagship Corporation, its current owner and operator, once again sliced it in half, just forward of its engine room bulkhead, and inserted a 24-foot, prefabricated hull section, increasing its overall length to 230 feet.
The elongated ship, accommodating 1,250 passengers on four decks with a nine-foot draft and weighing 750 tons, was refloated on April 30, 1983 after six months of reconstruction facilitated by the Marine Railway specifically built for this purpose as far back as 1949. Crewed by 15, the boat, previously designated the “MV Mount Washington”–for “motor vessel”–now carried the “MS”—or “motor ship”—prefix. It could almost have been called the “Mount Washington III.” In order to cater to its length and gross weight increases, the Weirs Beach dock facilities had been modified.
Subsequently retrofitted with clean-burning, EPA-approved CAT engines in 2010, this indisputable flagship of Lake Winnipesaukee had been able to reach almost 16-knot speeds.
Principally docked at Weirs Beach, Laconia, the Winnipesaukee Flagship Corporation’s headquarters for passenger embarkation just off Route 3, it offers a single daily, two-and-a-half-hour round trip from mid-May to mid-October, with a second during the high summer season. Morning departures permit visits to Alton Bay, Meredith, or Wolfeboro, with return service in the afternoon.
Sunday brunch, holiday, and theme-related sailings, such as for birthdays, reunions, anniversaries, and weddings, include meals, entertainment, and even overnight accommodations.
Weis Beach itself traces its origins to 1736 when the first recorded structure, a log fort, rose from the hitherto untouched area, and the first rail link, integral to the country’s westward expansion movement and the Gold Rush fever that mostly filled the air with delusional dollar signs, followed more than a century later. A rudimentary station, facilitating transportation mode interchange, enabled passengers to continue their journey by steamer at the Weirs, located on the lake’s western shore.
A remnant of this rail travel takes its current form as the Weirs Railroad Station, only steps above the dock-leading ramp, and the single track, now plied by the one- and two-hour tourist excursions to Meredith and Laconia undertaken by the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad during the summer months, had once existed in triplicate and been used by the White Mountain Division of the Boston and Maine Railroad.
The quad-decked “M/S Mount Washington,” transformed into a multiple-facility luxury liner, sports the Victorian-style Steamboat Lounge, complete with a dance floor, as well as the engine room and galley, on its lower deck. A second dance floor is located in the Main Salon above, along with the Purser’s Station, a gift shop, a bar, and the Fantail Grille. The Promenade Deck features open seating in its bow, the Captain’s Lounge, a snack bar, the Flagship Lounge with a bar for alcoholic beverages, and yet a third dance floor. The Observation Deck, as its designation implies, offers open, mid- and aft-seating for optimum views.
Mooring release, preceded by a silence-shattering wail of the boat’s horn, unleashes it for its autonomous navigation as the 230-foot, four-decked behemoth, clearly wearing its crown as queen of the lake, disappendages itself from the hopelessly tiny dock, before it leaves the Weirs Beach area by means of the Eagle Island Channel, itself sandwiched between Eagle and Governor’s islands.
Stonedam Island, the first to be passed on the boat’s left and centerpieced by the 112-acre Stonedam Island Wildlife Preserve, had once been connected to Meredith Neck by means of a stone causeway.
The lake’s nautical history, at least in distance, is never far from the “Mount Washington’s” course; indeed, the journey is like a return to it. Dolly Nichols, who had once operated a hand-powered ferry between Meredith Neck and Bear Island, is commemorated by a cluster of small islands bearing her name.
Bear Island itself, the lake’s second largest, serves as one of the US Mail Boat’s scheduled stops. As its name implies, the boat itself, created by an act of Congress in 1916, is the country’s only full-fledged floating post office with the power to cancel mail. Its official address is “R.F.D. No. 7, Laconia, New Hampshire.”
Several vessels have encompassed the post office fleet. The first, the “Dolphin,” was built in 1885 and was followed by the more ambitious, single-propeller, 100-passenger, 65-foot-long “Uncle Sam” constructed 18 years later and converted to diesel propulsion in 1945. It provided faithful service until its retirement in 1961. The even larger “Uncle Sam II” that replaced it, a former Navy PT Boat, featured a 75-foot length, a 20-foot beam, an 80-ton weight, and a 150-passenger capacity. The similarly-dimensioned, diesel-engined “Sophie C,” itself the “Uncle Sam II’s” replacement, sports dual decks and a snack bar and is open to tourists wishing to taste this unique slice of lake life during its scheduled, mid-June to mid-September mail runs. Like the “Mount Washington” itself, it is owned by the Winnipesaukee Flagship Corporation of Weirs Beach and Center Harbor.
Floating in the midst of beauty expressed by islands, coves, bays, and mountains, the “Mount Washington” offers a glimpse of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, including its Squam, Sandwich, and Ossipee peaks. The latter sports 2,975-foot Mount Shaw.
One Mile Island, reflecting its distance from Center Harbor on the lake’s northern tip, is the winter home of the “Mount Washington,” where it is subjected to its annual maintenance, inspection, and repair.
Becky’s Garden, little more than a jagged, rocky outcrop seeming to balance a wooden, two-story house atop it, is the lake’s smallest charted island.
The profile of Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the highest in the northeast, looms skyward in the distance.
Compared to Becky’s Garden, Long Island belongs on the other end of the size spectrum. Connected to the mainland’s Moultonborough Neck by an automobile-accessible bridge, it ranks as its largest.
Carving its quickly dissipating trench into the water, whose average depth varies between 35 and 90 feet, the “Mount Washington” penetrates the 12-mile-long by five-mile-wide Broads area, its largest, unobstructed expanse.
The lake, a mirror—like all water bodies—of the sky, seldom reflects the same picture. On a sunny day at high noon, for instance, it appears an illustrious blue. On semi-overcast days, it wears a deep blue velvet coat. During densely cloudy times, it looks as if it were covered with a dirty-white quilt, while its pine-blanketed islands appear as if they were immersed in the ethereal white mist seemingly caught by their needles.
On board, passengers can purchase alcoholic and soft drinks at the bar. Soft pretzels and cookies are baked in the Promenade Deck snack bar. The Main Deck’s Fantail Grille offers all-day breakfast, clam chowder, salads, sandwiches, bagels, hot dogs, chili, and hamburgers. During sailings with tour groups, independent passengers can often purchase a ticket for the all-inclusive buffet, which typically features salads, hot entrees, and desserts.
Turning around Sewell’s Point, located on its left side, the “Mount Washington” glides into Wolfeboro Bay, entry to the port town of Wolfeboro and considered the country’s oldest summer resort because of the house Colonel Governor John Wentworth built there in 1764 to mark the terminus of his Portsmouth-originating Prairie Road.
Poking its bow into the lake’s southernmost point, the “Mount Washington” sails past Little Mark Island, itself the threshold to five-mile-long Alton Bay. It is flanked by the gently curved top of Mount Major.
Like Wolfeboro, Alton Bay is another of the lake’s major port towns. Settled in 1710, it served as the assembly point of the original “Mount Washington” 162 years later, in 1872.
Rattlesnake Island, adopting its name from the slithering reptile that had once resided on it, offers the highest elevation, of 390 feet.
Glendale is another of Lake Winnipesaukee’s nautically significant locations. It not only houses the Marine Division of the New Hampshire Department of Safety—which oversees all of the state’s lakes—but is the site of the “Lady of the Lake’s” sinking, its earliest, most significant steamboat.
Incorporated as New Hampshire territory during the Revolutionary War, Governor’s Island enjoyed celebrity resort status by the end of the 19th century.
Re-entering Eagle Island Channel, the “M/S Mount Washington” reduces its speed to a slow coast and initiates its approach to the Weirs Beach dock, returning to the area first discovered by white men in 1652 and leaving a 140-year wake behind its hull, which itself had first plied Lake Champlain waters under the name of “Chateaugay” as far back as 1888.