Steamboat Era History on Lake Sunapee
In the late nineteenth century, Lake Sunapee became a popular vacation destination for city folk from New England, New York and New Jersey. The railroad line that passed by the shores of the lake spawned the arrival of wealthy Victorians to spend their summers here.
An original caboose, which commemorates the importance of the railroad to Lake Sunapee, can be seen in Newbury Harbor. From there, steamships ferried passengers from the south end of the lake to family estates, cottages and swank grand hotels all around the lakeshore. One of the first commercial boats was actually propelled by horsepower in 1854.
N.S. Gardner purchased Little Island for one dollar and built a bowling alley on it. He then launched the steamer ‘Penacook’ (later renamed Mountain Maid) to carry passengers to Little Island for recreation, and so the steamboat era began. The Woodsum brothers launched the Lady Woodsum’ 1876. It was 50 feet long and could carry 75 passengers.
The 90-foot ‘Edmund Burke’ (named after a prominent Newport lawyer who summered on Lake Sunapee) was launched in 1885, carrying 600 passengers. In 1891, the Edmund Burke struck an underwater ledge at Loon Island. The accident led to the construction of a lighthouse on the island in 1893 which was built by the Woodsum Brothers, owners of the steamships. In 1887, the ‘Amenia White’ was launched; it was 101 feet long and held 650 passengers. It was the flagship of the Woodsum fleet and the biggest steamer ever to sail Lake Sunapee.
In 1897, the ‘MV Kearsarge’ was launched at 70′ carrying 250 passengers. A gas powered replica of the Kearsarge sails daily in the summer months featuring a dinner buffet and a narrated tour of the lake.
In 1902, the 50-foot ‘Weetamoo’ was launched. She was named after the daughter of an Indian Chief in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem ‘Bride of Penacook’. After twenty-five years of service on the lake, she was suddenly scuttled off Pine Cliff near Newbury. The ship is still intact and is visited frequently by local SCUBA clubs.
The 50-foot (15 m) ‘MV Mount Sunapee’ was launched in 1965 and takes passengers on lake cruises in the summer months. The original ‘Mount Sunapee’ was named ‘Susie Q’ and had been used as a rum runner in Damariscotta, Maine.
There were major steamboat landings at Sunapee Harbor, Georges Mills, Lakeside Landing, Blodgett Landing, Brightwood, Pine Cliff, Lake Station, Soo-Nipi, Burkehaven, and Granliden to service the grand hotels. The Great Depression took its toll and tourism declined.
This led to the demise of the steamer era and many of the grand hotels fell into disrepair and were torn down. The Ben Mere Hotel site now features a bandstand that holds free concerts in the summer.
Click here to view Lake Sunapee antique postcards.