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Lakes Region Landmarks: Railroad Station To Restaurant

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 22, 2013

Wolfeboro Station

The old Wolfeboro Station on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee.

“The train is coming!” was the cry invariably heard from excited children in the golden age of train travel. Trains were eagerly awaited, especially in remote towns. Train transportation brought not only passengers but also news from the outside world.

As if the fanfare of the daily or weekly arrival of the train was not enough to send children and adults scurrying to their front doors for a peek at the train, imagine having a locomotive run right through your downtown area, across Main Street, to end up at the water’s edge of Lake Winnipesaukee. That incredible sight was common when the trains traveled through New Hampshire, arriving at the Wolfeboro Train Station and then moving on the tracks right to the Wolfeboro dock area.

The train, at the dock, allowed passengers to disembark or get on the train. This was the place where the Mount Washington docked. The large boat served as a water mode of transportation for passengers and also was used as a pleasure boat for tourists looking to get out on the water.

The Wolfeborough Railroad started operating in 1868 because more people were coming to the area for vacations. Travelers had a choice of stagecoach or steamboat, neither of which was reliable enough or took passengers to a wide variety of places in a timely manner.

According to The History of Wolfeborough by Benjamin Franklin Parker, “…the inhabitants of the more densely populated portion of the town became greatly interested in securing direct railroad connection with the outside world … the construction of the [Portsmouth to] Conway [Rail] road rendered the construction of the line to Wolfeborough, from any point, quite problematic. (Townspeople had hoped the line to Conway would come through, or at least closer, to town.) Subsequently, however, Hon. John W. Sanborn, who held official relations with the Conway road, suggested to some leading citizens that a branch from that road to Wolfeborough might be secured, provided that a sum equal to one-fifth of the town’s ratable valuation could be raised. This amount would equal thirty-five thousand dollars. The people of Wolfeborough were favorably impressed with the idea and soon made application to the legislature for a charter. By an enactment of July 1, 1868, the Wolfeborough Railroad Company was incorporated, to extend from Wolfeborough Junction (also called Sanbornville) to Wolfeborough, a distance of twelve miles.”

The line was opened in August 1872 and it was an exciting moment for Wolfeboro residents. The Wolfeboro line had been extended westward across Main Street, downtown, finally ending at the town dock. From there, passengers could connect with the steamboat traffic on Lake Winnipesaukee.

The dock area was the meeting point of three railroads. Two of the powerful railroad companies in the area owned a lake vessel. The Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad owned the steamboat Lady of the Lake, the Boston and Maine Railroad owned the recently commissioned steamboat Mount Washington, and the Eastern Railroad operated the rail line.

All those passengers needed a place to wait on the dock. Standing in the open air, with wind, rain, and the sun was not the thing for genteel ladies in their boating finery in the late 1800s. If for some reason the Mount Washington was not yet docked, it meant standing out in the elements waiting for the vessel.

The dockside station solved the problem of passengers who were waiting to take the train after getting off one of the steamboats or waiting for a steamboat to take them to an island cottage or across the lake to other stops.

The waiting room for passengers was originally on the first floor of a bay area factory. The room had long served passengers waiting to take a steamship and it now was used for train and waterway travelers.

Fire tore through the building on Christmas Eve in 1899; the following year a new station was erected on the dock area. The building was called the Lake Station.

The Lake Station was certainly busy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was the heyday of train travel and more passengers were discovering what a wonderful spot the Lakes Region was for a peaceful vacation. Local inns saw travelers staying a week or longer and they sent carriages to the Lake Station to pick up guests.

The station was a hive of activity, and was the logical place for newspapers to be delivered, passengers to gather, and packages to arrive. It is said that, not long after, the circus even came to town via the railroad.

While the population was mostly seasonal, the trains did a good business for many years and the new and faster mode of travel was a definite business boost to Wolfeboro. By the 1920s, however, things were slowing. When the Great Depression struck, it was the end for the days of rail travel.

In 1924, the Boston and Maine Railroad had a dispute with the town of Wolfeboro; both claimed to own the busy wharf. After a legal dispute, the deed was awarded to the town.

After the train ceased to operate in the 1930s, the Lake Station building most likely sat empty for a time or perhaps was used for storage. Eventually it became Scotty’s Restaurant in the 1930s and into the 1940s. It was a convenient eatery for those vacationing in the town, arriving by boat, and for local workers. And the view of Wolfeboro Bay couldn’t be beat.

In the 1950s, the town leased the building to others and the once-busy railroad station became the Dockside Restaurant. This was the pattern over the years until Alan and Virginia Skelley managed the restaurant in the 1970s. The Skelley family was well-known and -liked in Wolfeboro and they operated the seasonal restaurant to much acclaim. (Virginia’s father had owned Bailey’s Restaurant on Main Street in Wolfeboro.)

Others came to see what a gem the little waterfront restaurant was: boaters docking nearby were within steps of the eatery and the M/S Mount Washington picked up and dropped off passengers on the dock. What could be better than having lunch or dinner in the charming little restaurant? The building had retained its cozy charm with wood paneling, an open dining room, and, of course, the unbeatable lakefront views.

In 1991, a record 13 contenders came forward to ask for the contract from the town of Wolfeboro to lease the restaurant. Many people felt the lease should continue to go to the Skelleys because they had offered great food and service for years.

Virginia Skelley, who ran Bailey’s Dockside with her husband, recalls the restaurant was bustling in the summer. They also featured an ice cream window outside and inside. “We ran Bailey’s Dockside for about 26 years; it was a wonderful spot. I recall the work the previous tenant did on the building to turn it into such a nice place. He cleaned out the interior and put in the wooden seating.”

Today the popular dockside restaurant remains in business. A number of restaurateurs have leased the building over the years. Many people who dock their boats nearby or stroll the downtown area have no idea that, at one time, the train ran so close to the water or that the little restaurant was a haven for weary train travelers.

Where once children in the 1800s yelled, “The train is coming!” these days children ask, “Can we get an ice cream?” as they see the pretty dockside eatery.

The building has served the Lakes Region well over the years, offering a waiting room for passengers and later, bringing good meals and ice cream to tourists and locals. 

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