Top Navigation


Featured Articles

Weirs Beach: Where the Cavalry Meets Queen Anne

The Laker - May 21, 2017





Story and photo by Barbara Neville Wilson

After a beautiful ride around the top of the lake and that incredible “ahhh” moment as I crest the hill and see the panorama of Winnipesaukee ahead of me, I turn left at the iconic sign and enter Weirs Beach. The whole area looks brighter and bigger than it has in years past, thanks to gleaming granite curbs, fresh asphalt, and new landscaping.

Stretching out ahead on the right, on Winnipesaukee’s shore, are the railroad tracks and the railroad station, now the headquarters for the M/S Mount Washington. The freshly refurbished pier looks clean and smart with the Mount Washington poised for its 145th busy summer season. Still visible ahead are the lines of the once-grand Lakeview Hotel, which now houses small shops and eateries. Far ahead, facing the water are the low-lying Half Moon businesses—pizza, arcade games, jewelry and more—and closer yet are the Half Moon cottages on the steep hillside.

But nearest me on the left are five large Queen Anne-style cottages tucked into the knoll that rises steep behind. Painted in vari-colors and adorned with ornate porches and railings, these houses speak of other worlds, worlds when a summer evening was happily rocked away on a broad veranda, when the evening was punctuated by boats docking and the train pulling out of the station, when the listless splash of water was heard from the Civil War memorial fountain prominent on Lakeside Avenue.

Ladies in belled dresses strolled the shore, arm-in-arm with men in suit coats and tie. A child cried excitedly when a fish landed, miraculously, on his line. As the sun sunk on the horizon, perhaps the sound of Taps wafted down the hill as reunited soldiers replayed the scenes of war they’d lived together decades before.

Off to the left, the grand New Weirs Beach Hotel, with its 230 rooms and 50 baths, may have swelled with the sounds of its resident orchestra, and glowed in its adoption of the latest this and the latest that, but in these rows of cottages tucked behind the fountain topped by watchful soldier, there was a profound rooting with the past. This was an encampment of Civil War veterans, men who had lived horror previously unknown in American life. They had seen huge swaths of comrades mown down by bullets, and even more taken down by disease.

The War Between the States had pitted state against state, brother against brother. At his inauguration on March 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had recognized the coming tide of war, and the unique agony it would cause, saying, “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

And those “mystic chords of memory” seemed felt across battle lines of race, economics and geography as the war came to an end. A scant few weeks after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, thousands of freed blacks commemorated the sacrifice of fallen Union prisoners of war in Charleston, S.C. in the first celebration of “Memorial Day.” Eighteen months after war’s end, the first reunion of the Union’s “Grand Army of the Republic” was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in what became an annual tradition until 1949 when there were few veterans left to join in. Reunions of Confederate veterans continued until 1951.

New Hampshire veterans sought reunion, too. In 1875, they founded the New Hampshire Veterans’ Association (NHVA), which held its first reunion in Manchester that same year. Three years after, they brought their ceremonies to Weirs Beach, and in 1879, they became guests of the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad, leasing 7.73 acres to pitch tents on the hillside across from the railroad station. There, they enjoyed the refreshment of renewed friendship and shared memory by the shores of the lake. Each year, they held an annual reunion the last full week of August to “renew the ties of fraternity and loyalty, contracted in the camp, the battlefield, the prison and the hospital,” according to NHVA records.

Joining an already vibrant Methodist Camp Meeting in the Weirs, the annual encampment brought hundreds of vets to the town, and soon permanent structures joined the tent platforms on the almost-eight acres allotted. In 1880, New Hampshire veterans from Lowell, MA erected a two-story building at the top of the property on New Hampshire Avenue, a site perhaps chosen to avoid blocking the view of tent sites below, and it set off a building boom that lasted 16 years. Incorporation of NHVA in 1881 led to a NH state appropriation to build five barracks and a simple headquarters building on New Hampshire Avenue. The next year, a Speakers Stand was built, a dining pavilion begun, and a memorial stone was dedicated to all the New Hampshire troops who had served in the Civil War.

In 1884, the first of the ornate Lakeside buildings was built. It was shared by the 3rd Regiment and First Band, and in 1885, the 7th Regiment and grand Headquarters buildings joined it. WeirsBeach.com reports, “Most of the buildings were very colorful with ornate details. Sometimes called the Queen Anne Camp Style, using a ‘balloon’ construction style with sweeping roof lines and wrap around porches, they were and are beautiful to behold. Many of the buildings boasted running water and sewer, long before other ‘camps’ in the area. Most featured large open areas on the first floors with fireplaces and water closets. The second and third floors would consist of dormitory style sleep areas which could, in some cases, be broken up into smaller more private areas with partitions.”

Also called “High Victorian” architecture, the original colors of the Headquarters building is said to have been deep buff on the first floor with a lighter buff on the second and third. It was trimmed in shades of brown, with pillars and brackets painted chrome yellow and red with cresting in red with gold.

Veterans and their families found rest and recreation on the grounds, and honored the sacrifices made. In 1894, the daughter of soldier Leonni Bean erected the fountain monument on Lakeside Avenue. At its top was a statue of her father who had left his farm across the water in 1861 to fight and die for the Union. Later, plaques were mounted on natural stone in remembrance of soldiers and sailors who served “in the United States Army and Navy during the war with Spain, the Philippine Insurrection and China Relief Expedition” and the men and women, “living and dead,” who served in World War I.

In 1924, when successor railway Boston & Maine sold the property to the NHVA for $4000, 35 buildings were reported to be on the site. By then, the thinning ranks of Civil War veterans had been reinvigorated by World War I vets and the annual reunions continued. Weirs Beach was a bustling summer community that welcomed four express trains from Boston each day, an annual gathering of motorcyclists, and boasted of its complements of country pleasures and sophisticated entertainment.

Reflecting the changes in American taste and culture, and natural entropy, the NHVA Encampment and Weirs Beach gradually fell upon harder times: a 1931 lightning bolt destroyed the Civil War memorial fountain and statue; fire roared repeatedly, destroying barracks and lodges. The grand New Hotel Weirs succumbed to fire and was replaced by the more workaday Half Moon cottages and arcade. The 3rd Regiment camp next to Headquarters was reduced from the top and became a stumpy shade of itself. Wallet trumped taste and once-vibrant Lakeside cottages were repainted with military surplus in shades of blue, white and gray.

Despite the affronts, the NHVA encampment lived on, receiving an infusion of interest in 1980 when it received a place on the National Register of Historic Places as a reflection of the “exuberance and variety of American architecture in the 1880s, the strong sentiments for commemoration and reunion engendered by the Civil War, and the increase of leisure, with its attendant growth of resort areas, in late nineteenth-century America.” In the 1990s, several of the buildings were shored up and received facelifts, and this spring’s improvements to the Lakeside landscape has led to an uplift of their countenance, too.

Though placed on the National Register, and seen by historians as noteworthy for its unique architectural style and reminder of days gone by, the NHVA property at Weirs Beach is a living, breathing entity. Any New Hampshire resident who has served their nation during wartime is invited to join. Membership includes exclusive access to the Weirs Beach campsites and cottages at remarkably reasonable prices and invitation to take part in activities and ceremonies. On June 14, they will hold a public Flag Decommissioning Ceremony from 2 to 3 pm. Visit www.thenhva.org for membership application and information.

The official application of the NHVA for the National Register of Historic Places, WinnipesaukeeForum, thread 15472, and Weirs.com provided indispensable information for this article. Special thanks to “McDude” on Winnipesaukee Forum for his research and images.

What Do You Think?