“I stopped at your house August 10 this summer to rent a slip at the West Alton Marina. I talked with the Mrs. and she said it would be ok to tie up at an unoccupied dock…enclosed is $25.00 check for payment for the half season’s use…”
— Yours truly, Stewart Hopkins, Oct. 23, 1963
Times have changed, as have the price of boat slip rentals. But some things do not change, such as neighborliness and running a business to cater to customers that seem more like family than strangers.
Those stellar qualities are benchmarks of West Alton Marina. From the day the business began in the early 1960s until the current time, the marina has been family run with an emphasis on family. That includes many teens who earn college money at their marina summer jobs and boaters who stop by the marina’s office for a chat and a cup of coffee.
Today, the marina is owned by Brian Fortier. His sister Diedre runs the busy office while Brian oversees the overall operation with the help of John Murray and three full-time, year round mechanics.
As the above excerpt from a letter by Stewart Hopkins of Massachusetts proves, West Alton Marina has always been a family-friendly place where one could just stop by to chat about the weather, boating or the latest family news. Brian laughs when he explains that prices have gone up since 1963, but the business has always remained in the family since his grandparents started it in 1962.
“My grandparents, Harold and Ruth Clough, lived in Alton, as did my great-great grandfather, who bought the West Alton land in 1874 from the Winnipissiogee Lake Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company,” explains Brian.
Brian’s grandfather Harold was a building contractor doing work on Sleeper’s Island off the coast of his West Alton property. He needed a place to launch, so he built a ramp at the spot and that was the start of what would become a busy marina.
“The marina originally catered to island people and day boaters,” Brian continues. “Now it’s more of a destination and second-home boating crowd. We also offer valet and winter boat storage and people can stay on their boats while docked here in the summer.”
In the early days, Harold and Ruth offered about 10 boat slips and a ramp and that seemed plenty of docking space at the time. Fewer people owned boats back then; today, the marina has about 240 boat slips.
The marina (with over 100 acres) holds great memories for Brian, who grew up shadowing his grandparents and enjoying the thing all kids love: swimming and boating. It offered great training and gave Brian experience in anything and everything it takes to run a busy marina.
Brian’s mother took over the operation of the marina in 1986 when his grandmother retired. Eventually, Brian and Deirdre took over the marina, keeping the thriving business in the family.
This summer, as West Alton Marina celebrates its 50th birthday, a number of fun events are planned. Contests for customers offer a chance to write their own story of the why, how and who of what happened to make West Alton Marina and Winnipesaukee the boater’s summer home.
Also offered will be a chance to take photos to capture the essence of the marina and its surrounding landscapes, portraits and candids and formals.
On July 21, a barbecue and show extravaganza will be a chance for customers to dress up and perform. Other competitions include a poetry contest (a chance to write a poem to tell what West Alton Marina means to the writer), Christmas in July (decorating of the marina’s gazebos, boats or both) and a summer-long scavenger hunt.
“We are not commercialized; it’s about the people,” adds John. Brian and John can be found any place around the marina on any given summer’s day, but guests seem to gravitate to the cozy and welcoming “office” building that looks more like a charming cottage.
As if to prove the point, a number of boaters coming and going drive by slowly and stop to wave and let Brian and John know when they will be back. “I would say 90 percent of the boat slip owners stop to say goodbye at the end of the weekend and to let us know when they will return,” John says.
John taught school for 15 years and jokingly says running the marina is somewhat similar. “This is my summer family and it’s fun, but sometimes you have to reprimand your family! From morning coffee to afternoon cocktails, it’s always busy here.”
Brian says West Alton Marina’s atmosphere is relaxed and not commercialized. That is indeed the case and it can be seen from the lawn chairs placed under a group of trees and the welcoming porch of the office building to the many gazebos.
In 1998 West Alton Marina allowed landslip owners to build gazebos for socializing. People barbecue by the gazebos and it offers a sheltered place to visit with friends and family.
As for the docks, Brian says each one has a story, as do the customers who use the slips. Each dock has a unique name, with street signs. A few names are H & R Block and Poppa’s Pier. This summer, Middle Finger dock will be renamed Barbie’s Boardwalk.
These days, customers are mostly from southern NH and Massachusetts. A boat slip is, according to Brian, the first step for someone who will eventually buy property in the Lakes Region.
A just completed project was the relocation of gas docks and a new gas tank that offers double the capacity. Slips have been restructured for boats up to 40 feet. “We are always doing improvements,” John says. “It’s also important that we offer public access to the ramp so anyone can have the ability to get their boat out on the lake.”
Next spring, a new campground at West Alton Marina will be completed, adding to the existing camping spots.
The key to all this growth, according to Brian, is the summer help. Teens work for Brian and John at the marina, doing a variety of tasks. “If our employees aren’t nieces and nephews, they should be!” John laughs.
When asked what his grandparents would think of the marina today, Brian says, “I think they would be surprised at how busy it is here. They had just five people who stayed overnight on their boats back then. Today, it’s many, many more than that.”
While times do indeed change, Brian has constant and wonderful reminders of his parents and grandparents. Not only can he see their hard work in the marina, he also remembers them when he takes his grandfather’s vintage Chris Craft boat out on the water.
Boats may have changed a lot over the years, but some things don’t seem so much different. “It really hasn’t changed so much,” Brian muses. “It’s still about the families that come to West Alton Marina.”