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Whose Trails These Are We Think We Know

The Laker - September 19, 2017

By Barbara Neville Wilson

Photos courtesy Dr. David M. Leuser

“Whose woods these are, I think I know…” go the words of Robert Frost, the 20th-century writer many consider today to be New Hampshire’s own poet. But do you know that before him came James Greenleaf Whittier, the voice of New Hampshire in the late 1800s? Perhaps you’ve seen his name on Mount Whittier, Whittier Bridge, on the shores of Melvin Village and Whittier Falls at Castle in the Clouds in Moultonboro.

A recent book by Dr. David Leuser of Plymouth State University uses John Greenleaf Whittier’s love of the Lakes Region, and particularly the land now known as Castle in the Clouds, to bookend his explanation of what today’s landmark looked like yesterday.

In The Brook Walk: Hidden Gem at Castle in the Clouds, the professor traces the land from its origins in an extinct volcano to Native American and post-Revolutionary settlement, to vacation oasis, industrial magnate retreat, tourist attraction and now a professionally administered recreational site.

Many of us know the story of the Castle in the Clouds, called “Lucknow” by its developer, Thomas G. Plant. A retired multi-millionaire who had made his fortune in shoe manufacturing, Plant started amassing property in Moultonboro in 1911 and completed his mansion there in 1914. He bought huge tracts of land, eventually owning 6,500 acres spanning the mountain peaks of perhaps the world’s most perfect example of an ancient volcanic ring dyke and descending to the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, where he built Bald Peak Colony Club, a private cottage club still flourishing today. With the help of up to 1,000 workers, he built a 16-room house that featured seven bathrooms and cutting-edge technologies such as a fire suppression system, central vacuum and ammonia brine refrigeration. On the home’s grounds, he developed a hydroelectric power plant, a golf course, an ingenious greenhouse terraced into the mountain overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee, and according to Leuser, “22 miles of carriage roads up and across the various mountains that make up the Ossipee range.”

Alas, Plant’s success was fleeting, and ill-advised investments brought him to bankruptcy a remarkably short time after he finished Lucknow. His home passed to another private owner, and then was opened as a tourist attraction in 1959, before its purchase by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust (LRCT) in 2002. The property is now divided into two parcels: the 5,381-acred Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area managed by the LRCT, and almost 136 acres and all the historic buildings managed by the Castle Preservation Society. Together, the two groups conserve the land and buildings with the goal of maintaining public access for the future enjoyment of all, Leuser writes.

Dr. Leuser’s book informs us that the land’s history should not be so fully wrapped around Thomas Plant. Instead, the bulk of “The Brook Walk,” focuses on 440 acres of land now conserved in the Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area once called Ossipee Park. For about 40 years before Thomas Plant began amassing his estate, this part of the property enjoyed significant national fame as a place of natural retreat.


Like his successor, Thomas Plant, Ossipee Park developer Benjamin Franklin Shaw was a wealthy industrialist who derived his fortune from foot coverings—he invented techniques to machine-manufacture stockings, or what we call “socks” today. While on holiday in the Lakes Region, he discovered the beauty of the Ossipee Mountains. He started buying property in 1878-79, and by July 4, 1882 had built a home with accommodations to host 12 guests. “His Park soon became a very popular attraction for artists, writers, and others who wanted a simpler summer tourist experience than that offered by the Grand Hotels of the White Mountains,” writes Leuser. Guests were attracted by the wholesome respite, highlighted by freshly harvested food from nearby farms, cool night breezes, natural vistas at every turn, and especially the miles of trails through woods and by stream.

Like any successful hotelier of the era, Shaw and his successor innkeepers knew the value of print marketing materials and apparently spared no expense to ensure the Park was seen at its most glorious. Leuser’s book is filled with gorgeous images of the ever-popular Brook Trail reproduced from postcards, photographs and stereoview cards. National and international audiences were introduced to Ossipee Park through the publication of these images in magazines such as The Boston Journal, New England Magazine and The White Mountain Echo. The Park was also seen in publications that marketed Ossipee Park as part of a broader New England appeal. Leuser includes images he has collected from the 1885 Boston & Lowell [Railroad] booklet, “Summer Saunterings by the B&L: A Guide to Pleasant Places Among the Mountains, Lakes and Valleys of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada,” and the 1909 publication of “Lake Winnipesaukee” by The G.W. Armstrong Dining Room & News Co., among others.

A particularly striking series of photos in the book are from stereoview cards Shaw commissioned in 1882 from Lowell, Massachusetts photographer L.O. Churchill. Some Brook Walk views are remarkably similar to what can be seen today, while others seem to be from another landscape altogether. The difference, Leuser tells us, is due in part to changes to the landscape caused by natural, gradual evolution, such as forest growth, but mostly it is due to the failure of dams built by Plant around 1914 that failed after his death and brought devastating floods in 1943 and 1944. The brook’s path was irrevocably altered and views loved by Shaw and his guest John Greenleaf Whittier were forever disrupted.

Interestingly, Dr. Leuser is not a professor of history or even art at Plymouth State University. His doctorate is in the social sciences, and he teaches in the College of Business Administration. While his interest in Castle in the Clouds was first piqued by a hiking expedition on Castle Conservation Area Trails, it was the evolution of the land and its uses that sparked research that led to “The Brook Walk: Hidden Gem at Castle in the Clouds.” Fascinated by the birth, growth and transformation of White Mountain tourism, he found that the story of Castle in the Clouds often mirrored its trajectory in microcosm. Progress came because of disruptions to established trends: tourism became possible only with technological development in transportation—the steam engine embodied in the locomotive and steam ship that permitted rapid and safe travel to far flung destinations. With industrialization, only possible through technological advance and steam-powered manufacturing, more people had time and sufficient means to vacation. And paradoxically, industrialization’s faster pace of life and more congested and polluted cities created a market for agrarian, slower-paced, nature-based adventures in the lakes and mountains of New Hampshire…a trend that itself was eventually disrupted by the next advance in technology: the automobile.

Dr. Leuser credits a similar “disruption” with his ability to write “The Brook Walk: Hidden Gem at Castle in the Clouds.” In 2016 Plymouth State University was spurred by rapid development in technology and changes to modern culture to begin shifting from a traditional departmentalized vision of education to create interdisciplinary strategic clusters, where professors and students cross-pollinate one another’s endeavors. Leuser has had freedom to pursue his research, combining his training in the social sciences with his interests in business management, art and nature in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Cluster and publish this book. His goal? “Once I retire, I hope to write a series on things like this. Young people, everyone in New Hampshire, should have access [to this history],” not simply because they want to learn the history of trails they thought they knew, but also because “…some of these images are absolutely stunning.”

Brook Walk: Hidden Gem at Castle in the Clouds by David Leuser is available at the Castle in the Clouds gift shop and through Ryan Brook Associates at PO Box 158, Plymouth, NH 03264.

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