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Yesteryear – Benjamin Kimball and His Great Castle

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 16, 2010

If you have see the movie Titanic, you know how the wealthy lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Opulence abounded, travel was on the rise and money flowed like water.

All those wealthy people needed a way to travel if they were going from Boston or New York to the cool relief of New Hampshire’s White Mountains each summer. Less wealthy people also needed a way to travel for work or to visit relatives.

The railroad system was in its heyday at this time, and those who oversaw the rails were among the most respected members of the country. Benjamin Kimball was one such man.

Kimball was born in Boscawen, New Hampshire in 1833. Kimball’s ancestors settled the Ipswich, Massachusetts in the 1600s; family members eventually settled in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Benjamin Kimball moved to Boscawen where he built a grist and saw mill and became a leader in the community, even serving in the Legislature before his death in 1834.

Kimball’s widow moved to Concord with her sons, Benjamin, Jr. and John. Benjamin Jr. took after his father in intelligence and drive and he graduated from Dartmouth College with high honors in 1854. He served as a trustee of the college and on the finance committee for years.

After graduation, the young Benjamin Kimball began work for the Concord railroad shop in Concord. He was a draftsman, then superintendent of the locomotive branch. He was talented with anything mechanical and in the 1860s, Kimball left the railroad to start his own business, the firm of Ford and Kimball, manufacturing car wheels and iron products.

But the railroad was still calling, and in 1873 Kimball was chosen as director of the Manchester and North Weare Railroad. Soon after, in 1879, he was appointed director of the Concord Railroad. In the late 1890s, he became president of the Concord and Montreal Railroad; the rail line eventually became the Boston and Maine system.

Anyone who sees a railroad track in New Hampshire today should be aware that it is there because of Benjamin Kimball. In one way or another, he influenced and controlled the rail system in the state.

Like most entrepreneurs, Kimball’s talents did not rest only in the railroad. He saw, from an early time, how important the natural resources of New Hampshire could be to tourism. Surely Kimball was rubbing elbows with the wealthy from all over the world by this time, and he knew the rich loved to travel and that they sought rest and relaxation in the quiet of the mountains of Europe. Why not bring them to New Hampshire to get the same gold star treatment, he probably asked himself.

Kimball was in a position to spur tourism via the railroad. He ordered more branch lines built and extended; this act brought wealthy city folks to the White Mts. Soon New Hampshire was dubbed the Switzerland of America.

Residing in Concord, Kimball was also a trustee of Concord Savings Bank and the Merrimack County Savings Bank and he was involved in insurance and in an electric company. Kimball also served as a member of the State House of Representatives.

Kimball married Myra Tilton of Sanbornton in 1861. They had just one child, Henry Ames Kimball ,in 1861. Henry married Josephine Goodale in 1904. He died in 1919.

In the late 1890s Benjamin Kimball undertook a project that put him on the land baron list with such notables at Thomas Plant (owner of Castle in the Clouds in Moultonboro).

Perhaps Kimball and his family had vacationed in the Lakes Region; surely Kimball would have been familiar with the lakes and mountains due to his railroad expansions. He must have loved the beauty of the area and because of this, he purchased 300 acres on Lockes Hill in Gilford in 1895.

The hill had an incredible view of the lake, the distant mountains and passing boats. Not just any little summer cottage would do for Kimball and so he set about to have built a castle. He utilized the Lady of the Lake, a retired ship he owned, as housing for over 100 Italian stonecutters and masons who were working on the castle’s construction.

No expenses were spared when it came to building the castle. Materials were shipped from Europe to Boston and then to Gilford by railroad. The project was a lengthy one, taking two years and over $45,000 to complete.

Historical photos show the beauty of the castle and its grounds. Landscaped gardens and stonewalls flowed from the castle all the way to the water.

What was the castle like? Beautiful, graceful, towering are just a few words to describe the grandeur of Kimball’s summer home. He modeled it, supposedly, after a castle he had seen when vacationing in Europe.

Everything about the castle was opulent. The woodwork inside the rooms was designed in England. The front entrance had a huge hanging lantern made in Germany. The front door is solid wood and over three inches thick.

Four gargoyles sat on each parapet of the castle and a large stone porch with a wonderful lake view was a prime gathering spot for the Kimball clan.

Other interesting features of the castle were a skylight with amber glass, huge arched windows, mammoth oak tables, early icebox refrigeration, an octagonal stone gazebo, a caretaker’s cottage, a huge stable, a pump house that supplied the castle with water, and granite steps and terraced gardens that went from the castle to the water’s edge.

There were originally four gargoyles in the shape of dragon’s heads, one on each parapet, which stood watch over the property.

The Kimballs loved their grand home and spent early spring to late fall at the site, until cold weather forced them back to their Concord home.

After Kimball’s death in 1919, his wife and daughter-in-law Charlotte continued to enjoy the castle. When Charlotte passed away in 1960, her will stated the property never be used for commercial purposes. She wanted a natural preserve on the castle’s property and she left the estate and money to a charitable foundation. Sadly, her wishes to see a preserve on the property never saw completion.

The Town of Gilford took over the property and today the Locke’s Hill Nature Preserve consists of 260 acres of hiking and skiing trails, although the castle itself is not accessible to the public. 

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