As with all areas of NH, the land in Conway once was home to Native Americans. The Pequawket Indians, an Algonquian Abenaki tribe, fished, hunted or farmed the area. It can be assured these early people found the area as breathtakingly beautiful as do today’s visitors.
In 1642, explorer Darby Field of Exeter, NH canoed up the Saco River, and saw “Pigwacket,” an Indian community stretching from present-day Conway to Fryeburg, Maine. Sadly, when Europeans settled here in 1764, the Pequawket tribe had dwindled from disease, probably smallpox brought from white explorers.
In 1765, Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth chartered a group of men to establish “Conway”, named for Henry Seymour Conway, the Commander in Chief of the British Army. To keep a land grant, any settler to the area had to plant five for each 50 acres in his share, and do it within five years. The first roads were built in 1766, opening the area to more and more outsiders. In 1775, the town raised money to build two schoolhouses, one in North Conway. By 1849, however, the town had about 20 school districts.
By the middle-1800s, artists had discovered the scenic beauty of the White Mountains, and “Artist Falls Brook” became a favorite setting for landscape paintings. So popular were scenes of the area that King Edward VII bought a series of White Mountain paintings to hang in Windsor Castle.
One of the most scenic and visited spots in the area is Diana’s Baths, a series of beautiful waterfalls. How did the area receive its unusual name? Before it was known as Diana’s Baths, it was Merrill’s Mills. How it came to be dubbed Diana’s Baths is not known for certain. There was a small house constructed there in the mid to late 18th century, which became a three-story structure at a later time.
Local folklore states, “These curious circular stone cavities on Lucy Brook originally were known as the Home of the Water Fairies; tradition says evil water sprites inhabited the ledges, tormenting the Sokokis Indians until a mountain god answered the Indians’ prayers and swept the sprites away in a flood. Sometime before 1859 a Miss Hubbard of Boston, a guest at the old Mount Washington House in North Conway, rechristened them Diana’s Baths, presumably to evoke images of the Roman nature goddess. The pools are also called Lucy’s Baths.” Whether this tale is true or not, Diana’s Baths is among the most unique spots in NH.
Nearby Diana’s Baths, in 1899, about 20 visitors and residents in Center Conway and Jackson raised $1,000 and purchased the land around Cathedral Ledge. A year later the group bought the White Horse Ledge property. The entire parcel of land was then deeded to the State of NH. In 1943, commercial development was in the works for the Echo Lake area. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests joined with the state to purchase the property to forever protect it. Today Cathedral, White Horse, and Echo Lake lie within the boundaries and jurisdiction of Echo Lake State Park.
Over the years, the sweeping grandeur of the White Mountains drew many artists to the area. The most famous, the “White Mountain School” was comprised of American landscape artists who created a style of painting featuring landscapes of the area. Their work, when seen by the outside world, turned the area in and around Conway and Franconia into an artist’s colony.
It is thought that painters were visiting the area as early as 1824, when sketches of the hills began to circulate. At that time, landscape artist Thomas Doughty traveled to northern NH.
According to “Chronicles of the White Mountains” by Frederick W. Kilbourne, Cole chose the brilliant autumn of 1828 to visit the area with his friend Henry Cheeves Pratt. The purpose of the trip was to explore the region, and Cole must have found the mountains to his liking and been inspired by all he saw; a number of beautiful paintings were the result of the visit.
On that trip, Cole and Pratt climbed Chocorua, a mountain that was to become the favorite of writers and artists. Trails were few and roads primitive, making the climb difficult, according to Cole’s writings. So overjoyed and awed was Cole of the view from Chocorua, that he wrote that the scene was too “extended and map like for the canvas”, and that it was not for sketches, but rather for “thoughts” that he climbed Chocorua.
Cole walked the mountains and wilderness trails of the White Mountains, impressed by the scope and beauty of the area, in particular of the Great Stone Face (Old Man of the Mountains). His paintings of the mountains were exhibited as far away as at the Royal Academy in London.
Perhaps Cole’s paintings and writings of the White Mountains started the movement of artists who found their way to the beautiful Conway area. By the 1850s, A. B. Durand, one of the fathers of the American landscape and a Hudson River School (of art) leader, had visited the White Mountains. Durand produced many landscape paintings of North Conway, Campton and Franconia Notch.
Because of the great number of artists who painted in the White Mountains, some have been forgotten over time. A great source of information about the White Mountains artists was Benjamin Champney, who, in the last years of his life published a memoir of his experiences as a member of the White Mountain School.
Champney died at age 90 in 1907. His first trip to the White Mountains was many years earlier, in 1838, at which time he produced many sketches of the scenery. The pull of the majestic mountains was strong, and Champney made a return visit to the Saco River/North Conway area in 1850 with two other artists. They lodged at the home of a local resident and made many friends in the area. It was a good trip, and the artists stayed the entire summer and into the autumn, hiking and sketching among the mountains.
By the following summer, artists were flocking to northern NH. When Champney returned, he found other artists living at the Kearsarge House. The next few years saw the population of artists swell, and by 1855 the hills and fields were dotted with men and women sketching and painting all they saw.
After his marriage in the 1850s, Champney bought a home in the area and made Conway his permanent summer resident. In his writings, Champney stated the area was at one time as famous as any European or New York artist’s colony.
Another famous artist, Frank H. Shapleigh of Boston, painted in the White Mountains for about 15 years beginning in the late 1870s. Among his well-known paintings are views of Mount Washington.
Although difficult to imagine, when visiting any area of the White Mountains today, during the 1800s northern NH was still largely untamed. While there were many towns, such as Conway, trails and crude roads linked mountains and towns. The artists who came to the area had to be prepared physically, as well as emotionally, for life in the wild. Hiking was the primary means of getting to the natural scenes everyone wanted to catch on paper and canvas. That meant not only hiking through miles of wilderness, but also camping out in the forests and seeking lodgings at any rural farm along the way that might be willing to make a few dollars in exchange for temporary room and board.
Still, artists continued to come to the mountains, risking life and limb for a chance to set down on canvas their visions of the beauty around them.