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Yesteryear – Old Mail Boats In The Lakes Region

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - August 19, 2013

The mail boat 'Uncle Sam'

The mail boat ‘Uncle Sam’

“The new steamer belonging to Ambrose Adams was launched on Newfound Lake. This is one of the largest and best steamers ever seen on these waters. It accommodates about fifty passengers and has been inspected by the United States government.”

‑ Bristol Enterprise, May 5, 1900


The islands of Winnipesaukee, Newfound, and other lakes are mysterious to landlubbers. “What’s out there?” we ask as we gaze from land to the distant islands.

That question has been asked for centuries and the answer is: cottages, large homes, and summer children’s camps; and, once upon a time, a few hotels.

So, if a lot of people lived on the islands, it stands to reason they would need to get their mail and packages. Hotels such as the one that once operated on Winnipesaukee’s Bear Island would need mail and packages delivered, as well as large supplies of groceries to feed hotel guests.

In the early days of vacationing on the islands, the procuring of mail was a bit of a dilemma. It was solved in 1892 when the first mail vessel began delivering mail around the lake.

The first steamer for mail delivery was the Robert & Arthur, followed by the Dolpin, which was built in 1894. The third mail boat was the Uncle Sam, built in 1906, Uncle Sam kept her franchise for mail delivery on Winnipesaukee until 1961.

A resourceful man had an answer to mail delivery needs in the Alton area. Captain Lawrence P. Beck of Alton Bay obtained a permit to deliver U.S. mail to the Alton Bay-Alton-Wolfeboro area in 1929. His mail boat, the Tonimar, was in operation each summer from mid-June to mid-September. It made around 40 stops, including summer camps, cottages, islands, and other spots that had no postal service.

The mail boat served a purpose and was so much appreciated that Captain Beck purchased a new boat in the early 1940s. Hubert Johnson built that boat in 1926 in Bay Head NJ and it was transported over the roadway to Portsmouth and eventually made its way to Wolfeboro and Captain Beck’s mail route.

The floating post office sold stamps on board, as well as delivering the mail. Beck had the boat outfitted with mail pigeonholes for various camps, islands, and other stops. It was a good method to keep track of all the mail that was coming and going.

Many people recall Captain Beck’s Tonimar, named for the captain’s niece, Martha, and nephew Tony. The boat had a charming appeal with graceful lines and a slow-moving pace.

As well as delivering the mail, the Tonimar gave moonlight cruises to vacationers. If one wanted to get out on the lake for the day, the charge to ride for the entire day was only $1.50 per person. Passengers could embark from the Victoria Pier in Alton Bay.

According to The Boats and Ports of Lake Winnipesaukee by Dr. Bruce D. Heald, the U.S. Mail Boat Tonimar delivered mail from 1941 through 1965 to summer island residents in Alton Bay and Wolfeboro. (In 1975 boating enthusiasts Linda and Ron Largey discovered the retired mail boat in an Alton Bay boathouse and purchased the vessel from Captain Beck.)

The islands on the Tonimar’s mail delivery route in 1951 were Little Mark, Redhead (also known as Treasure Island), Waveland (or Keniston), Mud (or Varney), Little Mud, Farm Island, Spectacle, Pistol, Little Bear, Devens, and Echo.

In 1962, the Uncle Sam II arrived, having reached the Lakes Region by being hauled overland from Portsmouth. The boat was a converted PT boat that would deliver mail and hold up to 150 passengers. Postmaster Ed Lavallee organized the mail and packages on board the Uncle Sam II.

Meanwhile, in Center Harbor, the Sophie C was launched in 1945. It was used at that time for boat service between Weirs Beach and Wolfeboro. In 1969, the Sophie C received a mail franchise and began mail delivery to islanders around Lake Winnipesaukee.

In the past, many wooden boats were privately owned and others were used for commercial purposes, taking passengers for fun trips around the lakes and delivering produce to the island hotels.

The Foxy operated as a Weirs Beach area party boat in the early 1900s. After the boat was shipped out of state, the Foxy II plied the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in the 1950s. Serving as a tourist boat, the Foxy II made daily trips and was run by Captain Carl Wallace of Laconia.

The U.S. Mail Steamer Dolphin, built in the late 1890s, was a very early mail boat on Winnipesaukee. Owned and operated by Archie Lewis of Laconia, the little boat caught the attention of the US Congress. In 1916, by an act of congress, the Dolphin was made the only floating post office on an inland body of water in the country.

Elsewhere in the Lakes Region, camping, vacationing, and boating were thriving in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many early vacationers on Newfound Lake needed mail and delivery service. To that end, the Stella Marion I was born.

Camp Pasquaney, in the late 1890s, made it known that boat service on Newfound Lake would be welcome. Pasquaney was accessible only by boat due to its remote location. A local resident, Ambrose Adams, went to work to build a boat for Newfound Lake deliveries. That was big news in the little town of Bristol and the Bristol Enterprise newspaper ran a piece on it in 1900: “Ambrose Adams is building a boat named Stella-Marion, which he expects to launch when the lake opens. The boat is 49 1/2 feet over all, 10 feet wide; built of the heart of oak, planked with 2-inch strips, 1 inch thick fastened with gal. steel nails; will have enclosed cabin forward of engine room, and an open one aft; will be propelled by a Sterling Marion engine, 7 x 8 inch cylinder; boiler will be submerged tube vertical Marion boiler 42 x 62 inch built under U.S. government test. Joseph Adams, who understands the business, is assisting about the building of the boat.”

The boat was launched in the spring of 1900 and was named for Ambrose’s daughters, Stella and Marion. The boat was used for passengers and moonlight tourist trips and also to haul lumber. In 1906, the boat began to deliver mail.

After the Stella Marion burned, Ambrose built the Stella Marion II in 1916. Eventually the charming boat was sold and left the waters of Newfound Lake.

On Squam Lake, the houseboat Sallyda made quite a pretty sight on the water. The boat was lavishly decorated, with no expense spared for comfort. The Balch family used the Sallyda in the late 1800s as a houseboat at Chocorua and Utopia Islands. The boat, pictured in an early photograph, shows open-air areas, a hammock, fine woodwork, and Chinese lanterns.

The early pleasure and mail boats have mostly disappeared from the lakes but, now and then, a restored boat can be glimpsed moving slowly through the water. Heads turn and people stare when they see an old boat; it brings back wonderful memories of the early days of boating when mail delivery to the islands was in its infancy. 

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