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Yesteryear: The History of New Hampshire’s State Parks

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 15, 2013

Wellington State Park

Wellington State Park on Newfound Lake in Alexandria.

Sometimes we take beauty for granted. We see trees and mountains and beaches quite often when spending the day at Wellington State Park (recently named the No. 1 park in New Hampshire), Ellacoya, or other New Hampshire parks and beaches. It is not often we stop to think about how the state parks throughout New Hampshire came to be. At one time, today’s state park properties were privately owned parcels of land.

How did the State of New Hampshire come to acquire the acres upon acres that comprise the system? According to “The History of the State Parks” on the NH State Parks website, it all started in the 1890s when the State Forestry Commission formed to govern who, how, and when timber could be cut in New Hampshire. (Random and sometimes unauthorized cutting of forests in the state was becoming a concern at the time.)

The first state park, Miller State Park in Peterborough, opened in 1881. Miller State Park met the need for those who wanted to enjoy the woodlands and fresh air. At the time, summer vacations in the healthful New Hampshire air were very popular and the idea of a state park made sense. However, the parklands were not as we see them today, but rather densely forested areas. The Forestry Commission had neither the ability nor the means to cut great parcels of forestland to turn them into parks. Those who enjoyed state forests were hikers or those who did not mind camping out in the woods.

This did not change much until the Great Depression of the 1930s. At that time, New Hampshire was feeling the effects of the poor economy, with little money and few jobs. The government set its sights upon improving the state park properties as a way of getting men back to work.

The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps created job programs for those who wanted to work. Men were paid to improve the state parklands and they built trails and huts and cleared land on 10 New Hampshire state forest properties.

While the project brought employment to many in the state, it also meant the newly cleared and improved parks saw more use. A governing body was tasked with overseeing the recreational portion of the park system. The Forestry Commission was renamed the Forestry and Recreation Commission and was given the job. Russell Tobey was made administrative assistant in charge of the state parks.

Tobey took on a big job. The New Hampshire State Parks at that time included Franconia and Crawford State Parks in the White Mountains; Forest Lake State Park in Dalton; state beaches in Wolfeboro, Laconia, Hampton, Sutton, and Alexandria, and two community parks in Dover and Kingston. With more people traveling and vacationing by car, many families loved to camp. With that in mind, the state opened the first supervised campground at Moose Brook in 1936.

Vacationers traveled to New Hampshire in the summer months and, during the rest of the year, the parks were unattended. Thus, the parks operated in the summertime only and closed after Labor Day or Columbus Day.

New Hampshire property owners were starting to see the park system as a great way to ensure that their land did not end up being over developed. People started to donate land to the state and the acreage increased in the 1930s. All that new property came with the responsibility to maintain the land for park use. That meant added expenses, so a minimal park admission fee was charged. (The Aerial Tramway at Franconia Notch was added and was very popular with the public.)

In 1931, the state obtained a deed to Wellington Reservation on Newfound Lake. It was “to be forever kept as a public forest reservation, to be used for the development of a bird sanctuary, for public recreation and for any purpose tending to the promotion of forestry.” Elizabeth R. Wellington deeded land at the area as a memorial to her father, Aaron H. Wellington. Two nearby islands, Belle and Cliff, were granted to the state in the 1940s. An additional parcel, purchased from the Follansbee family, was later added. The Civilian Conservation Corps created a beach, picnic areas, and original buildings at Wellington. It remains today among the best of the New Hampshire state parks, with much to offer the public on one of the country’s cleanest lakes (Newfound).

World War II brought a temporary halt to development of state parks. Many men were fighting in the war and families did not have the money to spend a day at a state park. Gas was rationed and everyone tightened their belts and stayed at home. Thus, some parks were closed and others ran on limited hours. Only Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown was added to the list of New Hampshire state parks during the war years.

After World War II, Russell Tobey was named park director for the new Division of Recreation for the state of New Hampshire. Once again, he undertook a huge job: Parklands had not been upgraded during the war years and repairs were needed. The park director was tasked with designing and developing, as well as overseeing, improvements to the park system, and also with working alongside the federal government to add new parklands and maintain recreational uses of the parks.

Travel by automobiles had resumed and families were coming to New Hampshire to enjoy what the state parks offered: swimming, boating, hiking, camping, and fishing. Winter recreational use gained popularity when the first state park rope tow for skiing was added at Weeks State Park in Lancaster.

Historic homes from time to time were located on land that had been donated to or acquired by the state. The park workers oversaw the upkeep of the historic sites.

As the years went by, it became obvious that winter-time activities were here to stay. When the state obtained responsibility for the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway and the chairlift and ski trails on Mount Sunapee, it seemed the ski industry was about to blossom.

The parks division had to address competition for tourist dollars. The tourism market was growing by leaps and bounds and people came to New Hampshire for everything from summer boating to winter skiing. Marketing strategies were formed and soon press releases, advertisements, and other promotional efforts were planned to compete with private ski areas and recreational spots.

More state parks were added in the 1960s. A big acquisition was the Mount Washington summit. Having managed so much and improved many state parks, Tobey retired in the early 1970s. At that time, the state park system had 33 parks, five historic sites, and a number of wayside areas.

To maintain historic state properties in the park system, state employees were trained in natural history and local history. (Maintaining historic buildings and properties can require specialized knowledge.)

As recreation grew and changed, the state park system added bicycle and snowmobile trails and more paths for hikers. Camping spaces were improved and more spots were added.

Historic sites run by the state parks include the Endicott Rock Historic Site in Derry; Daniel Webster Birthplace in Franklin; Governor Wentworth Historic Site in Wolfeboro; and the Robert Frost Farm in Derry.

When we dip our toes in a New Hampshire state park lake, sunbathe on a beautiful beach, or hike a well-kept forested trail, we can thank those who came before us for all that we enjoy today. 

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