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Yesteryear: Water Carnival at the Weirs

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 12, 2013

Water Carnival

The Weirs Beach Water Carnival brought water sports and aviation stunts to the Lakes Region, along with about 7,000 spectators.

The summer of 1911 brought the usual warm-weather events to the Lakes Region. Baseball, picnics, bicycle rides, canoe excursions, and rambles (what we call “hiking”) were all summertime pleasures in the area.

One event surpassed all others for its ability to attract a large crowd that arrived by foot, by train, by boat, and any means necessary to get to Weirs Beach. The Water Carnival, held in the late summer of 1911, saw the homes and businesses of the Weirs area bedecked with flags and other decorations to mark the festivities.

The Weirs Beach Water Carnival brought water sports and aviation stunts to the Lakes Region and many people came by train to take in the excitement. About 7,000 spectators packed the Weirs on a day that was “cool and with no dust”; a strong wind, however raised choppy “seas” as the lake was called in the Aug. 21, 1911, issue of the Telegraph newspaper. The rough weather conditions meant that water sports were delayed until 3 p.m.

Many came to the festivities to see the amazing hot air balloon presented by Prof. C.C. Bonette of Vermont. The wind prevented the balloon from lifting off, due to possible danger. However, at 3 p.m., the professor agreed to send his balloon up, to the delight of the crowd.

People also came in large numbers by automobile, with vehicles still a bit of a novelty at the time. (Parking for more than 300 cars must have presented a problem in a community where horse-and-buggy transport was still common.)

The day of festivities began with a baseball game between the Penacook and Weirs Beach ball teams, with the “local lads” winning the game.

In the late morning, the high winds caused Dago, the well-known Lake Winnipesaukee barge, to become swamped. Dago sank in about 40 feet of water, much to the consternation of the event organizers. (The barge was the point of coordination for the carnival’s water sports.) A new barge was brought in, but the Dago’s sinking highlighted how unpredictable the weather and water could be.

Throughout the day, spectators and fun-seekers found a lot to keep them busy and amused, in spite of the windy weather. The Weirs had a recreation pier, a music hall, and many “fountains” (probably soda fountains) that served ice cream. In the mid-afternoon, the music began, with tunes from the Laconia City Band which performed in front of the Hotel Weirs. The band later moved to the Weirs waterfront area to play “pleasing selections throughout the races and the evening’s program,” according to the Telegraph.

Automobiles were relatively new to the rural Lakes Region. Thus, the 2 p.m. auto hill climb up Tower Hill in The Weirs was a big draw. Col. Harry W. Daniell of Lakeport won the hill climb; he drove a Stevens-Dureya touring car. His vehicle made it up the hill in a record time of just 29 seconds!

Although these amusements were great fun, the crowds had come primarily to see the water sports and carnival. At 3 p.m., the water activities commenced, with a 50-yard swimming race. The exciting event saw young men from summer camps competing. The winners were awarded silver cups.

Boys from Camp Tecumseh won the war canoe race and silver steins were the prizes. The high winds made for rough water conditions and a boating accident at Sandy Island meant boys from that camp could not compete.

A semi-speed boat race was a big thrill for the crowd. The Limit, a boat owned by Philip Gorkey, won.

Earlier in the 1900s, there was a Water Carnival in late July 1908. That year the carnival featured balloon ascension and a daring parachute jump, power boat races, a parade of illuminated boats in the evening, and lively band concerts.

The 1908 event featured “a most amazing and entertaining act” when Prof. F. Richard Davis, known as “the man who mystifies”, dove into Lake Winnipesaukee while handcuffed and shackled. As the crowd watched, the shackled Davis jumped from the motor launch Satisfaction near the pier. He managed to unshackle and remove his handcuffs underwater in a mere 57 seconds.

In the heyday of water carnivals, Weirs Beach was the meeting place and summer relaxation spot for veterans of the Civil War. The Weirs area was already home to many ornate, Victorian-style hotels. Summer visitors found rest and relaxation — and once or twice a season, the entertainment of the water carnivals — at the Weirs.

Perhaps because the lake offered rest and a chance to relax, it attracted the notice of the New Hampshire Veteran’s Association.  The group decided, in the late 1800s, to start a campground area for meetings on land near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee at Weirs Beach. The Veteran’s Association had a great spot overlooking the Weirs area, with buildings on Lakeside Avenue, Main Street, and Veteran’s Avenue. (The land on which the campground sat was given to the Veteran’s Association by the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad.)

Tents sheltered veterans for the first years of the campground. Tents also were erected for the veterans’ annual meeting in August. All was laid out in the regulation Civil War army manner. Attendance was good and it was obvious that the veterans cherished the opportunity to meet fellow soldiers. It was an opportunity for emotional healing for the vets who had lived through the war.

The main purpose of the association’s campground was to “renew the ties of fraternity and loyalty, contracted in the camp, on the battlefield, in the prison and the hospital”.

The Veteran’s Campground and the other properties of the Weirs Beach were very different from what we know as The Weirs today. A huge and beautiful statue, with a water fountain and watering trough and an arched entryway, welcomed visitors to the camp area. The statue was a gift from the daughter of local veteran Loammi Bean in August 1894.

A large dining pavilion, built in 1880, was a functional eating spot for veterans, and a veterans’ grove with a speaker’s platform and bandstand had seating for up to 3,000 people. On Aug. 28, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a rousing speech there before a crowd of thousands. Such high attendance for an event was not seen again until the popular water carnivals came to The Weirs, with the attraction of water boat races, balloon ascensions, and daredevil divers bringing hundreds of spectators to the area.

Many regimental associations came to the campground, and large buildings were erected for annual veterans’ meetings. The buildings were available during the summer for use by veterans. Along with use of the buildings, veterans could experience many ways to relax during the summer. The New Hampshire Music Teachers’ Association had a large pavilion for its annual music festival at The Weirs, providing music for the public.

Nearby was the Winnipisiogee Campmeeting Association (Methodist) which was established at about the same time as the Veteran’s Campground. Religious speakers were featured at an outdoor bandstand area during the summer months.

Beautiful resort hotels, echoing the styles of the White Mountain Grand Era hostelries, sprang up during the late 1800s at the Weirs. The water carnivals surely appealed greatly to the hotel guests.

The notion of a water carnival may not be as familiar as such events were in the early 1900s, but, this summer, there will be a water carnival event on Saturday, July 20, at 2 p.m. on Long Island Beach in Moultonborough. The event will offer fun for families, with relay races, a treasure hunt, a cannonball contest, and sand castle-building. 

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