Grand Resorts and Family Camps
Where did visitors stay?
The earliest visitors to the White Mountains stayed in taverns, which sprung up in the region as early as the 1780s. These early taverns served mainly commercial travelers from the Connecticut River Valley taking their goods to market in coastal Maine and Massachusetts. By the 1820s, residents of the mountains began to see more visitors who came specifically to climb and explore the mountains. Tavernkeepers, like Abel Crawford and his son and daughter-in-law, Ethan Allen and Lucy Crawford, often doubled as mountain guides for these guests. The Willey family, in fact, had moved to Crawford Notch to be innkeepers. As the number of visitors increased after their tragic demise, the number and size of taverns, inns, and boardinghouses grew. After about 1850, with the growth of railroads, hotels became larger and began boasting more luxuries than could be offered in taverns or inns.
The period from the 1880s to the 1920s was the “golden age” of grand resort hotels in New Hampshire. Grand resort hotels varied in architectural style but shared certain characteristics. They could hold 200 or more guests; they offered a variety of dining, cultural, social, and recreational experiences; and they cultivated an atmosphere of luxury, grandeur, and sophistication. Amenities included three lavish meals daily, hot and cold running water, park-like landscaping, and eventually even electricity. Guests could enjoy musical performances by the in-house orchestra, pursue outdoor activities such as fishing, hiking, golf, swimming, horseback riding, or lawn games, attend a lecture, take a guided carriage ride to local natural sites, and spend time reading in the library or playing card games in one of the many comfortable parlors.
Many grand resort hotels were self-contained, with their own power plants and sanitation systems, farms and greenhouses to produce food, huge stables to accommodate the hundreds of horses and coaches, post and telegraph offices, and dormitories to house the staff. The grand resort hotels provided employment for local residents, with positions ranging from fireman to laundress, blacksmith to waiter, and baggage handler to carriage washer. Wealthy families from Boston or New York often spent the entire summer season at these grand resort hotels, bringing their servants with them.
Most grand resort hotels were located in the White Mountains, but they could be found throughout the state, even in relatively small and remote New Hampshire towns. In fact, at one time New Hampshire boasted more than 150 grand resort hotels. There were, of course, higher concentrations of hotels near the seacoast and in the Lakes region. The first hotel on the Isles of Shoals was Appledore House, opened in 1848 by former White Island lighthouse keeper Thomas Laighton, father of author and poet Celia Laighton Thaxter. Artists and writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whitter, and Childe Hassam stayed there during its heyday. In 1873 the Oceanic Hotel opened on nearby Star Island. It could sleep 300 guests, had one of the first elevators in an American hotel, and boasted two bowling alleys, a billiard room, a dance hall, and an orchestra. The last surviving grand resort hotel on the seacoast is Wentworth by the Sea, which opened in 1874 in New Castle. Guests could enjoy the ocean views and breezes as well as a grand ballroom and golf course. Annie Oakley once stayed there and gave shooting lessons to the women guests.
Grand resort hotels could not have existed without the railroads. Some hotels were deliberately constructed at the end point of a railroad line, and some were even financed by railroad companies. Trains brought not only visitors but the supplies needed to feed and entertain hundreds of guests for an entire summer. Marketing materials for the hotels emphasized the proximity of rail lines and railroad stations.
Advances in transportation drove the rise of the grand resort hotels but were also responsible for their downfall, as the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century gave tourists the flexibility to travel for shorter periods of time and away from the rail lines. Grand resort hotels were replaced by convenient motels or campgrounds. Today, less than a dozen of New Hampshire’s grand resort hotels remain, such as the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods.
Grand resort hotels were not the only lodging option for tourists in New Hampshire during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hundreds of smaller hotels, inns, cabins, and boardinghouses sprung up in popular tourist areas for those who could not afford the luxury of a grand resort hotel. There were also plenty of visitors who were looking for a more pristine, natural setting and a more “authentic” experience than was offered at the grand resort hotels. Many of them sought out camping, either building their own rustic accommodations or staying at “family camps,” especially in the Lakes region. The state of New Hampshire actively encouraged the proliferation of summer homes, even creating an annual brochure of farmsteads for sale after a mass exodus of the state’s farmers in the late 19th century. Many of these abandoned farms were converted into summer homes for wealthy Bostonians or New Yorkers who wished to spend the summer months in the pristine New Hampshire countryside.
For those who could not afford a second home, more rustic and temporary accommodations had to suffice. Campers sought out-of-the-way spots on lake shorefronts or on one of the hundreds of small islands in New Hampshire’s numerous lakes, many still only accessible by boat. Camping accommodations were built to encourage people to get and stay out-of-doors, not for comfort. Many camps were simply white canvas tents, like those used during the Civil War, but others were more substantial, including wooden tents and rustic wooden bungalows with plain wooden boards and walls open to the roof. Over the years, these structures were made more enclosed and permanent, but most were still pretty basic. Many of these camps have been held in the same families for five or more generations and have been placed in family trusts to ensure they remain in the family. In the 21st century, Granite Staters are likely to refer to their families’ summer homes as “camps,” even if the structures no longer bear any resemblance to the rustic camps they were in the 19th century.