Home Arts and Leisure Seven Fun Facts About Lake Winnipesaukee

Seven Fun Facts About Lake Winnipesaukee

A place for loons, tourists and celebrities

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Come July, Lake Winnipesaukee springs to life with boaters, swimmers, canoers, steamboat excursioners and summer people enjoying sunsets on their beach cottage porches. The lake — crystal clear, nestled among the Belknap and Ossipee mountain ranges — is a vacation paradise in summer and a very large skating rink in winter.  Year-round, Lake Winnipesaukee also has work to do.

The lake controls flooding, generates hydropower and accommodates loons and their babies. It fills the Merrimack, which once powered much of New England’s industrial revolution. It generates revenue and jobs for the tourist industry and drinking water for people, fish and wildlife.

For some 13,000 years, Lake Winnipesaukee served as a highway for the Abenaki people, who traveled by canoe. At least five tribes used to gather in what is now Alton Bay. The Abenaki gave the lake its name, which means either “smile of the Great Spirit,” or “beautiful water in a high place.” (It’s 504 feet above sea level.)

Covering 71 square miles, Lake Winnipesaukee ranks as the third biggest lake in New England—about one-seventh the size of Lake Champlain and two-thirds the size of Moosehead Lake in Maine.

Eight towns surround it, from Alton to Wolfeboro. Laconia, a small city of 17,000, is the county seat and host of the annual motorcycle rally known as Bike Week. A vintage sign promises old-fashioned summer fun at The Weirs, named after the Penacook tribe’s fishing gear (baskets) back in the day.

At its deepest, Lake Winnipesaukee measures 180 feet, with a mean depth of 43 feet. It has several hundred islands. Lake Winnipesaukee also has seven peninsulas, which give it a shoreline of 288 miles.

Over the years, many famous people found their way to Lake Winnipesaukee. Some built trophy homes for all to see, while others preferred anonymity.

Here, then, are seven fun facts about Lake Winnipesaukee.

1. Governor’s Island had ties to three governors, one ambassador and two presidents.

Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s land-grabbing governor, appears to have had some claim to Governor’s Island. It was then granted to his nephew, another governor, John Wentworth, in 1772. John Wentworth fled to Nova Scotia shortly after the American Revolution broke out, and the New Hampshire Legislature confiscated Wentworth’s lands. It was auctioned off, then sold to John Langdon, a prominent Revolutionary financier who later won election as governor.

View from Governor’s Island

Langdon sold it to Eleazer Davis in 1799, and it stayed in the family until 1857. Eleazer’s son Nathaniel belonged to the Millerite cult, which believed the world would end in 1844. Nathaniel Davis hosted revival meetings with William Miller on Governor’s Island. Eventually Stilson Hutchins, founder of the Washington Post, bought the island. He built a mansion, visited by presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. Then he leased it to the German ambassador to the U.S., Count von Sternburg, and the island served as the German Embassy.

Then a real estate developer bought it and went bankrupt. The Governor’s Island Club took it over. The island now has a bridge to the mainland and serves as an exclusive enclave of Gilford.

2. Lake Winnipesaukee is home to the first summer resort in America.

John Wentworth didn’t just own Governor’s Island; he owned 2,360 acres in Wolfeboro. Though he lived year-round in Portsmouth, the seat of colonial government, he liked horseback riding and country living. Wentworth built an estate called Kingswood in 1771 on a lake that flows into Winnipesauke—Lake Wentworth. There’s an island in Lake Wentworth called Stamp Act Island. It may or may not have been named for Wentworth, believed to have played a role in the repeal of the hated Stamp Act.

Relazing at a resort in Wolfeboro

Wentworth also liked to build roads. He had one built from Portsmouth to his summer estate, now known as Governor’s Road. New Hampshire Route 109 between Wolfeboro and another Lake Winnipesaukee town, Moultonborough, is known as “The Governor John Wentworth Highway.”


Wentworth put Wolfeboro on the map. Incorporated in 1770, it kept its character as a summer resort—and one enjoyed by governors. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney built a lakeside home in the town.

3. New Hampshire didn’t recognize the Native guides who found Endicott Rock.

The original Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629 gave the colony all the land up to three miles north of the Merrimack River. Then the colonial  Legislature in 1652 voted to claim the land three miles east and west of the headwaters. That would allow Massachusetts to claim settlements it wanted in New Hampshire and Maine.

Lawmakers then sent a delegation to find the northernmost point on the Merrimack. With the help of two indigenous guides, Pontanhom, “The Trapper,” and Ponbakin “the Arrow Maker,” they reached Weirs Beach — the outlet of Lake Winnipesaukee and headwaters of the Merrimack.

They surveyed a large boulder in the middle of the channel and gave it a slightly-off latitude of 43 40 12. One of the surveyors, Harvard student Jonathan Ince, inscribed the rock with the initials of the four delegation members and the name of Massachusetts governor John Endicott.

Then in the early 19th century, water covered the rock when the Winnipesaukee River was dammed. The rock reappeared in 1832 when a steamship channel was dug.

The state then built a pavilion over the Endicott Rock, put a statue of a Native on top of it and a plaque that included the names of the four men who surveyed it. Today, a small state park surrounds the locally well-known rock.

The Indigenous NH Collaborative Collective wants to add Pontanhom and Ponbakin to the monument.

4. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek learned to swim in Meredith Bay.

Madame Chiang Kai shek learned to swim in Lake Winnipesaukee. Her father, a wealthy Chinese businessman, sent his six children to the United States for their education. His daughters Mei-ling and Ching-ling Soong attended a summer school run by Harriet Moses on Meredith Bay.

Meredith Bay is on the upper right.

On July 8, 1908, Mei-ling sent a letter to a friend about how she learned to swim in Meredith Bay. The Meredith Historical Society published part of it:

Yesterday I was nearly drowned because the water came up to my neck, first I didn’t know for I am lying on the life preserver, but afterwards I wanted to stand up so I noticed that I was nearly drowned for nobody was near enough to pull me out until a Philadelphia girl caught me by the arm, but please don’t tell anybody.

Mei-Ling graduated from Wellesley College and married the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek. She spent quite a lot of time in Washington, D.C., as the second half of a power couple. Time Magazine in 1937 named the Chiangs “Man and Wife of the Year.” Her sister Ching-Ling married Sun Yat-sen, the first provisional president of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Madame Chiang Kai-shek often visited Wolfeboro, where the Chinese Nationalist Party maintained a summer estate.

5. A most exclusive restaurant was once on Lake Winnipesaukee.

From the mid-20th century until the early 2000s, one of the most exclusive restaurants in the country operated on Cow Island: Mama Lucy’s or Gus’ Lodge. The name didn’t really matter since the restaurant never advertised, never printed a menu and was nearly a total secret. The restaurant – which was unlicensed for at least much of its life – drew celebrities, families and groups of 20 and up lucky enough to find a way to get in.

The restaurant drew its name from the husband-and-wife team of Augustus “Gus” Mazzocca and Lucy Mazzocca. Gus was the music director at Camp Idlewild and the family played host to their restaurant guests in the evenings during the height of summer.

Approaching an island (Bear, not Cow) in Lake Winnipesaukee.

Reservations were so elusive, patrons generally needed to plan their visits a year or more in advance. The menu, largely Italian, was whatever the meal of the day was and all guests were seated at one table in a beautiful, waterfront setting to enjoy a multi-course dinner.

Part of what the restaurant offered, in addition to fabulous meals, was discretion. People in New Hampshire only learned about the celebrity guests long after they were gone, if at all, and it became a bit like nailing down a fog to tell who actually ate there and who simply got tacked on to the legend.

Among the guests, supposed or otherwise, were Grace Kelly (a regular visitor to the Lakes Region) and Sophia Loren.

6. Lake Winnipesaukee was a hotbed of Big Band dancing.

The name Irwin is familiar to anyone who spends much time around Laconia, N.H. Irwin Marine just turned 100 years old and is going strong. Less familiar may be Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens, which has nothing to do with gardening and everything to do with music.

Winnipesaukee Gardens Ballroom, The Weirs


Founded in 1925 by the patriarch of the Irwin family, Jim Irwin, the Gardens was a hopping music venue and the passion of the man for which it was named. The dance hall, out at the end of the pier at Weirs Beach, could hold 2,500 people. It boasted parking for 1,000 cars and a hip, smart scene. The dress code required jacket and tie for the men. Irwin, a musician himself, brought in the biggest name bands. Dancers whirled to the music of the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, among many others. And those missing out on the fun could listen to the music broadcast on Irwin’s own radio station – one of the first in northern New England.

The ballroom survived into the 1970s, but time took its toll. Rock and roll came into vogue and the old dance hall scene faded. The hall itself needed repairs and so it was transformed into smaller businesses and arcade attractions. But for about 50 years, it hosted some of the finest musicians to ever perform in New Hampshire.

7. On Golden Pond was filmed on Lake Winnipesaukee.

No doubt film buffs know the 1981 movie On Golden Pond was filmed on location on Squam Lake. But not all of it. The summer of filming the New Hampshire rumor mill was alive with stories of sightings of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn and other cast members who took up temporary residence in the Lakes Region for the filming.

Travelers passing through the town of Holderness can still recognize some of the scenes from the movie. More diehard fans can arrange boat tours on Squam Lake and see more filming locations along the shoreline.

But for one of the movies more rollicking scenes, where young Billy hops into a classic Chris-Craft for a high-speed turn on the lake, the directors chose to shoot on the larger and deeper Lake Winnipsaukee.

So, while the charming and lovely Squam Lake may have had the star turn in the film, the more egalitarian Winnipsaukee got a minor role.

Images: On Golden Pond movie poster may be found at the following website: http://www.impawards.comwww.impawards.com, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6756885; Red-throated loon By Don Faulkner – https://www.flickr.com/photos/faulkners_fowl_shots/42346739094/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80143713. Highway sign By Doug Kerr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/2785958656/in/album-72157606878346258/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=133821794. Endicott Rock By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35973308. Wolfeboro by Boston Public Library via Flickr, CC By 2.0.

Thanks to the Lake Winnipesaukee Museum.

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