Kristie LeGates blows the steam whistle of the “Phoenix” to a fellow steam boater on Wednesday afternoon while heading towards Lees Mill from 19 Mile Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
By THOMAS P. CALDWELL
LACONIA DAILY SUN
MOULTONBOROUGH — Years ago, David Thompson went to an antique boat rally in Laconia, and it led him to organize an annual steamboat rally in Moultonborough that today draws as many as 1,000 people on the weekend.
Thompson grew up around steamboats. His father and grandfather took care of lights and buoys, and they used a steamboat to navigate the lake.
“They’ve got pictures of me running around on some of the steamers my grandfather had when I was still in diapers,” he said.
While they later graduated to gasoline-powered boats, World War II forced them to return to steamboats because the gasoline was needed for the war effort.
“I had my first steamboat when I was 15,” Thompson recalled. “Throughout the Second World War, we used them for transportation over the lake, and a lot of times in the summer we’d come up by boat to visit my grandfather and stay at his house, and then steam home to Wolfeboro where my father worked for Goodhue-Hawkins.”
He recalled, “We were down to The Weirs when they had a little boat show one year, and I had about a 50-footer, and we went down. Afterward, we said, ‘Maybe we should do that ourselves, with strictly steamboats.’”
He said he approached Moultonborough town officials who granted permission to use the landing at Lees Mill.
“We started the meet 45 years ago, in 1972, and on it goes,” Thompson said. “It started out on a Sunday, then went to Saturday and Sunday, then Friday, Saturday, Sunday. For the last 30 years, we’ve been 10 days.”
Boats started arriving for this year’s Lees Mill Steamboat Rally last weekend, with about 38 of them there by mid-week. The event will run through this Sunday, when there will be a steamboat parade at 10 a.m.
“Most of the guys come in for the meet the first couple of days, and then stay until the meet is over,” Thompson said.
There are few scheduled activities, with the opening boat parade on the first Sunday and the second at the end, and a cruise to 19-Mile Bay on Wednesday.
“One of the things that makes this a success is there is no one telling someone they have to do something,” Thompson observed. “They just mill around, and a new guy will come in, and within a year, he’s part of the group.
“In all the years that we’ve done this, we’ve never had a person down there drunk,” Thompson said. “They just are so busy talking about steam and the boat and where they’ve been and what they’ve seen, they’re just so busy, it starts as soon as it’s daylight and goes until about 8 at night.”
He said the event is similar to a cruise night, where people gather to admire vintage automobiles.
“A lot of these guys have antique cars and tractors and other things,” Thompson said. “We have quite a few steam cars involved, and there’s a steam car down there today.”
He said that, through the years, the steamboat rally also has seen a Stanley Steamer (a steam-powered automobile manufactured between 1902 and 1924), and even a steam-powered ice cream maker.
The ice cream maker could only produce small quantities, and Thompson said word got out one year about it being there. “We had 100 people standing in line to eat two quarts of ice cream,” he recalled.
The Lees Mill Steamboat Rally attracts all types of boats, with paddlewheels, stern paddlewheels, and propeller boats.
“Most of the boats are kind of individual done,” Thompson said, explaining that it is possible to buy fiberglass hulls and add the engines and blowers to create unique steamboats. Otherwise, acquiring a steamboat is more difficult.
“Basically, what’s happened, we have a lot of older, retired people who own steamboats,” Thompson said. “When they pass away, someone else buys it.”
He said most steamboat owners keep their boats “until they are no longer able to climb in and out.”
Some younger people are getting interested in steamboats, usually people in their teens or early 20s, Thompson said.
“We have one who built his own boat,” he noted.
According to Thompson, the Lees Mill Steamboat Rally is among the largest in the country, and as far as he knows, it is the first. He said that, prior to his rally, there were a few people on the west coast who occasionally got together, but they started an annual rally after learning about his.
“Today there are meets every weekend somewhere, if you want to take your boat and trailer it,” Thompson said. “Steamboat rallies like this in New York usually get 10-15 boats, and there are rallies in Canada, Vermont, and Florida. But this is the first one I know of in America.”
Steamboat owners are a friendly group and he said if someone learns you were in their neighborhood without stopping in, they’ll be upset.
“And all have a good sense of humor,” he said, relating the story of a man who dropped his oil can overboard. Someone came up with SCUBA gear to retrieve it, and the next year, “about everyone brought him an oil can.”
“Buy a boat and join us, and you’ll have a hell of a good time. Better than a barrel of snakes,” he said.
Joe Spadoni from Washington State lets off some steam from his 20’ Steam Launch with single cylinder engine before making the trek to 19 Mile Bay in Tuftonboro on Wednesday. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Joe Spadoni from Washington State backs out of the dock at Lees Mill , Moultonboro in his 20’ Steam Launch with single cylinder engine loaded with wood fuel for the trek to 19 Mile Bay in Tuftonboro on Wednesday. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
- Written by Tom Caldwell
- Category: Local News
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