Using your ghost eyes to look at what once was

CONWAY — When amateur historians start to dig into local history and gaze at vintage photographs, it gives them what might be called “ghost eyes” — instead of seeing what's here today, they see what used to be.


North Conway is full of such ghostly visions. Take, for instance, where the North Conway Community Center and playground of is today.

Thanks to photographs loaned by the late local historian Dan Noel, one can imagine the beautiful Kearsarge House which stood just south of the 1950-built community center from 1872 until it burned in a spectacular blaze Oct. 18, 1917.

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Today's Kearsarge Inn on Seavey Street keeps the name of the old Kearsarge House alive.

“Because of the proximity of our building to the original Kearsarge House here in the village, we very definitely wanted to keep alive the name of the old inns. We wanted to name it the Kearsarge House, but that name is owned by another inn in Portsmouth, so we decided on calling ours the Kearsarge Inn,” notes co-owner and history buff Stu Dunlop. “The Kearsarge House was the pre-eminent hotel in North Conway during the latter half of the 19th century,” added Dunlop, who notes that he and co-owner David Peterson were able to obtain a clock from an antiques dealer that was pulled from the Kearsarge House fire 92 years ago.

That clock now sits in the inn's lobby — a direct tie to the old Kearsarge. A photograph in the lobby also gives homage to the old inn.

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The history of the Kearsarge House is spelled out in late Conway historian Janet Hounsell's book,  “Conway, New Hampshire 1765-1997,” and in Bryant F. Tolles Jr.'s “The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains.”

Hounsell wrote that hotel builder Samuel W. Thompson “was a primary promoter of North Conway as a summer resort.”

Hounsell said that Thompson started taking guests into his own home in 1837, and then early artists in 1850. They came to be known as the White Mountain School of Art, and their paintings helped to promote the White Mountains, working with the railroads to help draw visitors to the region.

According to an article published in the old Reporter newspaper in the 1970s by local historian Helen E. Nute (1897-1994), Thompson carried the mail from Conway to Littleton in 1825 on horseback. He established a stage line from Portland to Fabyans. By 1840 he had made North Conway the terminus of the route and started a line from North Conway to the Glen House. He conducted the line until the opening of the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad in 1871.

Later he bid off mail routes which he had been instrumental in establishing from Meredith, Littleton and Portland to North Conway, and “thus made North Conway the capital of the region,” according to Nute.

Hounsell noted that until 1878, the hotel was kept open year-round, but after that operated summers only. A 1917 publication quotes rates of $4 and up — but that was the year the hotel burned.

In his book, Tolles notes that the Kearsarge was among the local antecedents of the grand hotels that followed.

Writes Tolles, “Located west of Main Street ... this great rambling wooden structure was raised on the spot originally occupied by Samuel W, Thompson's Kearsarge Tavern. In 1861, Thompson, the pioneer promoter and entrepreneur of local tourism, added to the old building and erected what later would become the south wing of the fully developed complex. Taking the formal name of ‘Kearsarge House,’ this hotel was a three-and-one-half story, pitched roof, rectangular structure with later ell additions ...

“In response to the arrival of the Eastern Railroad in North Conway, Thompson greatly enlarged his establishment in 1871-72 at a cost of $130,000 to absorb the increased flow of visitors. In doing so, he created a 300-guest grand hotel whose exterior remained little changed until its destruction by fire in October 1917 .... One of its most visible and appealing features was its tall fronted tower.”

As Tolles writes, the hotel benefited from its central location — a plankwalk led from the hotel to the 1874-bult Victorian train station.

It joined North Conway's other resorts of the era: the Washington House, the Sunset Pavilion and the North Conway House (still standing today, but relocated in 1900 from the corner of Main and Mechanic Streets to Pine Street — the North Conway Library sits on the Main and Seavey Street site today).

Like other grand hotels, it participated in coaching parades and in softball games with nearby resorts.

With is parade and mud football action, today's Mud Bowl championship — played every September just over the hill from the now gone hotel at Hog Coliseum on the site of a former Kearsarge House barn — in a way then is just a throwback to the spirit of those bygone days.

Proving that the more things change ....

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