The M/S Mount Washington at 150 Years
Celebrating the grand dame of Winnipesaukee, through good times and bad
The M/S Mount Washington’s horn blasted through the air as Captain Paul Smith and his crew piloted her away from its Weirs Beach dock and embarked on its annual “Shakedown Cruise.” The ship’s diesel engines operated with mechanical poise as they powered up the vessel the way they have for decades.
It was just a few days before Mother’s Day weekend when New Hampshire’s most famous boat was scheduled to take out its first full complement of guests for the Mother’s Day Brunch cruise on that Sunday. After weeks of preparation, the decks were adorned with red, white and blue bunting, the windows and the wheelhouse radiated the natural light and warmth delivered by a picture-perfect spring day that blessed the man-made sheen onboard.
“After being separated and siloed, it was great to be together again,” says Jared Maraio, director of sales and marketing for Mount Washington Cruises.
Accompanying Smith on the inaugural cruise were fellow captains Jim Morash, Robert Duffey and Robert Amann.
The crowd that had gathered on the Weirs Beach docks cheered and applauded as the M/S Mount Washington and her invited guests headed out. Every shakedown cruise is special because it marks the beginning of another summer and fall tourism season. The 2022 cruise was accompanied by more excitement and fanfare than usual.
This summer, the M/S Mount Washington marks its 150th anniversary of delighting passengers with idyllic cruises around Lake Winnipesaukee and its 72 islands.
The official anniversary celebration cruise will be held on August 12, the day the current Mount Washington vessel was launched, and each of her four decks will feature live music, hors d’oeuvres, signature drinks, champagne, photo ops, limited-edition souvenirs and pride in this great accomplishment.
“There will be a number of people who have been with us for many years and we want them to be able to share stories. I think it will be something that will be very special,” Maraio says.
Since the M/S Mount Washington was relaunched in the mid-1940s, she has entertained tourists and residents alike with dinner dance cruises, wedding receptions, graduation parties, high school proms and corporate events.
Maintaining those traditions is a big part of the Mount Washington’s success. A day before the Mother’s Day Brunch cruise, Maraio said the ship cruised into Wolfeboro to pick up the Kingswood High School Class of 2022 for their prom. He said it marked the first official visit of the season to the Lake Winnipesaukee town, and the students and community members cheered as the Mount Washington made its way into port.
“We’re woven into the cultural fabric of these communities in a number of ways,” Maraio notes.
“The 150th anniversary not only marks a milestone for a historic ship, it’s also a chance to celebrate a return to the traditional Lake Winnipesaukee summer season,” Morash says. “The ship has endured for generations, in good times and bad, and we’re excited to see her again be a place where people come to gather, unwind and enjoy our beautiful lake.”
From the time the Mount Washington sets sail on its Mother’s Day cruise in May through Columbus Day weekend, she maintains a constant presence on Lake Winnipesaukee for boaters and beachgoers alike. When she cruises with the White Mountains to the north as her backdrop, there are few other images that are quite as magical and enduring. Generations of New Hampshire residents and visitors have enjoyed everything she has to offer.
The 230-foot grand dame of Winnipesaukee accommodates up to 1,000 passengers. The ship has a banquet capacity of up to 500 guests and 1,000 for receptions. She also sports three dance floors, full bar service and a gift shop.
The M/S Mount Washington also has six captains, including Morash, who serves as the cruise ship company’s general manager and chief operating officer.
The M/S Mount Washington also serves as a bridge that connects today’s visitors and residents to the rich history of this summer resort. Lake Winnipesaukee and the Mount Washington — the two are forever linked to cherished memories of this special place. It continues to serve as one of the Granite State’s most iconic ambassadors after previous symbols like the Old Man of the Mountain passed into history nearly 20 years ago.
What makes this anniversary even sweeter is how the company, which is headquartered at Weirs Beach in Laconia, has not only weathered the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s actually bigger and better than ever. In addition to its signature vessel, the cruise ship company’s fleet added the Winnipesaukee Spirit in 2021 to provide another great party boat option in a sleek, modern pleasure craft.
She joins the M/V Sophie C, the oldest floating post office in the U.S., and the M/V Doris E, which takes passengers on shorter scenic cruises to the islands near the Weirs and Meredith.
Secret of Success
When asked why the M/S Mount Washington has stood the test of time and enjoys such great success, Maraio points to the generations of people who have supported her.
Although this is a seasonal business, Maraio says they have loyal employees who return year after year. In some cases, they have employees who have worked onboard ship for as many as 30 years.
Maraio is one of them.
He recalls how he used to spend summers on the lake at his grandmother’s house in Meredith when he first worked on the ship in 2002. He left for a time to gain more experience in his profession before returning to the Mount Washington in 2019. Even when he was gone, Maraio believes his connection “never really went away.”
This year, Maraio is marking his 20th anniversary with the ship.
Its not only Maraio who has a lengthy history with the ship. Just recently, Kevin Pettengill was promoted to captain, following in his father’s footsteps. Members of the Pettingill family have worked on the ship for many years. The Morash and Welch families have also worked for the ship as captains and crew members. Ryan Welch, a deck hand, is working toward his goal of becoming a captain, a post that his father, Harry, and grandfather have previously held.
Maraio explains that ever since the Mount Washington conducted its first voyage on Lake Winnipesaukee, scores of local residents have tirelessly worked to preserve the vessel and its rich history.
The Mount Washington also symbolizes New Hampshire’s penchant for perseverance, resilience and community connection, Maraio says.
Besides the recent pandemic, the ship has also endured two world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a devastating fire and economic turmoil, Maraio points out.
“The Mount Washington was launched prior to telephones and before there were roads that connected the communities around Winnipesaukee,” Maraio says. The ship serves that purpose now by creating emotional connections for the people it brings together.
The incredible beauty of Lake Winnipesaukee, named for the Native American word meaning “smile of the great spirit,” is another reason for the Mount Washington’s staying power. New Hampshire’s largest lake was formed by a glacier and is spring-fed. The lake is surrounded by three mountain ranges and is 504 feet above sea level. It’s approximately 25 miles long, 15 miles wide and covers 72 square miles.
The M/S Mount Washington has five ports of call: Weirs Beach, where it is headquartered, Meredith, Center Harbor, Alton Bay and Wolfeboro. It visits those ports with a regular daily schedule. Area residents and visitors never grow weary of seeing their favorite vessel cruise by.
A Storied Past
What many people probably don’t realize is the current M/S Mount Washington that cruises Lake Winnipesaukee is actually the second ship to bear the name.
The S.S. Mount Washington was first introduced to the Big Lake in 1872. According to Mount Washington Cruises, the original ship was a wooden side-wheeler, 178 feet in length with a beam of 49 feet. Known as the “Old Mount,” the vessel was built and launched in 1872 by the Boston & Maine Railroad to transport travelers and cargo from one side of the lake to the other.
The S.S. Mount Washington was not alone. During the late 1800s, several steamships operated on Lake Winnipesaukee. But the original Mount Washington was the largest and fastest vessel. By the end of the century, she was transporting 60,000 passengers a year.
During the early 20th century, automobiles became more dominant than rail transportation, and the S.S. Mount Washington became a tourist attraction. She was purchased by Leander Lavallee, who was also her captain. She continued to serve as many as 60,000 passengers a year on leisurely cruises. The B&M Railroad also continued to transport visitors and vacationers to Weirs Beach, which included a large railroad station, dance hall and grand Victorian-style hotel.
Fire and Rebirth
Weirs Beach and the first S.S. Mount Washington fell victim to two devastating fires that threatened to take down the bustling tourism industry. The first blaze occurred in 1924 and destroyed Hotel Weirs, a grand hotel. The second fire in 1939 claimed the S.S. Mount Washington.
The ship was berthed in shallow water in December after completing another successful tourism season when a fire broke out inside the railway station. The flames quickly spread to the S.S. Mount Washington that was docked nearby.
“Attempts were made to set her free, but lake water levels were low and she was stuck helplessly in the mud. The ship was completely destroyed, as was the entire railroad station and boardwalk,” according to Mount Washington Cruises.
Lavallee was devastated by the loss of his beloved boat. He had been prepared to sell it and retire when the fire occurred. He quickly decided to bring in a new and bigger boat to replace the S.S. Mount Washington. Lavallee worked with business leaders and members of the Weirs and Laconia communities to raise the necessary funds.
But finding a new ship would prove to be a daunting challenge. Lavallee could not build a new ship because steel was in short supply because of WWII and the need for munitions.
Lavallee located a new vessel on Lake Champlain in Vermont. He purchased the 203-foot Chateaguay in April 1940 for $20,000 and had the boat transported to Lake Winnipesaukee.
He hired a crew from Boston General Ship & Engine Works to dismantle the Chateaguay hull, cut it into 20 sections, and ship it by flatbed railroad car from Shelburne, Vermont, to Lakeport, New Hampshire. They then carefully reassembled the pieces, constructed a new steel superstructure, and outfitted the ship with two 750 hp steam engines, boilers included. The S.S. Mount Washington II was launched Aug. 12, 1940, with a length of 205 feet, a beam of 32 feet and a draft of 7 feet.
A new vessel was also accompanied by new ownership. The total cost to retrofit the new ship exceeded $125,000. Lavallee sold his business to the Boston General Ship & Engine Works and its owner, Carl Hedblom, in 1941. The Hedblom family owned and operated the company for the next three decades. They later added the M/V Sophie C and the M/V Doris E to their fleet.
The S.S. Mount Washington II also changed designations twice. When her steam engines were replaced with diesel engines in 1946, she was rechristened as the M/V Mount Washington. In 1982, the ship was cut down the center so an extra 25 feet could be added to her length. This caused the ship to be reclassified by maritime standards to the M/S Mount Washington.
A Bright Future
Today, the future prospects of Mount Washington Cruises are brighter than ever, thanks to the commitment and dedication from the ownership and staff to preserve the experience for future generations.
Maraio says the cruise ship company operates with “one foot in the history and one foot in meeting the needs of our customers today.”
Some of the big changes that visitors will notice include a revamped menu that includes New Hampshire-made products from local vendors. Maraio says 14 of the 17 beers served onboard are New Hampshire-made. They will also sell chocolates and ice cream made by nearby Kellerhaus and White Mountain Vodka from Tamworth Distilling.
New seating has also been installed on the top deck for added comfort and convenience. Maraio says the Mount Washington is also continuing practices adopted during the pandemic, which speaks of the company’s ability to pivot and adapt.
In 2020, Maraio says state Covid-19 guidelines put a stop to the ship’s usual buffet-style dinners, which they are happily bringing back this season. Instead, as the pandemic demanded a swift and dramatic pivot, members of the crew were trained as waitstaff within a matter of weeks. Whatever the crew was required to do to make it so, they did.
“Sometimes you have to be forced to change,” says Maraio. “But change isn’t always a bad thing. It can be a healthy thing.”
Besides the majestic M/S Mount Washington cruises on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire offers many other lake and ocean excursions. Here are some of the best.
By River and Sea
60 Marcy St., Portsmouth / (603) 433-9505
For those who would welcome the chance to experience New Hampshire’s only working gundalow in action, the Gundalow Company located at Strawbery Banke is waiting. Thanks to scores of volunteers, the Gundalow Company brought this piece of Granite State maritime history back to life with the construction of a new gundalow in 2012. These vessels were used primarily to transport lumber, stone and other building materials up and down the Piscataqua River to Great Bay communities like Newmarket, Dover, Durham and Exeter during the 1800s. Today, passengers can enjoy afternoon sails, evening cruises and special concert cruises with beer and wine for sale onboard.
Isles of Shoals Steamship Company
315 Market St., Portsmouth / (603)-431-5500 islesofshoals.com
The M/V Thomas Laighton has taken passengers to and from Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire for decades to enjoy a few leisurely hours of strolling the island that poet Celia Thaxter called home or visiting the Oceanic Hotel, which hosts private retreats. The trip is accompanied by music, beer, wine and spirits served aboard the ship.
Portsmouth Harbor Cruises
64 Ceres St., Portsmouth / (800) 776-0915 portsmouthharbor.com
Located just a stone’s throw from the iconic Portsmouth tugboats, board the Heritage for guided tours of the harbor and nearby New Castle that reveal the immense beauty and history of the Seacoast’s premier harbor.
Granite State Whale Watch and Island Cruises
Rye Harbor, Rye / (603) 964-5545 granitestatewhalewatch.com
To get up close and personal with some whales or to the Isles of Shoals, the “Uncle Oscar” is at your service. The 49-foot vessel in Rye Harbor offers the shortest trips to Star Island as well as the unmatched thrill of seeing some whales well offshore.
Motor Around on the Millie B
The Town Docks, 42 S. Main St., Wolfeboro (603) 569-4554 / nhbm.org
The New Hampshire Boat Museum in Wolfeboro on the southern shores of Lake Winnipesaukee not only wants visitors to explore the history of wooden watercraft but to ride in the Millie B, a 28-foot, mahogany, triple-cockpit “woodie” replica 1928 Hacker-Craft. The hourlong cruise around Wolfeboro Bay also includes free admission to the museum, and those who have never cruised the lake in a vintage wooden boat will truly enjoy it.
1 Lake Ave., Sunapee / (603) 938-6465 sunapeecruises.com
There are few boating excursions more lovely and peaceful than those aboard the Lake Queen and the M/V MT. Sunapee II on Sunapee Lake. Guests can enjoy a dinner cruise aboard the Lake Queen or scenic cruises aboard the M/V MT. Sunapee II that include guided tours narrated by the captain. These tours feature three operating lighthouses and views of Mount Kearsarge, Mount Sunapee, and even Mount Ascutney in neighboring Vermont on clear days. Sunapee Cruises’ newest boat, the Lake Queen, will also offer guests dinner cruises. The 70-foot vessel was recently transported from Missouri and retrofitted in Sunapee. The two-deck former riverboat can accommodate more than 100 guests. When the Lake Queen’s arrival was delayed by seven weeks due to a transportation issue in Pennsylvania, Gov. Chris Sununu stepped in and expedited the process to bring her to her new home. The Lake Queen was christened and launched on May 1.
Tiki Hut Boats of NH
263 Lakeside Ave., Weirs Beach, Laconia (603) 960-4991 / tikihutboatsofnh.com
If you want to combine your love for Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney with the water, the Big Kahuna of Tiki Hut Boats of NH at Weirs Beach is ready to set sail. Entering its fourth season on the Big Lake, the company offers passengers the option to enjoy 90-minute cruises or private-party, two-hour trips aboard its floating tiki bar built on top of a pontoon boat. Fins up!
859 U.S. Route 3, Holderness / (603) 968-3990 experiencesquam.com
Nature lovers who appreciate the tranquility and calm of Squam Lake would be wise to literally Experience Squam. Private parties can book the company’s 23-foot Sea Ray Bow-Rider for a variety of excursions that include Golden Pond tours where they can see the locations used in the 1981 film “On Golden Pond” with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. Experience Squam also offers fishing trips to catch that unforgettable bass or salmon, sunset and moonlight cruises, and trips that include a barbecue and campfire on one of Squam Lake’s islands.