History of Red Hill

  By Jane Rice 

Most everyone who lives here, and tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors, have climbed Red Hill over the past few centuries, and we see it on the skyline from just about anywhere in the northern Lakes Region, but many may not be familiar with the centuries of history that pertain to this familiar everyday landmark. There’s probably enough out there to fill a book, or at least a pamphlet, but I’ll try and outline a few of the most interesting points in this article and leave the rest for another occasion.

            Those who have an interest in geology have heard of the famous “ring dike” of the Ossipee range, formed by the collapse, while still three miles underground, of a magma reservoir, during the Mississippian geological time period, about 250,000,000 years ago. Red Hill is also a ring dike, and the dike, a ring-shaped formation about 2.5 miles wide, is formed of an unusual mineral called nephelite-sodalite syenite, Red Hill being the only place it is found in New Hampshire, though samples from Red Hill are said to be in many geological laboratories. This crumbling rock was mined from the Horne Quarry, near the Horne cellar hole, to be used in road construction.

 A “boulder train” of coarse black and white syenite from Red Hill has been traced southeastward across the Winnipesaukee region and for up to 20 miles into Maine, where boulders from the slopes of Red Hill were torn away from their point of origin by the continental glacier of the last Ice Age, and were broken and distributed by the ice as it moved in a southeasterly direction. “The Pebble”, a 40-foot long boulder along the entrance road to “Castle in the Clouds”, originated on Red Hill, along with an estimated 800 million cubic feet of rock, sand and clay that was removed by the glacier and distributed across southern Carroll County. Stamp Act Island in Lake Wentworth has a high concentration of this rock, possibly because a huge boulder was carried there by the ice and then broken up. In the Carroll County History, it is said that a ledge of iron ore existed near the Cook homestead, and a crowbar was made from iron smelted by Jacob Webster of Sandwich.

            The first visit to the summit that I have been able to find was described in a deposition to the Massachusetts legislature in 1665, by Peter Weare, thus; “Having often times travailed the country, some of the natives allwaies with me, which hath from time to time affirmed that the lake called Winnipaseket issues into the river of Merremake, and having some Indians with me upon the north side of said lake, upon a great mountayne, did see the said lake which the Indians did affirme issues into the aforesaid river.”

            Among other early visitors to Red Hill who left written records was Timothy Dwight, President of Yale from 1795-1817. He traveled widely throughout New England, and in September, 1817 rode horseback to the summit of “Red Mountain”, where he found “a prospect worth not only the trouble of the ascent, but of our whole journey.” Monadnock was visible 70 miles away, “like a blue cloud in the skirt of the horizon.” He also called Winnipesaukee “Wentworth” and Squam Lake “Sullivan”, in a move to name landmarks after prominent historical figures which also saw Red Hill at one time being called after Governor Wentworth, according to an article in the “Granite Monthly” of 1918. Another source points to a British Admiral Warren who fought the French and had the hill named in his honor at one time. It is called “Red Mountain” on the map done by Jeremy Belknap in 1791. All sources assert that the redness of the hill in autumn is the source of the current name, whether it is produced by the red oak leaves, blueberries, or by bearberries, as stated in Sweetser’s White Mountain Guide of 1918.

            The Center Harbor Historical Society has the “Red Mountain Album” in which members of the Cook family, who lived in the saddle between the two summits for many years, recorded the visitors to their hilltop between 1833 and the 1860s. One notable visitor on July 9, 1835, was Franklin Pierce, in later years the President of the United States. Frank Greene has written an extensive essay on the history of the Cook family of Red Hill, which is available at the Moultonboro Library, for those who wish to read more of this family, who guided visitors to the summit and provided hospitality, including blueberries and milk in season. Jonathan Cook was a Revolutionary War veteran. A drawing in the logbook by a German visitor in 1851 is our only visual reference to the Cook farm buildings, but the cellar holes are still plainly visible if hikers wish to take the route up to the “saddle” between the two summits to see the site of the farm which supported three generations of the Cook family. Where there is now but a footpath, there was once a road sufficient for wagons to reach the farm, carrying visitors on the way to the celebrated viewpoint.

The other cellar holes which are seen on the trail to the fire tower belonged to the Ebenezer Horne family, built in 1828. Eben is said to have been a great natural mathematician, able to do complicated problems in his head despite a lack of formal education. His children and those of the Cook family attended a school near the Sibley Farm on Red Hill Road, and Charles Horne was envied by his schoolmates because in the winter he could sled from home to the schoolhouse door.

 Henry David Thoreau also climbed the peak on July 5, 1858, where he boiled water for tea, having carried it up the last half-mile, and enjoyed the view of “Winnipiseogee” and its islands, Squam, and Chocorua and the Sandwich Mountains, which seemed “The boundary of civilization on that side, as indeed they are.” We note that he saw on the Ossipees, “smooth pastures around the base or extending partway up”, evidence of the farms that once existed on that now entirely wooded slope. The Sandwich Historical Society has published the narrative of John G. Cook, a Cook family relative from Maine, who visited Red Hill on June 18, 1850, borrowing a spy glass from the hotel in Moultonboro, with which the party observed the steamer “Lady of the lake” coming into port in Center Harbor. Another visitor was Samuel Adams Drake, who mentions his visit, sometime after the Civil War, in “The Heart of the White Mountains”, published in 1882. There are paragraphs of florid descriptions of the views in many of the old guide books, which are most interesting to read, but space does not permit quoting from them.

            Thoreau’s visit inspired at least one of his readers, Elliott S. Allison, who climbed Red Hill after reading Thoreau’s account, and found the hill to possess “an individuality and charm which I could not forget.” Hence, following World War II service, he became the watchman at the fire tower from 1946-1953, along with his wife, who arrived from England just prior to their first summer on the job. In an article published in “Appalachia” he wrote of indigo buntings, ospreys, bald eagles, chestnut-sided warblers and solitary vireos, plus myrtle warblers which hopped up the steps and into the cab of the fire tower, a gray tree frog which was seen 25 feet up the tower, blending in perfectly with the steel of the railing, and a fox which sniffed the groceries they were carrying up the hill one day when they met him on the trail. The natural beauty of the hill also appealed to Thomas Francis Sheridan, after whom Sheridan Road was named. He wrote a pamphlet in 1912 entitled “Red Hill Wanderings” in which he mentions the brilliant blue fringed gentian, a decidedly rare wildflower, at least currently.

            William Henry Bartlett, 1809-1854, was a British landscape artist whose prints of scenic views in New England are still popular collector’s items today. His book of “American Scenery”, published in 1840, included “Lake Winnipiseogee, From Red Hill”, which he must have visited in order to make the drawings for the finished illustration. He also drew the sawmill at the foot of Kanasatka, and a view of Meredith.

            The fire tower on Red Hill replaced of an earlier wooden tower which stood on Mt. Israel in Sandwich from 1912 to 1925. Ernest B. Dane, a well-known summer resident of Center Harbor, offered to build a steel tower on Red Hill if the state would maintain it, and he paid the state the sum of $1,175.00 for the building of tower, cabin, and phone line, the steel being provided by the NH Structural Steel Company of Manchester. It was originally 27 feet high, raised to 37 feet in 1972 with a lookout platform below the enclosed cab. The state closed the tower in 1981, and the summit property reverted to the Dane family. It was eventually leased to the town of Moultonboro so that Lakes Region Mutual Aid could continue to operate the tower, and it has been manned by Ed Maheux of the Moultonboro Fire Department for over 20 years. The tower was placed on the National Historic Lookout Register in 2003.The Lakes Region Conservation Trust bought the summit property in 2001, and also preserves 2,748 acres on the hill by deed or easement, thus maintaining the area for hikers and for the moose, bear, deer, and birds that call it home.

            Various fires have been reported by the tower personnel, but one of the most significant was the 1985 fire that involved Red Hill itself. On April 28, 1985, 262 acres were burned in an early spring brush fire that was battled by over 200 firefighters from 19 towns. Ed and four hikers were on the summit, digging fire lines around the watchman’s cabin and outbuildings, which were saved from the flames. Another outbreak of fire in 1988 burned 316 acres. Both were suspicious in origin and an arrest was eventually made.

Red Hill has been the home of two ski areas, the Red Hill Outing Club on the Sheridan Road side in Moultonboro, still in operation, and the Red Hill Ski Area, featuring three rope tows, on the side toward Squam Lake, just off Range Road, which was operated by O. Rundle Gilbert in the 1950s.

            A variety of trails enable hikers to visit the hill, including the less-visited Sheridan Woods Trail, maintained by LRCT from the Sheridan Road trailhead, which summits the lower, southerly summit, which I have seen written of as the “Garland Summit”, an appropriate name as it overlooks Garland Pond. Other place names of Red Hill include Watson Ledge on the eastern side, and High Pines, Low Pines, and Gravel Hill. The Sibley Fountain, a rocky basin to hold the waters of the Sibley spring for passersby to refresh themselves at the foot of the trail on the west side, was built by Lewis Sibley.

            From the summit one may see a 360-degree view, including Sandwich Dome, Mt. Israel, Passaconway, Paugus, and Mt. Chocorua; the Ossipee range, Copple Crown, Blue Job, Lake Winnipesaukee, the Belknap range from Mt. Major to Gunstock and Belknap, Pack Monadnock and Grand Monadnock, Mt. Kearsarge, Mt. Sunapee, Cardigan, Moosilauke, the Squam range, and much more.

            Another way in which Red Hill has touched the history of the Lakes Region is through the history of the steamboat “Red Hill” one of the early steamboats on Winnipesaukee, or Winnipiseogee as it was spelled in those days. An 1853 map of Moultonboro designates Lee’s Mills as the Landing and Freight House of the Steamer Red Hill.” The “Red Hill” was a scow-type side-wheeler built by the Red Hill Steamboat Company to carry both passengers and freight. One of the most detailed accounts we have in Moultonboro Historical Society files is an undated clipping from the Laconia Citizen newspaper which refers to Franklin resident Walter Smith, aged 75 at the time the story was published, who remembered his father and grandfather telling him about the “Red Hill”, and about the explosion which brought its career to a close. It would be a nice project for someone to work on, to look at the Citizen on microfilm and find the other articles which are mentioned in the clipping we do have, especially the picture that apparently was published.

However, the details we do know are as follows: Walter Smith’s family lived in the “Mount Hunger” section of Moultonboro, not far from Lee’s Mills. His father, George Washington Smith, was 13 years of age in 1855, and with his father, “Shaker Jerry” Smith of Shaker Jerry Road fame, was on board the “Red Hill” for its free trial run in May, 1855. Some of the men on board were using pike poles to turn the boat around in the outlet of the Red Hill River where it had been built, when it became lodged on semi-submerged logs and listed to one side. The fire was going in the firebox, and when the boat lurched back onto an even keel, the water in the boiler rushed across and hit the hot tubes on what had temporarily been the dry side of the boiler, causing an explosion which blew the boiler through the deck and over a house, landing in the woods, according to witnesses. Both Mr. Smith’s father and grandfather were injured, but survived to tell of their remarkable experiences.

In a variation on the story told by Walter Smith, Edward Blackstone’s “Farewell Old Mount Washington” states that the explosion took place on May 23, 1853, and that the boat had already proved unsatisfactory as a passenger boat, so was being used for freight and towing. He also states that she was built in 1853, so it hardly seems that there would have been time for her to have been tried out as a passenger boat, if the explosion took place in May, 1853. This may be a question of a simple typographical error, if Mr. Smith’s date of 1855 is correct. In “Three Centuries on Winnipesaukee” author Paul Blaisdell states that the “Red Hill” was an excursion boat of 150 passenger capacity, was found to be “cranky” in a strong wind, was a failure financially, and was scrapped. Both books agree that the machinery was removed and sold, eventually winding up on a river steamer in China. The “History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties”, by D.M. Hurd, adds still another confusing detail, stating that the explosion took place in Alton Bay, and that remnants of the hull can still be seen there, though our friend Mr. Smith says they could still be seen in the Red Hill River at Lee’s Mills circa 1930. Hurd’s history also states that “This boat was of rather uncouth architecture, and built for the trade between the Mills and Alton Bay. The hull of this boat was modeled something like that of a scow. She was very laborious in her movements.”

            Red Hill has given its name to the Red Hill River, mentioned above, which originates in Red Hill Pond in Sandwich, the outlet stream of which flows down through Center Sandwich, through the fairgrounds, and meets Montgomery Brook, the two merging to become the Red Hill River, which incidentally was the site on an early brick kiln, which was described in this year’s publication by the Sandwich Historical Society. There is also a Red Hill, with a fire tower, in the Adirondack region of New York.

            Foliage time is a great time to visit this historic and scenic location, and we hope that this article will start you on the way to an increased appreciation of the history that pertains to this popular hiking destination.