Legends of the Lake, Part 2: Jack Irwin
October 16, 2018
A Winnipesaukee boating icon reminisces about growing up on the big lake and his father’s lasting legacy. By Kiley Jacques; Photos by Karen Bobotas
Jack Irwin was born in 1930 in Lakeport, New Hampshire, and his memories of growing up on and around Winnipesaukee run as deep and wide as the lake he calls home. One of those memories involves shad, which used to be a popular catch among winter ice-fishermen.
“I used to skate from bobhouse to bobhouse, and people would be in them, catching shad,” recalls Irwin, noting that the species has long since disappeared from the lake. Of course, that’s not the only change Irwin has witnessed over the course of his 87 years on New Hampshire’s largest lake.
Fishing also figures in the history of The Weirs, the specific part of Winnipesaukee where Irwin cut his boating teeth, as the name derives from a Native American method of trapping fish. The modern Weirs owes much of its popularity to Irwin’s father, Jim Irwin, Sr., whose love of the trumpet started him on a path that eventually led to the marina in which Jack now sits, telling the story.
During World War I, Jim Irwin played trumpet in the Navy band. Upon returning to the States, he settled in his native Boston, where he worked in the financial district as a runner, carrying orders and receipts from offices to exchanges and banks. Often, he could be found, trumpet in hand, heading by train to The Weirs, which at the time included a grand hotel. It was an epicenter for the Boston Main Railroad, which had a large station across the street from the hotel. Also across the street was a music hall where live bands played and silent movies were shown, accompanied by a live orchestra. You can guess who played trumpet in that orchestra.
“My dad was a person with a lot of energy,” says Jack, recalling how his father would get up early after playing in the orchestra late at night so he could work at a local marina. “It was really just a machine shop—they built carburetors—but they had a boat business that my dad eventually took over.”
And so began the Irwin Marine legacy.
DANCE HALL DAYS
In 1919, Jim Irwin bought what had been Green’s Boat Livery and renamed it Irwin Marine. At first he rented canoes, rowboats and motorboats, but it wasn’t long before he earned a reputation for being the “Largest Motorboat Garage in the World.” Business boomed when Garwood and Hacker-Craft boats became popular, and in 1924 he signed on with Chris-Craft—a relationship that continues to this day. In time, he also purchased the music hall.
In late fall 1924, the Weirs Hotel, the music hall and nine other buildings were destroyed by fire. Working with Boston architect Arthur Osberg, Jim Irwin built a dance hall over the marina and named it Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens. The hall drew names like Count Basie, Harry James, and Paul Whiteman. “We had all the name bands,” recalls Jack. “It’s easier for me to tell you who we didn’t have. We didn’t have Louis Armstrong or Guy Lombardo, but we had all the other ones—Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, Duke Ellington—all of those old musicians.”
Jim Irwin also constructed a boardwalk and a pagoda. “He built them so people to go out on Saturdays and Sundays to watch the speedboat races that my dad put on for entertainment,” explains Jack.
WEATHERING THE CRASH
By 1928, business on all fronts was flourishing, but the market crash changed everything. Customers started returning with boats they had bought and asking for Irwin’s help in selling them. “Sometimes my dad would buy them back,” recalls Irwin, adding that his father ended up owning quite a number of large speedboats as a result
Faced with declining sales during the Depression, the ever-adaptable Irwin began offering speedboat rides on the Miss Winnipesaukees, a fleet of 26- and 28-foot, triple-cockpit Chris-Crafts. Jack’s first job was taking people on rides up to Bear Island and Center Harbor or out to Welch Island. Those excursions may have saved Winnipesaukee Gardens.
Once the economy recovered, the American lifestyle became one devoted to leisure and recreation. People were interested in owning boats rather than paying for rides. Wealthy communities sprang up on the lake and large speedboats started populating its waters. Recognizing yet another opportunity, the senior Irwin set up an organization for speedboat racing.
“As time went on, people who survived the crash and whose businesses grew became wealthy, and they would buy these beautiful boats made by a lot of the old boat companies. And many were Chris-Crafts,” recalls Jack. “That’s how the boat business really got going on Lake Winnipesaukee.”
At the time, the Mount Washington, an old side-wheeler, added to the lake’s character and popularity. It was built by the railroad company as a party cruiser, and was berthed alongside the Irwin’s dance hall. In December 1939, a fire broke out in the nearby train station, and quickly spread to the dance hall and the ship. “My dad and I were at Laconia High School, where my sister, Dottie, was performing in a play,” recalls Irwin. “It was just before Christmas. Someone came out on the stage and yelled, ‘Irwin, your dance hall is on fire!’ I was nine years old.”
Jim Irwin vowed that both the dance hall and the boat would be resurrected. “My dad knew there should be a boat like that on the lake, so he organized a group of investors to buy the Chateaugay, which was the original name of the big boat that’s still on Winnipesaukee,” says Jack, explaining how his father went to Lake George to purchase the used side-wheeler, which was made of steel and therefore wouldn’t burn. He had it cut into 21 pieces and brought down by rail. It was launched in 1939, and had one year on the water before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Washington’s engines were requisitioned for the war effort (they were later re-installed). Luckily, the boat business and dance hall endured.
In 1943, as the war was coming to an end, Jim Irwin approached the Boston Main Railroad with the idea of starting a Chris-Craft franchise. All the boats would come through their railroad in exchange for land in Laconia on which Jim would build a new boathouse—now the first-class marina and dealership still operating today.
“After the war, the Chris-Craft franchise really took off, and my dad sold a lot of boats on this lake,” says Jack, noting that the marina was still offering speedboat rides and also introduced Chris-Craft cruises for people who wanted a slower experience.
The elder Irwin’s time as a young man among investors served him well, and his willingness to diversify kept him in step with the changing times. “My dad was a wonderful businessman,” says Jack with obvious pride. “He went to school until the sixth grade, when he had to quit and go to work. He wound up in the financial district in Boston. That’s where he picked up all the knowledge about running a business.”
Alongside two older brothers, Jack grew up in the boat business, which he and his brother, Jim Jr., ran, in addition to the dance hall, for decades. In time, they sold the hall, which has since become an arcade. Today, the family owns and operates several marinas, with locations in Paugus Bay, Nashua, Laconia, Hudson, and Alton Bay. And a third generation is now at the helm in the form of Jack’s son, Bill.
But that’s not to say Jack is done with the boating business. “I still go down to the showroom on Saturdays and Sundays,” muses Jack. “It’s amazing how many people come in—the fathers and mothers of young people who are buying boats—who love to talk and look at the old photos.” Clearly, he loves it, too.