Notchland and Samuel Bemis
By Rick Russack
By the time Samuel Bemis died in May of 1881, he owned nearly 6,000 acres in Hart's Location. His most visible, and lasting legacy, is Notchland, the granite mansion he designed and built, using granite quarried on his own land along the Sawyer River. His contributions to the development of Hart's Location and Crawford Notch were many. He would eventually own Abel Crawford's Mount Crawford Tavern, he allowed the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad to build their railroad through Crawford Notch on his land for one dollar, he was a progressive farmer who won awards for his apples and produce, he owned a sawmill, he gave his name to Mt. Bemis, he named other landmarks for friends, most notably Frankenstein Cliffs for the artist Godfrey Frankenstein, and he will always be remembered as perhaps the first landscape photographer in this country.
A post card showing the Granite Mansion, c.1910
Samuel Bemis was born in Putney, Vermont in June, 1793. His parents were not married, and his father, also named Samuel, eventually made a cash settlement with young Samuel's mother, Hazadiah McWain. (By the time young Samuel was born, his father had married and divorced three times.) Young Samuel learned clock and watch making from his father.
Samuel moved to Boston, in 1812, and found work as a clockmaker. Bemis was of a mechanical and inventive mind. He made a surveying instrument, designed a "painless" tooth extraction tool for a dentist friend, and substantially improved upon the false teeth of the day. His friendship with the dentist, Dr. Z.B. Adams, eventually resulted in Bemis giving up the clock and watchmaking trade and he became a dentist in early 1822. His patients included several of the leading citizens of Boston, including artists and scientists. Most importantly, he made his first trip to the White Mountain in 1833, staying at Ethan Allen Crawford's Old Moosehead Tavern.
Bemis visited the White Mountains every year thereafter, with Abel Crawford's Mt. Crawford Tavern becoming his destination after 1836. As time went on, Bemis frequently loaned money to Crawford, and Crawford's son-in-law, Nathaniel Davis, taking a mortgage on their Mt. Crawford Tavern in return. Abel Crawford died in 1851 and Davis took over running the tavern. By 1855, Davis's health and financial condition had deteriorated to the point where he could not continue running the tavern and he asked Bemis to foreclose on the mortgages, which he did. It was a friendly transaction; Bemis and the Crawford and Davis families remained friends.
Bemis was one of the first, if not THE first, American landscape photographer. On April 15, 1840 he purchased one of the first daguerreotype cameras sold in this country and immediately began to experiment with the new process, taking his first image just four days later. He took his first photograph in the White Mountains in June of that year and continued creating photographs in the area until 1843. Roughly half of his surviving daguerreotypes are in the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY with the others are in public and private collections.
Bemis daguerreotype of Abel Crawford's Inn and the Saco
River, c. 1841 from the Greg French Collection.
(Daguerrian images are laterally reversed.)
In addition to being remembered for his photography, he will long be remembered as the builder of the amazing granite mansion, Notchland, in Hart's Location. He designed the building and supervised its construction in the 1860s. It took about a decade to build and he was finally able to move in on Christmas Eve, 1870. The mansion, as Dr. Bemis called it, is entirely of stone. Even the posts in the basement are cut granite and the fireplace is supported on granite lintels supported by granite posts. The sills are granite. Bemis quarried the granite on his own land, from a quarry along the Sawyer River. It's in the woods today, but the evidence of the work done there is clear.
The Bemis Quarry along the Sawyer River
Bemis was a man who kept detailed records of his activities and there are many bills and invoices relating to building his mansion. His files include the names of the workmen who did the stone work and how much they were paid. The files contain invoices for the building supplies he purchased: paint, doors, windows, nails, tools and more.
A full telling of the Samuel Bemis story could fill a book. In addition to watchmaker, dentist, and daguerreotypist, his list of accomplishments is long. He was an inquiring scientist and his letters show that he contributed specimens to scientific associations. He helped the state geologist gather information. He was very interested in farming and his crops won awards in Boston. He took over the 700 tree apple orchard started by Abel Crawford in the 1820s. (An 1828 travel guide refers to Crawford's 700 apple trees.) He explored and fished extensively in the area and experimented with stocking trout in the Lakes of The Clouds on Mt. Washington in 1838. He was a friend of Godfrey Frankenstein, prominent painter of the White Mountain School of Art. Bemis named the Frankenstein Cliff after his friend. A Frankenstein portrait of Bemis hangs in Notchland today. Bemis was an investor in several railroads and cooperated with the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad when they were building their railroad through Crawford Notch. He gave them a right-of-way over his land and allowing the construction crews to live in the old Mt. Crawford Tavern.
Samuel Bemis died a wealthy man in 1881. He owned his mansion and several thousand acres in Crawford Notch. He never married and left all his property to George Morey, his long-time friend, caretaker, and manager of his farm. Dr. Bemis is buried in a small cemetery behind his home.
Morey's daughter-in-law, Florence, eventually become the owner of the property. She operated the house as The Inn Unique, a small hotel. After her death, it was vacant for several years, and is now, once again known as Notchland, and open to the public as a Bed and Breakfast Inn and restaurant.
Bemis daguerreotype of Thomas Crawford's Notch House,
c.1840 from W. Bruce Lundberg Collection
Another Bemis daguerreotype, showing Abel Crawford's Tavern
can be seen at the George Eastman House website.
The biographical information on this page is excerpted from an excellent article by Robert W. Bermudes, Jr. published in the 2006 edition of the Daguerreian Journal. The author spent several years researching the Bemis story and had access to a privately owned collection of Bemis papers. The article has a great deal of information and several more illustrations.
Click here for photos of Samuel Bemis and Notchland