Written by J. Dennis Robinson
When is a monument not a monument? When it’s in grave shape. That is currently the status of the John Smith Monument on Star Island at the Isles of Shoals. It is weathered, ruined, broken and covered in seagull droppings. Even the organization that repairs it has grown too old to function. But still, deep inside, a tiny pulse beats.
SEE HISTORIC PHOTOS of the 1864 monument
The sorriest sight on the Isles of Shoals is a monument to Captain John Smith. It cowers on the southern point of Star Island, patched and cracked and thick with chalky white gull guano. If Smith was half the man he claimed in his thrilling autobiography, the poor guy deserves better. This is, after all, a monument to the explorer who gave "New England" its name, a man more responsible for us being here than Columbus. Without Smith, an 18th century Shoals historian wrote, we would likely be living today in "New France".
Where It Is
To pay homage to Captain Smith, one must charter a boat to Star Island and trek to the far side beyond the Oceanic Hotel. It takes just 10 minutes across the sweeping stone surface. Except for a few pitiful shrubs, this island was barren rocks from Smith's time until the middle of the 20th century. Today, in summer, the rocks are thick with knee-high poison ivy and dotted with fuzzy, gray baby gulls, all but camouflaged against the white-streaked stone. As you walk, adult seagulls swoop up behind, screeching and dive-bombing trespassers. Veteran "Shoalers" know to carry a long stick held high above their heads to create a decoy target.
Typically visitors mistake the towering granite obelisk at the back of the island for the Smith monument. It isn't. That one was built in 1914 in honor of Rev. John Tucke who preached to the wayward drunken Shoalers through much of the 1700s. For his efforts, he became the wealthiest clergyman around, paid by his subjects in "quintals of fish".
Smith's monument is just up a low rise along an all-but-invisible path with the panoramic view of White Island lighthouse to the right and Cedar to the left. The setting is spectacular. Northward the open ocean foams against the ragged shore. To the South, the curiously beautiful array of Star Island structures, little stone cottages and the Gosport Chapel hunker against the white wooden wall of Victorian buildings that make up the Oceanic Hotel complex. The view and the hotel are all but unchanged since the late 1870s when the tourism industry first flourished here and at Celia Thaxter's Appledore Hotel nearby.
How It Got There
The Smith monument was one of the island's first manufactured tourist attractions. The original monument was a tall pillar set on a triangular base atop a series of steps surrounded by granite supports and a sturdy iron railing. Built in 1864 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of John Smith's visit, the memorial once projected a quiet dignity. It was built near a stone cairn that, legend says, Smith himself constructed. Not likely, but the story read well in 19th century guide books. At the top of the original obelisk were three carved faces, representing the severed heads of three Turks that Smith lopped off while in mortal combat during his stint as a soldier of fortune in Transylvania. Beheadings, for those new to terrorism, were committed by both sides in the Crusades.
Unlike his cutesy portrayal in the Disney cartoon "Pocahontas", Captain John Smith was a real Rambo -- inventive, contemplative, adventurous, romantic but ready to hack, shoot or bludgeon when provoked. It may seem odd to us that the monument was built by two local ministers, but since Smith only diced up infidels and heathens, his deeds were socially acceptable to a Victorian-era clergy. Rev George Beebe of Star Island, whose children are buried nearby, conceived the idea for the memorial. Rev. Daniel Austin of Portsmouth helped pay the tab.
How It Fell Apart
Situated on the harshest bit of real estate in the region, the Smith monument weathered quickly and badly. Only a few years after its dedication an old stereopticon photo shows just one of the three carved heads clinging by a twisted wire. Then the large pillar came crashing down in a fierce ice storm. By the beginning of the 20th century souvenir postcards already pictured it as the "ruin" of the Smith Monument.
A club called the New Hampshire Society of Colonial Wars came to Smith's rescue in the nick of time for the 300th anniversary celebration of his historic visit. In 1914 the volunteer history group capped off the wounded monument, cemented over the cracks and added a granite pedestal. Because the lengthy inscriptions on the original marble pillar had long ago washed away, they added a new bronze plaque. The minute they departed, Nature resumed her attack with salt, sun, ice, water, wind and seagull droppings. Today the Smith monument has never looked worse.
In 1919 the Star Island Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts officially purchased Star for use as a religious retreat along with Appledore island. Except during World War II, day trippers and summer conferees have continued to visit Star Island. Through much of the 20th century it was unclear exactly who owned Smith's moldering monument.
Through its first seven editions the Shoals touring bible, "Ten Miles Out", informed visitors that Smith's Monument is the only spot on Star Island not owned by the Star Island Corporation. Oops! The venerable guidebook got it wrong. A quick deed search proves that the giant Tuck Monument and the land around it is owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society which maintains the Tuck obelisk, but not the Smith site.
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