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Fishing Adventures at the Isles of Shoals


Richard Henry Dana's Shoals Journal (continued)

Life on a Star

They arrived intact at Star Island, a barren rocky spit of land officially known then as the town of Gosport, NH. The cove was thick with discarded fish heads and bones and the ancient village reeked of rotting fish. "You won’t stay here more than a day or two," Capt. Jackson said, but Dana lasted a week. He was fascinated by the primitive lifestyle of roughly 100 villagers, most of whom lived in the 20 weather-beaten shacks that dotted the isolated spot six miles off the mainland.

Dana was not the first tourist at the Shoals. The Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment on Smuttynose Island may have opened as early as 1813, but was apparently closed that summer in 1843. The large Appledore Hotel would not be built until 1847 and the original Oceanic Hotel, predecessor to the white wooden structure that still dominates Star Island, did not appear until 1873. Dana lodged with "Old Joe" and "Aunt Sally" Caswell and was pleased with their rustic accommodations.

The Caswells were considered the wealthiest and most refined family among the impoverished inhabitants of Gosport. The Shoals fishing industry began in the early 1600s and peaked before the Revolutionary War when all but a couple dozen hard-bitten Gosportians moved to the mainland. What Dana encountered was the wreckage of a once populous civilization, a tribe in decline. The last of the villagers are often depicted as lawless, godless inbred and perpetually drunk, but the early 1840s marked an era of sobriety in town. Most Shoalers had taken the "abstinence pledge" to avoid liquor. Most attended Sunday services in Gosport Chapel. On weekends, Dana reports, the fisherman cleaned out their boats, put on fresh clothes, and took their families sailing – one of the few pleasures available to them.

Gosport_Remembered_01

A chance encounter

In fact, the greatest danger to the Shoalers at this moment was a newcomer named Thomas Laighton. A discouraged politician and newspaper editor, Laighton abandoned life ashore to become the keeper of White Island lighthouse in 1839. By 1843 Laighton had purchased Smuttynose and Hog (Appledore) islands and locals feared that his plan was to sell hard liquor to the fisherman across Gosport Harbor. Instead, he built the Appledore Hotel that attracted thousands of Boston-area tourists annually to the gorgeous scenery, fresh air and hearty meals on Appledore.

On Friday, August 18, 1843 Dana went sailing with Joseph Cheever, Laighton’s brother-in-law, who was then managing the lighthouse with his wife and three children. Dana and Cheever landed in the sheltered cove on Smuttynose Island. History has left us only snippets about the craggy character named Thomas Laighton whose influence turned the Shoals into a tourist Mecca. No clear photograph has been located. His sons Oscar and Cedric eventually ran the Appledore Hotel and the Oceanic, while his daughter poet Celia Laighton Thaxter made the Isles of Shoals famous with her romantic writing. Celia was just eight years old when Dana met her father brooding on Smuttynose.

"He was seated on the pier, dressed in the roughest manner, with a coarse, dirty handkerchief about his neck, chewing tobacco, and whittling a stick with a jackknife," Dana recorded in his journal.

Initially Laighton spoke only in "unintelligible" grunts, but the charming young Harvard lawyer was determined to draw him out. As their conversation blossomed, he discovered a man frustrated by the cut-throat partisan politics of his era. Every republic in history had been a failure, Laighton said, and he feared that the United States would soon tear itself to pieces with political wrangling.

"I found that he had read a great deal, and was a sagacious man," Dana wrote, "but had strong prejudices and a dislike of established laws and orders, and of any persons who has positions other than his own."

CONTINUE 1843 Gosport Journal

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