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Fishing Adventures at the Isles of Shoals

Richard Henry Dana's Shoals Journal

More Shoaler adventures

During his visit a sudden northeaster whipped through the island community. Dana was stunned by the ferocity with which the storm lashed the tiny Isles, and then just as quickly dissolved. When the storm abated he hiked over the rocky shore to where Star Island meets Cedar Island.

"I never saw so large seas break on any shore before," Dana wrote. "They rushed over rocks of the height of forty or fifty feet, and sent their spray far higher into the air."


Dana was amazed when a group of Gosport boys brought a large Newfoundland dog right to the edge of a cliff. Then suddenly the dog jumped into the crushing surf. It foundered, nearly drowned, and then struggled onto a flat slippery rock. The dog, however, "wished to go off again" and the boys had to restrain it from leaping back into the pounding ocean surf. Years later a woman who worked at the hotel was washed off the same rocks. A week passed before her body was discovered in York, Maine.

When Mr. Cheevers new sailboat swamped in the storm, Dana and Caswell tried to gather a crew of Shoalers to help, but none would go. The seas were too risky they said, and besides, the lighthouse keeper was a federal employee. If he wanted help, he should contact the government.

Later that same day the Gosport fishermen went out in their small wooden boats to catch mackerel that had been stirred up by the storm. Ever the adventurer, Dana borrowed a boat from Caswell and went along. The steep waves turned the boats almost perpendicular in their wake, he wrote.

"The rollers were so high and so pitched the boats about that only a quick helm with a stiff breeze kept them from being capsized or swamped… My boat being small, we were pitched and tumbled about at such a rate that it completely confused me and made me dizzy and in a short time I felt seasick and vomited a little. Yet I kept at fishing and caught several mackerel."

Richard Henry Dana paid Joseph Caswell exactly $2.50 for the week’s meals and lodging at Gosport. The Caswell’s would not take a penny more, even for renting their boat. Dana convinced them to keep the fish he caught and secretly tipped their daughter 50 cents to spend the next time she visited the big city of Portsmouth. Dana went on to become a prominent lawyer, fought against slavery and for the rights of working men and women. He died while traveling in Rome in 1882.

We have few such colorful glimpses of Gosport life. There are often dull reports from as many as 30 missionaries who attempted to Christianize the fishing families. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, stayed a week at the Appledore House in 1853 and left an interesting journal. We have reliable reports from a few amateur historians who stopped by around the time of the Civil War.

And, of course, we have those clever anecdotes about the quirky Shoalers from writer Celia Thaxter and her brothers Oscar and Cedric. But the story stops dead in 1873 when a wealthy Boston investor bought up all but one of the lots on Star Island. He built the luxurious Oceanic Hotel far out to sea. A few years later, on the 14th of March, 1876, the uninhabited town of Gosport held one final symbolic meeting and disappeared into history.

KEY SOURCE: Gosport Remembered, edited by Peter Randall and Maryellen Burke, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1997.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is owner of the history Web site and his column appears here every other Monday. His latest history book for children is Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation.


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