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Rower Retraces Smuttynose Murder Route

Off to the races  

David Burke, a Portsmouth fisherman, testified in the 1873 murder trial that his dory was stolen at about 8 pm. Burke and his two sons knew Wagner. They had fished with him and he knew where they kept the dory. A clock smashed during the murders on Smuttynose puts the time of the attack at a few minutes after 1 a.m. the following morning.  So Wagner had as much as five hours to get to the Shoals. His robberty was interrupted by a barking dog and by Karen Christensen, who was sleeping in the kitchen of her sister's house as Wagner entered.  

Dan left early on a Friday morning. catching a swift outgoing tide similar to the one that Wagner experienced 140 years ago. Half a dozen of us followed him along with Jersey Girl acting as our "chase" boat. We brought sandwiches, drinks, cameras, and rain gear. Dan took only a compass and a quart of Gatorade.  The minute Dan's wooden boat hit the swirling river he was out of sight.

"Where the hell did he go?" Dave asked, scanning the horizon.

By the time we caught up  with Dan, the lone rower was "in the zone," pulling rhythmically on the oars, feathering them parallel to the surface of the water with each stroke, then digging back into the salty Piscataqua.  

Following Wagner's likely route, Dan stuck to the New Hampshire side of the river where the outgoing tide carried him quickly toward the sea. He passed Whaleback Light and was at the fort by Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle before anyone thought to check a watch.

"Almost three miles in 30 minutes!" Dave called out to Dan. "You're a rock star!"

 Replica Piscataqua wherry build at Strawbery Banke Museum in the 1970s -- J. Dennis Robinson photo

 Time to kill  

At the mouth of the Piscataqua Dan's colorful dory seemed to shrink as the sea opened up and took over the horizon. The rush of the tide diminished, and yet, Dan reported, he could feel the underwater currents still urging him toward the Isles of Shoals for miles. Wagner would have passed the same two lighthouses in 1873, and then been drawn by the night beacon of White Island Light. A small weeping leak forced Dan O'Reilly to pause and bail a little water, then he rowed on like a small mechanical toy in the distance. Before we knew it, the islands grew larger and the 75-year old rower glided between Appledore Island in Maine and Lunging Island in New Hampshire.

Entering Gosport Harbor, Dan curved to the left and slid between Malaga and Smuttynose into the only natural cove at the Shoals. Then he circled back to the Jersey Girl for a victory lap.

"Two hours and 14 minutes!" Dave shouted. "You did it with time to kill."

 Dan wasn't even sweating. We all paddled into Smuttynose Cove and I gave a quick tour of the murder site.  Then we pulled Dan's flat-bottomed boat onto the deck of the Jersey Girl and motored home. We were back at the Commercial Wharf by noon.  

 "Your worst day on the water's better than any day on land," Dave said as we parted.

Lots of people row to the Shoals these days in sleek fiberglass kayaks and plastic ocean-going shells. It can still be a dangerous trip if you don't know the weather and the sea. But you won't see many 19th century wooden dories making the trip these days. Dan proved my point. He wasn't driven to Smuttynose by adrenalin and greed. Dan was just taking it nice and easy.

"I wanted to tell Dave I wasn't ready for this," Dan O'Reilly confessed to me on the phone two weeks later. Turns out he was suffering from a bad case of strep throat that morning. He should have been home in bed.

"But when I heard you were all coming to watch, well, I felt like I ought to go do it," Dan said.

If he had not been sick, and if he did not have to pause to bail a leaking boat,  Dan says, he's certain he could row the distance again in under two hours. Thanks, Dan. I rest my case.


Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores He is also a Smuttynose Island steward.


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