The Brief Life of the First Oceanic Hotel
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Oceanic Hotel 1873HISTORY MATTERS

The annual sailboat race to the Isles of Shoals is awash with history trivia. The original Gosport Regatta drew competitors from up and down the New England coast. After the race those yachtsmen celebrated at a grand new hotel called the Oceanic. It was the height of Victorian luxury, but it no longer exists. What's that you say? The Oceanic Hotel still stands on Star Island? Read on. (continued below) 

 

The First Tourists

 Native Americans were the first souvenir hunters at the Isles of Shoals. Recent archaeological digs prove that prehistoric visitors arrived at least 6,000 years ago. Then came countless hundreds, likely thousands, of European fishermen beginning in the 1620s. The town of Gosport, New Hampshire was established on Star Island in 1715.

Who built the first hotel on the islands ten miles out from Portsmouth Harbor? To be honest, we're not sure. But it looks like the Haley family began operating the Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment on Smuttynose Island as early as 1810. The Haleys sold four islands (Smuttynose, Cedar, Hog, and Malaga) to a cranky entrepreneur from Portsmouth named Thomas Laighton in 1839. Laighton re-opened the Mid-Ocean House, then built an enormous hotel of his own on Hog, which he wisely renamed Appledore Island. The Appledore Hotel opened in 1848, well ahead of the tourist boom. At its peak, Laighton's hotel could accommodate 500 guests.

Adventurous early travelers like writer William Leonard Gage had the option of staying among the fishing families of Star Island. Gage often lodged at the Gosport House on Star operated by Oregen Caswell and his wife Mary, whom he greatly admired. Caswell's brother Lemuel ran the Atlantic House nearby. Lawyer and writer Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, also stayed with the Caswells at Gosport, but found it less than appealing. "The whole island had a strong fishy smell," Dana later wrote, "and in going ashore we had to walk over a surface of fishes’ heads and bones, which the fishermen leave on the beach, just where they throw them.”

pitcher from the Oceanic Hotel

 

CONTINUE OCEANIC HOTEL 

Oceanic Hotel 1873-75 at the Isles of Shoals 

 

The very wealthy Mr. Poor  

In August 1872 a wealthy Boston businessman named John R. Poor stepped off the ferry at Appledore Island with his wife and daughter. Oscar Laighton, son of Thomas Laighton, recalled in his memoir that there were no vacancies to be had at any price that day. Guests were sleeping on the piazza and on billiard tables. But Mr. Poor was an important man from Massachusetts who insisted on spending the night. Oscar dutifully gave up his own room to accommodate Poor's family, while the owner of the world famous Stickney & Poor Spice Company slept on the sofa in the hotel's letter-writing room. This seemingly innocuous event would quickly lead to the birth of the Oceanic and the death of the town of Gosport.

According to Oscar's memoir Ninety Years at the Isles of Shoals, Mr. Poor was captivated by the burgeoning tourist business at the Appledore Hotel. Poor asked Oscar and his brother Cedric (Thomas Laighton had died in 1866) if he could purchase Smuttynose Island. Oscar and Cedric declined the offer, explaining that Smuttynose was then occupied by an immigrant fishing family from Norway.

 "Mr. Poor had been with us a few days," Oscar recalled, "when we discovered that he was secretly buying out the inhabitants of Star Island and the whole village of Gosport."   

Seeking to diversify, Poor was ready to invest a lot of cash into the burgeoning summer resort business. On Star Island, according to Rosamond Thaxter, Poor found that the impoverished fishing families were "a rather pitiable and worthless lot."  The Spice King did not do the dirty work himself.  Poor employed a go-between named Mr. Nathan F. Mathes of Portsmouth who gobbled up the deeds for all but two of the island properties. By September 1872, following a unanimous vote of the townspeople of Gosport, Mr. Mathes was given title to all the houses and land with the exception of two holdouts, fisherman John Bragg Downs and the Rev. George Beebe. 

The local paper soon revealed that Mathes was merely the front man and that the secret "Boston capitalist" behind him was the wealthy John R. Poor. And just as quickly, Poor's workers began to raze the fishermen's huts and renovate the more substantial buildings including the former Caswell houses for use as summer rentals.

Curiously, it was the same Mr. Mathes who then moved to the mainland and began buying up property in New Castle, NH. Mathes was working for another secret investor named Daniel E. Chase, a wealthy liquor distiller. Chase and Poor were both from Somerville, Massachusetts. Both were Masonic brothers and both served as aldermen in Somerville. Daniel Chase, it turns out, was a key investor in the Wentworth House, now Wentworth by the Sea Hotel,  that opened in 1874.  

 The rebuilt Oceanic 1875

The first Oceanic

Poor's workmen cleared a large footprint of land facing the ocean harbor on Star Island. Construction teams graded the rocky land and began to erect the enormous 265-foot Oceanic Hotel. Poor built 147 sleeping quarters for 300 guests featuring wide corridors, modern conveniences, a fine spacious dining room, a dance hall, and elegant fixtures. A large new stone pier outstripped anything seen at the Appledore Hotel. Then 25 years old, the Laighton's hotel suddenly looked battered and out of date compared to the high-tech Oceanic.

The Appledore had relied on the repeat business of hand-picked guests, mostly from the Boston area, who loved music, art, and literature. With money to burn, John Poor's marketing campaign targeted distant vacationers from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and beyond. The Oceanic promised metropolitan-style living on an island at sea.  

Due to legal issues with their corporate charter the Oceanic opened the week after the Fourth of July in 1873, yet it was an instant success. In the first month 1,098 guests signed the register, filling the hotel and many converted fishing cottages. The Oceanic boasted a modern kitchen, steam elevators, superior indoor plumbing, special baggage rooms for long-stay guests, a bowling alley, separate men's and ladies' billiard rooms, and the best ferry service on the east coast. Oceanic advertising promised perpetual ocean breezes that were not only healthy, but free of dust and mosquitoes. The thermometer, according to a visitor testimonial, was permanently "nailed at 70 degrees."

CONTINUE First Oceanic Hotel  
 

Oceanic Hotel and MV Thomas Laighton

Opening, closing, & reopening

In the summer of 1873 John Poor personally hosted a private charter and sumptuous banquet for members of the press corps. After coffee and cigars and many hearty toasts, the reporters were treated to a tour of the recent ax murder site on Smuttynose. Then they went cod fishing or yacht sailing. A grand "hop" with a live orchestra topped off the evening. In the spirit of friendship, Mr. Poor invited Appledore Hotel proprietor Oscar Laighton and 150 of his guests to dance the night away in the grand Oceanic ballroom.

That summer saw the arrival of a number of sleek racing yachts at the Shoals including the famous Fleetwing, reportedly worth $60,000. According to the Portsmouth Journal, local boat clubs were forming and racing in the region. John Poor cleverly enhanced his media blitz by contacting yacht clubs up and down the New England coast to authorize a race of his own. The result in 1874 was the first Gosport Regatta. More than 50 boats entered the 13-mile race from Star Island to Boon Island in Maine and back. The race was expanded and repeated in 1875 with a large solid silver punch bowl as the prize. The first official winner was the yacht America, for which the famous America's Cup race later took its name.

Oceanic Hotel circa 1873 / Portsmouth Athenaeum photo

But not everyone welcomed the Shoals new cosmopolitan image. A few mourned the loss of the ancient fishing village. According to Celia Thaxter biographer "Rozzie" Thaxter of Kittery, this new wave of city tourists left much to be desired. "So many noisy and objectionable people came to the new Oceanic Hotel,"  Thaxter wrote, "the more discriminating guests moved to the Appledore House where the atmosphere continued one of refinement and culture."

John Poor's hotel went up in smoke when it was struck by lightning at 3 a.m. on November 11, 1875.  Only two workmen were living in the building and they reportedly leapt from a window to safety. With no one to fight the fire, the wooden building was consumed within an hour. The Downs family, the only Gosport fishers left on Star Island, had to flee from their nearby house in their night clothes. They preserved only a featherbed and a gun. John Downs lost his barn too, but saved a cow and a hog.  Miraculously, no one was injured.

John Downs had an insurance policy and rebuilt his damaged home. John Poor, after a serious investigation, also received a hefty payment from his insurance company. The Oceanic was quickly rebuilt, but not in the same spot or with the same quality of design. Workmen built another main lobby and dining room, then adapted the three surviving small hotels formerly owned by the Caswell brothers. The old Atlantic and Gosport and Caswell Houses are part of the Oceanic Hotel complex today.

Oscar and Cedric Laighton purchased Star Island and the Oceanic from  John Poor in 1876 and ran both islands, but their success faded after the death of sister Celia in 1894.  By 1897 when hundreds of Unitarians held the first of many annual conferences in the Oceanic, the Laightons were in financial freefall. Cedric died in 1899 and the bank foreclosed on Oscar’s mortgage.

After years of summer conferences at the Isles, Boston-based Unitarians and Congregationalists formed the Star Island Corporation. In 1916, to prevent the bank from selling off the property to a commercial resort company, they took over the hotel and island. Now located in downtown Portsmouth, the Star Island Corporation runs a welcoming “vintage” hotel on a rocky island. The scene is hauntingly similar to the way it appeared when the second Oceanic opened in 1875.

 

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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS. Portions of this article will appear in his next book on the 1873 Smuttynose murders, now in progress.