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The Brief Life of the First 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  

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