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The Brief Life of the 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 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.




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