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A Quick History of the Isles of Shoals

400 Years Brief History (continued)

Hotels & Poetry  

Celia / SeacoastNH.comPoet Celia Thaxter was just a child when her father Thomas Laighton left a busy life in Portsmouth and accepted the two-year government post of lighthouse keeper at White Island in 1839. Her memories in books like "Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) made her one of a handful of female writers known throughout the country.

Crude guest houses evolved on Star and Smuttynose prior to the Civil War. In 1847 Celia’s father had the ingenious notion of building a grand hotel on Appledore which he owned. With $2,000 backing from a city visitor named Levi Thaxter, the hotel was begun. Thaxter, aged 21, became tutor to 12-year old Celia whom he married four years later. Celia’s literary skills and Thaxter’s Boston family connections provided the ideal public relations tool, drawing the cream of big city society to the isolated hotel. Among the best known visitors were writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Henry Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Greenleaf Whittier, painter Childe Hassam and NH-born President Franklin Pierce.

Their success brought competition. In 1873 the rival Oceanic Hotel, was built nearby on Star Island, dominating the former fishing village. With the two major islands adapted to tourism, the town of Gosport held its last town meeting and one of America’s longest surviving fishing communities faded from history. That same year, Smuttynose, the long narrow island adjacent to Star and Appledore attracted national media attention when two young women were brutally murdered there by itinerant fisherman Louis Wagner. A fictionalized version of that event was adapted into the novel "The Weight of Water".

As her parents aged, Celia’s brother Oscar and Cecil took over management of the Appledore and eventually of the hotel at Star. The Laighton Brothers were never financially successful, but managed to keep the hotels running. The pastoral blend of Celia’s island garden and salon drew the toast of Boston arts. They in turn attracted a steady clientele who came for the summer air, abundant good food and scenic beauty. Although separated from Levi and raising three children, Celia Thaxter continued to draw visitors with fanciful tales of  ghosts, shipwrecks and Blackbeard’s lost pirate treasure.

Bathing at Appledore at the Isles of Shoals /




The Isles Today 

The "modern" Isles of Shoals is largely unchanged from the Isles of 1897 when the "conference" era began. Back then a Unitarian minister agreed to hold his annual church meetings at the Isles to accommodate his wife’s discomfort with hot summers at inland New Hampshire. The summer meetings became so popular that, when the Appledore Hotel burned in 1914, the Unitarian group purchased the surviving Oceanic Hotel for $16,000.

The Star Island Corporation today still owns both islands today and -- except for "off limits" periods during two world wars -- has continued to operate the Oceanic as summer conferences retreat. Star Island has moved its headquarters to nearby Portsmouth and is slowly upgrading the facilities without changing the Victorian appeal. Celia Thaxter’s garden is maintained for limited visitation on Appledore, which now houses the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The unique "hands-on" summer educational program is run by Cornell University in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire nearby.

Smuttynose is owned by descendants of Celia Thaxter who have agreed never to develop the island. Once Church Island, the original 17th century fishing village, Smuttynose today has only two buildings – one dating to the Revolutionary War -- and thousands of seagulls. Visitors are welcomed in season for hiking.

Lunging has one private home. Cedar Island is still occupied by the longest surviving lobster fishing family. The lighthouse at White Island has recently been restored thanks to the fundraising efforts of middle school students and their teacher Sue Reynolds from the town of Rye who raised $250,000 to save the Victorian brick structure. Seavey Island, connected to White, sports a tern reclamation project and terns and seals dominate the rocky ledges of Duck Island. Passing by, or moored in Gosport Harbor, visiting boaters will find no neon lights, coffee shops or city boutiques. By day the Isles of Shoals is much the way Celia Thaxter remembered it. By moonlight it is as silent as an ancient fishing outpost from John Smith’s time.

By J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright © 1997 Updated 2006. All rights reserved.



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