Among the Isles of Shoals Again
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Boat off Appledore by J. Dennis Robinson/

In 1873 Celia Thaxter published her famous prose appreciation of the nine Isles of Shoals. Her work is still widely read today. Although her own Appledore hotel and octtage are gone, Celia would certainly recognize ber beloved island that reamin, despite change, much as they were in the 1800s.




MORE on the Shoals and Celia Thaxter

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."
-- Alphonse Karr, French journalist and novelist

The Isles of Shoals are drifting. You cannot see the difference from the mainland, or from the railing of your tour boat as it circles the nine, flat, stony islands split between New Hampshire and Maine. But like other long-time Shoalers, I can feel the movement. These tiny islands are drifting, not through space, but through time. Very slowly, like a distant rolling fog, they are gliding into the 21st century.

Appledore Conference room (c) SecoastNh.comOn Smuttynose Island, for example, the caretakers now have a gas-powered refrigerator. That one appliance is a revolution. Each summer my wife Maryellen and I serve as stewards there for a week. Although the island is littered in ancient stone foundations, only two buildings survive -- the spare one-room cottage of the late Rosamund Thaxter, granddaughter of island poet Celia Thaxter, and the two-room 1770-era Haley cape that squats above the entrance to the cove like a sumo wrestler.

There has never been electricity or insulation or plumbing on the island. The well went brackish decades ago. Most days we take a battered aluminum rowboat across Gosport Harbor to draw water into a five-gallon plastic jug. If the wind is right, the trip to Star Island takes only half an hour. Until recently we had to drink luke-warm soda. Last year, for the first time since man first stepped on the islands here -- we made ice cubes.

That may not seem like progress to you, but it was cause for much discussion among the small cluster of Smuttynose Stewards who watch over the island for the owners, do chores and give tours to passersby. The last five years have already brought solar-powered night-lights leading to the chemical composting outhouse. We now communicate with Star Island using a walkie-talkie-like device and have begun replacing the standard oil lamps with battery-powered replicas. I mow the lawn and whack five-foot nettles with gas-powered tools.

Researchers on white Island (c) J. Dennis Robinson /

But I want to show you how much the other islands here are changing. You have to look carefully. There is no news, admittedly, on Malaga that lies like a wounded whale across the Smuttynose Cove. Records show there was a house there once, built in the mid-1600s, but at least since the invention of photography it has been uninhabited. Duck Island too is for the birds. For years it has been a resting point for migrating birds, while a population of fat seals lounge on what has always been a chunk of wave-lashed rock, unfit for human beings.

Three of the islands still elude me. I have never set foot on Duck, which was used as a bombing target during World War II. I have never been on Cedar Island, which like all the islands, is privately owned. I did go treasure-hunting once on Lunging Island. "Honeymoon Cottage", the only house there, has long been owned by Prudy Randall and her son Ray. I have never been on Seavey, that is visibly connected at low tide to White Island. Poet Celia Thaxter, who spent her childhood in the keeper's home at the base of the lighthouse, used to graze her cow on Seavey. There is grass there, as on most of the islands. It is not deep, but often so thick that the earth can be burned for fuel like peat. Seavey is also a bird sanctuary where the only human visitors are trained ornithologists. The Audubon Society an wildlife groups are running a tern reclamation program there, giving these amicable birds a fair shot against their more aggressive gull cousins. 

But on nearby White Island big changes are afoot. The brick 1859 lighthouse there is no longer crumbling. One great wave might have spelled disaster. But those local champions, the seventh graders from North Hampton known as the Lighthouse Kids, forced the state of New Hampshire into action. The kids are raising the last of their $250,000 share. The state is matching it with federal funds. It’s one hell of a story.

White is a hard island to love. There is no natural approach. Even on a calm day rocks protrude from the landing site like dinosaur eggs slick with seaweed and treacherous to boats and people. I was there two years back with a group of engineers who were puzzling out ways to build a floating dock, the first step to repairing the lighthouse itself, the only offshore lighthouse in the Granite State.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne visited White in 1852 he found a sad and drunken keeper, a man barely able to raise a pitiful crop of onions in the salty soil, a man whose wife had gone half mad on the isolated island. I found a team of slightly crazed young scientists who had learned to stop talking every few minutes to accommodate the ear-splitting fog horn blast that sounds day and night. They lived in the ramshackle house abandoned by the keepers and US Coast Guard since the lighthouse was automated. The giant diesel generators in the concrete bunker behind the house lay rusting. The roof had blown off. The keeper’s house was barred and patched and wounded and leaking, but the living room was alive with computers and cables and modems. Now the lighthouse keeper’s house too is being restored. Things change at the Shoals, like I said, but you can’t see them from the mainland.

Appledore and Star and White islands are now on the Internet. During a Nor'easter last May, I was receiving photographs of giant waves exploding over the breakwater that links Star with Cedar and Cedar with Smuttynose. No one walks there even on good days for fear of being carried away by a rogue wave. When construction of a stairway in the Oceanic Hotel turned up artifacts from the 1880s, I saw the digital pictures moments later, emailed by an island summer resident. There was an old shoe, newspapers, a broken pitcher filled with nails, an ancient can of peaches. Shoalers, once out of touch with the planet, have become citizens of the world.

View from Appledore (c) J. Dennis Robinson /

It was very big news two years ago when, for the first time in a century and a half, the daily ferry stopped running from Portsmouth to Star Island. But we adapted. Star and Appledore chartered their own boats. A host of smaller craft led by the Uncle Oscar, a converted fishing boat out of Rye Harbor, now get us there faster by day. The Star Island dock, once closed to private boats, now welcomes visitors. You can take an evening sailboat from Portsmouth, a fishing boat from Rye Harbor or a whale-watch ship from Newburyport, dine among the Shoalers, and be home in time for the evening news.

To the untrained eye, the rambling wooden Oceanic Hotel is as rustic as ever. There is still no spa or big screen TV. Guests wash Victorian-style in their rooms in a bowl with a pitcher of hot water. They shower once or twice a week in rainwater collected in a giant cistern. They eat cafeteria style, sitting at long tables. It ain’t the Ritz, but the traditional atmosphere brings thousands of dedicated summer Shoalers. Many arrive as children and return for life. In the evening they play cards, sing songs and dance on the wide veranda. As the sun goes down, as always, visitors walk up the gravel slope to the Gosport Chapel for a nondenominational service. No one speaks. There is only the hoot of gulls, the wind and the sound of shoes on stone. From across the harbor at Smuttynose, it looks like a parade of fireflies. You can set your watch by it.

Appledore, meanwhile, is the most modern island of all -- and the most confusing to many. This is where the first giant hotel once stood. Thomas Laighton, Celia's father, built the Appledore Hotel here in 1847 after 10 years as the lighthouse keeper on White. He had tried raising sheep while running a tiny hotel on Smuttynose. The tourist business really caught on after the Civil War and eventually the Appledore and the Oceanic could each accommodate up to 400 guests. They were never truly luxurious, but the food was good and plentiful, and the air was fresh and the sunsets were spectacular. There was good company too; a talented salon of top Boston writers and painters and musicians flitted around firelight and wandered the craggy Appledore shoreline.

Celia Thaxter died in 1894 and the Appledore Hotel disappeared two decades later in a great fire that was visible from three states. The island languished until John Kingsbury, a University of New Hampshire professor, helped transform it into an education center. Now managed with Cornell University, the Shoals Marine Lab is among the nation’s best marine biology centers with hands-on training for both students and adults. There are modern labs tucked among the rocks and poison ivy. Students learn by doing and the ocean is their teacher.

We’ll be back at Appledore in June to talk about history. We meet in a laboratory surrounded by macabre skeletons. We eat in the dining hall with the bones of a whale hovering overhead. We wander around the almost invisible carcass of the once grand Victorian resort. We drink in the scent of the flowers in Celia Thaxter's famous garden, still maintained in her memory by dedicated volunteers. We zip among the islands in a rubber boat to visit ancient sites.

Things change each year at the Shoals, but only the Shoalers can tell. With any luck, your grandchildren's children will see a very similar Isles of Shoals. They may take a hovercraft. They may travel by antimatter subway. But they will see only what old Shoalers already know by heart -- rocks and surf and gulls and that unchanging flat horizon that never looks the same.

Text and photos copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

Artist on star Island near  Vaughan Reading Room (c) J. Dennis Robinson /