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The Forgotten Founders of Hotel Wentworth

Charles Campbell, Original owner of Wentworth by the Sea (c)

The grand 1874 hotel began as a family affair, but blood and money made a risky cocktail. Although the Wentworth owes its success to ale tycoon Frank Jones, it was originally conceived by a couple from New Castle, NH. Their experiment failed quickly, but the Campbell family remained connected to the hotel just above their island home for 30 years.




READ: 1874  article on hotel opening with rarely seen pictures

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We almost lost Wentworth by the Sea. Closed and in ruins for over 20 years, the historic luxury hotel is now renovated and back in business. Seacoast New Hampshire’s most famous hotel first opened in 1874 and, many believe, was conceived and built by Portsmouth tycoon Frank Jones. But the Wentworth really began as a family affair, the grand and fleeting dream of a couple from New Castle, New Hampshire. It’s a story rarely told, until now.

The Campbell family on Campbell Island in New Castle with their lost Wentworth Hotel in the background (c) Courtesy Campbell Family.Charles and Sarah Campbell were a hospitable pair who worked at a number of seacoast hotels, including the Appledore at the Isles of Shoals. By the mid-1800s they had settled comfortably into running their own summer tourist cottage on "Campbell Island" a spit of land in Little Harbor just below the Wentworth. Sarah’s family owned a portion of the 70-foot tree-covered bluff on the western side of New Castle. The tourist trade began to boom following the Civil War and the prominent site in New Castle, a large island and New Hampshire smallest town, offered breathtaking views and fresh, cool ocean breezes. It was the perfect spot for a grand hotel.

Rare photographs recently unearthed by Campbell family descendants show a sophisticated Sarah Campbell in her fashionable dark fur wrap and hat, clearly a woman of means. Another 1870s-era family photo, though unlabelled, is most likely her husband Charles E. Campbell, a handsome wide-eyed man with a handlebar mustache. A third photo shows Campbell Cottage, the "older sister", so to speak, of the Wentworth itself.

We don't know when Sarah and Charles first decided to build a new hotel on the rocky bluff. Perhaps they read an article in an 1866 Portsmouth newspaper urging residents of New Castle to cash-in on the new tourism craze. New Castle was ideal for a hotel, the newspaper said, because it had few bugs, an expansive view of three states and was close enough to Portsmouth for the ladies to go shopping. Victorian train lines allowed Boston visitors to reach the Portsmouth railroad depot in little more time than one can drive the distance today. Then it was only a four-mile carriage ride across two toll bridges to the New Castle resort.




Sarah Campbell and probably Charles Campbell (c), courtesy Campbell Family

It all really began in 1803 when Allen Porter, a tailor working at Fort Constitution in New Castle married Margaret Gibbs Appleton Maloon, The couple settled into a house near the fort on the west side of Wentworth Road where they also ran a little store. It was their daughter Sarah and her husband Charles Ellsworth Campbell, a local man, who first owned and managed the hotel.

But the Porter’s land and the Campbell’s hotel experience wasn’t enough to expand their cottage industry. They needed money, at least $50,000 to build the original Wentworth. Details are still fuzzy, but it is safe to speculate that Sarah and Charles met their investor, Daniel E. Chase, when he stayed at their summer cottage. The name "Ned Chase" appears in a surviving leather-bound guest book from Campbell Cottage. The Chases, one local historian says, were related to Sarah’s side of the family. But mixing blood and money was a risky cocktail.

Campbell Family Cottage, New CAstle (c) from Campbell Family

Born in Warner, NH, Daniel Chase had become a wealthy rum distiller in Massachusetts. The Campbells’ wealthy relative agreed to back the project – and why not? Rooms on the seacoast were so hard to come by in summer, according to a Portsmouth newspaper report, that tourists were lucky to find a place to sleep on a hotel veranda or under a pool table. The Sagamore Hotel had just opened across the bay in Rye at Odiorne Point, although it burned four years later and has long been forgotten. Wooden hotels were popping up at the beaches in Hampton and Rye and in nearby York, Kittery and Ogunquit, Maine.

It is fair to speculate that Charles Campbell proposed his idea for a grand hotel to Chase -- or vice versa -- on a perfect summer afternoon in New Castle. Both men were loyal masons and the two "brothers" may have hiked up from Campbell Cottage to the top of the bluff to catch a spectacular sunset. Perhaps they climbed a tree to glimpse the now famous view from the Wentworth window. If they didn’t build a hotel there, they knew, someone else would.




Another family member, Dr. Amory Jewett, Jr., may have played a part. Jewett had married one of Sarah Campbell’s sisters. When she died, he promptly married another. The doctor had fallen on hard times when, after curing a small town of smallpox, he contracted the disease himself. When rural folk in Massachusetts then refused to be treated by "the smallpox doctor", Jewett needed a new career. Using money inherited from his grandmother, he invested his savings into the Wentworth Hotel and, for a short time, served as a manager with his brother-in-law Charles.

Rare photo of the exterior of the original Wentworth Hotel in New Castle, NH (c) from Campbell family archives"Land is changing hands at this seaside resort," the Portsmouth Journal reported in March of 1874, "and ere long the town will be renowned for its summer residences."

Erastus Mansfield, a Massachusetts builder and another relative of Chase, apparently designed the original boxy "L-shaped" hotel. The 82-room hotel was a success, but Daniel Chase was over-extended in a tough recession era. A bankruptcy report dated June 8,1877 shows Chase was in debt to 95 creditors for a whopping $369,376.90. Among those owed money was builder Erastus Mansfield ($2,200) and Sarah Campbell of New Castle ($4,500) and Dr. Jewett ($2,700). The family business had gone bust.

Amazingly, Daniel Chase recovered from his debts, re-established his rum distillery, and died a wealthy man three decades later. His lengthy obituary makes no mention of the Wentworth Hotel fiasco. Dr. Amory Jewett later tried his hand as a pharmacist, then as a farmer, but never found much success. Charles and Sarah Campbell went back to running their nearby cottage. Charles, in an odd twist, became winter caretaker and night watchman of the hotel on the hill. He survived until 1908 and the job passed to his adopted son.

wbsbooklink.jpgFrank Jones bought the Wentworth in 1879. Over the next two decades Jones poured money into the property, making it among the most luxurious seaside resorts in New England. Jones added steam-powered elevators, electric lights, expansive golf links, tennis courts and docks for visiting yachts. It is his Wentworth Hotel, with its tall towers and sloped Italian roof, that survive today.

Before Jones’ died in 1902, he had expanded the posh hotel to 800 feet long. Through most of the 20th century the great white building dominated the western end of New Castle. In the 1980s and 90s a series of owners developed the hotel grounds into private luxury condominiums and razed portions of the ancient building. Each threatened to tear the whole structure down, but local preservationists prevailed. By the time the current owners, the Walsh family of Ocean Properties, saved the hotel, it had been cut back to its 1880-era size. Amazingly, embedded inside the modern structure, are the timbers of George and Sarah Campbell’s original dream hotel from 1874. Members of the Campbell family living in the region today have retained only memories, a few artifacts and photographs, and the right to say – our family built the Wentworth. 


J. Dennis Robinson’s complete history of Wentworth by the Sea is available online and at the renovated hotel in New Castle, NH. It is currently in its third printing. The book was published by Peter E. Randall, Publisher, commissioned by Ocean Properties and The Friends of the Wentworth, the nonprofit organization that saved the historic hotel from destruction. The photos in this article are used by permission of the Campbell family descendants with thanks from the author.



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