Going Ashore

When Robert Carter visited during his Summer Cruise in 1858, he noted "we went ashore to look at the curiosities of the isles, which are all of a melancholy and sinister nature." {Carter, p.129} And it is tempting to imagine the Shoals through a collection of macabre or tragic stories (For examples of shipwreck, murder, pirates, ghosts, see cultch).

But the larger story of the Isles of Shoals can be summed up in four words: fishing, hotels, conferences, laboratories. The center of activity has shifted from one island to another maybe a half-dozen times over the four centuries of English/American settlement. If there isn't a single, simple narrative for the islands, the development of these four primary historic businesses comes close.

Appledore

Appledore is the largest of the Isles, and its history in many ways is the most convoluted. First known as Hog Island, it held the greatest early population -- maybe several hundred inhabitants supported by fishing. About 1680 the residents of Hog decamped to Star Island, crossing state lines from Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) into New Hampshire. The common story that they moved to avoid Massachusetts taxes fits neatly into modern stereotypes.

When Thomas Laighton, a successful merchant and politician from Portsmouth, bought Hog, Smuttynose, Malaga and Cedar Islands the 1830s ". . .there was not a house on Appledore." {Laighton p. 19} He established a small fishing business on Appledore while serving as lighthouse keeper on White Island from 1839 to 1847. Appledore then entered the most prominent period of its history in 1848 when Laighton opened a hotel with 80 guest rooms -- and gave the island its melodious present name.

Appledore House thrived during the middle part of the 19th century. Thomas's daughter Celia Thaxter was a widely published poet and writer, and a vivid hostess, who helped attract to Appledore many of New England's leading figures. By 1900, however, all but one of the Laightons involved in managing Appledore House had died and the business was running at a loss. The island was being divided into lots for sale when the hotel and seven outlying cottages burned in 1914.

Appledore kept a low profile in the middle of the 20th century, until the joint Cornell/UNH Shoals Marine Laboratory arrived shortly after its founding in 1966.

Star Island

For most of its history since English settlement, Star was home to a little fishing village eventually named Gosport. When Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the Shoals in 1852 he observed of Star:

It is the most populous island of the group. . . The number of voters is variously represented as from eighteen to twenty-eight. The inhabitants are all, I presume, fishermen. Their houses stand in pretty close neighborhood to one another, scattered about without the slightest regularity or pretence of a street, there being no wheel-carriages on the island. Some of the houses are very comfortable two-story dwellings. I saw two or three, I think, with flowers. There are also one or two trees on the island. There is a strong odor of fishiness, and the little cove is full of mackerel-boats. . . {NH/AN}

By 1872, an entrepreneur from Massachusetts (named with ironic foreshadowing John Poor) bought up all the individual lots on Star and built the fairly opulent Oceanic Hotel. The original structure burned to the ground within two years of its opening, to be replaced by the hotel complex that remains in use today. The business quickly failed, however, and Mr. Poor sold Star Island and the Oceanic to the Laightons of Appledore in 1875.

In the 1890s, groups affiliated with the Unitarian Church started coming to the Oceanic for vacations and conferences. They eventually organized as the Star Island Corporation and bought the hotel along with the rest of the island in 1915. They continue to offer a wide range of family-friendly conferences on Star Island each summer from June through September.

Visiting sailors who want to explore Star can do so between 8am and sunset. There's room to tie a dinghy on the back side of the float and a box for a modest suggested donation at the landing. Trails fan out across the island. The hotel has a basic snack bar with pizza, hot dogs and the essential ice cream, but note that it's closed during meal times. Meals for conference attendees are served family-style in the hotel's dining room, and there is one table reserved for visitors. If you need a break from ship-board cooking and enjoy talking with other cruising sailors, it's a good option.

Smuttynose

Of all the Isles, Smuttynose best evokes the Shoals' early fishing days. Most of it is now undeveloped, but with old foundations and stone walls and graves throughout the island testifying to the extent of former activity. Over the years it's recorded as having a ropewalk, a saltworks, a hotel, a tavern, a brewery and a bowling alley.

The iconic (at least for fans of Shoals Pale Ale) Captain Samuel Haley house, an 18th century cape, looks out over the western end of the island. Land your dinghy underneath the house, in Haley's Harbor, formed by the breakwater between Malaga and Smuttynose. The house has been restored and may be open sporadically when an island caretaker is present. There are swimable tide pools for the kids by the harbor and paths leading to the interior beyond the houses..

In May and June, nesting gulls will make a very loud case that Smuttynose is entirely theirs.

White Island

The island's most prominent feature is the Isles of Shoals Light, now (like the island itself) owned by the State of New Hampshire.

Since the mid 1990s, White and attached Seavey's Island have been the site of a notably successful tern restoration project. Working now with Shoals Marine Lab, Dan and Melissa Hayward have over that time helped the terns grow from only 45 nesting pairs in 1998 to a relatively steady population of about 2500 pairs in each year since 2003 -- primarily by driving away predatory gulls.

It's possible to land your dinghy at the old Coast Guard ramp on White Island. But during the May - August nesting season the (friendly!) tern team will be as vigilant keeping you away from the ground-level nests with their vulnerable eggs and chicks as they would be with any seagull.

Cedar, Lunging and Duck Islands

Cedar and Lunging are privately owned. Duck was formerly used by the Navy for bombing tests, and it is now conserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust as a wildlife sanctuary.

wooden gate and stone wall
Geoff Rand
Wooden gate on Star Island.

One Hour Ashore

Smuttynose, both convenient and quiet, offers the best reward for a short visit. Star has more to see if you have more time.

Off the Beaten Path

During conference season on Star, the area around the wharf and hotel will be busy. But a quick hike to the other side of the island will get you to a rugged, rocky coastline that's likely to be deserted for large stretches.

Maritime History

John Smith's voyage along the New England coast in 1614 is regarded as the first record of the Isles of Shoals in English. He tried to name them after himself:

"Smyths Iles are a heape together, none neere them, against Accominticus."

Smith may have given the entire region its name, but his eponymous title for the Isles of Shoals never stuck. A copy of Smith's resulting map is here (pdf).

Rainy Day

For extended bad weather, the protected moorings and warm taverns in Portsmouth offer a pretty enticing alternative.

rose bushes and rocky harbor
Shoals Marine Laboratory
Celia Thaxter was a formidable poet in her era, but today she is most frequently remembered for An Island Garden, the intimate book (with delightful illustrations by Childe Hassam) that she wrote about her cultivation of flowers on Appledore. A version of the garden in it's original location has been recreated and maintained since the 1970s.
stone cottage and obelisk
Geoff Rand
View from the center of Star Island.
gravestone
Geoff Rand
Samuel Haley's repaired gravestone. Old transcriptions of his epitaph read:

In memory of
Mr. Samuel Haley
who died
Feb 7th, 1811
Aged 84
He was a man of great ingenuity
Industry, Honor, and Honesty, true to his
Country & a man who did A great
Publik good in Building A
Dock & Receiving into his
Enclosure many a poor
Distressed Seaman & Fisherman
In distress of Weather

{Rutledge, p. 49}

Facilities

  • Dinghy
  • Info
  • No trash

Dinghy landings are described in the text for each island.

There is a little guidebook to Smuttynose at the landing.

Otherwise there are no public facilities per se on the Isles, and access to the various buildings isn't reliable or predictable. Visiting sailors should plan to be self-sufficient and, as with any small island, take trash back to the mainland.