June 22, 2020
The Isles of Shoals are just a short cruise from the mainland, but a visit to this rugged archipelago is like being transported to a different world—and time. By Malerie Yolen-Cohen; Photography by Scott Goodwin
The Isle of Shoals, some seven miles east of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, comprises seven chunks of sparsely vegetated granite that once served as Native American fishing camps before being inhabited by European fishermen, artists, college students, members of the Unitarian- Universalist Church—and at least one murderer. But more on that later.
First charted by English captain John Smith in 1614, the waters surrounding the Isles once offered superb fishing for Atlantic cod weighing up to 200 pounds, as well as haddock, halibut, hake, pollock, herring and mackerel. Indeed, the archipelago most likely got its name from the large schools—or “shoals”—of fish that Smith and early settlers found around the islands.
In the mid- to late 1800’s, hotels sprouted on Star and Appledore Islands. Poet Celia Thaxter grew up in her father’s lodging establishment, the 400-room Appledore Hotel, which was favored by “rusticators” from New York and Boston. American Impressionist Childe Hassam spent his summers on the Isles from 1884 to 1915, creating paintings that would draw even more people to this lonely outpost in the Atlantic.
With the advent of railroad service to remote inland destinations throughout New England and Upstate New York, the island hotels fell out of favor and went into decline. The Appledore Hotel burned to the ground in 1914, leaving the Oceanic as the last remaining hotel on the Isles.
‘ROUND THE ISLES
Today, the Isles of Shoals are shared by New Hampshire and Maine, with five belonging to the latter and four to the former. Appledore Island, distinguished by its seven-story World War II submarine-spotting tower, serves as an undergraduate marine science lab for both the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University, complete with student housing.
White Island features one of the two remaining lighthouses on the New Hampshire coast, and, along with Seavey Island, is home to over 2,500 nesting pairs of common, roseate and Arctic terns—one of the largest tern colonies in the Gulf of Maine and the only breeding site for these birds in New Hampshire.
Privately owned Lunging Island was once known as “Londoner’s Island” when it was first established as a fishing and trading post sometime between 1615 and 1620. Cedar Island, meanwhile, is still owned by seventh- generation lobstermen.
MURDER MOST FOUL
The two best-known Isles are Smuttynose and Star. The former, connected to tiny Malaga Island by a breakwater, was the site of a sensational double murder in 1873. As the story goes, two Norwegian immigrant sisters-in-law, Karen and Anethe Christensen, left alone overnight when their fishermen husbands were in Portsmouth, were murdered—one strangled, the other axed—by a former hired hand during a botched robbery. A third woman, Maren Hovnet, hid and lived to tell the gruesome tale. The murderer, Louis Wagner, was soon found and later hanged for his crime.
Star Island is the only island accessible to the public. Now owned by the Unitarian-Universalist Church and Church of Christ under the Star Island Organization, Star is home to a collection of stone cottages, youth dorms, a chapel, an art studio, and the grand Oceanic Hotel. Built in 1875, it’s one of the only New England Victorian-era hotels still standing in its original state. Though there are no restaurants (except for a small café in the hotel) or shops on Star Island, the vistas are breathtaking. You can easily circumnavigate the entire island via its outer dirt road, scramble over rocks to watch the Atlantic crash against the granite cliffs, or just hang out on the front porch of the hotel, sipping an iced tea and watching the boats in Gosport Harbor.
STAR OF THE SHOW
In season, Star sees upwards of 10,000 visitors per day on weekends, including “fishing widows” whose husbands drop them off on the island while they try their luck on the surrounding striper grounds. Daytrippers who wish to get on the water can rent a rowboat or kayak through the hotel. The old stone buildings near the historic Gosport Chapel are exquisite in spring, when the lovely gardens are in bloom.
You can walk to the Captain James Smith Memorial and Tucke Monument obelisk before heading to the Art Barn and back to the boat. While it’s possible to arrange an overnight stay at the Oceanic on a “personal retreat,” most island-goers come for a weeklong themed conference, which includes hearty meals served in a large dining hall and accommodations in rustic but clean dorm-like rooms.
Though managed by the Unitarian Church, conference leaders do not prosthyletize. Rather, symposiums tend toward the arts, ecology, and health. Writing and painting workshops are popular, as are family gatherings. No matter how you get to the Isles, or what you do when you get there, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the rugged beauty of these granite gems cast among the shining and unforgiving sea. Pay them a visit next season and enjoy them for yourself.
BOATING THE ISLES
Gosport Harbor offers no dockage for private vessels; however, the blue mooring balls bearing the letters “PYC” (Portsmouth Yacht Club) may be “borrowed” if you leave your phone number on the back of your vessel and are prepared to move at a moment’s notice if contacted by a club member.
If you want to drop the hook, you can do so in the designated anchorage outside the mooring field. Be aware that the water is deep (60 feet) and the bottom hard, which makes anchoring here a tricky proposition. Also understand that the harbor is usually crowded during peak season, especially on weekends. It’s best to visit in June or September, or midweek. Whether you moor or anchor, hail the Star Island Launch on Channel 9 for service from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on summer weekends, Friday through Sunday.