"I" is for the Isles of Shoals

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Visitor's ABC's

By John Hirtle, Beach News Staff

Beach News, Thursday, June 30, 2005

[The following article is courtesy of Beach News]
Each year, the Beach News is proud to feature an unique ongoing series of articles concerning interesting facts about the region's places and history. This year, we will be doing a virtual visitor's ABCs of the Seacoast region.

On a clear day along Scenic Route 1A you might catch a glimpse of those enigmatic islands on the horizon - the Isles of Shoals. Their names echo across the region: Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Lunging, Malaga, Seaveys, Smuttynose, Star and White. They are a place rich in history and mystery.

The nine islands were the first European outpost in New England, acting as a safe base of operations by fishermen here to harvest the sea’s bounty. The islands themselves are named for the huge schools or "shoals" of fish which were so abundant in these waters.

For a time, the shoals were the busiest port in all of New England, exporting tons of dried codfish to Europe, where they would dominate the market for nearly two centuries. A trading post on Lunging Island attracted early colonists in need of goods from Europe. It was a spirited, thriving community, akin to the wild west in the 1800’s.

Puritan ministers on the mainland despaired of ever taming the independent islanders. So stubborn were these islanders, that they moved their entire community from Appledore Island in Maine to Star Island on the New Hampshire side of the border in order to avoid paying high taxes. Rumors of islanders aiding pirates and scoundrels abounded.

Isolation, war and progress all conspired to cause the end of this colorful community. During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the islanders were evacuated, lest they provide the British with aid.

At the time, many of their houses were floated over to York Maine, where some still stand today. With those forced evacuations, the islanders learned more about the benefits of the mainland - and some opted to stay so their children could go to school, or they could take a less strenuous job.

Thomas Laighton arrived at the Shoals with his family in 1939 to take charge of the White Island Lighthouse. It was the start of a new chapter in Shoals history, as the Laightons introduced a new industry to the isles: tourism.

By 1847 the Laightons purchased half of Hog Island, and quickly renamed it to the more appealing "Appledore". The Appledore Hotel opened the following year, and became a major tourist destination. One of its attractions was Laighton’s own daughter, Celia Thaxter who is one of the region’s most well known poets and chronicler of life as it was out at the Isles of Shoals. Until her death in 1894, she helped draw together a small artists colony at the Shoals every summer.

Tourism at the isles was in decline at the time as well. Thanks to trolleys and trains, it was easier to get to nearby beaches on the mainland than it was to get out to the Isles of Shoals. By chance, the islands were found by a church group looking for a place to hold summer conferences. As a result, the Isles of Shoals Association was established in 1896. This, and other associated groups would begin the process of purchasing the land out at the Isles of Shoals to preserve the serenity of the islands.

The Appledore Hotel burned down in 1914, causing the conferences to shift to the smaller Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, which still stands today. Its white painted walls are easy to see on a clear day reflecting the light at sunset. Save for the two World Wars, when the islands were closed to visitors, conferences have been held out at Star Island ever since.

Thanks to their splendid isolation and reversion to their original wild states, the Isles drew the attention of Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. In 1966 the first marine courses were held out at the islands, and today the two renown institutions operate the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island. Projects out at the Isles of Shoals include research into aquaculture techniques to farm the world’s oceans, and the reintroduction of terns on White Island.

In 2005 the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company gave up its near monopoly of supply and ferry service to the Isles of Shoals. Now visitors can take select boats of Rye Harbor, Hampton Harbor, and Newburyport as well as Portsmouth to visit these scenic islands. Star Island is open to a limited number of visitors every day during the summer season. Special arrangements can be made to visit Appledore Island on Wednesdays during the summer by calling (607) 255-3717. Tours around the islands figure into many of the local cruises that take visitors out to see the Hampton Beach Fireworks as well.

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