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Visit the Isles of Shoals

Visit the Isles of Shoals
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The Isles of Shoals sit roughly seven miles out to sea on the watery border of New Hampshire and Maine, with four of the nine islands falling into New Hampshire territory, including Star Island with its magnificent Oceanic hotel. Despite spending a lot of time in Rye on the NH seacoast each summer for many years, I had never been out to the Isles (one of which shares my last name, for Pete’s sake), so on my latest visit earlier this month, I made it a point to finally visit the Isles of Shoals with a “walkabout” stop on Star.

Our first stop was Rye Harbor, where we booked seats on the Uncle Oscar from Island Cruises (day trips also run out of Portsmouth with the Isles of Shoals Steamship Authority).

Rye Harbor is a hotspot for Rye beach-goers looking for a lobster roll, whale watch, trip to the Isles of Shoals, or (like my family does every year at least once) a take-home (then return) cooler filled with lobsters, steamers, and mussels from the Rye Harbor Lobster Pound. You’ll know you’ve come to the right place when you step over a snoozing Max and into the “shack.”

We picked up our tickets and then we were off!

The Isles have a long history. John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) arrived in 1614, and not-so-modestly named them “Smyth’s Isles.” The Isles became a busy commercial fishing port, and in time the name changed to the Isles of Shoals as a nod to “shoaling” – the schooling of fish. The Isles flourished, but fear of invading British soldiers during the Revolutionary War caused many to flee, never to return.

Then, in 1843, entrepreneur Thomas Laighton built a hotel on Smuttynose Island, and then a larger one on Appledore Island (both on the Maine side of the Isles). It was a golden era for island hotels. Air conditioning had yet to be invented and the cool sea breezes were a perfect escape from the hot summers of Boston and New York. Laighton’s hotels were so successful that in 1873, fellow entrepreneur John Poor built the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island. When it burned down two years later he rebuilt it, making sure it retained its expansive front veranda facing the sea. The Oceanic still greets visitors to Star today – the only one of the Isles’ great hotels still standing.

Getting to the islands didn’t take long, and as they drew closer our captain pointed out the  “big” Shoals islands on the Maine side — Appledore and Smuttynose.

Appledore Island enjoyed artistic and tourist popularity during the 19th century, thanks mostly to author and poet Celia Laighton Thaxter, daughter of the previously mentioned hotel head honcho, Thomas Laighton. She had grown up on the Isles, and after her marriage and a brief stint on the mainland, Celia moved back to Appledore and became its unofficial hostess and artist-in-residence, welcoming fellow writers and artists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Morris Hunt to her island home.

She died there in 1894 and the hotel was destroyed in fire twenty years later, not to be rebuilt. Today, Appledore is home to the summer Shoals Marine Lab, maintained since the 1970s by Cornell University and UNH.

Smuttynose Island has a rather different legacy, as the site of a grisly double murder in 1873 as well as the namesake for the popular Smuttynose Brewing Company of Portsmouth, NH.

The murders remain a haunting part of the Isles’ history. Late on the evening of March 5, Louis Wagner entered a snug little house on Smuttynose. Inside, Norwegian immigrant sisters Maren and Karen Christiansen, along with their sister-in-law Anethe Hontvet were asleep. Maren and Anthe’s fishermen husbands had been held up in nearby Portsmouth awaiting a bait arrival. While in Portsmouth they had bumped into Wagner, a Prussian immigrant that had, in the past, worked and lived with the men and their wives on Smuttynose. The men reportedly greeted Wagner kindly and, over the course of the conversation, shared that they had saved up a tidy sum for a new fishing boat. The penniless Wagner saw his chance, stole a boat, and slipped into the water towards the island. He let himself in, and when the women awoke in alarm, he unleashed a terror that included butchering Anethe with an axe and strangling Karen. Maren was able to flee into the icy, winter night through a window, and make her way across the island to a hiding hole. Wagner searched for her in vain, but when he couldn’t find her he brewed tea and stole what he could find (a mere $15) before heading back to the mainland, where he was eventually arrested, tried, and hanged thanks to Maren’s testimony.

The story remains murky today, with some believing Wagner was innocent. Perhaps rightfully so, the little house is no longer standing and Smuttynose today is almost entirely uninhabited.

Yankee Extra: Read the 1980 Yankee Classic “Horror on Smuttynose Island

Finally, we passed White Island, with its signature lighthouse, and its low tide sibling, Seavey Island (which, alas, is not named after me).

Then it was on to the main event — Star Island!

Check out Part 2 of this “Explore New England” installment, Visit Star Island and the Oceanic Hotel!

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Aimee Seavey


Aimee Seavey


As Yankee's Digital Editor, Aimee manages, produces, and promotes content for Yankee's digital and social media initiatives. A lifelong New Englander, she loves history and a good Massachusetts South Shore bar pizza.
Updated Friday, August 17th, 2012

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2 Responses to Visit the Isles of Shoals

  1. Kathie Pipczynski August 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    My husband and I took a tour of the Isles and found it to be quite interesting! We live in MA and I had heard of them, but didn’t know much about them. Not sure if I’d want to live on an island but some people mght like it! Looking forward to going back and visiting this area again.

  2. Kelly Stocking August 18, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    I was born at the Porstmouth Naval Shipyards Hospital out on an island off the coast of Kittery, Maine. Haven’t been able to get back to visit since I was a child but I dream of the islands and the ocean breezes. Someday, I hope to return…hopefully to stay.

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