Exploring the Craggy and Historic Sentinels of the New Hampshire Coast
Every once in a while, if the conditions are just right, we’ll get a summer’s day here in Florida that reminds me of my beloved New Hampshire childhood. Today is just such a day, with unseasonably low humidity, azure blue skies, the chirping of songbirds and a gentle breeze that transports me back to a lazy summer day in New England. It was on just such a day that Bryn and I visited the Isles of Shoals for the first time back in July of 2017.
Like most who visit the Isles of Shoals today, our trip began aboard the MV Thomas Leighton – our ferriage for the 10 mile journey to the islands off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. We docked on Star Island, the most gentile of the nine rocky granite enclaves that make up the Isles of Shoals. Even from the Rye shoreline some 7 miles away, the Victorian era Oceanic Hotel dominates the rolling ridgeline of the dappled green and grey island. Built in 1873 during the boom of the “Island Era”, the hotel boasted two bowling alleys, a billiards room, a spacious dining room and dance hall that could seat 400, and overnight accommodations for up to 300 guests. Together with the Appledore House, the Oceanic Hotel helped to usher in a golden age for the Isles of Shoals, but the history of the islands was several more centuries in the making.
In 1614, Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) was the first European to map and explore the Isles of Shoals in his travels, from whom they received their first European name of Smyth’s Isles. Within a few decades, the Shoals (or schools of fish) beckoned both sailors and businessmen alike to the rugged and largely barren islands. By the 1650s, the population of the islands leaped to over 600 inhabitants, fueled by Mother England’s ravenous appetite for Isles of Shoals Cod, which was believed to be of superior quality and flavor.
The Revolutionary War would mark the end of the boom era for the Isles of Shoals, as skittish patriots on the mainland required the islanders to move ashore, lest they aid the British in quelling the fledgling rebellion. Though some came back after the war, the island remained a sleepy and oft-forgotten hamlet through the mid nineteenth century. In the years leading up to the war, the tiny fishing village of Gosport thrived – and during a time when the pastor was often the most educated person in a town, the puritan Reverend John Tucke was a beloved and crucial part of the village community. He served some 42 years on the island, from 1731 to 1773, acting not only as the people’s pastor and spiritual guide, but also as their doctor, judge and teacher. Today, a massive granite obelisk marks his grave, memorializing a his life of devotion to God and his flock.
Apart from its human history, the Isles of Shoals is also known for its diverse population of seabirds. Early summer is the height of nesting season on the islands, with flocks of gulls and turns descending upon the island to hatch and raise their young. Free from most natural predators, the birds thrive on these islands as chicks hatch and take their first steps, first swim and first flight from the protected shores. The uninhabited Seavey Island after years of decline, is once again home to a large colony of of nesting terns, including over 2,500 Common Terns and some 20 Roseate Tern pairs.
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