Maine and New Hampshire share a land border that continues outward into the Atlantic Ocean and straight through the middle of the mysterious Isles of Shoals. Here the states share an additional land border along a causeway only a few yards wide.
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These are the Isles of Shoals, a series of rocky ledges and outcrops about ten miles (16 kilometres) from the coastline. Appledore, Star, Smuttynose and Gosport are hardly known features today, but they were recognizable to many of our distant ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic.
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This is a closer image of the shared border, the narrow link between New Hampshire’s Star Island and Maine’s Cedar Island. Cedar Island, as you’ll notice if you zoom out a notch or two, isn’t much more than a stepping stone that connects Star Island to Smuttynose Island.
The Isles can be approached by regularly-scheduled day cruises such as those offered by the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, which provides direct routes from Portsmouth Harbor. Access to this geo-anomaly shouldn’t be a problem for those who wish to seek it.
As interesting as I found the geographical oddity to be, it pales in comparison to the history of the archipelago itself. I’ve never been to the Isles of Shoals but I will now place them firmly on my travel destination wish list.
A Little Context
Fishermen exploited these grand banks soon after the very first European explores discovered them, even before Captain John Smith passed through the isles and formally mapped them in 1614. The name probably derives from the "shoaling" or schooling of what seemed to be an endless supply of fish. The Isles of Shoals quickly became the busiest port in New England during that early colonial era. They dominated the lucrative dried codfish export market for the next century and a half. Colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth are long-remembered, renowned and celebrated today, but the overlooked Isles of Shoals were right up there with those locales at the time.
Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Capt. John Mason received a joint land patent that included the Isles of Shoals along with a large tract on the mainland in 1622. A few years later they decided to divide the grant and each negotiated a portion of the Isles as part of the transaction. Mason retained the southern portion to form New Hampshire. Gorges retained the northern portion and associated it with land that would later become Maine. Thus the geo-anomaly exists primarily because two parties split fishing rights nearly four hundred years ago.
The Situation Evolves
The fishermen never spread their sphere of influence. They stuck to the Isles of Shoals and concentrated on making money rather than history. It was a single-purpose settlement based solely on processing and exporting cod to Europe. The settlement earned an unsavory reputation as a haven for pirates, thieves and cutthroats with little respect for laws or restrictions upon their freedoms. They were so feisty that they picked up and moved their entire fishing community from Appledore Island (Maine) to Star Island on the other side of the border (New Hampshire) because of taxes.
Mainland colonists forced the evacuation of the islands during the Revolutionary War ostensibly for safety reasons but also because they distrusted those offshore ruffians. There were plenty of incentives for historians in a newly independent nation to subsequently whitewash unwelcome diversions such as the Isles of Shoals and focus nostalgically on noble parables such as the First Thanksgiving. It didn’t matter so much that the Isles of Shoals had long been established and had been much more viable economically during its heyday.
The Isles of Shoals never attained its former glory. A few stragglers lived there in abject poverty during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The isles later became the home of Celia Thaxter in the second half of the century. She was a famous poet who anchored a prototypical artist colony on Appledore Island before such things became common.
Into the Modern Day
Large seacoast hotels came into vogue during the Victorian era, and tourism arrived on the Isles of Shoals. The only grand hotel remaining here today, however, is the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island. This survived by a quirk of fate, sifting its focus to religious conferences and retreats, a function it continues to provide. Its longtime owner is the Star Island Corporation, an affiliate of the Unitarian-Universalism Association and the United Church of Christ. Just recently they’ve allowed personal retreats to Star Island. Visitors can now can stay at the hotel on their own accord without participating in the conferences or any of the organized activities.
I ran into a few other interesting tidbits as I researched the Isles of Shoals:
- People who have worked at the hotel on Star Island are known as Pelicans and they have an active alumni association.
- Smuttynose Island was the sight of a gruesome double-murder in 1873 that became the subject of a 1997 novel by Anita Shreve called "The Weight of Water" and was made into a movie with the same title in 2002.
- Smuttynose lends its name to a microbrewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I was certainly surprised to learn that so much information could be derived from a tiny state border crossing in a remote archipelago off the Atlantic coastline.