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The Thompson-Ames Historical Society writes a
weekly column for the Gilford Steamer.

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A Visit to the Isles of Shoals

The Isles of Shoals, an archipelago of 9 islands , lying off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine has long captured our imagination as a place of mystery, adventure and romance. A scant 6 miles out from Portsmouth, it has a long and rich history as a fishing port, possibly dating back to the Vikings. The islands have seen shipwrecks, pirates, buried treasure, and the uncontrolled passions of men and women. For Celia Thaxter, daughter of lighthouse keeper and hotel promoter Thomas Leighton, the Shoals were both a beloved home and a place of inspiration.

First explored in the 1600s by Captain John Smith, it was already well known by Native Americans and Europeans for its large schools of "shoaling" fish. Fish that gathered in large numbers in the waters of the archipelago caused fisherman to flock there in equally large numbers. A trading post was established there as early as 1615 by a groups of Londoners and by 1640, there were as many as 600 residents, a number that may have increased to as much as 1000. The isolated town of Gosport, on Star Island, was for a number of years, a thriving, albeit wild and unruly, fishing port. Today tourism has replaced fishing as the major industry of the Shoals and Gosport has quietly adapted to its new role of greeting tourists.

The rugged landscape and the harsh climate make the islands seem more remote and lonely than the actual distance would indicate. However, countless numbers of people have appreciated the stark beauty that Thomas Leighton capitalized on when he built the first summer resort hotel on Appledore, the largest of the islands. It is here that Celia Thaxter created her famous gardens. Her memories of the islands, "Among the Isles of Shoals", published in 1873 brought her fame as an author and drew many of the rich and famous to the Shoals. Appledodre is now home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. Another island associated with the Leighton family is White Island. It was on White Island that the young Celia lived with her father, Thomas Leighton and is the site of the White Island Lighthouse. In 1839, Leighton accepted a two-year assignment as keeper of the Light, became enamored of life on the isolated, treeless islands and never returned to the mainland to live.

The second largest island is "Star Island, home of Gosport, the successful fishing village in the 1600 and 1700s mentioned above. Beginning in the early 1900s, the island became the location of the Star Island Religious and Educational Conference Center where week-long conferences continue to this day".

On July 11, Thompson Ames Historical Society will host a program "A Visit to the Isles of Shoals" presented by actor and Isles enthusiast, Stephanie Voss Nugent. Nugent makes us acquainted, in her own inimitable way with some of the hardy, colorful people who have lived on these islands over the past 400 years. She introduces us to pirates and privateers, fisherman, clerics and ghosts. She discusses shipwrecks, grand hotels and lighthouses and the intellectual gathering held by the Shoals most famous resident , Celia Leighton Thaxter, a role Nugent plays in the multimedia presentation "Of Pirates and Poets: A Visit to the Isles of Shoals with Celia Thaxter." Prior to Nugent's presentation, a pot-luck supper will be held at 6:00p.m. on the grounds of the Meetinghouse, 88 Belknap Mt. Road. Please bring your favorite dish and a serving place. Drinks will be provided. Following dinner, we will move inside the Meetinghouse for the evening's program, which will begin at 7:30 p.m.

Ms. Nugent was born in Texas and began acting in summer theatre at a very young age. After attending the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, she acted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in California. While visiting friends in New Hampshire, she fell in love with New England and never left the area. In 1997, she founded and was the executive Director of ACT ONE (Artist's Collaborative Theatre of New England) which began offering summer theatre in Hampton, NH after the Hampton Playhouse closed its doors in 2000.

As a follow up to Nugent's program, on Tuesday, July 19, T-AHS friends and members will be taking the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co.'s "Historic Isles of Shoals, Portsmouth Harbor and Lighthouse Cruise". Relax and enjoy the narrated tour on board the Thomas Leighton, departing from Portsmouth Harbor at 9:55 a.m. for the 2 3/4hour cruise, returning to Portsmouth at 12:45 p.m.

For further information about our July 11th pot-luck dinner & program, "Visiting the Isles of Shoals" with Stephanie Voss Nugent or the July19th Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. cruise, pleases contact T-AHS at 527-9009.