I just learned of the death of my aunt and uncle, Marion and Gene Stegner. Marion died at March 28, 2007. Gene died June 2, 2007; his memorial service was today, June 16. I’m posting this New England article in their memory. Last year my aunt, Marion Stegner of North Tonawanda, N. Y., put me in touch with one of her friends, Roy Webber because we had something in common: an interest in the Isles of Shoals.
I wanted to take a boat excursion to the islands, something I’d seen only in the distance during childhood and adult visits to Wallis Sands Beach. From the beach they appear to be one rock stretching out along the horizon, barely visible.
I called Roy. He’d spent two years stationed there with the Coast Guard during World War II.
He located his 1730 map that was republished in 1927. He’d purchased a take-all box (at an auction?) that included two of these maps; he gave one to a museum in Wells, Maine. “I hope the museum hung the map,” he said, asking me to call him if I saw it (I didn’t---we didn’t get to stop at that museum).
It was a short boat ride (8-10 miles) to the Isles of Shoals. The weather was perfect, considering we were taking the last excursion of the season.
Excursions go only to one island, Star Island. I was surprised at the number of buildings there, and struck by the beauty of the place. We enjoyed looking toward the distant mainland, trying to decipher where familiar landmarks were. Equally intriguing were the stories Roy and the tour guide told.
The Isles were formerly known as Smith Islands. John Smith discovered them in 1614 and named them after himself. The numerous islands are named Appledore, Malaga, Star, Smutty Nose, Cedar, White, Seaveys and Lunging.
Roy was stationed at Seaveys Island during the war. Coastguards-men operated a light there. “Three persons were stationed there when I was there,” Roy said, “a keeper, assistant keeper and a third. One of us was on leave all the time.”
“During bad weather they’d come and take us to shore, until they built the breakwaters (that form Gosport Bay). During storms I’ve seen surf crash through the kitchen window and knock the coal stove out. I’ve seen water splash over the top of the lighthouse.”
The biggest island, Appledore, was an Army base during World War II and has a big square military-built tower for sub-watching. He noted that the Navy used to bomb on Duck Island.
There’s supposed to be a lot of pirate gold hidden on the islands, especially on Smutty Nose Island. “I was told it was silver bars but everyone says it was gold,” Roy noted. Years ago someone actually dug up (four) silver bars. But Smutty Nose’s history has an even more sinister event than gold-digging and pirate antics. It’s a story of murder and intrigue.
On March 6, 1873, two Norwegian women were brutally murdered with an axe. A third woman escaped, hiding on the rocks at the end of the island with a dog that kept her warm. Who did it? An iterant fisherman, Louis Wagner, was convicted for the slaughter. His motive: money he knew was in the house. However, only $15 was missing and it was not on him. He was convicted on circumstantial evidence, according to the tour guide. “I have my own theory as to who committed the murder,” the tourguide said. A poet named Celia Thaxter lived on the island. “Celia’s son did it. He was old enough, he was wacko, his sister was fired from a job that afternoon and he was around two days before the murder.”
The highest population count on the Isles of Shoals, most living on Star Island, was 600, occurring just before the Revolutionary War, according to the tour guide. “When N. H. became a Royal Province, people came to Star Island from the other islands to avoid the taxes of the puritans and to have a liquor store,” he said. While we were there we explored the chapel and walked the paths around the island. Monte decided to traverse along the rocky shore near the waterline where he could. At one point we sat on the ocean rocks listening to the surf and reading some of Celia Thaxton’s poetry to each other. The return boat ride offered the cherry on the sundae: a whale crossed in front of the boat. We watched it surface twice.