On June 27, 2021 we took a fun day trip with our good pal Jamie Day to Star Island. We had a ton of fun in the sun while we were there exploring some of the spooky haunts of the area and Jamie used her medium skills to try to connect with the spirits on the island. When we were back stateside we headed into Portsmouth, NH for lunch at The Friendly Toast (YUM!). 10/10 would suggest for a fun summer outing- in fact, as I write this from one of my cafe tables on a cold and slushy January morning I sure do wish I was back on that boat working on my sunburn!!
Star Island is one of the Isles of Shoals which sit about 7 miles from Rye, NH and sit basically on the border of New Hampshire and Maine. It was named by sailors who imagined the shape of the island as points of a star. The island was annexed to the town of Rye, New Hampshire in 1876.
Captain John Smith mapped the Isles of Shoals in 1614 and named them “Smyth’s Isles”. There is a monument remaining today on Star Island, built in 1864 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of John Smith’s trip. The islands were settled in the early 17th century by seasonal fishermen.
The first permanent settlement of Star Island began in 1677 and the township of Gosport was established on Star Island in 1715.
The town and the island flourished until the American Revolutionary War, when the Americans ordered the Shoals evacuated, believing that it posed a threat to have a group of questionable loyalty just off the coast, and many Shoalers abandoned their island homes. After the war, some moved back to Gosport, but it never regained its former population.
The islands were sparsely inhabited until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Laighton established a hotel on Smuttynose Island. He eventually opened the Appledore Hotel on Hog with Levi Thaxter, which he renamed Appledore Island. Laighton’s daughter Celia married Thaxter, and she became a popular poet. She hosted an arts community on the island frequented by Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Impressionist painter Childe Hassam. Sarah Orne Jewett wrote “On Star Island” about her visit to Star Island and the Gosport church, which was published in Harper’s Magazine in September 1881.
Star Island has been owned and operated by the Star Island Corporation since 1915 as a place for family, youth, and individual conferences and retreats. The Star Island Corporation has close ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. In 2008, “personal retreats” were created to allow members of the public to stay on the island for up to one week.
As of 2015, it contained the largest off-grid solar farm in New England. This solar grid provides all of the power necessary for the island during the off season and 60-percent during full conference season. The island produces its own water and electricity through solar and diesel generators. It has its own septic treatment plant, one of the few capable of handling salt water, and a reverse osmosis water purification system for converting sea water to drinking water. There are three separate water systems on the island for drinking water, cistern water for washing, and sea water for sanitary use.
Crowning Star Island’s highest point of land is a simple stone meetinghouse, built in 1800. It is the third such structure to stand on this site. The first was built in about 1685, the second in 1720 from the timbers of a Spanish ship. Each meetinghouse has served the Islanders according to their needs, as chapel, schoolhouse, town meeting hall, courthouse, and even as a storehouse.
It was 135 years after the first church was built before there was a lighthouse in this region. In the days when Gosport was a thriving fishing village, it was the custom of the people to go up to the little church at night, not only to pray for the fisherman whose boats had not returned, but to hang their lanterns on the wooden crosses so that the light might shine out to sea to guide the men to port.
Today, candlelight services are a cherished Star Island tradition. At the close of each day, Shoalers gather at the foot of the hill and form a procession, carrying candle lanterns as the villagers of long ago carried their whale-oil lamps up the same winding path to the meetinghouse. Inside the chapel, the candle lanterns are hung on brackets from the walls, providing the only source of light.
Star Island is very small but hosts numerous burial grounds and has had lots of reported spirit activity throughout the island, including Caswell Cemetery.
The Caswell family first joined the fishing community on Star Island in 1711. Most fisherman would commute to the island from Europe each summer before heading back, but the Caswells stayed year round braving harsh winters on the small island. During the Revolution patriot forces cleared all the fish men and their families off of the Isles of Shoals but the Caswells came back and grew wealthy by island standards. By 1866, a hand-drawn map of Star shows at least a third of the homes belonging to different Caswell family members and they were considered to be like royalty on the small fisherman’s island. According to SeacostNH “Back then, as the joke goes, there were only two types of Shoalers — the heavy-smoking, hard drinking, fish-smelling, tobacco spitting, foul mouthed heathen type — and their husbands. Women, Celia Thaxter tells us, did most of the labor and grew old before their time. When the men were not fishing, they were drinking or lounging upon the rocks. A bill from one Star Island fisherman shows he could polish off four gallons of rum in a single month.”
Want to learn more about the ghosts and ghouls of Star Island?! Check out our episodes in Season 5 of our podcast titled: “Isles of Shoals: Star Island with the Infamous Jamie Day” ! Available anywhere podcasts can be found or by clicking HERE