The Ugliest Monument in New England
Nobody loves you when
you're old and gray
To pay homage to Captain Smith, one must take the ferry from Portsmouth and then trek fully from one side of tiny Star Island to the other. It takes just 10 minutes across the sweeping stone surface. Except for a few pitiful shrubs, this island was barren rocks from Smith's time until the middle of the 20th century. Today, in June the rocks are thick with knee-high poison ivy and dotted with fuzzy, gray baby gulls, all but camouflaged against the white-streaked stone. As you walk, adult seagulls swoop up behind, screeching and dive-bombing trespassers. Veteran "Shoalers" know to carry a long stick held high above their heads to create a decoy target.
Typically visitors mistake the towering granite obelisk at the back of the island for the Smith monument. It isn't. That one was built in 1914 in honor of Rev. John Tucke who preached to the wayward drunken Shoalers through much of the 1700s. For his efforts, he became the wealthiest clergyman around, paid by his subjects in "quintals of fish".
Smith's monument is just up a low rise along an all-but-invisible path with the panoramic view of White Island light to the right and Cedar to the left. The setting is spectacular. Northward the open ocean foams against the ragged shore. To the South, the curiously beautiful array of Star Island structures, little stone cottages and the Gosport Chapel hunker against the white wooden wall of Victorian buildings that make up the Oceanic Hotel complex. The view and the hotel are all but unchanged since the late 1870s when the tourism industry first flourished here and at Celia Thaxter's Appledore Hotel nearby.
The Smith monument was one of the island's early manufactured tourist attractions. Originally it was a tall marble pillar set on a triangular base framed by an iron railing with granite supports. Built in 1864 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of John Smith's visit, the memorial once projected a quiet dignity. It was built near a stone cairn that, legend says, Smith himself constructed. Not likely, but the story read well in 19th century guide books. At the top of the original obelisk were three carved faces, representing the severed heads of three Turks that Smith lopped off while in mortal combat during his stint as a soldier of fortune in Transylvania.
Unlike his cutesy portrayal in the Disney cartoon "Pocahontas", Captain John Smith was a real Rambo -- inventive, contemplative, adventurous, romantic but ready to hack, shoot or bludgeon when provoked. It may seem odd to us that the monument was built by two local ministers, but since Smith only diced up infidels and heathens, his deeds were socially acceptable to a 19th century clergy. Rev George Beebe of Star Island, whose children are buried nearby, conceived the idea. Rev, Daniel Austin of Portsmouth helped pay the tab.
Situated on the harshest bit of real estate in the region, the Smith monument weathered quickly and badly. Only a few years after its dedication an old stereopticon photo shows just one of the three carved heads clinging by a twisted wire. Then the large pillar came crashing down in a fierce ice storm. By the beginning of the 20th century souvenir postcards pictured it as the "ruin" of the Smith Monument.
A club called the New Hampshire Society of Colonial Wars came to Smith's rescue in the nick of time for the 300th anniversary celebration of his historic visit. In 1914 the volunteer history group capped off the wounded monument, cemented over the cracks and added a granite pedestal. Because the lengthy inscriptions on the original marble pillar had long ago washed away, they added a new bronze plaque. The minute they departed, Nature resumed her attack with salt, sun, ice, water, wind and seagull poop. Today the Smith monument has never looked worse.
In 1919 the Star Island Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts officially purchased Star for use as a religious retreat along with Smuttynose and Appledore islands. Except during World War II, day trippers and summer conferees have continued to visit Star Island. Through much of the 20th century it was unclear exactly who owned Smith's moldering monument.
Through seven editions the Shoals touring bible, "Ten Miles Out", has informed visitors that Smith's Monument is the only spot on Star Island not owned by the Star Island Corporation. Oops! The venerable guidebook got it wrong. A quick deed search proves that the giant Tuck Monument and the land around it is owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society which maintains the Tuck obelisk, but not the Smith site. According to Tony Codding, manager of the Star Island Corporation until his retirement a few months ago, it was not exactly clear who should repair the Smith Monument, but it was clear that no funding was on hand.
So what happened to members of the NH Society of Colonial Wars who volunteered to help out nearly a century ago? Fact is, they're still helping. A small group including L. Forbes Getchell of Newmarket and Ellsworth Cabot of Jackson, NH ferried out to Star just four months ago with two gallons of water and some cement patching compound.
"We simply mixed and plugged holes, and that's the whole story," Getchell says. "Ideally what we should do is take the top off and build a new base. The base is the thing that's shot."
"What we did was slap-dab maintenance," Getchell admits. "You need to get out there and break up that base, but I'm in my 80s."
Like the monuments they preserve, time is catching up with the Society of Colonial Wars, a lineage organization in which members must show a genealogical link to ancestors who arrived before the American Revolution. Applications from new members are all but nonexistent and the group consists of a couple dozen active members, most of them over 65.
"They did the best they could," says past Society governor Donald Richards of York, Maine. "You've got to remember that the men that went out there are pretty old. They're not professionals in any sense of the word. They said they did a little work and a lot more needed to be done."
Richards says he believes his organization officially "takes responsibility" for maintaining the monument, and ten others from as far away as Nova Scotia. But restoring or replacing the ruined monument will be costly, and beyond their means.
So who picks up the torch? The monument rests on the most eastern tip of New Hampshire, a state not well known for investing in its own history, a fact that bothers Richards, a former history teacher and private school headmaster.
"It's got to be done by the state, but trying to get money out of New Hampshire..." his voice trails off.
"My family has been in New Hampshire since 1623," he says at last, "but I'm afraid now that I'm ashamed of my home state."
The Star Island Corporation has its hands full just keeping the ancient hotel running. The group just moved from Boston up to Portsmouth and is working out of boxes in a half empty office above the Little Professor bookstore. Thousands of dollars for John Smith is not at the center of their radar screen. Paul Jennings, the new Star Island manager says he's open to working with history-minded people who would like to save the Smith Memorial. So far, none have volunteered.
Poor John Smith. He's been called "the founder of the British nation overseas," and the "Admiral of New England." But times have changed for the man with the fastest scimitar in the East; Pocahontas gets all the headlines now. Her monument in Virginia is maintained by the Pocahontas Foundation there. A handsome 1909 bronze statue of John Smith at Jamestown is cared for by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
"Nobody, I guess, is responsible for the Smith Monument," says James Garvin, an architectural historian for the state of New Hampshire and a tireless advocate of historic preservation. Garvin suggests that an historical society or nonprofit agency might "adopt" the orphaned monument. Perhaps all it would take is a $5 bill from everyone in America named Smith.
Tour guides never tire of telling visitors that John Smith named the
Isles of Shoals "Smith Isles" after himself. The 400th anniversary of
that historic visit is in the year 2014. The way things are going, it's
going to be one lame party.
Photographs and artwork in this article used courtesy of the ISHRA "Isles of Shoals" collection housed at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Additional research assistance for this article provided by Debra Childs, Maryellen Burke, Sharon Stephan, Stephanie Nugent and the Star Island Corporation
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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