Before the wealthy investor Frank Jones put the Wentworth Hotel on the map it was a family affair. The hotel construction began in the fall of 1873 by a New Castle, NH couple, but the details of that story have never been fully told until now. While Daniel E. Chase, a wealthy distiller from Massachusetts is often credited with building the 1874 structure, the idea most likely originated closer to home. It all began in 1803 when Allen Porter, a tailor working at Fort Constitution in New Castle married Margaret Gibbs Appleton Maloon, The couple settled into a house near the fort on the west side of Wentworth Road where they also ran a little store. It was their daughter Sarah and her husband Charles Ellsworth Campbell, a local man, who first owned and managed the hotel.
Charles and Sarah were a hospitable couple who worked at a number of Seacoast hotels, possibly including the Appledore at the Isles of Shoals. By the mid-1800s they had settled comfortably into running their own summer house on "Campbell Island" in Little Harbor just below a 70 foot tree-covered bluff on the western side of New Castle, New Hampshire’s smallest town and technically an island.
Rare photographs recently unearthed by Campbell family descendants show a sophisticated young Sarah Campbell in fashionable dark fur wrap and hat, clearly a woman of means. An 1870s era picture presumed to be Sarah's husband Charles reveals a handsome wide-eyed gentleman sporting a handlebar mustache. We also have a number of previously unpublished pictures of their boarding house, the "older sister", so to speak, of the Wentworth itself.
We don't know when Sarah and Charles first decided to build a new hotel on the rocky bluff just above their guesthouse on Campbell Island. Perhaps they read an article in an 1866 Portsmouth paper urging residents of New Castle to cash in on the post-Civil War tourist boom and build a grand hotel. The Porters, Sarah’s family, owned some of the land near the hotel site and in the early 1870s, the Canpbells bought property there and beyond. Daniel Chase, one local historian says, was related to the Campbells through the Porter side of the family. Born in Warner, NH, it seems very likely that Daniel visited at their New Castle guesthouse. The name "Ned Chase" appears in a surviving leather-bound logbook from Campbell Cottage.
Daniel Chase would have seen a burgeoning Seacoast tourist industry in the early 1870s. Rooms were so hard to come by, according to a Portsmouth newspaper report, that tourists were lucky to find a place to sleep on a hotel veranda or under a pool table. They should call the region "a cot by the sea" one reporter quipped. The Sagamore Hotel had just appeared across the harbor at Odiorne Point, though it would burn to the ground in a few years. The Oceanic on Star Island was under construction in 1873, visible 10 miles out to sea. Major coastal hotels were appearing in Hampton, Rye, Kittery and York as well.
It is fair to speculate that Charles Campbell proposed his idea for a grand hotel to Chase -- or vice versa -- on a perfect summer afternoon in New Castle. Both men were loyal masons and the two "brothers" may have hiked up from Campbell Cottage to the top of the bluff to catch a spectacular sunset. Perhaps they climbed a tree to glimpse the now famous view from the Wentworth window. If they didn’t build a hotel there, they knew, someone else would.
"Land is changing hands at this seaside resort," the Portsmouth Journal reported in March of 1874, "and ere long the town will be renowned for its summer residences."
Erastus Mansfield, a Massachusetts builder and another relative of Chase, apparently designed the boxy "L-shaped" hotel. The budget was $50,000, just half of what Frank Jones would spent on his first wave of renovations in 1880. But even that was too much for Daniel Chase who was over-extended during a tough recession year. A bankruptcy report dated June 8,1877 shows Chase was in debt to 95 creditors for a whopping $369, 376.90. Among those owed money was builder Erastus Mansfield ($2,200) and Sarah Campbell of New Castle ($4,500). The family business had gone bust.
Amazingly, Daniel Chase recovered from his debts, re-established his rum distillery, and died a wealthy man three decades later. His lengthy obituary makes no mention of the Wentworth Hotel fiasco. Charles Campbell too survived until 1908. No longer a hotel owner or even a hotel manager, he continued humbly on as night watchman and winter caretaker at the hotel on the hill until his death. His adopted son inherited the position. Campbell Cottage burned and was rebuilt in 1901. A 19th century photo of the family in their back yard shows the great white hotel looming in the distance, a constant reminder of the Campbell’s grand experiment.
Although Wentworth by the Sea survives and is reopening soon, Campbell Cottage was razed in recent years by private owners to make way for modern condominiums. Members of the Campbell family living in the region have retained only memories, a few artifacts and photographs, and the right to say – our family built the Wentworth.
J. Dennis Robinson is finalizing a book-length 130-year history of the Wentworth by the Sea to be released by Peter E. Randall Publishers in the fall of 2003. The material in this article was provided by members of the Campbell family for use in that book.
Copyright (c) 2003 J. Dennis Robinson and SeacoastNH.com.
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