Brief History of Odiorne Point

Odiorne Point is located at the tip of Rye jutting out into the Gulf of Maine. There is more than meets the eye as you stroll through this State Park. What meets the eye first is some of the best views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Isle of Shoals around. Odiorne Point is named after John Odiorne. He was a resident of Portsmouth NH and a fisherman who was granted 42 acres on “Great Island” (New Castle) just before he purchased the land that is now Odiorne Point in 1657. The Ordiornes made their living by fishing, farming, haying the salt marsh and trading with the Abenaki Indians. The family lived here continuously for 282 years before the government took the land through eminent domain in 1942 to build Fort Dearborn. Owners were given only 30 days to vacate before the area was seized.

At one time there were 11 luxury summer homes located here. In 1942 all were torn down during the the beginning of World War II to build a defense for the Portsmouth Harbor and the Piscataqua River. Mrs. Kathryn Stevens of Belmont, Massachusetts built her summer home here in the 1920s on land she bought from Bertha Sugden. Her home had a glassed in porch that gave her a sweeping view of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor. “Grarocks” was a seaside home built by Mrs. Helen Graves of Contoocook, New Hampshire. This home was a gray, cedar shingled house with smoky blue shutters that overlooked the Gulf of Maine. The Foye/Whitcomb house known as “Pioneer Farm” was renowned for its rose gardens. A few steps in a stone wall are all that remain today. But before it was razed, the home was a 24 room estate. The Sagamore House was an elegant country inn during the 1850s that was open for boarders and sleighing parties.

Cyrus & Charles Eastman of Littleton, New Hampshire built a Victorian house and barn here in the 1874. This house was later purchased by Robert Sugden and moved to the edge of Rte 1A. He remodeled the barn into a house and sold both. Fannie Botsford bought the Eastman House in 1933 and renamed it “Glen Gables”. She opened it as a boarding house for summer tourists. The barn eventually came into the hands of George S. Howard. He established the 1620 Club, it was supposedly a gambling establishment.

All that is left of the Marvin/Straw Estate is the “Dolphin Fountain”. This home was also called “Sea Acres”. Off to the right of the fountain you may find some ancient roses. These may have been the earliest roses brought to New Hampshire. This was a massive home featured 5 master bedrooms, large living room, formal dining room, butler’s pantry, servant’s dining room, kitchen, laundry, den, and two servant’s bedrooms. This home had 6 fireplaces, separate garage, stable and “man’s quarters”. In 1920 this home was advertised for sale at $25,000 but by the end of the Depression the price dropped to $17,000. You can still see the Norway Maples that lined the semi-circular driveway. In the summer volunteers still plant geraniums on the tops of the stone pillars that once led to Rte 1A.

It is interesting to note that most of the homes on Odiorne Point were owned by women. For the times it was relatively unusual but the country’s shaky economy had led many families to shelter property holdings in women’s names. This was to stop seizure of property when men had their assets acquired during the Great Depression.

World War II has left its mark on the park. Four gun positions were established here to defend the harbor and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Rapid fire 155mm guns were installed on what today look like large fountains but are actually “Panama” mounts. Only one is visible today, two have been filled in and one is overgrown. These guns were able to fire a 138 pound shells about 15 miles. Many other defenses were implemented including underwater listening devices, mines and a submarine net stretched across the mouth of the harbor. The large mounds you see are not natural to the landscape. They are the gun batteries and bunkers. Before the war these were open fields and pastures. Bunkers were positioned all along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to the Caribbean. Inside the bunkers are rooms for shells, powder, and target plotting. Observation posts are located on top of the bunkers. These posts were crucial to the safety of our shore in the days before radar.

In a sad twist of fate the guns at Odiorne were never fired at the enemy and were obsolete before construction was completed in June of 1944. The Government continued to use the land until 1959. The original owners never got their land back and they were paid very little for their homes. Even though they had been told they would get their land back, and it was the law of the day that they would have the opportunity to, once the Government no longer needed it. By 1949 a Federal Law had been enacted with new rules for the disposition of federally acquired property. First it was offered to any departments of the federal government, then the state governments and finally the town municipalities. After that it was supposed to be auctioned off to anyone who attended. The property was sold by the government to the State of New Hampshire in 1961 for $91,000 to be used as a park. Private citizens organized volunteer efforts that have created the park you see today.

The Isle of Shoals became part of Odiorne State Park in 1992. Looking out over the water the island to the far right is White Island and was the home of Celia Thaxter. You can make out the lighthouse. Looking to the left of White Island the next one is Star Island. This is very easy to make out from the large building on it. This is the Oceanic Hotel built in the 1800s and is currently used for summer retreats and educational programs by the Unitarian-Universalist and United Church of Christ Churches. The Star Island Corporation hosts conferences on many topics such as The Arts, Natural History, Meditation Retreats, and Star Digital Photography Workshops. You can even make reservations to simply stay the night on the island. The next island in the chain is Appledore, this is largest of the islands was known as Hog Island. It was once the cultural center of New   Hampshire for summer visitors. Celia Thaxter was a well known poet and she hosted many famous writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), and Walt Whitman. New Hampshire’s only elected President, Franklin Pierce also visited the island. The hotel that they visited burned down in the early 1900s and the island is now home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. Moving farther down the island chain on a clear day you can see Duck Island. During WWII this little island was used for target practice by the military. Today Duck Island is home to sea gulls, cormorants and harbor seals. Smuttynose Island, Lunging Island, Cedar Island and Malaga Island make up the rest of the island chain.

You will often see large ships and tankers sitting off the islands. They are waiting for one of our pilots to come out to take them up the Piscataqua River and just the right tide. Our pilots are highly skilled at navigating the rapid tidal currents and turns of the river.

Sitting out at the mouth of the Piscataqua River is Whaleback Light. It was built of granite in 1872 to mark the harbor entrance. The bright white lighthouse slightly upriver is Portsmouth Harbor Light. This lighthouse is built on the pre-revolutionary foundation of Fort William and Mary, now known as Fort Constitution. It is home to a Coast Guard Station. Several times during the summer the Friends of the Portsmouth Harbor Light open the light house for tours. You can also go out to Fort Constitution for picnics along the water. Just remember to stay on the blue line as you go through the Coast Guard Station.

When leaving the trails make sure you watch out for poison ivy in season. You can recognize it by the old rhyme “Leaves of three leave it be” it is a low growing plant and the leaves often appear to be shiny. Another common plant you will find is Salt-Spray Rose or “Rosa rugosa”. This rose came from the Orient and thrives in the salt air on our shores. In the fall people still gather the rose hips from these plants to make jam or tea. It is very high in Vitamin C. It bright fuchsia color can be seen abundantly along our coast.

The main entrance to the Seacoast Science Center was the summer home of Robert Sugden built in 1920. He was a prominent Portsmouth businessman. His masonry home had electric lighting and appliances. Very modern for 1920. The home consisted of nine rooms with a recessed stairway that could be pulled down to access the second floor bedrooms and sitting room. The house also featured a salt water pool right at the edge of the ocean. The museum features a 1,000 gallon Gulf of Maine aquarium and special indoor tide pool touch tank. EDALHAB the first undersea research lab is parked outside the museum. There are many interactive history exhibits, guided walks and lighthouse talks at the Center. During the Summer a fun concert series is held on the grounds. A great time for the whole family. Odiorne Point State Parks trails are open throughout the year. Park facilities open seasonally. State Park admission fees apply.

(c) Shannon Aldrich 2013

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