I’ve been posting pictures of vintage cars here lately while thinking about the Isles of Shoals. The two topics rarely convene. On Smuttynose, where you’ll find me for the last two decades, there is not an inch of road. Same goes for the other islands with the exception of Star and Appledore. Both use a few sturdy vehicles to transport supplies and luggage from the dock and handle some of the major island maintenance.
Other than the decaying carcass of an ancient island truck known as “Old Joe,” the only motor vehicle link I can think of is this shot of “Uncle” Oscar Laighton at the wheel. According to the caption on the postcard, it shows Oscar, nicknamed “Bocky,” learning to drive for the first time while in his nineties. Oscar loved to pose for tourists, but is usually depicted standing upright in a rowboat or on the porch of the Oceanic Hotel.
On the tiny Isles of Shoals, Oscar Laighton was a superstar. He arrived at White Island in 1839, just three months old, when his father Thomas Laighton, a sometime successful businessman, editor and politician, became lighthouse keeper. He grew up on White, Smuttynose and Appledore islands.
Oscar died in 1939, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. He spent most of his century on the barren islands. According to his memoir, 90 Years on the Isles of Shoals, Oscar was 16 years old before he first stepped foot on the New Hampshire mainland 10 miles away.
Forever in the shadow of his beloved and famous sister, poet Celia Laighton Thaxter, Oscar was a superb carpenter and a middling businessman. Oscar and his brother Cedric ran hotels on both Star and Appledore after their parents died. Yet, without leaving the islands, he rubbed shoulders with the greatest writers, painters and musicians of the era. Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne recalled being ferried from the hotel to Smuttynose Island by Oscar in the early 1850s.
Oscar was a great storyteller, though not the best historian. His 1930 memoir is riddled with factual errors, but readable today. Though handsome in youth and eternally romantic, Oscar never married.
His privately published book of verse "Songs and Sonnets" contains simple poems of the sea and of love, each similar to the next in tone and content. As an artist he sketched two things -- fish and sailboats -- again and again. Uncle Oscar's ultimate creation was Uncle Oscar, an uncomplicated island character, a 20th century touchstone to the Boston intellectual elite who made sister Celia Thaxter’s salon their summer retreat.
(Photo courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum, all rights reserved. “Historic Portsmouth” is presented every Thursday or Friday by J. Dennis Robinson, whose 12 history books are available in local stores and online. He can be reached at dennis@mySeacoastNH.com. This is image number 728)