Star Island is one of the Isles of Shoals that straddle the border between New Hampshire and Maine, seven miles from the mainland in the Atlantic Ocean. Star Island is the largest of the four islands in the group that are located in New Hampshire. In 1876, the island was annexed to the town of Rye from the former town of Gosport.
Star Island is owned and operated by The Star Island Corporation as a religious and educational conference center with close ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Events include week-long conferences with yearly-changing themes, family conferences, and youth conferences. In 2008, "personal retreats" were created to allow members of the public to stay on the island for up to one week. Sarah Orne Jewett wrote an occasional poem, On Star Island, published in Harper's Magazine in September 1881, about her visit to Star Island and the Gosport church.
Star Island was first settled, as were all the Isles of Shoals, in the early 17th century by fishermen working the rich waters of the North Atlantic coast. Many were English, coming up from the colonies of the Virginia companies. Although there may have been shelters built on the island, none were permanent or year-round.
The first permanent settlement of Star Island began in 1677 when the Province of Maine, under Massachusetts rule, undertook to increase taxes on nearby Hog Island (now Appledore Island). That and the recent availability of housing on Star Island, which was in New Hampshire, caused a mass migration and in 1715, the township of Gosport, New Hampshire, was established on Star Island.
The town and the island flourished until the American Revolutionary War when the colonials ordered the Shoals evacuated, believing that having a group of questionable loyalty just off the coast posed a threat. Many shoalers abandoned their island homes shortly thereafter.
After the war, some moved back to Gosport, but it never achieved its former population. Thomas Laighton established a hotel on Smuttynose Island and eventually a much larger one, the Appledore Hotel, on Hog, which he renamed Appledore Island. They were so successful that in 1873 another entrepreneur, John Poor, built the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, by joining a cluster of Caswell family buildings with a long wooden veranda. When the first Oceanic burned in 1875 soon after it was built, owner John Poore reconfigured the surviving buildings into a second Oceanic Hotel. The largest, the former Atlantic House, had been run by Lemuel Caswell. Another, the Gosport House, was once run by Lemuel's brother Origen Caswell.
It was a golden era for island hotels. Air conditioning had yet to be invented and the cool sea breezes were a perfect escape from the hot summers of Boston and New York. But the resorts in the mountains of New Hampshire and New York were growing and did not involve a potentially unpleasant sea voyage. By the 1890s the hotels were nearly empty.
Then, in 1896, Thomas Elliott and his wife Lilla arrived on Star Island. They immediately saw in the lightly occupied hotel a place where summer conferences could be held, to be sponsored by the Unitarian Church, of which he was a member. He made a deal with the manager to "fill the place to the ridge-poles" the following year, and then went back to the mainland to make good on his promise. He met with the Unitarians in Boston and then, just to make sure, he went across the street and made a deal with the Congregationalists. The following summer, he had so many at the conference that the staff was sleeping in the bathrooms.
The conferences continued and, in 1915, the Isles of Shoals Summer Meeting Association which Elliott had organized bought the hotel and the island, forming the Star Island Corporation.
Thomas Elliott's original conference still meets today, as the Conference on International Affairs, as do a dozen or more other conferences. The island is like a self-sufficient town, producing all its own water and electricity, as well as a limited amount of produce. There are three separate water systems on the island—drinking water, cistern water for washing, and sea water for sanitary use. The island 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. The island is staffed by a crew of 90 young adults, mostly college students, termed "Pelicans", who live on Star Island for the summer and do everything from transporting luggage to washing dishes, maintaining the generators, weeding, and making beds.
On Star Island there are multiple hotel buildings, the largest of which is the Oceanic Hotel. Others are named for YPRU (Young People's Religious Union), James Caswell, Leland Baker, and Capt. John Smith. There is a marine lab, a floating dock often used by swimmers, two tennis courts, two playgrounds, the "Kiddie Barn" where childcare services are given, an old stone chapel, a scenic gazebo termed the Summerhouse, Vaughn Cottage where the historical records are kept, and beautiful scenery all around. The sunsets are breathtaking; those viewed from the Summerhouse and from the Oceanic's front porch are famous.
Transportation to Star Island was by the steamship-replica Thomas Laighton out of Portsmouth from 1985 through 2004. In 2005 this changed to The Captain's Lady fleet from Rye, causing conference day change-overs to be made in two trips. Service via Isles of Shoals Steamship Company and the Thomas Laighton resumed in 2010. Day trips are possible by boat during the conference season.
The Star Island conference center is owned and operated by the Star Island Corporation, a not-for-profit United States Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) membership organization incorporated in the state of Massachusetts. The corporation also is charged with preserving the Isles of Shoals for future generations. It is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.
The town of Rye prevented the conference center on Star Island from opening on its usual schedule in early June 2007, due to fire safety concerns. In late July, the fire marshal said there were no longer issues to prevent the conference center from opening, and the island opened for visitors in late July, with conferences resuming in early August.
Conferences at Star Island last from two days to a full week and may overlap other conferences. Those in June and July, plus LOAS in August, tend to have a Unitarian Universalist orientation, while those marked "UCC" are affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Other conferences may or may not have a particular religious orientation.
- Young Adults Conference (3–7 days)
- Conference on the Arts (seven days)
- Isles of Shoals Historical and Research Association (ISHRA) (4 days)
- Natural History Conference (NHC) (seven days)
- Youth Empowerment Spirituality and Health (YES) (seven days)
- All Star I Family Conference (seven days)
- All Star II Family Conference (seven days)
- Religious Education Conference (seven days)
- International Affairs Conference (seven days)
- Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) (seven days)
- Star Gathering I (UCC) Family Conference (six days)
- Star Gathering I (UCC) Youth Conference (six days)
- Star Gathering II (UCC) Family Conference (six days)
- Star Gathering II (UCC) Youth Conference (six days)
- Weekend Conference of the Laity (UCC) (two days)
- LOAS Site Life On A Star (LOAS) I (seven days)
- LOAS Site Life On A Star (LOAS) II (seven days)
September conferences and gatherings
- Pelican Reunion (two days)
- Elderhostel I (five days)
- Midweek Retreat I (four days)
- Elderhostel II (five days)
- Midweek Retreat II—Retreat to a Star (four days)
- Granite State College (three days)
- ISHRA September Weekend (two days)
- Writelines (two days)
- Star Women (formerly A Women's Gathering of Renewal) (2–4 days)
- Dover Yoga (two days)
- Star Guilford: Rethinking the Small Church Choir (two days)
- Star Hampshire Traditional Music & Dance (two days)
Getting to the island
Several ferry companies have provided transportation to Star Island. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, Island Cruises, and We Like Whales bring visitors for day trips and overnights or run tours around the island and the rest of the Isles of Shoals.
Gosport Harbor, which is created by the islands and connecting breakwaters, is deep and fairly protected, and moorings are available for visiting boats.
- NH Employment Security - Rye, NH
- Personal Retreats, Star Island Corporation.
- "On Star Island". Harper's Magazine 63: 550–551. September 1881.
- Boats and Parking
- Young Adults Conference
- Conference on the Arts
- Natural History Conference (NHC)
- Youth Empowerment Spirituality and Health
- All Star I Family Conference
- All Star II Family Conference
- Religious Education Conference
- International Affairs Conference
- Star Gathering Spotlight, Star Island United Church of Christ.
- Life on a Star Conference
- Star Guilford: Rethinking the Small Church Choir
- Isles of Shoals Steamship Company
- Island Cruises
- We Like Whales