Looking at a map of New Hampshire, I happen to notice that there is a group of small islands just off Portsmouth, and that this splotch of an archipelago is not a private estate or a pile of rocks inhabited only by seabirds, but a town named New Castle.
I am always drawn to the edges of places – peninsulas, river-fronts, neighborhoods where rural towns abruptly yield to wilderness – and islands, of course, have more edges than any other sort of place. Edges are often beautiful, but not always; they invite strangers, and strangeness; they are usually areas you think you can predict, but soon discover you can’t. It’s a habit I’m trying to break, this tendency to escape the center for the outskirts, but that’s not going to happen just yet. First, I’m going to New Castle.
I drive to Great Island, the largest of the group, on a causeway over the Piscataqua River. (The smaller islands have names like Goat and Clampit.)
This is not the type of island that feels entirely cut off from the world, though I imagine it could quickly become so in a storm. Old wood houses, ornamented only with simple historic markers, stand straight beside the road. Shiny police SUVs idle at intersections. There are no sidewalks, and little room for parked cars.
The town center consists of a teensy white post office, a small white library-turned-museum, a medium-sized white municipal building, a large white Congregational Church with eye-catching rows of black shutters, and a little burial ground beside a market. It looks like the setting for one of those novels with hazy, watery covers that I always pick up in bookstores then put back when I realize they’re about three generations of women in a small coastal town.
As I wander around New Castle, I turn off the main road onto a narrow street, which leads to another, and another. Every turn reveals a perfectly lovely house or a water view, but I feel like an intruder in a private world, one full of petty rivalries and whispered accusations. In 1682, the Great Island was the site of a land dispute between tavern-owner George Walton and an elderly woman who lived next door to him – or, if you prefer, it was the site of a summer-long stretch of supernatural attacks on Walton, his household, and property; including the hurling, by unseen forces, of stones and other objects at and around the tavern and its inhabitants. Sixteen years later, Richard Chamberlain, the secretary of the colony of New Hampshire (or, as he called it, the Province of New-Hampshire in New-England), wrote about this in “an Exact and True Account (by way of Journal) of the various Actions of Infernal Spirits, or (Devils Incarnate) Witches, or both” titled Lithobolia: or, the Stone-Throwing Devil. There were other reported instances of diabolical showers of stones in other New England colonies, but this, probably due to Chamberlain’s vivid prose, is the best known.
Trying to get back to the main road, I pass a pretty white house tucked into a corner right on the shore. I notice it because it has little hearts cut out of the shutters, but the tiny plaque on the front says: George Walton, 1647.
I return to the main road and follow it to Great Island Common, where cool salt air hits me as soon as I open the car door. This was, I assume, a common grazing area in the 17th or 18th century, but now it is just a large park with views of distant lighthouses and signs warning against the possession of alcoholic beverages. I look up the park later, curious about its history, but find instead one of the best FAQ sections I have ever encountered:
Can I have a bouncy tent?
Can I play horseshoes?
Can I use golf clubs?
Are there electrical outlets?
What is the water temperature?
Are there sharks in the water?
It is an ocean.
When is high tide?
Twice a day.
Is there an undertow?
I follow the looping road one way, then the other way, then back again. I gawk at the massive Wentworth by the Sea, a grand 19th century resort hotel and spa. I pass the hovering police SUVs and the little post office so many times I start to get paranoid that the locals must be growing suspicious of me.
I find the ruins of the 1808 Fort Constitution, which was before that the colonial-era Fort William and Mary, which was originally a 17th century fortification called the Castle, which gave New Castle its name. A plaque commemorates “the first victory of the American revolution,” the capture of this fort in December 1774. To reach what’s left of the fort, visitors must walk through the paved lot of Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor, following the guideline of a stripe of blue paint. A few people stray a foot or so away from the blue paint, but the Coast Guardsmen chatting nearby do not admonish them.
Within the fort’s gate, a grassy square contained by sturdy brick and stone walls overlooks the Piscataqua and the Atlantic Ocean. The Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, visible just over the walls, watches over the jagged coast. During World War II, a faded sign tells me, this shore was protected by underwater mines and an anti-submarine net. But before that, defenses were the opposite of stealthy. As a New Hampshire State Parks document about the site says, “forts were a symbol of possession: if you controlled the country, you built a fort; if you lost the fort, you were supposed to take that as a serious blow, and think about making peace.” After all, “seventeenth century war was still a kind of game.”
Unless you’re staring at a map, it’s difficult to imagine New Castle as a strategic location. But the Great Island is home to not one but two decommissioned forts. Unlike Fort Constitution, which retains some sense of that gallant, war-as-game era, there is nothing remotely romantic about the remains of Fort Stark, a collection of dilapidated buildings that look like they represent several unidentifiable time periods, none of which you’d want to live in. The abandoned batteries are fenced off and plastered with warning signs. But life goes on around them, as it usually does at the edges of places. As I take pictures, a few couples walk along the rocky beach, and two men haul traps up from the water.
Later, I read that in 2013, a body was discovered at Fort Stark, at the bottom of an elevator shaft. The death was determined to be a suicide. I come across a local news article about this event in which one observer is quoted as saying, “You don’t have things like this in New Castle at all.” Except, of course, you do, occasionally, just like you have the threat of German submarines, and stone-throwing devils.
The chill salt air of the morning has been replaced by a wonderfully sunny afternoon, and with it, an uneasy yet hopeful complacency seems to have descended on America. In the past few days I have heard countless expressions of the idea that, for the first time since January 20, we can now relax and consider that our nation might not be rushing towards its imminent demise. The people on the little beach below Fort Stark certainly seem relaxed, though I don’t ask them. I still feel numb and disbelieving, and afraid of a future that looks like the dystopian historic site behind me, like a ramshackle relic of a war that’s been lost.