How a World War Created a State Park on N.H.'s Seacoast

Sep 1, 2016

Of all the public parks and beaches on New Hampshire’s seacoast, Odiorne Point State Park in Rye may have the most complicated history. For our month-long series Life on the Seacoast, NHPR’s Jason Moon reports on how a world war created a state park.

“If you were looking at the New Hampshire coastline from the water – and you can almost see the whole thing—this is the only green part.”

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR

Wendy Lull is president of the Seacoast Science Center, an ocean-education center located on that green part which is also known as Odiorne Point State Park.

“So you cross the southern border in Hampton: sand, sand, sand, sand. Then you have Rye Harbor you have ‘blip!’ You’ve got Ragged Neck, sand and rocks and the big barriers along Route 1A, and then marsh, marsh, marsh, marsh inland. So this is really the only piece of the New Hampshire coastline that is high enough to be green. So you go ‘hmmm, want do you want here?’”

Today, what’s here is the Seacoast Science Center, surrounded by over 330 acres of state park. There are sandy beaches, forested walking trails, a playground, and open green spaces that are a popular venue for weddings.

But scattered throughout the park are also reminders of times before the park. An ornate stone fountain that sits crumbling alone in the middle of the woods, the remnants of a road that leads nowhere, and enormous concrete bunkers built into a hillside.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Some of these artifacts go all the way back to when the first Europeans to settle New Hampshire landed here in 1623.

It wasn’t long after, that John Odiorne, a fisherman who lived in Portsmouth, came to own the land in 1660. For the next 282 years, the Odiorne family lived on and farmed the land.

By the early 20th century, the Odiornes weren’t alone on the point. The area had transformed from farmland to prime real estate, and summer homes with names like ‘Glen Gables’, and ‘Sea Acres’ had been built along the water.

And it might have stayed that way, except for a world war.

“They told my mother in February, ‘you gotta get it out today and if you don’t get it out today we’re going to burn it.’”

They told my mother, "you gotta get it out today and if you don't get it out today we're going to burn it."

Edward Gage was 22 in 1941 when he learned that his family’s summer home on Odiorne Point was being seized by the federal government. Military planners had decided that to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from the threat of a German fleet, the coastal summer homes would need to make way for giant naval cannons.

Gage spoke to a local historian, Christi Hassel-Shearer, for an oral history project in 1988.

“My mother and father came over and the army had trucks there and they trucked the stuff that they had over to a warehouse in Portsmouth.”

“The army trucked it over?”

“Yeah, it was stored there until the roof leaked in the warehouse.”

Odiorne Point then became Fort Dearborn. Huge concrete bunkers were built to house massive naval guns that could hit enemy ships many miles away. A stretch of iconic Route 1A was closed to civilians and a system of barbed-wire fences and machine gun nests were set up.

Credit nhstateparks.org

Many of the luxurious summer homes didn’t survive the transformation. Others, including the Odiorne’s, were used as barracks for the troops stationed there.

But the fort was built for a war that ultimately never came to New Hampshire’s shore. The massive guns were test-fired only once; their only victims the shattered windows of nearby buildings.

Still, the land remained as Fort Dearborn until 1959, when it was finally declared surplus property.

But rather than being offered back to the original owners, as they had expected, the land was to be handed down a long chain of federal agencies, then the state.

“To me, the government had taken the land at a time when they were stuck with the law, and they changed the law. And dammit all I still don’t believe they have the right to do it, except it’s the government, which makes me very unfriendly about things, particularly about paying income taxes. If I could needle them, I would.”

Edward Gage

Gage, who was by that time a prominent local lawyer, did try to needle them, by taking his case to New Hampshire’s congressional delegation. He even got so far as to get a bill passed in the U.S. Senate that would’ve allowed him and the other pre-war owners to buy back their property. But that bill never made it out of the House of Representatives.

In 1961, the State of New Hampshire bought the land from the federal government for $91,000 with the condition that it be made into a state park.

The original plan for the park included outdoor recreation areas with with tennis and basketball courts.

But years of work by conservationists ultimately convinced the state that the park should focus on its natural habitats. This idea culminated in the opening of the Seacoast Science Center in 1992, and Odiorne Point State Park became what it is today.

“So I’m kind of skating around the real answer to how I feel about it – it is um…”

Which brings us back to Wendy Lull, who we heard from at the beginning of the story. Sitting in her office at the Seacoast Science Center, which itself is built around one of the only remaining pre-war homes, I asked her whether she had any misgivings about the way the park came to be.

“As more of an environmentalist than a real-estate person, I think it turned out really well.”

Maybe it’s no surprise that Lull would prefer this outcome to the land remaining in private hands, but she’s not alone.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

“My name is Harold Odiorne and I’m from Southwick, Massachusetts.”

A few weeks ago, Harold and about 40 other Odiornes met under a large white tent for their annual family reunion at Odiorne State Park. Harold, like every other Odiorne I spoke to, says he holds no grudges when it comes to the seizure of their family home.

“The fact that it’s owned by the state and it’s open as park is very important to us and we would fight very hard if things tried to be developed or privatized in any way. This is our place; I’d guess you’d say. We feel like we’re home when we’re here. No matter whether we live in California and Massachusetts, this to us is home.”

After all, as it stands, the Odiornes have a state park named after them, their historic family home which survived the wars years will be preserved, and they can come back here any time for their family reunions.

It’s almost as if the land is still theirs. It’s just everyone else’s now, too.