Odiorne Point’s Uncertain Future

Posted on October 13, 2023
The Sugden house in 1957, in what is now Odiorne Point State Park.

On the Mouth of the Piscataqua: Unearthing the Rich History of Odiorne Point, Part 8

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Hunter Stetz | History Naturalist, Seacoast Science Center

After World War II, the path to the Odiorne Point State Park that we know and love today was far from clear. Decades passed while many Seacoast citizens wondered what would come of the former Fort Dearborn. Some anticipated commercial or residential development, others hoped its pre-war resort character would be restored, and still others wagered that the locality would forever exist in limbo and become overgrown with brush, bittersweet, and sumac. To say that endlessly hard work is behind the ultimate outcome is an understatement.

As the dust settled from the war, Odiorne Point’s future diverged with Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A) serving as the divide. The land west of the road was quickly considered surplus federal property, whereas the land east of the road was fenced in and saw continued use by federal agencies.

Ralph Odiorne was offered to buy back the Odiorne farmstead but declined. After that, all of the land west of Ocean Boulevard went up for public auction. In June 1949, Ralph Brown of Portsmouth placed the winning bid: $10,750 (equivalent to nearly $140,000 today). Both natural and historic preservation were of great importance to Brown, so the opportunity to uphold both at this home aligned with his values perfectly. An employee of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Ralph also grew up on the Seacoast and studied horticulture at the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts. He slowly restored the home whilst incorporating some modern amenities.

Meanwhile, the eastern side of Route 1A was utilized by the United States Air Force and the New Hampshire National Guard. The National Guard used the facilities around Battery Seaman on Frost Point in 1949 and 1950 before relocating elsewhere. The Air Defense Command unit of the Air Force operated at Battery 204 from 1949 to 1959 to support the Pease Air Force Base in nearby Newington. The radar surveillance station received continual upgrades as technology advanced, becoming known as Rye Air Force Station in 1956. However, as radar technology improved, the amount of people needed to operate the station decreased substantially. Additional budget cuts led to its ultimate closure. After their operations ceased, all of the land east of Route 1A was declared surplus federal property.

Odiorne point aerial view, taken in 1959.
Odiorne point aerial view, taken in 1959.

The closure of Rye Air Force Station provided the first opportunity for all of the former landowners to pursue re-acquiring their respective properties. At the time that their parcels were obtained via eminent domain, “both the written laws and verbal representations of federal agents” indicated that this was feasible. Unfortunately, the Surplus Property Act of 1944 and the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 significantly altered the process for handling idle government real estate. Excess federal property was no longer required to be offered to former owners first, instead being offered to federal agencies, the state it fell within, and the municipality it fell within (in that order). Only if all of those parties declined was surplus federal property offered at auction to the general public. The 20 families that this affected were understandably upset with these new rules. Attorney Edward Gage, a former summer resident, orchestrated several legal battles in hopes of overriding the surplus property laws via congressional legislation. One bill was even passed in the New Hampshire Senate, but bureaucratic hang-ups stalled the bill until it metaphorically “died” before it could become law.

A nature program being conducted in Odiorne in the late 1970s.
A nature program being conducted in Odiorne Point in the late 1970s.

Ultimately, the State of New Hampshire bought all 136 acres east of Route 1A in 1961 for $91,000 ($906,000 in 2023 dollars) under the condition that it would become a state park. This came about, in part, after conservation activist Annette Cottrell (Merle-Smith) urged NH State Park Administrator Russell Tobey to preserve the property because of its educational value and that it was the last remaining undeveloped public land fronting the Atlantic Ocean.

The initial uses of the land were sporadic, makeshift, and by request. Horse shows and Girl Scout camping were a few uses granted by the state. In the meantime, private citizens persistently prodded the state to follow through on their commitment to opening a state park. Odiorne Point finally became a formal state park in 1972. The park was going to be named Fort Dearborn State Park, but many locals advocated for the name “Odiorne Point State Park” to recognize the Odiorne family’s lengthy association with the area.

Various military outbuildings were slowly dismantled in the 1970s, leaving behind only the concrete structures tucked into the landscape to this day. The Peaslee, Waldron, and McKim/Gage homes were left in irreparably poor condition after World War II and were demolished in the 1960s and 1970s. The Gage’s barn also burned down. Even with the changing landscape, the park’s long-term future lacked a clear plan. However, New Hampshire Audubon began conducting nature programs in 1973. Three years later, the Sugden House became the park’s seasonal facility, the Russell B. Tobey Visitor Center, named after New Hampshire’s first State Park Administrator.

By 1985, parties involved in the activities at Odiorne Point State Park also included  New Hampshire Division of Parks & Recreation, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension/Sea Grant Program, and the Friends of Odiorne Point State Park. These strong “public-private partnerships” led to fundraising efforts to construct a dedicated facility built around the Sugden House for education about local ecosystems. $1.2 million (about $2.7 million in 2023 dollars) was raised to construct the Seacoast Science Center, which opened its doors to the public on June 13, 1992. The center and the park have since solidified inseparable importance for nature lovers of all kinds.

Meanwhile, as Ralph Brown grew older in age, he began to part with portions of his expansive property for conservation purposes. In 1989, he gave the western half of the saltmarsh (Fairhill Swamp) to the Rye Conservation Commission and then sold the remainder of his property to the State of New Hampshire in 1993 under the condition that he had life tenancy in the home. This transaction expanded the state park’s acreage from roughly 136 acres to the current 334 acres. Mr. Brown moved into a nursing home in 1999 and passed away in 2001. After his passing, the Odiorne home was remodeled and now serves as the residence of the regional state parks supervisor. Other relatively recent additions to the park include the boat launch and the playground.

And with that, we are caught up to the Odiorne Point State Park of the present-day. It is easy to forget that today will one day be history, so hold onto your memories. Fifty years from now, someone may ask you what the park was like in the early 21st century. 

If you have any memories of the park’s earlier days, we would love to hear them! Please contact us at 603-436-8043 or info@sscnh.org to set up a time to chat.

Seacoast Science Center will be CLOSED today: Friday, April 5, 2024. Our utilities are currently down and need to get repaired before we are able to open for visitors. Thank you for your understanding. 

CLOSED today.

Seacoast Science Center is closed today due to inclement weather.