The Portsmouth Harbor/Wood Island Life-Saving Station was erected in 1908 on Wood Island in Kittery Maine. It replaced an existing station, the 1888 Jerry’s Point Station, on the south side of the mouth of the Piscataqua River in New Castle, New Hampshire. The building is a modified Duluth-type station, designed by architect George R. Tolman and built by Sudgen Brothers of Portsmouth, NH. It remained active until 1948, when it was replaced by a new station, back again in New Castle, called Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor.
Its life saving duties ended in 1941 when, during the Second World War, it served to protect Portsmouth Harbor and its submarine manufacturing base from Nazi submarines. The Portsmouth Harbor/Wood Island Station was occupied by the US Navy and was part of an extensive network of harbor defenses that included mines, sonar and a massive metal mesh netting that extended from both shores of the Piscataqua River to Wood Island and closed the entire entrance from the river’s surface to its bottom.
The island was declared surplus in 1955 but remained part of the Department of Transportation until the early 1970s when it was transferred to the Dept. of the Interior’s National Park Service. In 1973 it was transferred to the Town of Kittery, on the condition that the Town would maintain the island and keep it open to the public. Unfortunately, the Town lacked the resources to adequately maintain the life-saving station and it was allowed to deteriorate until it became dangerous to island visitors.
Kittery’s Town Council appointed a Wood Island Advisory Committee (WIAC) to review the problem and in 2008 a comprehensive analysis of the site was conducted by University of New Hampshire students. The following year, their Wood Island Feasibility Study was presented. Soon thereafter WIAC recommended to Council the total demolition of the Station building. Fortunately, WIAC did not understand the cost of demolition for Kittery would be approximately $250,000, as State law required the building to be cleaned of asbestos before being torn down. This allowed more time for discussion about preservation. So in the fall of 2011 the Town requested proposals from interested non-profits to restore the Station at no cost to Kittery in exchange for a long-term concession agreement to run a restored Station for the benefit of the public.
Only one group submitted a proposal to save the Portsmouth Harbor/Wood Island Station, the Wood Island Life-Saving Station Association (WILSSA). They prepared a 121-page proposal that offered to raise the funds and organize the restoration work of the station and the grounds to be opened to the public as a maritime museum. Kittery subsequently selected WILSSA. That proposal estimated the cost of asbestos remediation and restoration of the life-saving station exterior and grounds at approximately $1 million. WILSSA also offered to maintain the station and island, at no cost to the town of Kittery, which the proposal estimated to cost $20,000 a year. WILSSA subsequently obtained 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status. The station was listed by Maine Preservation as one of the “Most Endangered Places in Maine” in 2012.
The Town of Kittery, WIAC and WILSSA had discussions, often heated, about the status of the station and island for the next two years. WIAC broke off those talks in March of 2013 and again recommended demolition to Town Council. WILSSA responded with two petitions signed by hundreds of Kittery residents that called for a vote of the people of the Town on the question of demolition. The Town Council declared the petitions illegal in July and refused to hold a Town wide vote.
The Council did not, however, miss the message that the petitions had made and a compromise was reached on October 16, 2013 when an agreement between WILSSA and Kittery was approved by Town Council 5 – 1 to allow WILSSA to restore the exterior and grounds of the Wood Island Life-Saving Station.
As part of that agreement, the Town agreed to apply for a $200,000 Brownfields grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to perform the hazardous material cleanup. That grant application was submitted on January 22, 2014. WILSSA drafted the application on behalf of the Town, and the USLSS Heritage Association led an impressive list of supporters from local, state and national historic preservation groups to the entire Maine congressional delegation and Governor. The grant was awarded May 28, 2014 and will be matched by $40,000 from the town of Kittery. These funds will be sufficient to pay for the clean-up of the hazardous materials.
In the summer of 2014, WILSSA transported 4000 pounds of materials to Wood Island to create scaffolding inside the building to hold up a portion of the roof that was failing. A “Flotilla” was also hosted welcoming recreational boaters to parade out to Wood Island and back to show support for the restoration of the Station. This occurred on a lovely August afternoon and more than 30 boats and 200 people participated.
WILSSA has been working hard to raise $500,000 to restore the exterior of the station, the areas around it, and the sea wall as a first phase. In September of 2014 a grant request was sent to the National Parks Service National Maritime Heritage program for $200,000 that, if successful, will need to be matched dollar for dollar. It too had the support of USLSS Heritage Association, the Maine congressional delegation, the Governor and many other non-profits. Legislation was filed in January of 2015 with the State of Maine for an additional $200,000. WILSSA has also gathered pledges of $100,000. If all goes well, restoration work should begin in the summer of 2016. Permitting work for the building and grounds with state and federal agencies is currently underway.
WILSSA and Kittery continue to work closely together to coordinate the clean-up and restoration efforts. No agreement has been reached as to a second phase of the work, the interior restoration, or to the ultimate use of the building. There is also no agreement in place about long-term maintenance. The compromise of the October 2013 document was that those issues will be addressed after WILSSA has proven itself by raising the funds for the site work and exterior restoration.
Sam Reid, President
Wood Island Life Saving Station Association