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Portsmouth Harbor (Wood Island) Life-Saving Station (1908) Kittery, ME

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Visit the Wood Island Life-Saving Station Association

The Wood Island Station was erected in 1908 on Wood Island in Kittery Point, Maine. It replaced an existing 1888 station, the Jerry’s Point Station, across the 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 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. 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 / 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 to 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 the Town, in the fall of 2011, 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 non-profit submitted a proposal to save the Wood Island Station. The Wood Island Life-Saving Station Association (WILSSA) was formed to respond to this request for proposals and 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. WILSSA also offered to maintain the station and island, at no cost to the town of Kittery. 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. Contracts were needed between the parties and progress was slow. 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 a contract between WILSSA and Kittery was approved by Town Council 5 – 1 to allow something of a compromise where WILSSA would restore only the exterior of the building and the grounds of the Wood Island Life-Saving Station. The many issues related to the use after restoration had been the primary impediment to progress so they were put aside with the understanding that after WILSSA secured permits and funding those issue would be addressed.

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 prepared entirely by WILSSA and was submitted on January 22, 2014. The USLSS Heritage Association led an impressive list of supporters for that grant from local, state and national historic preservation groups to the entire Maine congressional delegation and Governor. The grant was awarded May 28, 2014.

In the summer of 2014, WILSSA transported 4000 pounds of materials to Wood Island to create scaffolding inside the building to hold up the boat room 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. This year, 2017, will mark the fourth annual flotilla on Saturday July 29.

In September of 2014 a grant request was sent to the National Parks Service’s Maritime Heritage program for $200,000 that needed 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 to serve as the match. WILSSA had also gathered pledges of $150,000 from private donors. Permitting work for the building and grounds with state and federal agencies was also begun.

 

April of 2015 was a milestone for the restoration of Wood Island Station. The Maine SHPO approved WILSSA’s application for the building to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Also, the National Park Service announced that Wood Island’s request for $200,000 had been approved. Soon thereafter, in June, the funding from the State of Maine was passed into law by the Maine legislature.  

 

The National Register eligibility would not have happened without the help of Tim Dring, Board Chair of USLSSHA. He traveled to Augusta Maine (in March!) to visit with the SHPO in person and made a compelling argument. Wick York also lent a persuasive hand by phone that day. The local building code was not going to allow the restoration to occur as the work was too extensive, unless the building could be designated as “historic” by the SHPO. Tim and Wick’s efforts to help save Wood Island Station will long be remembered. Tim also provided detailed information about the exact rescue craft that served this station.

WILSSA then returned to Kittery through the summer and fall of 2015 taking the position that the October 2013 contract to allow for the exterior restoration only would not suffice. It was time to return to the challenging issue of use after restoration. As the building was now eligible for the National Register, there needed to be close coordination between clean up and restoration of the interior – and that was not allowed in the existing contract. WILSSA demanded a new contract that would allow for the full restoration, exterior and interior, and permission to be able to operate a maritime museum open to the public. What is more, there had been no resolution to the question of long-term maintenance responsibility. WILSSA offered to take care of this rare gem of a building for the term of the new contract. This was, after all, exactly what Kittery had been seeking back in 2011 in its request for proposals.

Again, there was an extended and often unpleasant debate with some of Kittery’s leadership. But in the end, the fact that more than $750,000 had been raised showed that WILSSA was ready for the challenge. Kittery approved new contracts (one for repair and one for museum operation) in a tense vote of 4-3 on January 25, 2016. WILSSA now had the right to restore the Station under the oversight of the SHPO at no cost to Kittery and would be able to operate and maintain a maritime museum for fourty years after the restoration is completed. The National Park Service requested some changes to those contracts before they would also sign off on them. But that too was accomplished.

By April of 2016 contracts had been signed with a hazardous materials clean up firm and a general contractor specializing in historic preservation. USLSSHA’s own Penny Watson had even helped create an inventory of the “historic fabric” inside the building in June of 2015 to inform the scope of work for the clean up and restoration crews. The groundbreaking ceremony for the restoration occurred on June 6, 2016. There is a wonderful video about it on the WILSSA web page. The 90+ year old grand daughter of one of the Station’s builders, Barbara Hauck, unveiled a sign describing all of the Phase One participants.

The summer of 2016 is also described in short videos on WILSSA’s web page. The progress was exceptional. More than 100 tons of debris and new materials were transported to and from the small island in a surplus 75 foot long Vietnam era landing craft. All materials on and off the island were transported in dumpsters. After many sills, the boat room roof, and countless other rotten members were removed and lovingly replaced, a new roof was installed. By the end of the work in mid October there were no windows or doors or exterior shingles, only Tyvek paper covered the Station, but its structure was stronger than new and there were no longer any hazardous materials within.

Through the winter of 2016 / 2017 WILSSA continued to work hard to raise funds and prepare for Phase Two. As of early May 2017, $400,000 has been secured from private foundations. Another National Park Service Maritime Heritage grant is also pending. Contractors are working to respond to a new bidding package that includes the purchase and installation of windows, doors and shingles. The summer of 2017 is expected to finish the exterior and begin work to plan for the museum and finish the interior, hopefully in 2018.

Also hopeful for 2018 is a remarkably creative approach to restoring a historic property. WILSSA and Kittery have applied to the US Department of Defense for Innovative Readiness Training. This is a program for military units from active and reserve forces as well as National Guards to train and practice their skills while also providing valuable services to non-profits and communities. The Maine National Guard is working hard to respond to the application from WILSSA to be able to come to Wood Island in the summer of 2018 and restore the two sea walls, build a pier and restore the historic marine railway. All of these elements have been permitted at the local, state and federal level. If this comes to pass, the complete restoration of the Wood Island Station including the exterior, the interior and the grounds could be accomplished by spring of 2019. That would be 10 years after Kittery first began to call for the Station’s demolition. Of course a long list of things has to occur perfectly for that to happen, but it is wonderful that such a result is even being discussed. WILSSA has begun to tentatively glance at August 4, 2019 – U.S. Coast Guard Day – to host the official opening of the new Wood Island Station.

Plans are underway for building replica rescue craft to use the new marine railway and show the purpose of the Station. WILSSA traveled to Amagansett Life Saving Station in November of 2016 to meet David Lys and learn from the remarkable restoration work there. Dick Ryder has also been a constant source of support and specifics about Duluth type stations from his deep knowledge of Old Harbor Station. The three major tourist boat operators on the Piscataqua River are thrilled with the restoration progress at Wood Island as they plan to bring their customers, for a price, to enjoy the new museum and the island. WILSSA looks forward to transitioning from the fund raising and construction business for the estimated $2.8 million total project cost to the operational phase of this very special museum in a very special place

 

Sam Reid, President
Wood Island Life Saving Station Association