Saving Story Of The Surfmen

By D. Allan Kerr

Back before President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, stations dotting the nation’s coastlines and the Great Lakes were established to aid mariners in distress.

These stations were operated by the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

The hardy members of this agency were called surfmen, and each station was headed by the keeper. When vessels ran aground or wrecked close to shore, these “storm warriors” would venture out into the sea in lifeboats to rescue crew and passengers.

The Life-Saving Service is credited with saving more than 186,000 lives before President Wilson merged this agency with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to create the modern-day Coast Guard.

One such station was located at Wood Island, just off Kittery Point in Maine. Although long-abandoned and now in a state of disrepair, a local nonprofit organization is currently working to preserve this site.

The Kittery station is an “exceptionally rare and historic structure of national significance,” according to Sam Reid, president of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association.

“It is an important part of our town’s history,” Reid says. “And it is an important part of our nation’s history.”

Fascinating Bit of History

In all honesty, as a Kittery resident I didn’t initially understand why these folks have been so committed over the past several years to preserving this weathered old shack near Fort Foster. Now it’s clear that Wood Island is part of a fascinating bit of history mostly forgotten by the public.

The U.S. Life-Saving Service was created in 1878 through the efforts of a native Mainer, Sumner Increase Kimball – born in Lebanon, raised in Sanford, and a graduate of Bowdoin College. He went on to serve as the only general superintendent the agency ever knew, from its inception to the 1915 merger to create the Coast Guard.

The mission of the Life-Saving Service was to aid mariners close to shore, while the Revenue Cutter Service assisted those farther out to sea.

When vessels ran aground or wrecked near the coastline, surfmen of the Life-Saving Service would sally forth in wooden rowboats to rescue those in peril – often at great risk to themselves. Their only armor was the bulky cork life jacket that came to symbolize their mission.

If the sea was too rough for a boat rescue – and the wrecked vessel was close enough – surfmen employed a small cannon called the Lyle gun to shoot a projectile out to the site. A small line attached to the projectile enabled the surfmen to send out a heavier hawser line through a pulley system. These guns had a range of 600 yards.

The equipment was transported by beach cart – usually pulled by surfmen – to the closest point assistance could be rendered.

Once in place, a “breeches buoy” – a sort of life preserver with rugged short pants where legs could be inserted – could be attached to the line and dispatched to the shipwrecked sailor, who could then be hauled to safety by the pulleys.

These surfmen were often fellows who had previously toiled as fishermen or lobstermen themselves, and were well versed in the ways of the sea. The motto of the Life-Saving Service, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back,” says something about their grit.

“Except for the tremendous reward of saving lives, it was a wonder that anyone ever became a surfman,” authors Ralph Shanks and Wick York note in their 1996 book “The U.S. Life-Saving Service: Heroes, Rescues and Architecture of the Early Coast Guard.” “The job was extremely dangerous, poor health too often resulted from the long hours and there was no health care program or long-term disability coverage.”

But especially in the early days of the agency, before television and even radio, their exploits were breathlessly reported in newspapers and periodicals to a fascinated public.

“The Wright Brothers knew them well, poet Walt Whitman wrote of them, and the artist Winslow Homer painted them,” Shanks and York write. “But somehow America forgot about these peaceful heroes.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that, as much as I appreciate history and as fascinated as I am with most matters pertaining to the sea, I was unaware this agency existed until I heard about the efforts to save Wood Island.

And I don’t suspect I’m alone.

Impacts of WWII

Construction of the Wood Island Station was completed in early 1908, built to replace a facility at Jerry’s Point in New Castle, New Hampshire. Other New Hampshire stations were based at Wallis Sands, Rye Beach and Hampton Beach.

Following the 1915 merger, Wood Island – commonly known as Portsmouth Harbor Station – continued to be manned by the Coast Guard. From its completion in 1908 until the United States entered World War II in 1941, the station responded to more than 60 wrecks and saved hundreds of lives.

Records located by the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association – known locally as WILSSA – show that in 1936 alone, the station’s crew saved 91 lives and assisted 176 others aboard vessels in distress.

During the war, the site was turned over to the U.S. Navy as a lookout post for Nazi submarines and torpedo boats. An intricate undersea defense system was installed in the harbor to protect the Seacoast and especially Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where Navy submarines were being churned out at record pace for the war effort.

The defense system included minefields, hydrophones and an underwater mesh net of steel rings that stretched across the harbor to keep submersibles from entering. The wooden cribworks used to anchor these nets can still be seen in the water today, between Wood Island and the beach of Fort Foster.

The system also included a network of secret indicator loops – long lines of cable laid on the harbor floor to detect the presence of enemy subs. The mines were electronic, and could be detonated manually from Fort Foster and Fort Constitution.

“The role that the station played in protecting the Portsmouth Naval Yard in World War II was immense,” says state Rep. Deane Rykerson, who has championed the Wood Island project in the Maine Legislature. “At a time when the yard was building more submarines than anywhere in America, the threat of sabotage was real and present.”

Folks sometimes share an intriguing Seacoast urban legend of a Nazi submarine that was blown up in the harbor by a mine during World War II, but this has never been officially corroborated.

Becoming Kittery Property

Wood Island was returned to the Coast Guard after the war until 1948, when the operation was transferred back to New Castle – at the USCG station that stands today at Fort Constitution.

The existing structure was eventually turned over to the town of Kittery in 1974, with the condition it be preserved for public use. However, little was done with the abandoned site for decades, and it eventually fell into disrepair.

In 2009, a town committee recommended demolition of the building but officials weren’t crazy about the nearly $500,000 price tag of the project, including the cost of asbestos removal required before the building could be torn down.

Shortly thereafter, local citizens formed a nonprofit organization called the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association with the intent of saving the facility – at no cost to local taxpayers.

The town government finally voted in 2009 to demolish the building, but then learned it would have to come up with the $250,000 cost for demolition due to the required asbestos removal.

Shortly after, local citizens formed a nonprofit organization, WILSSA, with the intent of saving the facility.

The station, a Duluth-type structure, was designed by George Tolman and built by Sugden Brothers, out of Portsmouth. Members of WILSSA like to point out that Wood Island is the only remaining station in the entire country with a surviving marine railway, which was employed to launch rescue craft.

Timothy Dring, a retired Navy commander and president of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, points out that the railway was built just as the service was making the transition from rowboats to motored lifeboats.

“As such, the Wood Island station, unlike the older, pre-existing stations, was specifically built to be able to accommodate motorized rescue craft,” he says. “Besides serving to remember the efforts of the former crew of this specific station, the Wood Island station is also one of a relatively small number in the state of Maine that still survive today more or less intact from their time of service.”

His national association has supported WILSSA’s efforts and is convinced the project will produce a restored station in which local residents can take pride, and serve as a “fitting tribute to the service of the many USLSS and USCG personnel who served there,” Dring says.

Just last year, the station was ruled eligible for nomination to the National Registry of Historic Places. This was an important step, Reid points out, as the designation qualifies Wood Island for various protective measures that have allowed historic preservation efforts to go forth.

The local group has so far been able to procure $600,000 in state and federal funding for the project. It recently selected a team of contractors to initiate the first phase of restoration efforts, which will commence soon.

The nearly 7,600-square-foot facility includes a mess hall, quarters for officers and crew, a boathouse, a four-level lookout tower and an exterior observation deck. The town will retain ownership of the island.

WILSSA members have come across more than 50 boxes of material about Wood Island, its surfmen and its history in the National Archives of Washington D.C., and another 34 boxes in the Waltham, Massachusetts, regional branch.

“The copious amount of information available in the National Archives (daily logs, service records of all the men, correspondence, reports for every time a rescue was made) is like a huge treasure hunt,” Reid says. “We have had a wonderful time finding critical pieces of the puzzle.”

Members intend to establish a maritime museum at Wood Island once the structure has been cleaned up and fully restored. This may include regular re-enactments of the breeches buoy drill surfmen conducted every week to prepare for real-life rescue missions.

“Any excuse to shoot off a cannon is a good thing,” Reid quips.

Kittery town officials have given the go-ahead for restoration to go forward, but there are still details to be hammered out. The National Park Service is involved in the process as well. Those who wish to keep up on the project’s status and history can do so at

Rykerson, who represents Kittery in the Legislature, is also an architect. He considers the station a “landmark for the entire New England coastline.”

“To see that small island in Portsmouth Harbor with a building perched upon it is an improbable and unforgettable image,” he says. “I look forward to it becoming an iconic image associated with the town of Kittery.”

(May 2016)

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