By D. Allan Kerr
Sometimes, perhaps not often enough, private-sector ingenuity merges with public innovation to create something beneficial to all. This is happening right now at Kittery’s Fort Foster.
On a small island off the end of a long pier running into the Piscataqua River sits the old Wood Island Life Saving Station. This historic old building sat abandoned for decades, crumbling into disrepair and covered with bat crap. A few years ago, local citizens formed a non-profit group to save the station from demolition.
For the month of June, nearly 60 members of the Maine National Guard’s 136th Engineering Company are living in pitched tents maybe two hundred yards inland from the pier. During this exercise they’re rebuilding a large seawall and an historic shed on the island, and installing some plumbing and heating.
For the National Guardsmen, this provides essential preparation for possible real-life disasters, something they call Innovative Readiness Training. For the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, the 136th is providing a priceless contribution in labor and equipment to help make this long-term project a reality. And when the station’s full restoration is finally complete, the general public will have a remarkable – and accessible – reminder of the Seacoast’s insanely rich maritime heritage.
It’s your basic win-win-win scenario.
This past Wednesday evening, my daughter Layla and I brought our psychotic pups Marty and Fletcher out to Fort Foster for some exercise and a chance to check out the action. And right after we exited our Jeep, in one of those moments of perfect cosmic symbolism, a United States Coast Guard cutter happened to cruise past Wood Island en route to its berth at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
What made the scene so resonant is the fact that this station was originally utilized by the hardy men of the United States Life Saving Service, the precursor of our modern-day U.S. Coast Guard. The station opened back in 1908, serving as a home base for the Service’s “surfmen,” or as newspapers often called them, “storm warriors.”
These surfmen were charged with rescuing shipwrecked mariners close to shore, even in the worst of weather conditions. Armored in their signature bulky cork jackets, they ventured into stormy seas aboard wooden rowboats when vessels had run aground or sunk near the coastline.
A native Mainer, Sumner Increase Kimball, created the service and presided as its only superintendent throughout the agency’s nearly 40-year history. The service is credited with saving more than 186,000 lives during its existence.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson merged this agency with the Revenue Cutter Service – which assisted vessels further out to sea – to create the United States Coast Guard.
The station remained under Coast Guard jurisdiction until World War II, when it was turned over to the Navy to serve as a lookout post for Nazi submarines and torpedo boats. Fort Foster, meanwhile, was the site of an Army outpost assigned to protect the coastline and especially the extremely vital Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The shipyard, of course, was cranking out Navy submarines at a record pace for the war effort at the time.
The wooden cribworks you see now leading from the shore to Wood Island once anchored metal, underwater anti-submarine netting installed to prevent Nazis from attacking the shipyard.
How fitting, then, to have the military involved in restoration efforts here. In addition to the efforts of the Army National Guard, the shipyard has donated the use of its boat ramp so vehicles can board the landing craft to deliver two dozen truckloads of material to the island.
But other public and private elements are involved as well, too many to list in total. Kittery officials coordinated with the guard to host the 136th at Fort Foster, and the town’s Water District delivered more than 400 tons of pre-cast concrete block for the 260-foot-long sea wall.
The University of New Hampshire is permitting the overnight use of its pier for the landing craft; local architect Deane Rykerson, who has also championed the project as a member of the Maine House of Representatives, is helping with the planning.
The Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, commonly known as WILSSA, estimates the guard is donating about half-a-million dollars in wage labor, not to mention the savings in vehicles and equipment the group would have had to rent otherwise. But this effort has been a long time coming.
Keep in mind, the folks at WILLSA have plugged away at the restoration since 2009. Kittery officials back then were ready to go forward with a costly demolition of the long-abandoned station until a band of local visionaries stepped forward to preserve the structure, at no cost to the town.
While stations like this once dotted both coastlines and the Great Lakes, Wood Island is among the few still intact today. And WILSSA proudly boasts it is the only existing structure in the whole country with a surviving marine railway, employed to launch rescue craft directly into the water.
The nearly 7,600-foot facility includes a mess hall, crew quarters, a boathouse, a four-level lookout tower and an exterior observation deck. Plans also call for a maritime museum at the site. The group hopes to have it open next summer.
Amazing what can be accomplished when people think outside the box. Again, a win-win-win scenario.
D. Allan Kerr sometimes takes for granted the treasure trove of attractions we enjoy in the Seacoast.
(June 16, 2018)
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