By D. Allan Kerr
It’s probably fitting that Winslow Amazeen’s face is obscured by shadow in the only known photo we have of him.
A wide-brimmed hat tilted at a rakish angle obscures his eyes, but you can somehow tell his face is well-seasoned. His posture, arm resting along the back of the bench he sits upon, exudes confidence. He is nattily attired in a waistcoat and jacket, but worn workboots adorn his feet.
We really don’t know much about those from previous generations, giving our ancestors a particular mystique. Maybe a couple of dates, an occupation, names of spouses and children. If we’re lucky, an anecdote or two.
This is especially true of the men who made up the old U.S. Life Saving Service from 1878 until 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson merged it with another agency to form our modern Coast Guard. Winslow Amazeen was such a man.
We know they were a sturdy breed, just from the nature of their job. Like the title character in the current hit movie Aquaman – who is also a Mainer – these surfmen ventured out in the stormiest weather to rescue mariners in peril. They just didn’t have awesome superpowers to protect them from harm.
Surfmen – or “storm warriors” as they were called by journalists of the day – rowed out in wooden boats to pull people from shipwrecks along the coastlines of America and in the Great Lakes. In Portsmouth Harbor, the local station was located at Jerry’s Point in New Castle until it was relocated in 1908 to Wood Island in Kittery, Maine. Stations were also located in Rye, Hampton and on the Isles of Shoals.
Amazeen was one of the Portsmouth Harbor crewmen who took part in the famous rescue of the schooner Oliver Dyer during a raging snowstorm in November 1888. He is credited with saving a fellow surfman when a heavy wave knocked them both from their footing while searching for survivors.
“Every man in this crew came within an ace of losing his life, from the keeper down, so that while they were doing their utmost to save the crew of the wreck, they were in turn saving the lives of each other,” an inspector’s report later recounted.
The body of one of the Oliver Dyer sailors was never found and the vessel and cargo were lost, but four other ship’s crewmen were saved.
The surfmen, headed by the station’s keeper Capt. Silas Harding, were each awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest honor they could have earned for their heroism. The medals were accompanied by a letter from William Windom, the U.S. secretary of treasury serving under President Benjamin Harrison.
The rescue was also captured on multiple canvases by the renowned maritime painter and novelist George S. Wasson.
Members of the Life Saving Service naturally tended to be seafaring types themselves – fishermen, mariners, boat captains. Amazeen was no exception.
The New Castle man was a fisherman both before and after his time with the Life Saving Service, according to his family. He was almost 40 years old at the time of his harrowing experience with the Oliver Dyer, and he doesn’t show up on the Portsmouth Harbor roster after that year.
Newspaper accounts in 1905 list him among the 10-member crew of the two-master schooner A.C. Newhall, which carried a load of cod.
He later worked as a laborer at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and in 1911 the Portsmouth Herald reported that he caught a 50-pound pollock.
We know Amazeen was born in 1848 and in 1871 married Carrie Murray, the daughter of Civil War hero Capt. John Murray who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg. All three are buried in New Castle’s Riverside Cemetery.
According to local folklore, after Amazeen’s pet cat was run over by another local resident he was heard to say, “Goddamn Sue Eaton ran over my Pompey – I wish Sue Eaton and I were in hell!”
Discussing his wife’s operation to have gallstones removed, he once reportedly said – in typical fisherman fashion – “They took fifteen grindstones out of her, some of them as big as your fist!”
He is believed to be some sort of cousin-in-law to Ephraim S. Hall, who married an Amazeen and was also part of the crew decorated for heroism after the Dyer rescue. Unlike his kinsman, however, Hall remained with the Life Saving Service for another 31 years.
In fact, Hall was eventually promoted to keeper and oversaw the transfer of the local station from New Castle to Kittery’s Wood Island in 1908. He also presided over the station’s switch from the Life Saving Service to the newly-created United States Coast Guard in 1915.
David Kaselauskas is a Kittery lobsterman and member of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association, a local non-profit group in the midst of a $3.4 million restoration of the long-abandoned structure.
Like today’s Coast Guard, he notes, surfmen of yesterday were called upon “under the most perilous and hazardous conditions possible.”
“These men had to be some of the toughest and most confident people on earth,” he recently recalled. “With only oars and cork vests they rowed to their destination in mountainous and violent seas to save the lives of other seamen with the ever-looming thought of their precarious situation.”
Amazeen and his wife had no children. He died in 1927.
Descendants of Amazeen’s sister still have his copy of the 1889 letter from Treasury Secretary Windom, and the photo of Amazeen with another local surfman, Ernest Robinson, as well as a fellow named Howard Curtis. One of Amazeen’s family members, the late Fred White, helped write an unpublished history of New Castle.
His family doesn’t know what happened to the medal Amazeen was awarded, but Fred’s daughter-in-law Carol suggests since it was actually made from gold it was likely exchanged for cash during rough financial times. Amazeen was back to work as a fisherman when he died at age 78, according to Carol White.
“Maybe lifesaver was a temporary job and after the trauma of the ship rescue maybe he felt that fishing was safer!” she stated.
Part of the restoration plan for Kittery’s Wood Island calls for the establishment of a maritime museum to help preserve the history of these “storm warriors.” The facility could be open to the public in 2020.
Folks interested in learning more about the project can check out the association’s website at woodislandlifesaving.org.
(Jan. 1, 2019)