New England Preservation: Wood Island Life Saving Station

By Carla Charter

KITTERY,MAINE- Wood Island and the Life Saving Station that occupies it has served many purposes throughout the years, from a Quarantine hospital, to saving lives at sea, to a place to watch for German submarines during World War II. Soon it will serve a new purpose as a maritime Museum, preserving it’s long and storied history.

This story of service began in the 1889 when a hospital building was constructed on the island where Spanish American Prisoners of War were quarantined to prevent the spread of Yellow Fever.  This original building was taken down and in 1908 the Wood Island Life Saving Station was completed and manned. “It was the drama of men getting into rowboats in New England in a storm to save people,” said Sam Reid, the President of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association. In 1915 the U.S. Life Saving Service became part of the U.S. Coast Guard and the station served as a Coast Guard Station until 1941-1942.

With the beginning of World War II, the Navy took over the station and the Army began protecting the harbor, as the Portsmouth Naval Yard at that time was building military submarines. Both contact and directed mines were placed in the water.

A chain link fence was also erected around the harbor, extending down the entire Piscataqua River, reaching all the way to the bottom of it. It was built as an anti-submarine net to prevent German subs from entering the harbor while the fence door would be opened for friendly boats to pass through.  The Navy left the Wood Island Station in 1945 and the Coast Guard moved to a new station in New Castle N.H. in 1948.  “No restorations were done on the building since then. Literally nothing done from 1948 to 2016.”

In 2016, the Association began work to restore the building and turn it into a Maritime Museum. The planned museum will hold videos, artifacts, telling the story of the people who worked there and the important roles they played in the area’s history. “As this was a military building there was an incredible amount of materials …at the National Archives in Washington DC which had 50 boxes and the National Archives in Massachusetts which had 37 boxes, “ Reid said.  “There were reports of wrecks, service records of the men their requisition forms, daily logs, wreck reports.”

The station building itself is unique. It is a “Duluth” type building, according to Reid, so named as the first of these buildings was built in Duluth Minnesota. There were only 24 of these stations built and only 12 remaining. “Only one, besides ours, will be open to the public.”

The placement of the boat doors makes the building even more unusual. Reid explained that in the other buildings, the boat room doors were located on the same side of the building as the lookout tower. The Wood Island building has the boat room door on the opposite side of the lookout tower. “It was built this way as the boat doors were built on the more protected North side away from the ocean,” Reid explained.  While working on restorations, Reid said, “we found an incredibly amazing piece of hardware from the boat room doors.”    The station has a marine railway, a slip which allows boats access into the water, which will be rebuilt as well.

Along with the railway the association will also be recreating one of the boats which was used at the station. “We have found wonderful experts on American Coastal Rescue Craft.  We are planning on building an exact replica of the Beede-McLellan Surf Boat which was launched into the surf to row out to rescue people. When it was delivered in 1914 the boat also had an engine. It represents the transition from rowing only to engine only. It was the first was the first U.S. Life Saving Boat with an engine. No other stations have an active boat with an active railway.”

Restorations are ongoing. The Maine National Guard will arrive in June to rebuild the North Sea Wall as well as to complete rough electrical and plumbing as well as rebuilding another shed on the island which will house a generator and handicapped accessible bathrooms.

The rebuilding project by the National Guard is part of their Innovative Readiness Training exercise. “They have equipment, and there is need to practice training with the equipment. So they are constantly tackling projects for municipalities to continue to be ready and up to date on all equipment,” Reid said.

The association is seeking donations of artifacts for the museum. Anyone who would like to donate an artifact can contact them at contact@woodislandlifesaving.org. Monetary donations to help with the restoration and more information about the project can be found at https://woodislandlifesaving.org

Carla Charter is a historian, blogger, journalist, and author. Her books can be found at Amazon.com