by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – On a cool August morning, with a slowly lifting fog, light offshore breeze, more bearable than it’d been for several days, the crew and I showed up at the town landing in Kittery Point. The harbor, both a working and recreational anchorage, was studded with a mix of fishing boats, yachts, and day-sailors. The crew carried our kayaks down an algae-slick ramp, and we met our hosts for the day: Dianne Fallon, adventuress, hiker and paddler, and writing teacher who blogs as “The Maniacal Traveler,” and with whom we’ve filmed before in other episodes. Then we met Sam Reid.
If it weren’t for Sam, we wouldn’t have been here at all. A cheerful, energetic combination of Harold Hill and Teddy Roosevelt, with a background in historic preservation, he’s the president of the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association. During the past ten years, he’s wheedled, inspired, coaxed, recruited, and negotiated millions of dollars in donations, grants, and volunteer labor to resuscitate a crumbling eyesore on tiny Wood Island about a mile out in the bay.
It’s easy for a casual visitor to ignore, amid the crush and bustle of summer tourists, the strategic importance of the mouth of the Piscataqua River. It’s been vital to the military since before the Revolution. The USS Raleigh, which appears on the New Hampshire state flag, was built here in 1776. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard lies just a bit farther in, partly protected in antiquity by forts and batteries in the outer harbor and a sinuous, easily defended channel. A mile out and almost invisible from the docks on Kittery Point, a string of dark, rectangular shapes runs from Wood Island toward the east shore of the bay. They look just like the boulder-filled cribs the old-timers once built in New England rivers to anchor log booms. The structures here also anchored booms, anti-U-boat nets, during the Second World War, when the menace lurked just offshore.
The Wood Island Life Saving Station, built in 1908, preceded the Coast Guard. It was staffed by hardy oarsmen in bulky, cork-filled life preservers when in action. During good weather they were kept busy painting, cleaning, and gardening. During the worst conditions – storms, darkness, cold – they were ever alert for vessels in distress anywhere within their ken. They trundled their sturdy surfboat down the marine railway to the sea and were off. Then, no doubt, as now in the modern Coast Guard, the informal motto was, “We’ve to go out. But we don’t have to return.”
The Coast Guard, created by President Wilson by combining the Revenue Service with the Life Saving Service, operated the Wood Island station through World War II, when the Navy took over. Eventually it was given to the Town of Kittery, which, likely for lack of ideas and funds, let it languish, until it was a collapsing wreck and an outer harbor eyesore, ready to be demolished.
Enter another lifesaving service, composed this time of local defenders of historic places. Right off the bat they ran into a snarl of red tape, regulations, and diverse agencies, each of which, in its own way, had to be persuaded to accede to the restoration of the old station.
Hearing Sam Reid describe the years of negotiations, legal tangles, and slow progress, not to mention his amazing ability to marshal diverse resources – Coast Guard, National Guard, US Navy, volunteer engineers and carpenters, and the all-important cash donations and government grants – I mentally added Omar Bradley to his list of exemplars. He could have organized D-Day.
Dianne and I paddled leisurely out to the island, thankful for the calm sea, while Kiki, riding the accompanying work boat, suffered separation anxiety. We landed on the pebbled beach, which has welcomed multiple barges from the mainland, including eight carrying loaded cement trucks. The National Guard, on their summer deployment, replaced the ruined seawall, pouring a massive base topped with precast concrete blocks. The rotten rafters and roof been replaced. The interior is freshly wired – there are a generator and solar panels out here now – and the original interior trim pieces are numbered for accurate replacement. There’s still a long way to go before the island opens as a museum to the lifesaving service; but already, thanks to an electric storage device, Sam can stand a mile away on the mainland and with his cell phone turn the night lights on and off, illuminating this lovely monument to those old-time saviors of storm-tossed seamen.