$5.4 million raised for Wood Island, so far!
Historically accurate rescue craft – the Mervin Roberts – restored and launched.
Wooden boat building class at Traip Academy a huge success.
Fireworks food drive raised truck loads of food for local pantries.
After nearly 60 years of neglect, the Wood Island Life Saving Station in Kittery Pt. Maine is well on its way to restoration rather than demolition. Seven years of preservation (2016 – 2022) has provided exceptional results to this Kittery, Maine owned property. The site around the building, including two massive sea walls, the structure of the station, the exterior and interior of the historic building, and the beginnings of fresh / waste water and electrical utilities are all in place. The pier to access the island is now done as is a historically accurate marine railway. The final details of the interiors of the station (finished floors, stairs, paint, bathroom / kitchen fixtures) and the last of the utilities are not yet finished
Approximately $5.4 million has been raised towards what is expected to be a $5.9 million total project cost by the Wood Island Life Saving Station Assoc. (WILSSA) a 501 c 3 public charity formed to help the Town of Kittery to restore and reuse the station. The Town of Kittery has not paid for any portion of the restoration, in accordance with the charity’s agreement with the Town. With adequate funding, the maritime museum that is planned for the Station could be open to the public in the summer of 2023. A historically accurate rescue craft from the 1930s was acquired in 2020. On September 30, 2022 it was launched and eight oarsmen rowed her to the island leading a wonderful boat parade. Then it traveled up the marine railway on its historic cradle constructed from 1920 plans. It is now resting inside the station waiting for spring. She is called The Mervin Roberts!
That boat was given the necessary love and attention by Nate Greeley, a master wooden boat builder in Portsmouth, NH. The boat is not only able to be rowed, but it also has an engine that is fully electric. The entirely sustainable electrons will come from the “off grid” solar panels on Wood Island. Proof has been found that confirms that this exact type of boat was at Wood Island Station.
This life saving station restoration is remarkably rare. There are only a dozen or so life saving stations open to the public in the USA. There is only one other of this architectural type that is open for the public; Old Harbor Station in Provincetown, Massachusetts. No other life saving stations (pre 1915 buildings) in the US have operational marine railways with rescue boats traveling on them. The Wood Island Museum, on its first day of operation, will be a national model of historic preservation.
There is a clear sense of pride in the Kittery and Seacoast community about what has been achieved. There is excitement about finishing the museum and opening it for the public. Perhaps the most serious problem with Wood Island is that it is so hard to land a boat there. Only small craft landing on the beach have historically made the trip limiting the number of people who can visit. The new pier has allowed many more people to come. Having more people able to enjoy the rare Wood Island Station and learn from the exhibits there will spread the message of the brave “surfmen” who risked their lives to help others. It is a powerful message from a lovely building on a small Kittery island.
A team of highly qualified contractors was selected through a public bidding process in the spring of 2016 and started the first phase of the project. Through that summer and fall they worked to clean the building of hazardous materials (asbestos, bird guano, lead paint) and repair the internal structure as well as much of the exterior including an all new roof. The building wasn’t completely restored in the summer / fall of 2016, but it certainly was “saved”. It remained sealed up and wrapped in Tyvek paper waiting for windows / doors and exterior shingles until the spring of 2017. By the fall of 2017 the exterior of the historic station (windows, doors, shingles, trim) was completed and the place looked fantastic, better than new.
In 2018, the Maine National Guard came to Kittery for the month of June and offered their donated labor as an “innovative readiness training” exercise. 60 men and women worked seven days a week for 30 days and accomplished an amazing amount. They rebuilt the north sea wall, the historic shed and installed rough electrical and plumbing throughout the Station. WILSSA coordinated the exercise by providing the permits, plans and logistical support of an 85 foot landing craft! 21 concrete trucks were transported (420 tons of poured in place concrete) as well as 400 tons of precast blocks and, roughly, 500 tons of earth and rock. 1500 tons in less than 30 days were moved! Amazing.
For 2019 a very similar amount of effort was provided by the Maine Army National Guard. The exceptional was becoming the norm. The Guard rebuilt the south sea wall, installed more electrical systems (including internet and live streaming video cameras) as well as more plumbing and even a 50 foot tall “wreck pole” to practice the shooting of a small cannon and line to aid ships in distress. Both the north and south sea walls are 30 inches higher than the historic walls to be prepared for future sea level rise. Also, many tons of fill and gravel were brought to the island to finish off the rough construction site and begin to make the area inside of the sea walls more accommodating for walking. Preparations were also made to install the ADA ramping to connect the station to the shed and the pier.
For 2020 the structures of the pier and marine railway were constructed by Pepperrell Cove Marine. These two massive elements were built out of steel pipe filled with concrete and permanently attached to the ledge. The pier and railway were completed in 2021. The new float for the pier was stored for the winter inside the sea wall by traveling up the new marine railway on a special cradle with train wheels!
This was all set in motion by the Kittery Town Council’s vote on January 25, 2016 to amend the October 16, 2013 “Repair Agreement” to provide WILSSA the opportunity to fully restore the Wood Island Life Saving Station. Also that night Council approved a “Concession Agreement” that allowed the building to be used as a maritime museum open to the public after it is restored. Meetings were held with the Town Council Chairman, Gary Beers, WILSSA and the National Park Service and an agreement between all three of those parties was reached in June and fully approved by Council, WILSSA and NPS in August 2016. Park Service had given the property to Kittery in 1973 so they still had an important role in the discussions.
This enormous restoration progress, so far, has occurred in seven years but has been in the works since 2009 when Kittery began to discuss demolition of the historic life saving station building that it owns. At that time a group of citizens encouraged Kittery to seek partners to help prevent the loss of this rare building. In 2011 Kittery advertised a Request for Proposals seeking non-profits to repair the building on behalf of the Town and enter into a concession agreement to operate the Station for the benefit of the public. Since that time significant funding has been secured – approximately $5.4 million, towards a $5.9 million total project expense. The work to save Wood Island Station is nearing the finish line!
The 2016 agreement did not require Kittery to pay for any portion of the project, with the exception of the hazardous materials clean up. But as will be described below, Kittery did not pay for the clean up either. That was funded by grants from EPA and the State of Maine and WILSSA was the one to secure those grants. That clean up work cost $250,000.
The pride felt by Kittery residents in owning this better than new looking building on a lovely little island has been huge. There are many examples of how this project has helped bring the community of Kittery and the Seacoast closer together. It is WILSSA’s hope that this goodwill will grow in the years to come. That would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of the brave men who risked their lives to save others from Wood Island Station.
One example of that goodwill is a new wooden boat building class that WILSSA raised the funding for. Students from Kittery’s high school, called Traip Academy, began working hard in the winter of 2020. They have been at it ever since. Their first boat, Perseverance, was launched in June of 2022. Susan Johnson of Traip has been leading the class and Graham McKay of Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts has been providing the wood working instruction. The boat that is being build came from plans donated by the US Life Saving Service Heritage Assoc. (a nationwide organization of life saving service experts). That boat was built at Lowell’s nearly 100 years ago and would have been at various life saving station, such as Wood Island. There are no known examples surviving. It is a six oared, three person rowing boat. A second identical boat is well on its way to completion. She will be called “Grace” and the two boats will allow for the students to learn to row and race each other! Future boats are also being planned.
The Town of Kittery owns Wood Island and its historic Life Saving Station. This building was built in 1907 and opened in January of 1908. It was used until 1948 as a place for men and their boats to assist mariners in distress off of the coast on Maine and New Hampshire. Hundreds of lives were saved by the brave “surfmen” of Wood Island Station. During WWII it was used by the US Navy to watch for Nazi submarines prowling the coast. In 2012 it was placed at the top of the list of “Most Endangered Historic Properties in the State of Maine” by the leading statewide historic preservation group, Maine Preservation.
When a committee formed by the Town of Kittery (the Wood Island Advisory Committee or WIAC) proposed demolition of the Station to Town Council in 2009, local citizens began to gather and ask why. The Town had been given the property for free by the National Park Service in 1973 but had not maintained the Station for many years. It had never been open to the public. Demolition seemed to be such a poor and expensive answer. From Kittery’s perspective, the approximately $250,000 cost to clean the building of hazardous materials and an additional $100,000 to demolish it was far too much to manage for nothing in return. Kittery was in a tough spot. They needed help.
After some public listening sessions and substantial back and forth about how to proceed, in September of 2011 the WIAC recommended to Council that a request for proposals (RFP) be advertised to create a long-term concession agreement with a 501 c 3 non-profit to operate the Station for the benefit of the public after the non-profit paid for a renovation. WILSSA was established to respond to that RFP and was the only group to reply. In only 36 days WILSSA registered with the State of Maine as a non-profit corporation, filed an application to be a public charity with the IRS, formed a partnership called a “fiscal agent agreement” with Museums of Old York, drafted by-laws, secured board members, hired an accountant and an attorney, and wrote its detailed proposal to respond to the deadline of Kittery’s request.
The Association’s plan from 2011 remains the same today; to restore and reuse the Station for the public as a maritime museum open seasonally for education and enjoyment. There will be no cost to the Town of Kittery for the capital needed or the ongoing maintenance.
In March of 2012 Kittery Town Council selected WILSSA and its proposal in concept by approving a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with WILSSA to lay out the process ahead and the general ground rules. WILSSA promised in the MOU to provide additional detail to their proposal regarding the costs of the restoration. Both parties agreed to continue to work on finalizing two contracts (Repair and Concession) to formalize both the restoration and the later museum operations.
The clean up of the asbestos and bird guano in the Station was an expensive challenge. The shingles on the sides of the building and much of the flooring would need to be removed. In 1908 when the Station was built, siding paper was asbestos! Asbestos was also used in between layers of the floors. It was used to wrap the pipes for the heating system throughout the building too. Since many of the window sashes had been missing for years, birds (mostly pigeons but also some turkey vultures) had entered the building to nest. Toxic bird guano covered the floors inches deep. Lead paint was also used throughout the building. There was mold. There were underground fuel storage tanks. Poison ivy grew two stories high. Wood Island was an environmental disaster in the middle of the Piscataqua River!
The primary reason that Wood Island Station came to a head in recent years was the persistent, written reminders from the National Park Service that the deed it created with Kittery when the federal government gave the property to the Town in 1973 included a provision that the island remain open to the public. Since the building had deteriorated and the asbestos and unstable structure were in the middle of a small island – a public park – the island had become dangerous to the public. The Park Service, in 2010, even instructed Kittery in writing to close the entire island because the building was such a hazard!
WILSSA created blue prints and detailed specifications for the restoration of the building’s exterior and interior after a number of visits to the National Archives in Washington DC had located the original floor plans. In the summer of 2012, with Kittery’s approval, WILSSA solicited bids from contractors through a public process for not only that first phase, to repair the structure and clean it of all hazardous materials, but also for the complete restoration of the interior. Eight firms toured the site and four responded to the details laid out by architect Deane Rykerson. Three of the bids were very close in price at approximately $350,000 for the clean up / structural work and the same amount for the interior work.
But the work on the building was to be only a portion of the entire undertaking. Kittery’s WIAC requested a plan for the restoration of the site around the Station. So WILSSA hired the marine engineer, Duncan Mellor, to create that plan. The seawalls protecting the Station had deteriorated badly and a portion of the island around the Station, especially on the north side, had eroded significantly. The engineer created a detailed plan for new sea walls and the restoration of the area around the building with new stone, roughly 1000 cubic yards in total. Bids were requested by WILSSA from contractors through a public process for this work and three bidders responded in the fall of 2012. A cost range between $111,000 and $200,000 to construct this plan was found depending if the rock was provided free or not.
Productive meetings with WILSSA, the Kittery Port Authority, and the US Army Corps of Engineers were held regarding the notion of using rock from a proposed dredging project in the Piscataqua River to rebuild the Wood Island sea walls around the Station. That dredge rock could be provided to the island free of charge by the Army Corps. But the timing of that project remained uncertain so WILSSA began to look for other sources of free rock and also began to consider rebuilding the sea walls entirely out of precast concrete block. The block would be a much more expensive option, but it would be nearly permanent.
On November 20, 2012 WILSSA provided budgets to WIAC that combined the restoration of the building, the rebuilding of the seawalls, and the hazardous materials clean up. On that day WILSSA also provided the detailed architectural drawings for the building restoration and the sea wall / site work. The bid documents and responses from contractors were included along with a time line to complete the project called the Plan of Action and a Cover Letter describing all of the materials. What is more, WILSSA sent to Kittery’s WIAC new versions of the renovation and concession agreements.
WILSSA had also begun initial planning for the exhibits that the maritime museum will display. Like at nearby Fort McClary, interpretive signage telling the story of the Life Saving Station’s “Surfmen”, the US Coast Guardsmen who followed them and later the US Navy men who watched for German submarines during WWII were proposed to be created.
The local support for this project has been impressive. For example, on Election Day 2012 WILSSA set up a table at the Kittery Community Center and gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition. That petition said “I support the WILSSA plan to save the Wood Island Life Saving Station.” WILSSA presented this petition for restoring and reusing the Wood Island Life Saving Station to the WIAC knowing that the Station had been recently designated the “Most Endangered Historic Resource in the State of Maine” by the State’s leading historic preservation organization – Maine Preservation.
Unfortunately, the Town of Kittery experienced a crisis of leadership with the resignations of the Town Manager and the Chief of Police both on December 10, 2012. Although the reasons for their departures did not relate to this project, this sort of confusion in the Town government’s leadership created additional delay in allowing WILSSA’s proposal to be discussed. It wasn’t until February 2, 2013 that WIAC met with WILSSA to review the materials that were forwarded in late November 2012. Although WILSSA repeatedly requested meetings with the WIAC, months passed with no response as Kittery reeled from the twin resignations.
At that February meeting, WIAC was favorably impressed by the presentations from the marine engineer and the architect for the sea wall and building work. They also were impressed with the level of detail in the bids that had been submitted to undertake the restoration work. There was agreement that WIAC would begin to review the draft concession agreement and the renovation agreement and provide their edits and comments to WILSSA. These contracts were needed to take the plans and bids for restoration and reuse to reality.
On March 3, 2013 WIAC edits for the concession agreement arrived. They were not acceptable to WILSSA. But before WILSSA rejected them, it responded by asking for their comments on the renovation agreement also. The concession agreement included various provisions that were based in the renovation agreement and the two needed to be considered together, WILSSA emphasized. Soon thereafter, WIAC responded by saying that they were ending this process entirely and recommending demolition of the Station to Town Council immediately.
That notice came by email, as WIAC had consistently refused to communicate with WILSSA by phone. It arrived at 1:00 PM on March 25, the same afternoon as a 7:00 PM Town Council meeting. WILSSA immediately drafted a letter that was hand delivered to each Council member that evening by WILSSA Board member David Kaselauskas describing the Working Group’s faulty conclusions. That letter and WIAC’s email recommending demolition are available here; http://tinyurl.com/lo54cz6 WIAC recommended demolition of Wood Island Station to Council that night but Council did not take any action.
A phone conversation with the Town Council Chair, George Dow, on the follow day confirmed that the various concerns described by WIAC about the project were readily addressed in the renovation agreement – the same document that WIAC refused to review. Council Chair George Dow, a regular attendee of WIAC meetings, admitted that he had never read the draft renovation agreement even though he had supported the demolition recommendation at Council on March 25th. Why WIAC refused to review all the materials provided on November 20th was hard to understand. Why they described their concerns with the project as though WILSSA had not addressed them, in writing, many months before, was even more difficult to grasp.
At the suggestion of the Town Council Chair, WILSSA sent a letter to Council on March 31, 2013 requesting a public workshop meeting so that WILSSA could speak to Council directly about WIAC’s March 25 email recommending demolition. That letter is found here; http://tinyurl.com/ov2wj68
Council discussed this letter at their meeting on April 8 and agreed to host a workshop. On April 13, WILSSA met again with Kittery’s WIAC. There was little discussion about the draft contracts – but the workshop with the Council was scheduled for May 29 at Town Hall from 6:00 PM to 7:00PM.
WILSSA worked hard to spread the word about the “Rally for Wood Island” on the 29th of May 2013. Local artists created posters and put them up throughout Kittery. Media coverage was extensive and there was even a rally in the traffic circle before the event with volunteers holding signs saying “Honk to Save Wood Island.” The meeting was very well attended. The Kittery Fire Marshall expressed concern about the capacity of Council Chambers.
At the meeting, WILSSA laid out a new approach to this challenge. Rather than going back and forth with Town Council and WIAC, who appeared to have little interest in allowing WILSSA to restore the building, turn to the people of Kittery with two petitions and attempt to create a Special Election for all of the voters of Kittery to decide what to do with Wood Island. A video was played describing the petitions. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiGudrU3Bn4
The two petitions said 1) No Town funds could be spent on Wood Island (to prevent the Town from demolishing the station) and 2) The ownership of the island would be transferred at no cost to WILSSA in exchange for a permanent open space easement guaranteeing public access to the island in perpetuity.
WILSSA spent the next few weeks at events such as Market Square Day (June 8), Kittery Ballot Day (June 11) and Kittery Block Party (June 15) gathering approximately 850 signatures on both of the petitions even though only 400 were needed to create a Special Election.
A clear choice was described. Either spend an estimated $250,000 of town funds to clean and demolish the historic station or allow WILSSA to raise the millions of dollars needed to restore the entire place. In either a demolition or restoration scenario the building had to be cleaned of the asbestos, bird guano and lead paint as state and federal law required the clean up.
850 petitions were presented to Kittery within two weeks and the signatures were confirmed by the Town Clerk as valid. The Town Council, unfortunately, soon thereafter hired an attorney to draft a one-page letter saying that the substance of both of the petitions were “illegal”. At another very well attended public meeting on July 9, 2013 Council voted unanimously to toss out the hundreds of petitions and not to schedule a Special Election. Naturally WILSSA, WILSSA’s attorney, and many Kittery citizens disagreed with this opinion. Again the room was packed. Again there was a protest in the Kittery traffic circle. This time it was all carried live by television news stations from Portland.
A small mountain of letters between attorneys was created. But even though the petitions and the Town Charter were, in WILSSA’s opinion, ignored, the local support for them was impossible to overlook. 850 residents had signed them and that fact was irrefutable. WILSSA, largely through WILSSA board member Dean Howells, began reaching out one on one to members of Town Council and in a series of quiet meetings through the summer, found a new path forward.
That new approach meant that Kittery would no longer be recommending demolition, but they would also not be providing a long-term concession agreement either – at least not yet. The agreement was to postpone discussions about what would go on in a restored Wood Island Station until after Kittery secured the clean up funding and WILSSA found the funds and permits for the repairs to the building’s exterior only. This agreement was finalized in a “Repair Agreement” that was passed by Town Council on October 16, 2013.
Importantly in that agreement, the EPA clean up grant could not be spent by Kittery until WILSSA confirmed that it had raised the funds necessary for the exterior repairs. The clean up and repair needed to be closely coordinated to preserve the building. WILSSA would be in control of the repair work and therefore would coordinate the timing of the clean up led by Kittery.
WILSSA felt that this compromise was a good one that would help ensure the restoration of the station. What would go on in the station after the restoration of the exterior would be a subject of negotiations at a later date, but first WILSSA needed to prove it could perform with raising funds and securing permits.
In the weeks following November 22, 2013 when the EPA announced their 2014 Brownfields application process, WILSSA and Kittery’s staff worked well together. The Town Manager, Nancy Colbert Puff, had a master’s degree in historic preservation. The Brownfields application was an impressive one with significant support from many citizens, organizations and elected leaders.
WILSSA drafted the Brownfields application for Kittery, made sure that it was completed by the deadline, lined up all of the letters of support, and then worked hard to communicate with EPA leadership through the Maine congressional delegation and through one on one meetings with senior EPA officials. The Governor, both US Senators, both members of Congress from Maine and a long list of leading non-profits locally, regionally and nationally wrote in support at WILSSA’s request. WILSSA was so pleased that the EPA grant application was approved. The $200,000 from EPA was to be matched by $40,000 from Kittery. The $240,000 was expected to be sufficient to pay for the entire clean up.
Through the spring and summer of 2014, additional strong progress was made. Kittery agreed to allow temporary repairs to be made by WILSSA to install scaffolding to hold up the section of roof that was collapsing. That work occurred in mid July and was paid for in full by WILSSA. The permitting for the clean up was approved by Kittery and permitting for the exterior repairs was discussed with the Kittery Code Enforcement Officer over a period of months.
The Kittery Zoning rules, however, remained a serious challenge. There was wording that said a “substantial reconstruction”, defined as more than 50% of the value of the structure, meant a building needs to come up to modern building code. Wood Island Station had little or no value as it was filled with hazardous materials and was in poor condition. Restoring it would certainly cost more than 50% of its minimal value. What was more, it couldn’t come up to modern code because it was far too close to the water and the island, the lot, was too small for the building. An exception for the substantial reconstruction rule, however, would be available if a building was formally designated “historic” by the State of Maine. Wood Island Station, however, had twice been rejected for that designation by the Maine State Historic Preservation Office because of the building’s poor condition of repair. Resolving this issue presented a serious challenge for the entire undertaking.
On August 9, 2014 WILSSA hosted a “Flotilla” that was a parade of more than 30 boats and 200 people from Pepperrell Cove out to Wood Island and back. All mariners of the seacoast region were encouraged to follow along behind the Gundalow Piscataqua on an afternoon sail to show support for restoring the Station though a really fun poster that was created free of charge by the local artist Bob Nilson. 150 of the posters were spread over the surrounding communities. The weather was good and the press coverage excellent.
On September 23, 2014 WILSSA submitted a request to the National Park Service and their National Maritime Heritage grant program for $200,000 to repair the exterior of the Station. That application also had the Governor, both US Senators and both members of Congress from Maine and an impressive list of leading non-profits writing strong letters of support. WILSSA worked hard in Washington DC to lobby for its approval, as it had for the Brownfields funding.
This Park Service grant program was ideally suited for this project. It specifically listed life saving stations as eligible for the funding. What was remarkable was that the program had existed since the late 1990s, but had only awarded funding for grants once. The fact that the program announced that a new round of grants would be made at exactly the time that Wood Island was seeking funding was extraordinary.
These federal funds needed to be matched by WILSSA dollar for dollar and together with the Brownfields grant, would be sufficient to clean the building and repair the structure. In other words, with a successful Park Service grant and match the funding condition of the agreement from October 2013 would be met. That could allow the conversation between Kittery and WILSSA about next steps for restoring the interior of the building and the future use and maintenance of the Station to begin. It was big news when the National Park Service awarded the $200,000 to WILSSA in April of 2015.
Legislation from the State of Maine to pay for an additional $200,00 in matching funds for the Park Service grant was filed in January of 2015. LD 300 was the number of the bill and it enjoyed unanimous and bipartisan support in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Representatives of WILSSA traveled to Augusta to testify in support of the measure on February 23 along with the three leading sponsors; Senator Dawn Hill, Rep Deane Rykerson and Rep Bobbie Beaver. Soon thereafter the bill was voted out of committee with unanimous support. In April of 2015 the bill was approved by both the full House and full Senate. It was included in the budget of the State of Maine in late June and passed into law on June 30. Governor Paul LePage vetoed the Wood Island spending, but his veto was overridden.
Although various concerns had been expressed over the years by Kittery and WIAC about restoring and reusing Wood Island Station, all of the largest concerns from the past had been addressed. Most important of these was the Brownfields, State of Maine and Park Service funding needed to clean and repair the structure of the Station. Combining the EPA the Park Service and the State of Maine money with private dollars raised by WILSSA totaled $740,000. This was exceptional progress in the 16 months since the October 2013 agreement was signed.
No reference to maintenance, however, was included in the October 2013 “Repair Agreement.” Kittery had repeatedly expressed no interest in paying for the upkeep of a restored life saving station on Wood Island, and their track record of neglected maintenance in the past excluded them from any serious discussion about responsibility for the newly restored asset going forward.
WILSSA, as the recipient the National Maritime Heritage grant from Park Service, was required to have a long-term (20 year) maintenance agreement between the property owner (Kittery) and the State of Maine to receive the funding. WILSSA, however, still expected to be the one to pay for the maintenance. Therefore, WILSSA needed to be able to create income from visitors to a fully restored Station to pay for that ongoing maintenance. There was a need for a formal operating agreement.
That agreement would be a win / win for all. Paying a fee to visit the restored life saving station at Wood Island would be the best outcome for the building and an excellent result for Kittery’s taxpayers. It will also create jobs and provide another destination in Kittery for visitors and residents to enjoy.
The Kittery Town Council, on August 10, 2015, approved a 20-year maintenance covenant to the deed and took responsibility for maintenance of the restored exterior of the Station. This responsibility was formally passed along to WILSSA in the new Repair Agreement finalized on January 25, 2016. At that August meeting, the Town Council also voted to disband their own advisory committee, WIAC, and allow the Town Manager and the President of WILSSA, Sam Reid, to work one on one to finalize the new Repair Agreement and a Concession Agreement. This was enormous progress.
The funding condition for the October 2013 agreement had been met, and so too had the permitting condition. On April 21, 2015 the Maine State Historic Preservation Office approved an application from WILSSA for the building to be “eligible” for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The drafting of that application brought together leading national experts on life saving stations. On March 11 a delegation of historic preservationists traveled to Augusta to meet with the Maine SHPO staff and make their case for “eligibility”. It was a challenging discussion because the SHPO had twice (in 1986 and in 2005) rejected similar applications. But the detailed research and the persuasive arguments of the life saving experts were convincing.
For example, two other similar life saving stations have been restored by the National Park Service in recent years. The Park Service created extensive documents describing those restorations called “Historic Structures Reports.” For one of them they also created a “Historic Furnishings Report.” That information has helped act as a road map for restoring the Wood Island Station. Also as part of the research of Wood Island, the original heating plan, septic plan and structural plans for the building and marine railway have all been located. The details of exactly what boats were stationed at Wood Island have been gathered. The service records of every person who served there was now available. The daily logs for the Station have been found and reviewed. Every time an emergency occurred a “Wreck Report” was generated. All of those reports have also been located and photographed. This quantity of primary material is impressive and continues to grow.
Wood Island Station is a “Duluth Type” which is a specific architectural design first built in Duluth MN in 1894. There were only 28 of them ever constructed, and only 12 remain. In Maine there is only one other Duluth Type station besides Wood Island. It is in Biddeford Pool but has been substantially changed and is used as a private home. Wood Island Station is not only of a rare architectural type, but it is very special because the site of that small island was used in a unique way. Instead of the doors to the boat room facing towards the ocean on the same side as the watch tower, as is done in every Duluth type station – and in every life saving station of any design – Wood Island’s boat room doors open to the rear of the building. This is because the water to the north is more protected than the water to the south. This is the only life saving station that has such a design.
What is even more noteworthy, through the research for that application it was learned for the first time that Wood Island Station is the last remaining life saving station of any design anywhere in the USA that has a marine railway. A few other stations have marine rails connecting separate boat houses to the water, but none are connecting the station to the sea. There are also a few with marine railways from the early US Coast Guard period soon after 1915, when the Coast Guard was founded. But as for life saving stations, this is the last one with a marine railway connected to the station. Obviously restoring not only the station but also the marine railway would be a very rare and exciting thing. It is fair to say that original research that moved the body of knowledge of life saving stations forward was generated by this application. It was an excellent work product. And the more we learned about Wood Island Station, the more we found special and important it really is.
The “eligibility” designation meant that the local building permit problem had been resolved. The “substantial reconstruction” issue was removed. It also meant that the flood insurance required by the National Park Service funding would be far cheaper.
The eligibility application with many interesting photos, charts and history is available for reading here: http://tinyurl.com/odevjav
Through the fall and into the winter of 2015 the Town Manager and WILSSA President continued to do two things; work on the bid package for the work of the clean up and the repair and try to finalize drafts of a new Repair Agreement and a Concession Agreement. A site visit was hosted on October 6 for contractors interested in the project and they were encouraged to submit their qualifications. Also, drafts of the Repair and Concession Agreements reached Town Council in time for their December 14 meeting. At that time, however, a “legal review” was sought by the Council. That review missed its deadline of January 11 Council meeting and barely was ready for the January 25 meeting.
But at the January 25 meeting, Council was presented with two competing choices. A version of the documents from the Town’s Attorney, Duncan McEachern, and version of the documents from WILSSA. After significant support was given by residents during that meeting and after showing that the concerns of the attorney were not significant, the Council voted to pass both contracts supported by WILSSA 4 – 3. It was a close vote and a disorganized and divisive process, but thanks to a majority of the Kittery Town Council, WILSSA came through with the contracts it had requested. And the timing of that vote was critical. Without approval that night there would have been no way to advertise the bid package to the public and be ready to start the work in the spring. Without a spring start, the amount of time necessary to do the work would have run out before the heavy weather of fall arrived.
The contractors were selected and the project ran from early June to mid October. The clean up was successful and showed that the condition of portions of the building were even worse than had been expected. Sills had to be replaced in approximately half of the building and the entire boat room roof was replaced with new timber. But many pleasant surprises also occurred. The foundation was in fine condition, most of the largest timbers in the structure were able to remain in place and even some original window frames and doors were found in the attic.
A serious problem arose at the last moment and threatened the entire project. The consultant that had been working with WILSSA to write the Brownfields application requested additional funding. Although a contract existed between Kittery and Ransom Environmental for $30,000, they wanted a total of $50,000 or they would not complete their work. Even though the budget for the clean up was $240,000 ($200,000 from EPA and $40,000 match from Kittery) the Town, it turned out, did not intend to provide cash for its portion. It planned to use “soft match” or even use dollars already raised by WILSSA as the match. In other words, there was a shortfall to pay for both the contractors to do the clean up and the consultant. The State of Maine’s Office of Economic Development, at WILSSA’s request, provided a $50,000 grant to help the Wood Island project move forward. This meant that the Town paid nothing for the clean up of Wood Island.
In the fall of 2016 WILSSA applied again to the National Park Service for another $200,000. WILSSA also applied for assistance to the Maine National Guard and the Department of Defense. The exterior work was completed in the summer of 2017 with new windows, doors and exterior shingles being installed. But it almost did not come to pass. The new Trump administration was slow to release their decisions about funding from the National Park Service. In 2015 the announcements had been made in April. But April of 2017 came and went with no indication of funding. WILSSA had managed to raise the required match of $200,000 from Kennebunk Savings Bank ($25,000) the Davis Family Foundation ($25,000) and an anonymous donor ($150,000). But without the $200,000 from Park Service, or some other source, there could be no work begun in 2017.
It all came to a resolution in a very unlikely way. Tom Haas is a philanthropist who had heard of the Wood Island Station project and expressed interest in visiting and learning more. He came to visit on May 8, 2017. The following day a site visit was planned for interested contractors willing to bid for the work. With great humility, Tom asked if he could help since the decision on the Park Service $200,000 had been delayed. He offered to pay for the needed $200,000 on the spot. The site visit went ahead as planned and a contractor, Don Walden, was soon selected to get to work. A total of $450,000 was raised and spent in 2017 bringing the total expended on Wood Island’s restoration to $1.2 million.
That application to the Park Service, ultimately, was rejected. So the fact that Tom Haas assisted when he did became even more significant. For 2018, WILSSA applied again to Park Service for $200,000 and also applied to the Pentagon and Maine National Guard. The intention is to have the Maine Guard come to Wood Island and rebuild the north sea wall, the historic shed and install rough electrical and plumbing in the building. WILSSA would need to provide the materials and the Guard would provide their valuable labor free of charge.
Tom Haas returned in October 2017 to see the progress that his generosity had allowed. He was really pleased to see the exterior looking brand new. He was also pleased that WILSSA had managed the project to within a few thousand dollars of its intended capital budget of $400,000. The windows, doors and shingles all installed as well as WILSSA’s ability to perform so professionally showed him that his decision to help WILSSA out of a jam had been a good one. He offered to help with additional funding.
A new grant from Tom Haas for $250,000 was announced in February of 2018. This timing was critical as the many materials needed for the Guard would need to be purchased. WILSSA had finalized the design using Duncan Mellor for the north wall. It would have 270 precast concrete blocks each weighing 3,200 pounds. Another 630 tons of rock and earth (353 cubic yards) would be used behind the wall to rebuild the north area of the island that has been lost to erosion. Of course, the logistical challenges of transporting approximately 1,000 tons of rock and block was quite daunting. But it was also a really fun challenge.
Also planned for the Maine Guard was the work to rebuild the historic shed that would be used for solar panels and a diesel generator to power the electrical needs of the Station as well as a handicapped accessible bathroom. The Guard would install the electrical and plumbing systems for the buildings in June of 2018 as well.
The many last details of the approval for the project were secured through the fall and winter of 2017 / 2018 from the Kittery Planning Board. Although far from a smooth or easy process, there was strong consensus among the Planning Board that Kittery’s Building Code allowed for the Station to be used as a maritime museum for the public. They also agreed that Code permitted overnight stays and that the Station could be rented. In short, all of the complex elements of the January 25, 2017 Concession Agreement were reviewed and confirmed by the Kittery Planning Board. With a few exceptions (building permits), there would be no more permissions needed from state or local entities to fully restore and reuse Wood Island Station.
The final design for the pier has been completed and all permits for that work were in hand. Still to come was a rebuild of the south sea wall, the construction of the marine railway and the finishing the interior of the building. Planning for the museum itself had begun. A consultant laid out the location of various exhibits.
The Maine Guard returned in the summer of 2019 and took on the south sea wall, the wreck pole, as well as additional electrical and plumbing work. Again, Tom Haas was a critical funder to this success. His foundation provided the money necessary for the materials for the south sea wall. He also provided a match for $200,000 in gifts from others. WILSSA raised that funding and used the proceeds to pay for the diesel generator, solar panels, inverters, batteries and battery chargers. This fully off grid system powered five live streaming video cameras and internet service to watch the cameras on the web. By fall, it also gave power to exterior lights that began to shine in the evenings. For the first time since 1948 lights illuminated Wood Island Station.
The value of the Guard’s labor in 2018 was $623,000. Another $400,000 was raised and spent on materials and other expenses. The Guard labor in 2019 was $465,000 and approximately $300,000, was needed for materials.
A memorable evening occurred on August 3, 2019. The US Coast Guard barque EAGLE arrived into Portsmouth Harbor with a massive parade of boats. Members of WILSSA’s board were invited aboard for that parade while others waited on the island for the ship to pass. Cannons were fired from Wood Island in welcome and EAGLE answered with her own cannon reports. The national ensign was lowered at Wood Island as EAGLE passed and EAGLE also dipped her flag in response. For the August 3 event, WILSSA was loaned the use of EAGLE and 130 friends and supporters gathered to enjoy kind remarks from EAGLE’s captain, Mike Turdo, and USCG Admiral Andrew Tiongsen. It was the birthday of the USCG, so WILSSA brought a cake to celebrate with the USCG logo!
Since the beginning of the project, it has been a fundamental principle that the Wood Island Station will be restored fully, opened to the public, and maintained at no cost to the taxpayers of Kittery. But in the fall of 2019 a member of Kittery Town Council, Ken Lemont, called with a new idea. What if Kittery helped to pay for the pier, a $500,000 expense? WILSSA was open to discussing the idea and worked to provide the Council member additional information. It was expected that a public hearing would occur in the month of March 2020 to discuss putting this idea on the June ballot for the voters of Kittery to decide. But as that date approached, it was clear that the majority of the seven person Town Council was not going to move ahead with allowing the voters of Kittery to have their say. The hearing was canceled at the request of Ken Lemont. Within days, the Covid pandemic changed so many things, including the financial priorities of the Town of Kittery.
Besides the Town Council’s reluctance to allow a vote of the people, it is fair to say that WILSSA has relieved Kittery of a serious liability ($350,000 worth in 2010 / 2011 dollars or $416,000 today) for the hazardous materials clean up and demolition costs combined. The restoration of Wood Island Station will also create a real economic benefit for the community for years to come. And along the way, so many people have come to understand how special Wood Island Station really is. This challenging project has also generated real pride in what can be accomplished. Few thought the restoration was even possible. What had been an eyesore is now a gem.
In 2020, approximately $375,000 was spent on the new pier and marine railway structures. Through the winter additional fund raising and purchases of the gangway and float were undertaken. The pier was completed in early 2021 and the marine railway wasn’t far behind. The other big news item of 2020 was the acquisition of the Mervin Roberts, a late 1930s rescue craft used until the mid 1960s by the Coast Guard at their station at Burnt Island, Maine – near Port Clyde. Through 2021 the complete restoration of the boat was underway at Nate Greeley’s small shop in Portsmouth New Hampshire’s Button Factory.
Extensive research (thanks to Tim Dring of the US Life Saving Service Heritage Assoc) uncovered that this boat is a “Type SR pulling surfboat” built at the Curtis Bay Yard just south of Baltimore, Maryland. Only 110 were ever constructed and only five remain. This one is believed to be the only one that can still be used in the water! She is 25 feet 6 inches long and over 2,000 pounds. What was even more remarkable, through the research to learn about this boat, it was discovered that Wood Island Station had had a Type SR pulling surfboat. So, the Mervin Roberts, when traveling on the restored marine railway, will be historically accurate and perfect.
The access to the island improved exponentially with the new pier and the Gundalow “Piscataqua” made three visits to check out the new float. More than 130 people from New Castle came to visit over five events in the later summer of 2021. The lovely boat Utopia was chartered to bring these visitors in style. More than $930,000 was raised including $104,000 of in kind donations. Approximately half of that in kind donation was the Maine Army National Guard returning in August with 30 men for a week to build the ADA ramps connecting the pier to the building and the building to the shed.
Through 2022 Preservation Timber Framing Company owned and led by Arron Sturgis took on the challenge of restoring the interiors of Wood Island Station. $640,000 was spent on sheetrock, plaster, interior lighting and extensive historic trim installation. The remarkable part of that story was that in 2016 when the station was cleaned of hazardous materials (largely asbestos) the many examples of historic trim (windows, door frames, baseboards) were removed and stored. Seven years later the historic trim was brought out of storage, cleaned of lead paint, and brought back to the island. What had been lost or destroyed was copied exactly. The building’s interior looked like a museum to fine carpentry work.
The launch of the Mervin Roberts at the end of the 2022 season was a huge milestone for the project. More than 40 boats followed the eight oarsmen who rowed the boat to the island. Once there the boat was placed on the cradle and pulled up the marine railway. None of these things had been done since, at least, 1948! And certainly no one living had ever seen the result. The gorgeous vessel was pulled into the building, just as would have been the case from 1908 to 1948. It looked fantastic and was a one of one in the nation.
The Rear Admiral for the USCG First District, John Mauger, had requested to be able to row in the boat. He provided remarks at the event on the island after the USCG Chaplain, Floyd Grace, gave a blessing. Water had been brought from the Connecticut River, the home of the boat for more than 30 years. Mervin Robert’s daughter, Edith Main, poured water into the river to demonstrate respect for mother nature while the previous owner, David Smith, poured water over the bow. Sam Reid drank some of the water at the request of the wooden boat builder who had managed this rebirth, Nate Greeley. Nate was given a gift by WILSSA of a gold medal for life saving, a historic relic from the late 1800s. It will be displayed in the museum.
The hard work of saving Wood Island Station will soon be on display as a maritime museum in a lovingly restored historic life saving station with a functioning marine railway with historically accurate rescue craft. It will be exceptional as only a dozen or so life saving stations are available to the public nationally. WILSSA’s hope is that this historic preservation success will encourage others to cherish and preserve the many other historic properties that are, from time to time, in jeopardy and in need of a helping hand. Wood Island has already begun to help bring the Kittery community closer together and will be working hard in the years ahead to continue to grow that wonderful outcome.
A great example of bringing the larger community together was on display on August 6, 2022. WILSSA paid for a professional fireworks show to honor the Coast Guard’s birthday. Supporters gathered on Wood Island while spectators filled New Castle’s Great Island Common and Kittery’s Ft McClary. All attendees were asked to bring non perishable food and truck loads were donated to the local food pantries, Gather in Portsmouth and Footprints in Kittery. At the end of the fireworks show over 1,000 cell phone lights were held up by the spectators and shined towards Wood Island as a “thank you”. It was a remarkable evening.
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