Kittery Maine 375th: Fireworks to celebrate Coast Guard birthday and Wood Island legacy

·8 min read

This article is part of a monthly series celebrating Kittery’s history, as Maine’s oldest town counts down to its 375th birthday

On one side of the Piscataqua River stands the Coast Guard station in New Castle, New Hampshire, currently serving the region of Portsmouth Harbor and beyond.

On the other side of the river, on a tiny island just off Kittery Point, Maine, stands a former station of what was once known as the U.S. Life Saving Service. One might call them mirror reflections of the present and the past, as the surfmen of the Life Saving Service aided mariners in distress before the creation of the Coast Guard.

Wood Island Life Saving Station
Wood Island Life Saving Station

On Saturday, Aug. 6, fireworks over the Piscataqua will mark the Coast Guard’s 232nd birthday. Given the long and storied history of this unique military branch and its predecessors here in the Seacoast, there aren’t many locations better suited for such a celebration.

And it’s lyrically fitting the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association is sponsoring the celebratory fireworks on Aug. 6, which is also tied in to Kittery’s yearlong 375th birthday celebration.

The Life Saving Service was a much-celebrated agency in its time. Acclaimed Maine painter Winslow Homer loved creating images of the surfmen on canvas. Poet Walt Whitman wrote about them. Periodicals and newspapers of the day glorified their exploits.

At various times, life-saving stations were located in Hampton, Rye and New Castle, as well as the Isles of Shoals and tiny Wood Island, based offshore of Kittery Point’s Fort Foster. But I’m willing to bet even here in the Seacoast many folks would not have known about the Life Saving Service if the town of Kittery hadn’t decided to demolish the decades-empty Wood Island structure back in 2009.

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Instead, a nonprofit group now locally known as WILSSA was created to restore the former station, a process that is still ongoing. The plan is to eventually have a maritime museum at the site as well, to keep alive the legacy of the surfmen.

Rye surfmen back in the early 1900s.
Rye surfmen back in the early 1900s.

These hardy gentlemen were called surfmen because even in the stormiest of seas, they would set out in wooden rowboats to rescue those whose vessels had smashed upon rocky coastlines like that of our Seacoast. Their gritty motto – “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back” – gives you an idea of the occupational hazards they faced.

In keeping with the surfmen’s legacy of helping others, those attending the Aug. 6 display are being asked to bring non-perishable items to donate to local non-profits. Footprints Food Pantry Executive Director Megan Shapiro Ross says a van will be on hand at Kittery’s Fort McClary that night to collect donations. Footprints listed its top needs as olive oil, canned chicken, laundry detergent, maple syrup, pancake mix, toilet paper, unsweetened almond milk (shelf, not refrigerated), black tea and regular ground coffee.

Likewise, Great Island Common will also be open across the river so folks can watch the fireworks from New Castle, New Hampshire, and volunteers with Gather, a Portsmouth-based agency fighting hunger, will collect items there as well. Most needed items, according to Gather, are condiments, baking items and soap.

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In addition, the Piscataqua Rangers Junior Fife & Drum Corps is expected to perform the national anthem at the start of the Aug. 6 event, at Fort McClary. The fireworks are being launched from a barge in the river.

WILSSA President Sam Reid says the event’s theme could be called “Helping Others Then and Now,” in recognition of the selflessness of both the Life Saving Service of the past and the Coast Guard of the present.

The celebration not only marks the birthday of this organization, but also highlights its special connection to Kittery, and the Seacoast. Daniel Benoit, commanding officer of the Portsmouth Harbor Station in New Castle, expressed gratitude this week for local efforts “to acknowledge our heritage and the professional work of the Coast Guard men and women in our area.”

“It’s events like this that truly make the crew and our families feel at home in the Seacoast,” he said.

Although considered more than two-and-a-quarter centuries old, the Coast Guard wasn’t formally established until 1915.

Its roots do indeed go back to Aug. 4, 1790, when a very young Congress authorized the construction of vessels, or cutters, to enforce customs laws and collect revenue. Originally known as the Revenue-Marine, it was the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who more than two centuries later inspired a pretty rockin’ Broadway classic.

Coast Guard's birthday

So Aug. 4 is considered the official birthday of the United States Coast Guard.

In 1863, Hamilton’s agency was renamed the Revenue Cutter Service, according to the Coast Guard’s website.  A separate branch known as the Life Saving Service was created in 1874, primarily to assist shipwrecked sailors and passengers. In January 1915, the two agencies were wedded to give birth to our modern-day Coast Guard.

Construction of the life saving station at Wood Island was completed in 1908. After the 1915 merger under President Woodrow Wilson, the station remained in operation as part of the Coast Guard. Ironically, the Wood Island station was built after the Jerry’s Point station in New Castle was taken over by the Navy – in the early 1950s, Wood Island was closed when the Coast Guard relocated back to a new station in New Castle.

One particular incident from 1920 illustrates the way of life for these brave men in the early days of the Coast Guard.

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The keeper, or man in charge at Wood Island, was named Charles Abraham Hand, a longtime Seacoast fixture. In May of 1920, he led a crew of surfmen responding to reports of a boat which had capsized in heavy seas here in the harbor. Upon arriving at the scene, Hand came upon the body of his own son-in-law, Sherman Parker, who had wedded Hand’s daughter just six months before.

Parker, only 20 years old, had seen action on the front lines of France during the First World War. Driving a team of mules carrying supplies to the trenches over muddy terrain, he had survived several close brushes with death, including one explosion which killed both his mules, according to news accounts of the day.

Having served his country in time of war, the young man sought to serve during peacetime as well. Upon his return home from the Army, he became a surfman in the Coast Guard, as had both his father Alonzo and his father-in-law. He was stationed at the Isles of Shoals, and on that fateful day in May was carrying supplies in a four-man boat for his fellow crewmen when a sudden squall overturned it. Two others died as well.

Parker’s daughter Mary was born several weeks later.

These are the kinds of stories members of WILSSA would like to preserve in their museum.

“They were all about helping others,” Reid recently said of the surfmen. “They didn’t even know who these people were.”

To date, the group has raised roughly $5.2 million in grants, donations, in-kind contributions and the like in their effort to restore the station which just a few years ago was literally falling apart. The total cost of the project is about $5.8 million.

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The structure looks nearly completed from the outside, and much of the sheetrock has been installed inside. A long new pier for docking is now in place and seawalls have been erected on both the north and south parts of the island.

Preservation Timber Framing out of Berwick, Maine, took apart the old station back in 2016 and has been storing much of the trim and baseboards and window frames in the years since. Now, says Reid, they are bringing those items back to reinstall in the new station.

Those that can’t be used anymore will be replaced by “perfect replicas,” he said. The company’s owner, Arron Sturgis, is a former president of Maine Preservation, a non-profit historic advocacy group. 

A 1930s-era rescue boat, the Mervin Roberts, is almost fully restored as well, and the hope is that it will be able to slide into the water down a planned marine railway in the near future. The much-anticipated maritime museum could be open during the summer of 2023, if fundraising efforts continue to succeed.

Cookbook (and more) for Kittery's 375th

Kittery Maine's 375th birthday logo
Kittery Maine's 375th birthday logo

Meanwhile, many other events are taking place in Maine’s oldest town throughout the rest of this year, in celebration of Kittery’s 375th birthday. Right now, and through August 18, an ongoing arts festival is taking place at various locations in town every Thursday night. This series includes live music, theatrical performances, dance performances, art workshops, and more.

A special edition 375th anniversary cookbook compiled by local resident Betsy Wish – containing not only recipes but also lots of local history, anecdotes and photos – is now available at the Kittery Community Center for $24.95. Proceeds after publishing costs will go toward local non-profit organizations.

Information about these and other festivities is available at kittery375th.com.

D. Allan Kerr is an old Navy guy, but has great grudging respect for the heroes of the Coast Guard.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Kittery ME 375th: Fireworks to celebrate Coast Guard, Wood Island