A member of the Maine Army National Guard’s 136th Engineer Company steps off an excavator near the Wood Island Life Saving Station in Kittery during an ongoing renovation project. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — Four concrete mixers passed over the mouth of the Piscataqua River Monday en route to Wood Island, transported by an 85-foot custom LPA Marine landing craft that made the trips to and from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s boat ramp.

Approximately 60 members of the Maine Army National Guard’s 136th Engineer Company would spend the day pouring footing for seawall construction at the island that bears the 1908 life saving station. For the entirety of June, the guardsmen are participating in an Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) to assist the Wood Island Life Saving Station Association’s efforts to restore the former U.S. Life Saving Service Station, which is owned by the town of Kittery. For many years, the structure’s future was uncertain, and WILSSA has worked since 2009 to preserve it.

WILSSA plans to open a maritime museum on the island, having raised over $2 million for the project, according to WILSSA President Sam Reid.

Maj. Norman Stickney, spokesperson for the Maine Army National Guard, called the Wood Island work a “once in a lifetime project for our soldiers.”

“It has challenged their technical abilities, as they must operate outside of their comfort zone of purely land based operations,” he said. “The engineers must deal with tides, tight schedules, and operating in congested areas to move equipment and material by barge to the island. Maine Army National Guard soldiers are relentless and are working hard to overcome these unique challenges posed by the project. Morale is very high and the training benefit the project provides our soldiers is significant.”

“It’s fair that this project has long been a question mark, it’s now an exclamation point,” Reid said Monday, as guardsmen scattered across the island executing various tasks and awaiting the arrival of another concrete mixer. “The dedication to duty of the men and women of the Maine Army National Guard is exceptional. I have seen a work ethic above and beyond anything I expected.”

In addition to the northern seawall, the guardsmen are rebuilding the station’s historic shed, which will house an ADA-accessible bathroom and the station’s generator, and installing the rough electrical and plumbing systems inside the museum.

The guardsmen are working seven-days-a-week on Wood Island, and camping at nearby Fort Foster. They’ve set up a “bivouac,” a military term for a temporary camp, stationed behind the main bathrooms. The public has been encouraged to visit the camp.

“The feedback has been very positive,” said Town Manager Kendra Amaral. “I did go out and visit at Fort Foster last week. I also talked to staff and things seem to be going very smoothly. The staff are saying the public is actually quite excited to see them there. The guardsman said they’re excited to see all of the visitors and talk to them about what they’re doing.”

Amaral said it’s been special to see one of the original uses of Fort Foster return to the park. “It’s a wonderful way to see the space being used again for a national security purpose,” she said. “At the same time, the National Guard is being so open and welcoming that people really get to learn a little bit more about what they’re doing on Wood Island.”

Sgt. 1st Class Kameel Farag, who oversaw the guardsmen’s work Monday, said, “It’s been amazing. It’s the first time we’ve had a project of this magnitude.”

Farag said the guardsmen have “loved it,” noting, “It’s hard to find a better location to set up camp and do work.”

“We get to hone our skills, but we’re doing it in the community, and a community that is receptive to it,” he said. “It makes it that much sweeter. One thing about these soldiers, they all relish a good challenge.”

Farag said the National Guard has been welcomed by the Kittery community, especially frequenters of Fort Foster. Recently, he said, a couple stopped by the camp and passed out salt water taffy from a local shop.

The life saving station operated from 1908 to 1948. During that time, it had three lives: the U.S. Life Saving Service, U.S. Coast Guard and then U.S. Navy.

Reid said bids have gone out for the interior work at the life saving station. He was excited to announce Monday the Maine Army National Guard has agreed to return next summer, to do the south seawall, marine railway and pier.

Reid estimated the guardsmen are donating approximately $500,000 in wage labor.

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