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November 11. 2012 9:51PM

Group raising funds to take over World War II-era Pulpit Rock Tower in Rye


Rye residents are working to raise money to preserve Pulpit Rock Tower, a World War II watchtower built to protect the New Hampshire Seacoast. (BARBARA TAORMINA PHOTO)
RYE - Dozens of kids and adults marked Veterans Day weekend by stepping back to World War II with a visit to Pulpit Rock Tower, a 73-foot concrete watchtower built on the coast of Rye in 1943.

One of a network of 14 towers built along the New Hampshire shore to guard against German U-boats, enemy aircraft and spies hoping to tap into military secrets at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Pulpit Rock is the last tower standing.

A small group of volunteers is working to preserve the tower and provide the public with a living link to the past, but it's a complicated and costly job. For now, Pulpit Rock is only open to visitors on the Saturdays before Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

"We're saving something that was trying to save us," said Steve Tobin, a member of the Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower who spent most of Saturday welcoming about 150 visitors who turned out to tour the site.

"To me, that goes a long way," he said.

The tower's current owners, state Fish and Game, picked the property up as Army surplus in 1977 and used it for while to keep an eye on local fishermen. But it was also a favorite spot for teens who wanted a spot to party, and pigeons that need a place to roost. Betsey McNaughten, a state Fish and Game land agent, said the agency decided it would be best to find someone who could take responsibility for the site and put it to use.

"It's the Cadillac of towers," said McNaughten, who was helping the Friends with guided tours of the site. "It's the only one left."

During the war, soldiers stationed at Pulpit Rock waited and watched the water and sky. If a threat appeared on the horizon, their job was to phone in the coordinates to the big guns at Ft. Dearborn, which is now Odiorne State Park. Soldiers stationed at other coastal towers would also report coordinates so that the troops manning the gun batteries at Ft. Dearborn could triangulate the horizon and focus their aim.

Although Pulpit Rock Tower has stood up against time, McNaughten said the 12-inch thick concrete walls need some restoration work and there are other parts of the structure that need continual maintenance and repairs.

In 2008, when Verizon stepped in with a proposal to turn Pulpit Rock into a cell tower, complete with a 30-foot-long maintenance shed and generator, it seemed like a possible solution. But neighbors opposed the plan and launched their own nonprofit organization to preserve Pulpit Rock as a historic site.

"It's part of our town history and symbolic of Rye," said Patty Weathersby, who heads up the Friends and lives just a couple hundred yards from the tower.

The residents of Rye agreed and voted to take over the responsibility of tower with the stipulation that the Friends first raise $130,000 for repairs and future maintenance. It's a significant hurdle and McNaughten said Fish and Game is now hammering out a 10-year lease with Rye in order to give the Friends time to raise the money.

"If people experience the tower, I think it will help us preserve it," said John Meehan, a member of the Friends who was on one of the upper levels of Pulpit Rock on Saturday, ready to answer any questions for visitors as they made their way up the circular staircases.

Although the observation deck on the roof is closed, Frank Kennedy, another member of the Friends, was on the sixth story of the tower talking triangulation with people as they peered out the curved windows at miles of ocean. Similar watchtowers were built all along the Atlantic coast during World War II, during a era when Americans feared foreign invasions and embraced new ideas about civil defense.

Weathersby said that there may be grants available to help preserve Pulpit Rock Tower, particularly since it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Otherwise, the fundraising has been slow going. The Friends do not charge admission to tour the tower, but they do welcome donations. Even if it takes time, Steve Tobin, another friend of the tower, said preserving the site is the right thing to do.

btaormina@newstote.com

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