Odiorne Point Transformed by War

Posted on September 14, 2023

On the Mouth of the Piscataqua: Unearthing the Rich History of Odiorne Point, Part 7

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Hunter Stetz | History Naturalist, Seacoast Science Center

The most recognizable of the historic relics scattered throughout Odiorne Point State Park are the bunkers (technically called ‘casemates’) and related concrete infrastructure. The brief military period of the park’s history altered the landscape to a greater degree than ever before and ever since. In addition to the prominent man-made hills, several fast-growing invasive species were planted to quickly envelope and camouflage all of the military infrastructure. To this day, it is an ongoing struggle to combat these species that have overgrown and crowded out native plants.

World War II began on September 1, 1939 after Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The war soon involved much of the world, sorting mostly into the Allied powers and Axis powers. As this unfolded, the United States sought to maintain neutrality while supplying both funds and war materials to the Allied forces. Americans were hopeful that the Allied powers would defeat Germany and Japan long before the conflict would directly affect the Americas. However, after France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, our nation’s public opinion began to shift in favor of preparation for direct warfare.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was of great importance because of its ability to both construct and repair submarines. In general, the public did not doubt the importance of protecting the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but what such protection entailed was up for debate. The first allocation of federal government funds to bolster the defense of Portsmouth Harbor was in July 1940. Initial efforts concerned rehabbing and modernizing several existing forts. Defense spending also meant more job opportunities for Portsmouth area residents.

OPSP eminent domain Gage Sagamore farm entry permit.Rumors had floated around since June 1941 that the federal government had in mind to build a fort at Odiorne Point because of its desirable vantage point. This plan quickly came to fruition once the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Most land was acquired in January 1942 in all, 360 acres were forcibly sold to the United States Federal Government by the Peaslees, Straws, Waldrons, Hobbses, Gages, Whitcombs, Howes, Odiornes, Clarks, Sugdens, Stevenses, the Town of Rye, MacKinnons, Harringtons, Richardsons, Graveses, Strattons, Dechenes, Canneys, Wentworths, Bragdons, Wendells, and Robbinses. Most homeowners were only seasonal residents, but a few people lived on Odiorne Point year-round. The price offered by the government was disappointing as it represented the deflated property values wrought by the Great Depression. The low valuation placed on estates was contested by these families and forced the government to go to court to have their properties condemned.

On March 12, landowners received a formal notice to vacate and were given 30 days to retrieve belongings. Shortly thereafter, Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A) was closed to the public from Brackett Road to Wallis Sands. Construction began on the seized land before the close of 1942. Most of the houses were razed. Only the Odiorne, Sugden, Peaslee, McKim, and Waldron homes (as well as the Gage’s barn) were repurposed by the military for their use.

Map of WWII harbor defense along the Piscataqua River in NH and ME.The fort was deemed operational in May 1943 and received the name Fort Dearborn. The name honors General Henry Dearborn of nearby North Hampton. Dearborn led militias in the Revolutionary War, he was the Secretary of War for President Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to Portugal, and a Congressional representative for Massachusetts. Along with Fort Stark, Fort Constitution, and Fort Foster, Fort Dearborn at Odiorne Point was part of the Harbor Defenses of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth Harbor. Attacks by German U-boats were of particular concern. Artillery fire control towers were built in support of Portsmouth Harbor along the coast between Kennebunkport, Maine and Cape Ann in Massachusetts.

Including repurposed homes, Fort Dearborn comprised of 20 buildings. Battery Seaman was operational after test firing was undertaken on June 21, 1944. Battery Seaman was named after Colonel Claudius M. Seaman. Battery 204 was completed completed in the following month. Its guns were likely tested shortly before completion, but I haven’t encountered any records explicitly saying so. The principal weapon installed at Fort Dearborn was the sixteen-inch M1. It had an effective range of 26 miles. There were also six-inch rapid-fire guns with a 15-mile range. 155mm guns had also been installed during construction as a temporary weapon while the casements were being built.

Just as Fort Dearborn reached completion, the United States’ direct involvement in the warfare in Europe and Asia meant more troops had to be sent abroad instead of manning domestic coastal defenses. The process of deactivating the Portsmouth Harbor Defense began on February 22, 1944. In July 1945, all of the batteries transitioned from active use to “caretaker status.”

World War II ended September 2, 1945, shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. And just like that, World War II concluded. It’s easy to look back at history that we did not personally experience, but if you were living through World War II, you had not a clue when and how it would end. Fort Dearborn was ultimately never needed to fight enemy combatants, but the United States had to move ahead with construction under the assumption that the war had no clear resolution.

Shortly after the war’s conclusion, Route 1A was reopened for travel and Fort Dearborn was opened to the public to see firsthand what their tax dollars had paid for. The fort was decommissioned in 1948. Its long-term future was uncertain and proved to be complicated and slow-moving. Next month, I’ll detail the process that led to the Odiorne Point State Park that we know and love today.

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CLOSED today.

Seacoast Science Center is closed today due to inclement weather.