Towering History: Rye’s Pulpit Rock Tower opens for Veterans Day

 

Touch history this Veterans Day weekend by climbing the historic World War II observation tower Pulpit Rock Tower at 9 Davis Road in Rye, which is open only a couple of times every year. The Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower traditionally open doors to the watchtower on Memorial Day and Veterans Day in honor of the military history surrounding the structure.

Built in 1943 as a part of a series of towers constructed throughout the Seacoast to keep an eye out for approaching enemy ships, Pulpit Rock now stands as one of the last remaining public observation towers from World War II.

“There were 14 towers between Kennebunk, Maine, and Rockport, Massachusetts,” said Patricia Weathersby from the group Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower. “There are just a couple that are left that are under public ownership. Pulpit Rock Tower is actually owned by the State of New Hampshire Fish & Game Department.”

Designed with the main goal of keeping an eye out for approaching enemy ships heading toward the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the tower had a direct phone line to Fort Dearborn, which is at Odiorne Point State Park. Although the tower never spotted any ships, rumors of enemy submarines circling the nearby harbor are prevalent, as well as the rumor that the test run conducted by Fort Dearborn released a shockwave so powerful that it blew out the windows of the nearby Wentworth Hotel, said Weathersby.

The tower will be open to the public on Saturday, Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as a way to introduce the historical significance of the structure to the public who might otherwise not have been aware of its original purpose.

“This allows people to come check out this building that they’ve seen on the coast for years and never really knew what it was,” said Weathersby. “They can learn about its history, and just admire the views. On a clear day the views are amazing. It’s an interesting structure and it allows people to understand its place in history.”

The tour can be taken as a self-guided experience with photos and historical notes located throughout the interior of the structure, or as a guided tour with educated professionals. The first six stories of the tower are dimly lit due to a lack of windows and electricity, and are circled by sets of concrete stairs. The top two levels of the eight-story tower are the observation platforms with views of the ocean and surrounding landscape, but are only accessible by ladder due to the architectural tapering of the building.

“It’s a sturdy ladder, it’s all in place with railings but you climb up through a hatch to those next levels. That’s kind of fun. The kids love that part,” said Weathersby.

As a result of the moderately difficult ascent, only those who are confident in their ability to do so are allowed to climb the tower. There is also a 42-inch minimum height limit to avoid parents dangerously attempting to carry babies to the top observation levels of the tower.

“I would encourage anyone who is interested to come, wear sensible shoes, hope for sun. You can’t carry babies up because you do need your hands, especially on the ladders to climb and you can’t really do so while holding a child. Come with interest and be open to the experience and appreciate the building and the views,” said Weathersby. “It is definitely a better experience if people are able to climb the stairs.”
There is no fee, although donations are accepted and all proceeds go toward the Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower, a nonprofit organization put together just over 10 years ago that is responsible for the renovations and maintenance of the tower.

“We got the tower cleaned up, secured, and have been working to raise money to do restorations to the tower. We had the roof and railings replaced, we had all custom-made windows put in, we did a lot of painting and put in new floors and our last project is to fix the concrete,” said Weathersby. “There are areas that are bald … the severe weathering from the ocean wears away some of the concrete and the rebar is exposed. That project will be starting Nov. 5 and then it is all about maintaining it.”

On a clear day, Weathersby says, the tower provides views of the Isles of Shoals, the Island of Gloucester, Kittery, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The open house will not be held under poor-weather conditions and it is suggested to check the Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower Facebook page to stay up to date on the latest news surrounding the tower.

“It really appeals to a number of different groups. It’s a unique activity on the Seacoast so we do get a fair number of people who want to come and check it out,” said Weathersby.

— Andrew Clay

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