As Storms Grow Stronger, a Historic Building Gains Height to Stay Dry

Rather than abandon the 19th-century structure, staff at Hog Island Audubon Camp have elevated the Queen Mary by three feet.

The narrows surrounding Maine’s Hog Island have been populated with lobster boats and recreational craft for well over a century. But last autumn, a very different vessel appeared there: a 40-foot barge carrying several tons of timber, stone, and hydraulic equipment, all in service of an ambitious project to save one of Audubon’s most historic structures, a building called the Queen Mary.

Like many of Maine’s 142 coastal communities, Hog Island is confronting sea-level rise, projected to increase substantially in the coming years. Over the past few decades, winter storm surges have started flooding the Queen Mary up to its floor joists, damaging the building and impeding access. A few times water has even risen above the floor. The threat has raised tough questions for those who live and work here: Do they adapt to higher water, or do they abandon and retreat?

When it comes to maintaining what makes Hog Island special, says facilities manager Eric Snyder, there is only one option. “We can’t build another structure like this,” he says. “Preservation has to be key.”

The Queen Mary was first erected in the mid-1800s as a shipping supply store, barely set back from the shoreline. Then in the early 1900s, when Maine became a vacation destination, it was turned into a resort. In the 1930s Hog Island’s owners, the philanthropic Todd family, approached the National Association of Audubon Societies to conserve the property and establish a camp dedicated to nature study. In 1935 Audubon began leasing the island for a dollar annually. The following year, Hog Island Audubon Camp opened to guests.

Since then, thousands of adults and children have streamed through the building, which houses a scientific laboratory and sleeping lofts, for summertime science and nature studies. And here, one of ornithology’s most ingenious conservation efforts was born. In the early 1970s, ornithologist Stephen Kress used Hog Island as the headquarters for Project Puffin. Testing experimental methods, he restored Atlantic Puffins to the southern Gulf of Maine by relocating chicks from a Canadian colony to the offshore island Eastern Egg Rock. Campers helped raise them by hand.

“Hog Island literally laid the groundwork for hundreds of subsequent efforts around the globe,” says camp instructor Don Lyons, who is also the director of conservation science at Audubon’s Seabird Institute. “It’s proof that if you create a place where people come together and find inspiration, we can do great things.”

But that place is now under siege by the sea. The winter storm flooding that began in the 1970s has intensified over time and become regular. In 2020 erosion forced employees to relocate one of the island’s main trails 15 feet inland. Inside the Queen Mary, staff added risers beneath cabinets containing a historic collection of bird skins. The specimens, dating to the 1800s, include rare and extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon.

“We knew the water was going to keep getting higher and higher,” Snyder says. “It was time to commit to really doing something.”

After years of worried discussion, in March 2021 camp staff and members of the nonprofit Friends of Hog Island (FOHI) decided to lift the entire building above the floodwaters. Securing the necessary permits proved onerous. Raising the Queen Mary by several feet would knock the structure out of compliance with local zoning restrictions. Eventually, the town of Bremen amended its building and zoning requirements to let the project proceed.

“We hit roadblocks at every corner,” Snyder says. “It really makes you wonder what difficulties coastal homeowners are encountering.”

By comparison, the actual raising was a breeze. FOHI contacted Jewett Builders, which specializes in lifting and moving buildings. By the time they made a plan, Don Jewett was already booked more than a year in advance. “It’s a good time to be in the building-lifting business,” he says. “Sea-level rise has meant more business than small companies like ours can handle.”

In fall 2022, Jewett arrived at Hog Island to raise the Queen Mary in a series of lifts. Over the course of several weeks, his team set up bracing beneath the building. Then they used hydraulic jacks to safely lift the three-story building in one motion. Once everything was set up, the process was so smooth that no one bothered to move the furniture and equipment inside, including a fishbowl and glass vase perched precariously on the edge of a filing cabinet. In all, Jewett and his crew raised the Queen Mary by three feet.

They finished just in time. The day after the equipment was removed from the island, a winter storm flooded the boathouse and would have flooded the Queen Mary, Snyder says. “But it stood high and dry on its new, strong foundation.”

It’s not known just how long the Queen Mary can stay flood-free at its new height. Maine’s government expects at least 1.5 feet of sea-level rise in the next 25 years. However, that calculation assumes humanity will make significant cuts to carbon emissions in the meantime. Staff hope the lift will keep the building dry through those changes, at least, but the future of the Queen Mary and Hog Island’s other historic buildings remains precarious. Will they survive another century?

That depends, Snyder says, on the actions of politicians, businesses, and ordinary people. “Are we going to follow the Paris Accord? Are we going to really commit to alternative energies?” Snyder says. “When it comes to sea-level rise, the answers to those questions are going to be measured in feet, not inches.”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue as “The Big Lift.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.