An aerial view of Hurricane Island Photo courtesy of Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership

Among the more than 200 islands in the ecologically rich Penobscot Bay, Hurricane Island stands out.

For over 40 years, starting in 1870, the island was home to a bustling community of European stonecutters and American miners who quarried granite for use in some of America’s most iconic structures.

Today, it’s become known as a spot where researchers, educators and students come together to explore the region’s most pressing environmental questions at the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership, a Rockland-based nonprofit focused on scientific education and applied research.

And soon, Hurricane Island will boast a big upgrade. The center recently began work on a $1 million field research station – the first off-shore field research station in 40-mile-long Penobscot Bay, Maine’s largest. The building, scheduled to be fully functioning by July 2022, will drastically expand the center’s capacity for educational and research opportunities.

Since 2009, Hurricane Island has been been home to thriving educational programs for students in grades six to 12. The student facilities include a fully equipped lab, classroom and student space, a large mess hall, a boathouse and dock, and housing for up to 80 people. But without a separate research space the center has been limited in expanding its higher education programs and work with outside researchers.

“Right now, there is really no place on the island dedicated to research,” said Phoebe Jekielek, the center’s director of programs and research. “This building is going to change the game for us.”

In the fall of 2019, fundraising was kickstarted by an anonymous donor who offered the center a $250,000 match challenge with a three-month requirement. The center exceeded the challenge by $50,000, and was able to start the planning process in January 2020.

The plan, now finalized, equips the station with a flowing seawater lab, a dry lab, a teaching space with capacity for 20 students and waterfront access. The station is projected to grow the number of higher-education student visitors and outside researchers tenfold.

Summer science program participants at work on Hurricane Island Photo courtesy of Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership

 

 

 

 

The space will be utilized by researchers interested in using Hurricane Island as a base of operations for exploring the surrounding waters, or for diving into the rich ecological and human history of the island itself. More researchers visiting the island, and a more diverse set of research questions being explored, means increased opportunities for students to engage with the scientific process in real time – a core tenet of the nonprofit’s vision.

This past spring, Jennifer Cross, a teacher at Oceanside High School in Rockland, brought 13 ninth- and 11th-grade students to Hurricane Island to learn about the scientific process, intertidal zones and scallop aquaculture.

“Hurricane Island not only gives the students a real hands-on experience with research, it also gives the students eyes to what the possibilities really are,” said Cross. “For them to have this exposure – especially kids that grew up on the coast, in fishing villages – it makes them realize the role that they can play in the future.”

The new research station, designed by OPAL Architecture in Belfast, is the latest addition to the fully sustainable campus on Hurricane Island. Utilizing new, environmentally friendly innovations, such as cross-laminated timber and wood fiber based installation, the energy-efficient building will act as a carbon sequester while maintaining a constant temperature of 55 degrees throughout the year. 

Students from Cambridge School of Weston conducting a transect in the intertidal zone and recording species of intertidal organisms and algae in order to understand their distribution. Photo courtesy of Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership

“We want the campus itself modeling sustainability to inspire our students to think about how sustainable technologies can be applied,” said Hoppin.

“What’s special about our mission is the integration of science, education and research,” said Bo Hoppin, the center’s executive director. “We have an expectation that any researcher on the island, at any moment, engages with our grade 6-12 program in some way. Provide an evening lecture, bring the kids down and show them their samples. … In some cases, our kids actually work collecting data for researchers.”

Starting in the spring of 2022, the parts of the building constructed on the mainland will be delivered by barge to the island. Once erected, the space will also act as a major resource for the center’s year-round research team, a dedicated group that focuses on scientific questions within local fishing industries and the region’s ecosystem. With a 3.2-acre aquaculture farm that holds over 10,000 scallops, the team is currently exploring the effect that aquaculture farms have on wild populations of scallops, a question central to the future success of local scallop harvesters.

Hurricane Island was recently awarded a $25,000 National Science Foundation Field Stations and Marine Labs Planning Grant to support a search for ways to expand its research.

A rendering of the new research facility on Hurricane Island. Rendering courtesy OPAL Architecture

Though the majority of work on Hurricane Island is focused on marine science, and the island is most commonly known as the location of an Outward Bound summer basecamp that operated from 1964 to 2006, many researchers visit the island because of its rich history as a bustling mining company town.

Purchased for $1,000 by Gen. Davis Tillson, a hard-nosed military man and business entrepreneur with an overgrown mustache that hung over his entire mouth, Hurricane Island was rapidly transformed into a large granite quarry operation and a fully functioning mini-society. Seeking expert stonecutting near the end of the 19th century, Tillson brought over whole villages of experienced European stonecutters, and even built a church and school on the island.

The granite mined there was used to help build the Washington Monument, the Brooklyn Bridge, the streets of Boston, New York City, and Havana, Cuba, and in countless other projects. 

But after more than 40 years of success, the granite business on the island, competing with a national rise in the use of concrete, went under – quite literally. On Nov. 8, 1914, a barge of granite blocks from Hurricane Island sank to the bottom of Penobscot Bay.

The building called Old Bosun’s Locker at Valley Cove, which will be demolished, and the pier, on Hurricane Island. Photo by Alison Langley

Following the disastrous loss, and continuous economic challenges, the company closed the island. Families who had lived on Hurricane for decades gathered what they could and left. Today, many artifacts remain on the island, hidden under the wild brush that covers areas stone carvers and miners once called home.

“The wonderful thing about Hurricane island, from an archeological standpoint, is that it’s a discrete, isolated, location with traces of industry and habitation everywhere,” said Jeff Benjamin, an archaeologist at Columbia University.

But for Benjamin, and most researchers who visit Hurricane Island, their love for the place is hardly just about their findings.

“Places like Hurricane are just wonderful for the maintenance and production of dialogue, especially in this kind of political climate we are living in today,” said Benjamin. “And for me, it just doesn’t get any better than hanging out with a bunch of artifacts and talking.”


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