New Hampshire in World War I: U.S. Coast Guard Surfman George Henry Stenstream of Hampton and Rye

Photograph of Wallis Sands Life-Saving Crew wearing “storm suits” with cork life vests, no date. From U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard Museum.

World War I was a war that most people wanted to forget. It was a terrible time both for the brave men and women in service, but also for those who remained at home. No one was safe from the influenza scourge that took so many young lives.

Not all heroic service was performed across the sea on the battlefields of Belgium and France. The job of protecting the local seas was an important priority. George Henry Stenstream was a man who is today mostly forgotten. He was born on 27 March 1884 in Gloucester MA, son of Capt. Charles & Hulda A. (Hanson) Stenstream. He was only 6 years old when his father, Capt. Charles Stenstream was lost at sea. These losses were something the sea-faring families of the Northeast coast understood.

In 1905 George H. Stenstream was living in Gloucester MA (per the local directory) directory, employed as a sailmaker, and living with his widowed mother at 9 Traverse Street. He continues to work at that profession until at least 1911. He married Annie M.E. Parsons, daughter of William S. & Mary (Smith) Parsons on 20 June 1906 in Gloucester MA. They would have three children together: (1) Grace Elwina Stenstream, born abt 1907 Gloucester MA, m. 1926 to Charles Joseph Davis; (2) William S.P. Stenstream, born 28 April 1908 Gloucester MA, m. Pauline M. Dorr, died Oct 1917 Hampton NH; (3) Dana Shaw Stenstream, born abt 1914 Hampton NH, married Anna Elizabeth Shultz. Their children and grandchildren would continue to live in the Hampton, New Hampshire area for several generations.

Photograph showing a crew of surfmen at the Portsmouth Life-Saving Station, taken prior to WWI in 1915. From National Park Service.

As for George Henry Stenstream, it would seem natural with his family’s history, for him to gravitate to the United States Coast Guard. The sparse records I could find show that by 1915 he was held the rank of Surfman and was living with his family at Hampton Beach NH. That title, “Surfman,” is given to personnel who qualify to operate surf boats in heavy surf and under extreme weather and sea conditions. In other words, in the worst of New Hampshire coastal weather, a surfman was going to operate a tiny boat and save endangered persons in the Atlantic Ocean while putting his own life at risk. This was not a job for the faint of heart.

Photograph from plate lantern slide of U.S. Life-Saving Station, Wallis Sands, New Hampshire, ca 1895. Contributed by Stanley Museum to Maine Memory Network. Used with permission.

During World War I, surfmen held important positions, and they needed to be as fearless as those in the European trenches. New England storms never take a vacation. George Henry Stenstream was assigned to USCG Station No. 13. This turns out to be the Coast Guard Station at Wallis Sands in Rye NH. This station was built in 1890 and maintained until 1938. During WWI it was manned exclusively by the United States Coast Guard.

World War I was just a month away from the Armistice when George Henry Stenstream contracted influenza, which within two weeks developed into pneumonia. He was in an Emergency Hospital in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire when he died on 11 October 1918. He was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Gloucester, Essex Co. MA.

Though living and serving locally, George Henry Stenstream was never recognized on either the Rye or the Hampton New Hampshire WWI plaques, though he probably should have been. His name does appear on the WWI Honor Roll in Doric Hall of the New Hampshire State House. Also an old newspaper clipping shows that his name appears on the WWI plaque in Gloucester, MA.

Let us not forget!

[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I.  Look here for the entire listing].


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11 Responses to New Hampshire in World War I: U.S. Coast Guard Surfman George Henry Stenstream of Hampton and Rye

  1. Amy says:

    I’ve never heard that term before—surfman. What a risky occupation! By the way, the blog looks “normal” to me again. But the link I got through email for this post must be broken. I had to search for Stenstream to find it!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy I accidentally posted this story 2 days early, and then reset it to post today that probably accounts for the “broken” email. Sorry! and thank you as always for reading and commenting. This is my first knowledge of a Surfman, though I actually researched a story about “Beachwagons” for a different story. That is the name of the device that surfman used to retrieve people from beached and endangered sailing ships.

  2. Pingback: New Hampshire World War I Military: Heroes of The Great War | Cow Hampshire

  3. Bill says:

    Having written my thesis on the stonecutting Swedes in New Hampshire, I’m attracted to this story. No doubt the Swedish family surname was Stenström before Anglicization, and the Gloucester area includes not only immigrant Scandinavian fishermen, but also stonecutters in nearby Cape Ann.

  4. Virginia Penrod says:

    Thanks again for a very interesting and informative story of our forgotten heroes. Good to share at this time of parades!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Ginny, thank you for reading and commenting today 🙂 And yes the U.S. Coast guard should be recognized for its work in protecting our shores and those on the seas during WWI. It was a dangerous time to be a sailor.

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