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Remembering Maritime Life: The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station Historic District

Overhead view of a coastline, with exposed bluffs dropping to calm water. A long wharf extends into the water from a building.
Features of the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station cultural landscape include the boathouse, Officer-in-Charge Quarters, roads, a Monterey cypress windbreak, water tanks, walls and fencing, and the terrain around Drakes Bay.

NPS

The historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station stands on the eastern tip of the Point Reyes peninsula, extending into the famed Drakes Bay. It was first built in 1889 along the unprotected shores of the Pacific Ocean to aid ships that were stranded or wrecked at sea. In 1927, the lifeboat station was moved to its current location on the protected shores and narrow beach along Drakes Bay. From 1927 to 1968, the Pacific Area U.S. Coast Guard officers and crew members used motorized lifeboats to aid ships. However, during the World Wars with the militarization efforts of the West Coast, the primary operations of the life-saving station shifted to coastal defense and harbor patrol.

In 1968, the property was transferred to the National Park Service and Point Reyes National Seashore, who used the lifeboat station for park housing until it was restored in 1976. As a result of further restoration to the historic district, Point Reyes possesses the only surviving lifeboat station on the Pacific Coast with an intact marine railway.

Saving Ships and Training Soldiers on the California Coast

The need for a lifesaving station at Point Reyes was recognized early in the history of California because of the numerous shipwrecks which occurred along its shores. Point Reyes juts several miles out into the Pacific Ocean. Its rocky cliffs intercept the prevailing southerly currents and are frequently hidden from view in some of the densest fog on the western coast.

Black and white photograph of a few dark-sided buildings surrounded by a picket fence adjacent to an exposed ocean shoreline.
The Original Point Reyes Life-Saving Station on Ten Mile Beach, ca. 1914.

NPS / Point Reyes National Seashore, Park Archives

In January of 1888, the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) bought a 3.5 acre plot from rancher Charles Webb Howard on Ten Mile Beach at Point Reyes to build the Point Reyes Life-Saving Station, which began service on July 8, 1890. This site was on the most exposed section of the entire peninsula about three miles north of the point itself, a fact which would always complicate operations, endanger crews, and ultimately doom the station. Despite the perilous location, the life-saving station crew provided assistance in 14 major shipwrecks and countless minor incidents for the 37 years of operation at this location until the property was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1927.
A black and white photograph of a two-story, white sided building with a boat ramp adjacent to a long, one-story building on a wharf, both stretching out from a steep-sided, hilly shoreline on the left into a bay on the right.
The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station's boathouse on Drakes Bay adjacent to the Paladini wharf with the chief's house in the background, ca. 1928.

NPS / Point Reyes National Seashore, Park Archives

A new Point Reyes Life-Saving Station began operation in 1927 when the U.S. Coast Guard, which had been formed in 1915 by the merger of the USLSS and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, completed the construction at the U.S. Coast Guard Station No. 313 on Drakes Bay at Chimney Rock. The new lifeboat station was designed by Coast Guard architect Victor Mendelheff to accommodate heavy 36-foot motorized lifeboats. It featured a three-track marine railway for launching motorized lifeboats, a gasoline-powered winch for operating the boat carriage, and dormitory-styled crew`s quarters. A second cluster of buildings, the Officer-in-Charge quarters and related outbuildings, were constructed nearby in the same year, about 1000 feet west of the lifeboat house at the top of the hillside overlooking the bay.

A black and white photograph of a two-story house adjacent to a small two-car garage and a smallish white water tank, all clustered at the base of a grassy slope in the mid-distance above a bay.
The Officer-in-Charge quarters on Drakes Bay seen from the west, ca. 1928.

NPS / Point Reyes National Seashore, Park Archives

The Officer-in-Charge quarters stood at the edge of grazed pastureland, owned at that time by Azorean dairyman Joseph V. Mendoza. Numerous fishing operations developed in the Lifeboat Station area, including the Paladini wharf next to the lifeboat station and the F.E. Booth wharf on the shoreline directly below the Officer-in-Charge Quarters. The three groups—the U.S. Coast Guard crew, the ranchers, and the fishermen—formed a community together in this remote location, sharing resources and housing.

A black and white photograph of four lifeboat station crew members maneuvering a small, oar-powered lifeboat between the water and the boathouse along the boat launch's railway.
Lifeboat Station Dock and Launchway, date unknown (ca. 1927-1968).

NPS / Point Reyes National Seashore, Park Archives

After World War I, the surrounding Lifeboat Station landscape was modified from Works Progress Authority (WPA) construction projects in the 1930s and 1940s. At the breakout of World War II in 1941, the Navy Department took emergency command of the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station area. The Lifeboat Station held as many as 50 men at one time, primarily for temporary military training and coastal beach defense patrols. Point Reyes hosted training in dive bombing, landing barge practice, and air-sea rescue. The life-saving crews were regularly called upon to rescue the young trainees who dumped their planes in the ocean or retrieve the bodies of the less fortunate pilots. Due to overcrowded conditions, the life-saving crew and Navy trainees often bunked together in homes built by guardsmen on Mendoza`s ranch or in the Paladini wharf.

A black and white photograph of buildings built near the edge of a coastal bluff top. Above and beyond the buildings on the rolling hills to the left is a water tank tower. A narrow road passes between the buildings, partially along a rock retaining wall.
View of the Officer-in-Charge quarters shortly after completion of WPA work, ca 1942.

NPS / Point Reyes National Seashore, Park Archives

Throughout its forty-one years in operation, days at the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station on Drakes Bay were occupied primarily by equipment maintenance tasks and training drills. During its first decade of operation, the station`s crew saved over $3,000,000 worth of property and assisted 45 vessels, including three major shipwrecks. Following World War II, the need for the station was reduced by improvements in maritime technology and discontinuation of the standard 36-foot lifesaving boat in 1956. Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was gradually replaced by a new lifeboat station at Bodega Bay, 20 miles north, due to its shipping port, sheltered cove, and space for the new standard 44-foot lifesaving boats. In 1968, the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned and transferred the Lifeboat Station land to the Point Reyes National Seashore.

A color photograph of a two-story, white-sided, red-roofed, shore-side building with a wharf/boat ramp that extends to the left into a bay. Steep grassy hills rise beyond and to the right of the boathouse.
Life-Saving Station at Point Reyes, 2019.

NPS / PWRO

Preservation of Point Reyes Lifeboat Station and Lifesaving Boat

A black and white photo of four lifeboat station crew members aboard a 36-foot-long white lifeboat on gentle water.
Lifeboat Station crewmen in Motor Lifeboat 36542, date unknown (ca. 1953-1958).

NPS

Although its use for humanitarian lifesaving services diminished in the years following 1968, the 13-acre Point Reyes Lifeboat Station Historic District was preserved when it was designated on the Historic Register of Places in 1985 and then as a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The life-saving station, officer-in-charge quarters area, and 75 acres of surrounding coastal pastoral landscape are preserved and maintained by the National Park Service. Point Reyes National Seashore currently possesses one of the original 36-foot motor lifeboats used at the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station, boat number CG-36542. The motor lifeboat was built in 1953 and served for ten years at Point Reyes until it was transferred to the Bodega Bay lifeboat station. After being deactivated by the Coast Guard, it was transferred back to Point Reyes National Seashore in 1982.

Thousands of 36-foot motor lifeboats of three different models were built between 1908 and 1956, but now fewer than a dozen survive in the United States and most are museum display vessels. The CG-36542 model of lifeboat is a rescue craft designed to remain afloat in adverse sea conditions, and it was the first standard motor-propelled lifeboat type adopted by the Coast Guard for lifesaving. To return the life-saving boat to the water, historic preservation of the lifeboat began in 1991 and restoration of marine railway followed in 2005.

A color photograph of an old, 36-foot-long, motorized lifeboat resting on a rail car on tracks within the boat bay of boathouse. The lifeboat is painted white above the waterline and brick red below.
The restored 36-foot motorized lifeboat CG-36542 in the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station's boathouse, 2019.

NPS / PWRO

Witnessing History

A color photograph of a 36-foot-long white- and red-painted lifeboat on a wheeled trolley being maneuvered along rail tracks down a boat launch into the water, as people in life vests watch and assist.
The launching of the historic 36-foot motorized lifeboat CG-36542 on June 18, 2019.

NPS / PWRO

The Lifeboat Station Historic District at Point Reyes National Seashore preserves the history of the evolving need for lifesaving and defense on this part of the western coast. The importance and hard work of maritime operations were displayed on June 18, 2019, when NPS employees and volunteers gathered at the Lifeboat Station to facilitate and watch the restored lifeboat be launched into the water.

Working in the historic Lifeboat Station, which is now used as temporary housing for the NPS and as the home of the lifeboat, the team attached a winch to a boat cradle holding up the life-saving boat and four “crew members” loaded in. Using a manual box car mover, like those used to move a single railroad car, a six-person crew took turns propelling the boat forward on the flat portion of the marine railway inside the boathouse. With strength and patience, the crew maneuvered the lifeboat a few inches at a time until it was out of the lifeboat station building. Once on the sloping outdoor portion of the marine railway, gravity and the weight of the large historic life-saving boat helped to ease the boat into the water. The winch was used to bring the lifeboat back up and down the marine railway to break the kelp along the marine rail that had grown in the year since the last launch.

The launching of the restored lifeboat was a grand experience, connecting the viewer to the hard work of the humanitarian live-saving crew of the past and to the park’s dedicated work to maintain this history for the benefit of those in the present. The contemporary images presented here are from the assessments to ensure this site is maintained into the future. Today, the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station Historic District is one of many areas managed by the National Park Service as part of Point Reyes National Seashore. The park preserves the cultural and natural resources of this part of coastal California, including those related to maritime history, transportation, military expansion, and ranching.

Last updated: May 7, 2020