Old Harbor Life-Saving Station

Between Storms and Shoals
The lifesaver's motto was, "You have to go, but you don't have to come back." Likewise, their work earned them the title, "Guardians of the Ocean Graveyard" while they were stationed on Cape Cod between 1872 and 1915.

The lonely form of Cape Cod stretches its fist-clenched forearm 25 miles into the ocean. Thoreau described it as "...boxing with northeast storms...and heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of the earth."

To the mariner, the Cape represents both a hazard and a haven, as all shipping between Boston and New York must either pass into its sheltered bay, or ground on its treacherous shoals. Combined with the forces of countless "nor'easters" and its precarious location, the Cape has been the site of more than 3,000 shipwrecks in 300 years of recorded history.

It is the shallow sand bars several hundred yards off the beach that present the greatest danger. Here is where storm driven ships ground, break into pieces under the pressure of tons of raging water, and spill their fragile contents and occupants into the bone chilling surf.

The Early Humanitarians
From the onset, Native Americans and succeeding generations of Cape Codders offered aid to shipwreck victims. In 1785, the Massachusetts Humane Society initiated the world's first organized lifesaving service. Starting in Boston Harbor with shelters and food for shipwreck survivors, the Society eventually established outposts on Cape Cod in the early 1800s. Whereas their methods and equipment were well intended, the Humane Society members were unpaid volunteers and could not provide continuous or adequate services.

In 1845, Congress took the first step toward meeting the nationwide sea rescue problem by funding private organizations like the Humane Society. Finally, in 1872, the first federally constructed and staffed lifesaving stations emerged as part of the Department of Treasury. They became the U. S. Life Saving Service.

In the 1870s, nine stations were built on Cape Cod: Race Point, Highlands, Peaked Hill Bars, Pamet, Cahoon's Hollow, Nauset, Orleans, Chatham, and Monomoy Point.

Men, Equipment and Muscle
Life at these stations was a mixture of danger, glory, excitement and boredom. Usually manned by a crew of six surfmen and a keeper (or captain), the rank and responsibility of each man was carefully structured.

Endless hours of patrol were critical, especially at night and during storms when wrecks were most likely to occur. They were sometimes monotonous, but during foul weather the patrols were exhausting; surfmen often had to hold a wooden shingle in front of their faces to keep the sand out of their eyes as they patrolled. Patrols would meet at small halfway houses between stations and exchange metal tags, or punch time clocks to verify completion. In the summer months, the surfmen were released, leaving only the keeper on duty.

At the station, a strict schedule was followed, requiring different drills on specific days. However, when a wreck was sighted, the surfman on patrol would ignite a coston's flare to signal the stranded ship and alert the station crew. "Ship Ashore!" was the verbal alarm.

After laboriously carrying rescue equipment by hand or horsecart to the beach, the keeper would determine where and when to launch the specially designed surfboats. Given the names "Race Point" and "Monomoy" types, these buoyant, sturdy, and relatively lightweight boats (at 800 to 1,000 lbs. each) carried five oarsmen and the keeper at the helm. Only five victims could be safely rescued at a time, thus often many perilous return trips had to be made. Whereas hundreds of victims were rescued in this manner, only on two tragic occasions did Cape Cod lifesaving crews lose their own lives.

The Breeches Buoy
When weather and surf were too violent to launch the surf boat, the alternate method of rescue was the breeches buoy. The buoy consisted of a pair of canvas breeches fastened inside a life ring and suspended from a life line and pulley system between the stranded ship and shore. The Lyle gun (a small cannon) was used to shoot a lightweight line to the ship, which in turn was pulled on board by the ship's crew. Along with it came an instruction paddle, block and pulley, the heavier hawser line, and continuous whip lines. Simultaneously, the surfmen erected a twelve-foot wooden crotch to suspend the hawser line and breeches buoy above the surf and buried an anchor in the sand. In practice, the whole operation had to be done within five minutes. Only after all this was accomplished could one victim at a time be rescued as the breeches buoy was tediously pulled back and forth from shore. Time and effort made this less popular than using the surf boat.

End of an Era
Eventually, there was change. During the early 20th century, sturdier self-propelled steel ships began replacing sail-powered wooden vessels. Likewise, telegraphy, radio, and improved weather forecasting dramatically reduced the number of shipwrecks on Cape Cod. However, it was the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 that reduced navigation dangers and ended the colorful era of the lifesavers on Cape Cod.

Once as popular as the U. S. Cavalry, the lifesavers gradually disappeared as the stations were abandoned. Finally, in 1915, the U. S. Life Saving Service was incorporated into the newly formed U. S. Coast Guard, and the days of the Life Saving Service were over.

Last updated: January 31, 2017

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99 Marconi Site Road
Wellfleet, MA 02667


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