National Park Service Begins Rehabilitation of Old Harbor Life-Saving Station

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Date: August 31, 2008
Contact: Sue Moynihan, Chief, Interpretation and Cultural Resources Management, 508-349-3785 x 230

For the past 110 years, Old Harbor Life-Saving Station has been a steadfast sentinel of the Outer Cape’s maritime heritage—first, as an active life-saving station on the Chatham shoreline, then as a US Coast Guard station, and for the past 30 years as a museum dedicated to sharing the story of the Cape’s shoreline heroes, the men of the US Life-Saving Service.  This month, Cape Cod National Seashore began a significant project to rehabilitate the station. The rehabilitation is being funded by special monies appropriated by Washington as the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) approaches in 2016.

“This is an exciting time for the National Park Service and, specifically for Cape Cod staff and our neighbors and visitors who love Old Harbor,” said Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent George Price. “The story Old Harbor tells is essential to understanding the relationship between Cape Codders and the sea. It’s great to know that this project will allow us to share the story with the public in the future.”

The station was built in Chatham in 1898.  It was one of 13 stations built on Cape Cod to both prevent and respond to shipwrecks.  Crews of well-trained, local men staffed the stations during most months of the year, where they kept a wary eye for ships that got too close to shore and warned them away, and followed a regimen of training drills to ensure their readiness to rescue shipwreck victims. Since the 1620s there have been more than 3,000 shipwrecks off Cape Cod, which often has been referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”  Wooden boats, fierce storms, unsophisticated navigation equipment, and shifting sandbars were a deadly combination. Eventually, with the opening of the Cape Cod Canal, the development of reliable weather forecasting and navigation equipment, and the advent of stronger built ships, the number of wrecks diminished.

In 1915 the US Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service merged, and the US Coast Guard was born. The agency later absorbed the US Lighthouse Service. After Old Harbor was decommissioned, it fell into private ownership, and served as a summer retreat and hunting lodge.  The NPS acquired the station in 1973. During the following 4 years the shoreline in Chatham eroded to the point where Old Harbor was in danger of collapsing into the Atlantic.  To save the historic station, the NPS cut it in half, loaded it onto a barge, and floated it to Provincetown, where it weathered the Storm of ’78 in Provincetown Harbor.

Later that year, Old Harbor was placed on a new foundation at Race Point Beach, where it was rehabilitated and opened to the public.  Despite minor rehabilitation efforts over the years, the station has deteriorated in its exposed location at the beach.  $489 thousand dollars has been appropriated for the current rehabilitation project, which includes significant interior and exterior repair.  The work will be completed by the seashore’s special project crew, as well as outside contractors.  The building treatment follows specific guidelines outlined in the building’s Historic Structure Report, and the work will be supervised by NPS historical architects and historians. 

Friends of the Cape Cod National Seashore will be undertaking a fundraising campaign to provide furnishings and exhibits which will help bring the building to life for visitors.  For more information on Friends, go to the website,

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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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