The life-saving station on Oak Island was one of about 280 such structures erected along America’s shorelines. Built in 1889 from standard 1882-style plans drawn by federal architects, and constructed by local builders, the station is one of the few like it still standing today.
During the eighteenth century the United States government became increasingly concerned with the safety of cargoes and passengers being transported at sea.
America’s vast coastlines, especially the barrier islands of North Carolina, posed hazards for sailing ships. But it was not until the 1870s that humanitarian concerns finally moved the government to formally establish a life-saving service to aid shipwreck victims.
In the 1880s, at last, stations were built at key points south of Hatteras Inlet. The stations were situated to allow regular beach patrols on foot as well as observation from towers, and they were often built near lighthouses.
The station at Oak Island occupied the tip of the island past Fort Caswell, and although there were no roads to that end of the island, the station could be reached by boat from nearby Smith Island (now known as Bald Head Island).
Crews of surfmen held watch day and night during the storm season, scanning the surf for disabled vessels or searching the beach for evidence of new wrecks. The surfmen carried red cotton flares to signal a boat in trouble or to summon help.
Surfboats were mounted from the rafters in the station and a beach cart for rescue apparatus was stored ready for action. A Lyle gun, a type of small cannon, could be hauled to the site of a wreck and used to fire a projectile carrying a lifeline out to stranded mariners.
The crew and passengers could then be carried to shore in the breeches buoy (a life ring with a canvas seat, attached to a pulley) or loaded into a surfboat. Even in smooth seas a rescue operation was difficult; it was especially risky at night in a storm. But the lifesaving crews mounted valiant efforts and pulled off many heroic rescues which were matter-of-factly recorded in the stations daily log books.
One Oak Island keeper, Dunbar Davis, helped save people from five shipwrecks in a single day during an 1893 hurricane.
After the station was decommissioned in 1940, the building was moved across the street and eventually sold.
Most of the infrastructure has been updated by civilian owners. The original station did not even have any indoor plumbing; however, it was built so sturdily that it was one out of only five structures left standing on Oak Island after Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
The historical building that played such an active role in coastal rescue is one of five remaining 1882-style life-saving stations in the country, and the only one whose tower is in near-mint condition.
It was purchased in 1999 by former Midwesterners Gary and Judy Studer, who have turned its restoration into a labor of love. What a thrill it must be to live in a home that has seen so much history, and to live in the very same quarters once occupied by rescuers who stood watch along the corridor now known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The excerpt you are reading is from the book “Tales of the Silver Coast” by author and illustrator Miller Pope and author Jacqueline DeGroot.