Cape Cod National Seashore | OLD HARBOR LIFE SAVING STATION

Old Harbor Life Saving Station

Old Harbor Life Saving Station

See the Historic Sites web page for an interactive location map.


The United States Life Saving Service was formed in 1871 to provide trained men for rescue attempts of those aboard ships in distress off the coast of the United States. Prior to this, most coastal towns had volunteer lifesaving services, much like a volunteer fire department. The Life Saving Service merged with the Revenue Marine Bureau (aka Revenue Cutter Service) in 1915 to form the United States Coast Guard.

Life Saving Stations operated just as fire stations do today. When on duty, surfmen lived at the station and performed lifesaving operations whenever a ship in distress was spotted. Unlike today when powerful motorboats can take rescuers far out to sea, the early surfmen only attempted rescues of ships close to shore, which is where most wrecks occurred. Thousands of ships have sunk after running aground on the sandbars surrounding the cape, most in the 1800s. While running aground sounds like the ship is simply stuck and the passengers can wait until the storm passes, waves can pound the ship to the point where it breaks apart, drowning all those aboard.

Life Saving Stations were set up every five to eight miles at Cape Cod. There were thirteen stations operating by 1900, but the only building still in existence that has not been altered from its original construction is the one at Race Point Beach known as the Old Harbor Station (two others exist—one has been turned into a restaurant). However, there was never a lifesaving station at Race Point Beach. The Old Harbor Station was built in 1898 and was originally located in Chatham where it remained active until 1944. It was moved to its current location in 1977.

Today the Old Harbor Life Saving Station at Cape Cod National Seashore houses a Life Saving Museum that is typically open daily from 2 PM to 4 PM starting Memorial Day weekend and continuing through Columbus Day. For the current schedule, check the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the park. Enter “Old Harbor” into the Keyword Search area. If this doesn’t return results, call (508) 487-1256 and ask.

There is no cost to visit the museum, but during the summer season beach access fees apply. Volunteers are on duty to answer questions. If enough people gather at one time the volunteer will conduct a short lecture and take people into the boat room where the lifesaving equipment is stored.

Visitors also have the opportunity to watch the film Wooden Ships and Men of Iron. This 12-minute film about the Cape Cod lifesaving stations and its fishing and whaling industry also shows at both the Province Lands Visitor Center and the Salt Pond Visitor Center. It does contain footage of whales being hunted and processed for oil, which may be disturbing to young children and animal lovers.

Side view of the Old Harbor Life Saving Station

Side view of the Old Harbor Life Saving Station

On display in the boat room are two surfboats, which were standard equipment for a lifesaving station. If conditions weren’t too bad and the distressed ship was not too far from shore, a rescue team would take one of these boats out to the ship and transport the passengers back to safety.

Race Point model surfboat

Race Point model surfboat

When the seas were too dangerous to use the surfboats, the lifesaving crew resorted to using a line-throwing gun and breeches buoy. A line-throwing gun was a small cannon that shot a projectile attached to a lightweight rope out to a ship as far as 600 yards from shore (the most popular gun was developed by David Lyle and known as a Lyle Gun, but there were other line-throwing gun manufacturers). The end of the first rope was then attached to a heavier line that was pulled out to the ship by the crew, setting up what we today call a zip line. Passengers stepped into the breeches buoy—a pair of pants attached to a life preserver—and zip-lined it back to shore.

Illustration of how a breeches buoy was used

Illustration of how a breeches buoy was used

Lyle Gun

Lyle Gun

Breeches Buoy

Breeches Buoy

Breeches Buoy gear

Breeches Buoy gear

The remainder of the Old Harbor Life Saving Station is open for self-exploration. The station has been restored to how it might have appeared in 1900. A laminated tour guide with information about the different rooms is available.

Laminated tour guide

Laminated tour guide

In addition to the boat room, the downstairs level of the building was where the head of the station slept. The position was known as a keeper, and the job entailed everything from managerial tasks to running training drills to overseeing rescue operations.

Keeper’s quarters

Keeper’s quarters

The kitchen and mess room were also downstairs. The kitchen is furnished with a Fortress Crawford coal burning stove and a collection of period pots, pans, and dishes. The stove burned continuously and also functioned as a heater. The surfmen either took turns cooking or pooled their money to hire a cook.

Kitchen dishes and utensils

Kitchen dishes and utensils

Fortress Crawford stove

Fortress Crawford stove

Upstairs is the bunk room where the surfmen slept. A coal-burning, stand-alone heater kept the room warm. A separate room on the floor was set aside for rescue victims or for the wife of the man whose week it was to do the cooking. Wives were allowed to come and help, because we all know that men can’t cook. There was no indoor plumbing, so chamber pots and outhouses were used.

Bunk room

Bunk room

Private room for wives or rescue victims

Private room for wives or rescue victims

Visitors can also climb up the station’s lookout tower for a nice view of the surrounding area.

View from the lifesaving station tower

View from the lifesaving station tower

SCHEDULING YOUR TIME

I gave the Old Harbor Life Saving Station a thorough going-over and spent 45 minutes. I did not, however, watch the film (saw it earlier).

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Last updated on June 8, 2020
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