Experience Life a Century Ago as Life Savers Trained to Rescue Ships

30 Jun Experience Life a Century Ago as Life Savers Trained to Rescue Ships

This summer, every Thursday at 6, you can watch a recreation of actual life saving drills that happened a century ago. 

It’s all at the restored Old Harbor Life-Saving Station at the edge of Race Point. 

Scroll below where you will meet Richard Ryder, host at Old Harbor,  for a photo gallery of a drill. But, it can only whet your curiosity. You have to see these volunteers – dressed in authentic life-saving uniorms – in person.

Meanwhile, learn more about the station with this accounting by Richard Ryder, who is most responsible for its restoration, and whose grandfather was a life saver in Chatham, where this station originally was located.

When Old Harbor Station was built in 1897, it was located on what was probably perceived to be comparatively firm ground. The site was high up on the beach; the end of the peninsula was between 500 and 1,000 feet to the south; and the surf line was perhaps 300 feet east of the boatroom doors.

The site selectors could not have know that in less than 80 years, the surf would be literally lapping at those doors, or that the end of the beach would be several miles to the south.

At the time Old Harbor Station was built, North Beach extended about six miles south from the mainland of Orleans, ending about due east of the present Chatham Fish Pier at the foot of Bar Cliff Avenue.

On June 22, 1973, the National Park Service purchased Old Harbor Station and 19 acres surrounding it. At the time, the high-tide line was no more than 10 feet from the front door, inevitably facing destruction.

Moving it to a spot closer to the bay side of North Beach was considered, but money for the project could not be justified at the time. The Park Service believed the site was too remote to easily attract visitors.

By 1977, damage to the station’s foundation was so severe that it appeared the next storm could take it out to sea. “Action must be taken between now and the fall storms if the structure is to be saved,” warned the park superintendent at the time.

The warning worked. Funds finally were made available for an historic preservation program. A new site was designated some 200 yards from the Race Point parking lot in Provincetown. Now, it was up to the Chatham Conservation Commission to grant approval to the park service to move the station. The first plan called for two 40-ton cranes to be transported across six miles of beach roads from Orleans.

By Nov. 20, the cranes were in position, ready to load the station onto a barge in the surf – ahead of expected storms that would jeopardize not only the building, but the giant cranes.

First, the boat room section of the station, which had been separated from the main building, was lifted by one crane and swung aboard the shoreward end of the barge. On one of the cranes, the gears were slipping. A workman scooped a shovelful of sand, clambered into the engine room and poured it onto the gears. Again, the engines roared, as the station rose from its foundation and the 80-year connection with Chatham was broken.

But, the drama was not quite over. The barge grounded on a nearby sandbar. Dozers started to build a bridge out to the sandbar to push some more, but a tug then earned its name, Taurus, and pulled the barge off by itself. The town to Provincetown went smoothly, and by 9 a.m. on Nov. 30, Old Harbor Station was off Race Point, its next and final destination.

While its move was unprecedented in the history of the U.S. Park Service, the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station’s arrival in Provincetown was just the beginning of 30-year effort to fully restore it and provide both Cape Codders and visitors with a lasting and living memory of a world long past.

Vandals at one time destroyed some work done between 1978 and 1980. Following a 1991 storm, water infiltrated the boat room through a broken window, around the ocean side doors and through a roof leak above the surfboat.

Between 2001 and 2002, the Northeast Buildings Conservation Center oversaw installation of a new roof, rehabilitation of the sliding boat room doors and window sashes. By 2004, a sprinkler system was installed throughout the building. There was no running water at the station; so this system is pressurized with an anti-freeze solution that is stored in large tanks in the basement.

In 2008, major funding for completion of the restoration was received. National Seashore carpenters started work during that summer, working around the schedule of interpretive rangers hosting visitors.

The painstaking, detailed work consisted of patching many holes in the subfloor and finish floors, fitting beaded vertical pieces in the new wall areas of the second floor, and construction of replica crew lockers in the second floor hallway. Repairs to plaster walls were started. The carpenters were to construct replica shelving in the mess room as well as repairing wood trim.

Today, the life-saving station is restored to its original condition. You can see exactly how the brave life-savers lived, practiced and often saved hundreds of stranded sailors on the many shipwrecks along the Chatham Bars.


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