Remembering The Life-savers Of Yesteryear At Old Harbor Station

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Local History

The rescue line is rigged from a practice mast, representing the one on the foundering ship, to the beach, and the stranded crewman is brought ashore by breeches buoy. The rescue line is sent to the shipwreck using an 18-pound projectile fired by a Lyle gun on the beach.  PHOTO COURTESY MARCIA BROMLEY AND OLIVIA BURKE

It's been decades since the venerable Old Harbor Lifesaving Station held vigil over the outer beach off Chatham, providing a base for surf rescue teams, a lookout post for boats in trouble, and a refuge for shipwrecked sailors since 1897.

But by 1977, perched on a rapidly eroding beach, the station itself needed to be rescued. It was lifted with a crane onto a barge and brought to a new home at Race Point, Provincetown, where it's maintained by the Cape Cod National Seashore. Since then, its mission has been to educate park visitors about the ingenious and sometimes hair-raising rescue techniques of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard.

On Thursday evenings in the summer, volunteers and staff don period uniforms and drill using the old rescue tools: a Lyle gun, a breeches buoy, and lots of elbow grease. The popular demonstrations start at 6 p.m., but arriving a few minutes early is advised.

When rescues by hand-rowed surfboats were impractical, the crew used the Lyle gun and breeches buoy to extract stranded crew members one-by-one. The crew of reenactors use a hand-drawn cart to truck their equipment to the drill site, a mast erected in the dunes. They use the small cannon to fire an 18-pound projectile, carrying a rescue line to the mast, which represents the shipwrecked boat. The breeches buoy – essentially a life-ring with a cloth seat in the middle – is then shuttled back and forth between the wreck and the beach, bringing survivors ashore.

The demonstration is fun to watch, and is well worth the small fee charged by the Park Service, said volunteer interpreter Richard Ryder, whose grandfather was a surfman at the station.

“Kids, especially little boys, love it,” he said. “Boys love things that go fast and make noise.”

Ryder wrote the history of the station, “Seashore Sentinel,” in 2009; it was an improved version of an earlier volume he had written in 1990. Ryder said he enjoys leading tours and answering visitors’ questions.

The last time the breeches buoy was used to affect a rescue on the East Coast was in 1962 in Provincetown, he said. Bernie Webber, the famed coxswain of the CG36500 who led the rescue of men from the stern of the tanker Pendleton in 1952, was part of the crew that used it.

Painstakingly restored by Seashore staff, the station has a keeper’s room, mess and kitchen on the first floor with a large bunk room above. Its most characteristic feature, the tower watch room, is four stories above the ground. Attached to the structure is a room where the surfboats are kept. It was originally built on the barrier beach approximately east of Cow Yard landing; that is now a low beach and will likely be underwater within the next few years.

For much of its service life, the building was without central heating, relying on coal stoves to ward off the bitter winter cold. Electricity didn’t come until 1933, when kerosene lights were replaced with electric lights powered by a generator.

Crews using the station executed countless rescues and warned off many more mariners sailing too close to the beach. Following the famous gale of 1898, they recovered the bodies of five people who died in the sinking of the steamer Portland.

Thanks to modern rescue helicopters – and better navigation that has all but eliminated shipwrecks – the breeches buoy rescue technique is now obsolete. But some of the reenactors have been drilling every summer for around 30 years, and they’ve got the knack of it, Ryder says.

“I have no doubt that this crew could actually pull off a rescue,” he said with a chuckle.

For information about the weekly demonstrations, call 508-255-3421.