CHATHAM – A piece of Chatham history that was thought to be lost may be returning to town.
The Coast Guard boathouse that stood on the shores of Stage Harbor from 1936 until 2009, when it was taken by barge to Quincy and later moved to Hull, was slated to be auctioned Thursday. But a local resident who had previously headed an effort to keep the structure in town was able to convince the current owner to pull it from the auction and is now developing a plan to bring the boathouse home.
David Doherty said he reached a “gentleman's agreement” Tuesday with Acushnet Marine owner Michael McDevitt to purchase the structure and return it to Chatham.
Originally located on Stage Island, the boathouse sheltered the CG36500 motor lifeboat that was used to rescue the crew of the SS Pendleton off Chatham on Feb. 18, 1952. Coxswain Bernie Webber and his three-member crew set out in a raging blizzard and were able to rescue 32 of the 33 men who were clinging to life on the stern end of the tanker. Still considered the greatest small-boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard, it was portrayed in the 2016 Disney movie “Finest Hours,” which was partially filmed in Chatham.
The 30-by-60-foot boathouse, along with its marine railway and pier, was a landmark in Stage Harbor for decades. The town declined to purchase the boathouse for $1 when it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in the 1970s, and also passed when the property was sold and the structure had to be removed to make way for a house. At that time, Doherty assembled a group to try to identify a new location and use for the building, so that it could remain in town. Various sites were proposed but the plans never moved forward. Part-time Chatham resident Jay Cashman ended up taking the boathouse to his boat yard in Quincy. After a plan to use it as a waterfront boathouse for a sailing club did not come to fruition, he gave it to McDevitt, who moved it to Hull.
But McDevitt ran afoul of town officials, who said he had failed to get necessary approvals to place the structure on his waterfront property. Fines and lawsuits ensued, and McDevitt decided to sell the structure as part of an auction of other items that was scheduled to take place Oct. 22. On its website, auctioneer Paul E. Saperstein Co., Inc. listed the opening bid on the boathouse at $5,000.
Doherty met with McDevitt and representatives of the auctioneer early Tuesday in Hull and toured the building. He said they agreed to remove it from the auction, and an informal purchase agreement was reached, though he declined to name a figure at this time.
“We've got a lot of details to work out,” Doherty said. “At least I know no one else can get it.”
The effort faces two major hurdles: getting the boathouse back to Chatham and finding a new location for it. Neither will be cheap. Cashman spent some $250,000 to lift the boathouse off its pilings and barge it to his shipyard in Quincy, and since the structure has sat empty for more than a decade, it will likely need extensive restoration. “But what's history worth?” asked Doherty. He formed a nonprofit organization back when he was trying to save the building and said he is dusting off the paperwork to determine if it can serve as a basis for saving the boathouse. He'd like to see a public-private partnership between the town and the group to raise money and determine a use. He plans to assemble the original group that had tried to save the boathouse a decade ago, including historical commission chairman Frank Messina, Harbormaster Stuart Smith and historical commission member Don Aikman, and he has also been in touch with Richard Ryder, treasurer of the US Life Saving Service Heritage Association. He indicated that group may be able to make a donation to the effort.
Ryder is also one of the coxswains of the restored CG36500, which is owned by the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans, formerly the Orleans Historical Society. The group purchased the derelict rescue boat in the early 1980s after the Chatham Historical Society passed on it.
Chatham has missed too many opportunities like that, members of the group said, and bringing the boathouse back to town could make up for it in some measure.
“We're losing our history all over this community,” said Smith. “This is one way to retain it.”
One potential use for the building is to house a new shellfish upwelling facility. A new $3.4 million building for that purpose – with the same dimensions as the boathouse – is proposed for 90 Bridge St. Smith said the old boathouse is taller than the proposed building, which could provide more space for expansion, and it would be appropriate to return it to the shores of Stage Harbor.
“It's certainly worth exploring for the upweller,” Smith said. Other possible uses and sites previously identified for the boathouse include Harding's Beach, where it could replace the existing rest rooms, and replacing the current harbormaster workshop on Stage Harbor Road. Both would return it to the shores of Stage Harbor.
“It belongs on the water,” Smith said, adding that the state Seaport Economic Council or the Community Preservation Act could be potential funding sources.
“People shouldn't be under any illusion, it will not be cheap,” said Smith. “But once you get it done properly, it could be forever.”
On Tuesday Messina asked the selectmen to place discussion of the boathouse's future in town on an upcoming agenda.
“It certainly would be nice to have it back in Chatham,” said Smith.
Anyone interested in donating or participating in the project can contact Doherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.