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Long past their heyday as the base of operations for rescuing shipwrecks, some North Carolina stations are getting a little lifesaving of their own.

The United States Life-Saving Service took shape in the early 1870s with the construction of lifesaving stations to house crews, boats, and equipment that might be needed for often-daring shipwreck rescues. In all, a network of 279 life-saving stations were built on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as along the shores of the Great Lakes.

The spartan lifesaving stations were typically built at regular intervals (often seven miles) along the shoreline. North Carolina would eventually have 29 in service along its jagged coast, the shallow shoals of which earned the area the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The North Carolina lifesaving stations played an important role in saving lives, cargo, and vessels. The service’s slogan, which was supposedly created on Hatteras Island, was, “The book says we gotta’ go out; don’t say nothing’ ‘bout comin’ back.”

Rescues were typically accomplished by brave station crews (called surfmen) pulling a surfboat across the beach and into the turbulent ocean. They would then row out to the wreck to save people and property. If the shipwreck were close enough to land, they would often throw a line with a device called a “breeches buoy” used to haul people ashore. Much of the equipment they used can be seen at the restored Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe.

The Life-Saving Service continued until 1915, when it was merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to become the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard continued operating some of the stations; rebuilt, moved, and added a few; and closed many. Although some were lost forever, several of North Carolina’s historic lifesaving stations were saved, restored, and put to creative use for a variety of new purposes.

Saving the Stations

There’s perhaps no better place for exploring lifesaving station history than the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site.

Commissioned in 1874, the Chicamacomico Station was one of the original seven lifesaving stations in the state built by the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The station was decommissioned 80 years later and was then placed under the management of the National Park Service. In 1968, the historic--but dilapidated--stations and outbuildings were purchased by Walter Davis, who generously donated the property to the newly formed nonprofit Chicamacomico Historical Association. With that, the slow process of restoration began.

Now open to the public as part of the “village,” the 1874 station includes an original surfboat, a beach wagon (to haul the boat), and a practice version of the cart that employed the breeches buoy. There’s also an original freshwater tank and the station cookhouse, which is still undergoing the restoration process.

The historic site also features a 1911 station, which was built nearby to replace the 1874 station. It was from this station that the famed Mirlo rescue was launched in 1918.

This much-larger station now contains a fascinating multiroom museum filled to the gills with lifesaving memorabilia. It also houses an excellent gift shop with books, replicas, and many shipwreck “treasures” for kids and kids at heart.

The 1911 station complex also includes a cookhouse, two restored water tanks, and a soundside boathouse with additional exhibits. The cookhouse is arranged to appear as if the station’s crew had to leave their breakfast quickly to pursue another rescue (complete with spilled coffee and a toppled chair).

A 1907 house, which was moved to the site to depict life on the Outer Banks in another era, enhances the village. The restored two-story house provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the lifesavers’ wives and children, including a well-stocked kitchen, a furniture-filled living room, and several bedrooms packed with period pieces.

Saving these buildings has been a labor of love for many locals and lots of volunteers. The village is now a nonprofit organization with two full-time staff members, the husband-and-wife team of James Charlet and Linda Molloy. They can often be seen in period costume interacting with visitors. “We love sharing this special part of North Carolina history in any way we can,” says Molloy.

One loyal volunteer, Ken Wenberg, has been diligently restoring various components of the village since 1996. "It’s nice to see them saved for future generations," he says. "I definitely hate to learn of losing anything from the lifesaving era.”

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site is typically open from mid-April through November, but the summer months provide an especially good time to explore living history. The possibilities include weekly beach bonfire programs, roaming re-enactors (including the aforementioned “station keeper” and his wife), and very popular rescue re-creations that are performed by modern-day Coast Guard members.

Living the Life

When Gary and Judy Studer saw Caswell Beach’s former Oak Island U.S. Life-Saving Station for the first time in the late-1990s, they could never have imagined that it would become their home. However, when they found out it was on the market, the longtime St. Louis, Missouri residents and history buffs saw an opportunity to keep a legacy alive--by literally living in it.

Built in 1889, the Studers’ home was originally located across the street, near the site of the present day Oak Island Lighthouse. Crews watched for ships in distress from the still-present lookout tower. The Coast Guard, after building a new station in the 1930s, moved the original station across the street, turned it 90 degrees, and situated it right on the wide beach. The station was decommissioned in 1942. It then generally served as a second or third residence for a variety of owners.

These previous uses as a part-time residence meant there really wasn’t too much renovation work for the Studers to pursue before moving in full-time. “Our vision was not to transform it, but to preserve it,” says Gary. “In its early days, life-saving crews lived in the station only seasonally. As the first people to live here year-round, we prefer to think that we are bringing the life-saving station back to life.”

The Studers did have to replace much of the salt-corroded siding, but--from paint colors to the original wood floor in the lookout tower--they’ve kept the building much as it’s always been. They also had to replace all of the original shutters and found that each of the 29 sets was a different size.

Visitors enter the house through a narrow door, where a plaque identifies the building as listed on the National Register of Historic Places (a designation Gary worked diligently to achieve). Once inside, a cozy dining room has a virtual boatload of memorabilia about the building and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Just off the dining room, their large living room once served as the boat room, where surfboats hung from the ceiling. Indentations still mark the spots where the boats were hung, and the woodwork and most of the windows in the former boat room are original.

Upstairs, there are three original rooms. The Studers converted the former sleeping quarters, which slept seven or eight surfmen, into a master bedroom. The smaller keeper’s room is now a guest room, offering lucky visitors a beautiful view of the lighthouse and the ocean. What was once a second floor storage area is now a modern bathroom, and time-worn steps lead to the third floor lookout tower.

Along with working for designation on the National Register of Historic Places, the Studers have thoroughly researched the history of their house and the U.S. Life-Saving Service. They even joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association.

The house is now furnished with an eclectic combination of antiques and many items specifically related to their house’s history. “We consider it a rare privilege to live in a place with this much documented history,” says Judy. “We feel we are just passing through, as many before us have done.”

Bon Appetit

Many people enjoying a wood-fired pizza or fresh seafood at Kitty Hawk’s Black Pelican Oceanfront Cafe may not even know they’re dining in the midst of history: the heart of the Black Pelican is a renovated 1874 lifesaving station, complete with the original and unmistakable roofline.

Now surrounded by several additions, the 1874 part of the Black Pelican has a fascinating history. It was originally the Kitty Hawk station (No. 6) and was first located beachside a few miles north of the existing location. It was decommissioned as a life-saving station in 1915.

There are many tidbits diners will learn at the Black Pelican. The one serving staff will most likely share is that the telegraph announcing the Wright Brothers historic first flight in 1903 was actually sent from Station No. 6, which also servied as a telegraph office.

The building was moved across the street in 1962, after a huge Ash Wednesday storm. Over the years, it would serve as a bed-and-breakfast and a private residence before eventually becoming a restaurant called Station Six in the late 1980s.

Developer Paul Shaver bought the property in the early 1990s and turned it into the Black Pelican. According to the legend (printed on each menu), a mysterious black pelican used to warn of impending storms by swooping down on the station and even led shipwrecked people and lifesaving station surfmen back to the safety of land.

Shaver, who died in 2006, was fascinated by the history of the building and highlighted that history through the many pictures and other memorabilia adorn the walls.

Along with wood-fired pizzas and lots of fresh seafood options, the ever-evolving menu features various steaks and specials. Steamed shellfish options (particularly shrimp and oysters) have become a Black Pelican tradition, with the “Frogmore Clambake” a popular option--including mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp, andouille sausage, red potatoes, and corn on the cob.

The Black Pelican is also very popular year-round with the lunch crowd: locals swear by the crab cake sandwich and the new seafood po’ boy. Veteran visitors who like others to cook for them when they’re on vacation also swear by their catering and personal chef services. In addition, right inside the entrance, there’s a large gift shop that sells, among other things, a map of North Carolina’s lifesaving stations and a postcard with a black-and-white picture of Station No. 6.

“Paul loved sharing this history with first-time and veteran visitors,” says general manager Kevin Looney. “Our entire staff continues that tradition as best we can. It’s a special place and we’re glad he saved it.”

If you 're Going

*Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site
23465 NC Highway 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968-0005
Hours: Mid-April-November, Monday-Friday, noon-5pm

*Black Pelican Oceanfront Cafe
3848 Virginia Dare Trail (Milepost 4)
Kitty Hawk, NC 27949
Hours: Summer hours, Sunday-Wednesday, 11:30am-9:30pm; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30am-10pm

*The home of Gary & Judy Studer is located on 217 Caswell Beach Road on Oak Island’s Caswell Beach. It can be viewed only from the road or beach,
and visitors should respect the Studers' privacy.

*For links to Chicamacomico's and the Black Pelican's websites, go to www.ourstate.com, and click on "This Month's Issue."

Other life-savers

Although many lifesaving stations were lost to the sea or demolished, numerous other structures along the North Carolina coast were saved, including the Lifesaving Station restaurant at The Sanderling Resort near Duck; the Twiddy & Company real estate office along N.C. Highway 12 in Corolla; and several other private residences from the remote Carova area of the Outer Banks down to Bald Head Island. In addition, the Pea Island Art Gallery in Salvo was built using the original plans for the 1874 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station.