Someone once told me, “Change is not optional.” This was in reference to technology, but we often do not realize just how much our lives have changed in the last 100 years. The Indian River Life Saving Station represents an era in ocean commerce before the days of radar, global positioning satellites, and iPods.
Due to the frequent shipwrecks along the Delaware coast, a series of life saving stations were established to rescue mariners in distress. Just above the Indian River Inlet is to be found a completely reconstructed life saving station of this era. This is surely one of our favorite trips. It is well worth a morning or afternoon of your time.
The Indian River Life Saving Station is only a 20-minute drive north of Bethany Beach — see “How Do We Get There” for directions.
The station is a beautiful example of Victorian building style, with the original colors restored to those of that period. There is a spectacular bright-red roof and observation cupola that is visible from the top of the Indian River Bridge, as you drive north along the Ocean Highway. The walls of the station have been restored to their original mustard yellow color, as well. The original paint colors were discovered under numerous coats of white paint during the building restoration in the 1990s.
As you turn into the parking lot, you will see the fully-restored station next to a more modern building. This modern building houses a great gift shop, and offices for the museum staff. The museum is now under the management of the Delaware Department of Parks and Recreation.
Pay your admission, and proceed to the station across the sandy courtyard, where you will be greeted by a guide for your tour of the building.
As you enter, you will be in the kitchen and eating area of the station, where the station personnel took their meals, cooked on a wood stove. Upstairs, via a narrow staircase, you enter the private bedroom of the station keeper, and adjacent to this, the dormitory for the surfmen.
The dormitory is a bit on the sparse side, by modern standards, with only a bed that looks pretty hard, a chair and a locker for their clothes and assorted gear. On the other hand, if you worked as hard as those fellows did, any level surface would suffice as a comfortable bed. To one side of the dormitory area is a small room used to provide a sleeping area for any sick or rescued shipwreck survivors.
You can’t go up there any more, but up another narrow staircase is an observation cupola which provides a view of the shore. Originally, this was an open catwalk, but some where along the way, it was replaced by the current cupola for protection from the elements.
The drill was to send surf men on patrol up and down the shore at night, keeping a sharp eye open for ships in distress. With any luck, the ship could be warned off of the ever-present shoals by flares. The patrolman would meet his opposite member from the next station, exchange a token to confirm the meeting, and walk back along the beach to the life saving station.
In the unlucky event of an actual shipwreck, the station personnel were prepared to shoot a line with a small cannon, known as a Lyle gun, to the distressed ship. This line was then used to pull a heavier line to the ship, and a breeches buoy was then used to rescue the stranded sailors.
I don’t know about you, but doing this during the night, during the winter, and in stormy weather was barely worth the $10 per month that the surf men were paid in the heyday of the station.
Many lives were saved, under the most terrible of conditions. The station still has a working Lyle gun and the associated implements. I had the pleasure as a museum volunteer of shooting it once — nice “boom” — and the not-so-nice pleasure of cleaning up the black-powder residue after the shot. Talk about 19th-century technology!
The Life Saving Service, Lighthouse Service, and the Revenue Cutter Service were merged around 1915 to form the modern-day Coast Guard. The station was run as a Coast Guard Station until 1962, after that year’s devastating nor’easter.
The building was then used as a storage building by the highway department, and eventually turned over to the State of Delaware. In 1997 the station was renovated to its current appearance, the period of 1905. Various kind individuals have contributed furniture and other artifacts to restore the internal décor, including what is said to be the original piano. There is also a picture of what was apparently the station keeper’s dog.
Hours are 10 a.m. through 3 p.m., seven days a week, during the summer season. Admission to the station costs $3.50 for adults, $ for children 6 to 12, and $2.50 for senior citizens.