The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island History, on June 30, 1872 — Block Island’s first life-saving station announced

By Robert M. Downie | Jul 02, 2012
The first life-saving station at Block Island, built in 1872 at the end of Cooneymus Road, is the plain shed on the right. The large building, constructed in 1886 as a replacement, still exists, now a private home. The seven crew members, all islanders, posed with their dog about 1910.

This week in history on June 30, 1872, the Annual Report of the US Revenue Marine Bureau notified all who heeded that Block Island had once again moved into the larger world, that as part of a new system of assistance, the island would have one of first U.S. Life-Saving Stations:

“Sites have been selected for the stations on Cape Cod and Block Island, and the houses are all in process of erection. By the terms of the contract they are to be completed by the first of December, and an effort will be made to put in most of the apparatus before the close of that month.”

In 1829 the North Light had been built, the first instance of the island’s participation in the country’s efforts to assist ships at sea. Due to severe conditions at Sandy Point, that building famously needed replacement in 1837, 1857 and 1867.

But the life-saving system was different. It acknowledged that the nation’s lighthouses would not save all ships, that something had to be done to ease suffering from the shipwrecks that would always occur.

As planned, the Block Island station, located at the end of Cooneymus Road near Southwest Point, did near completion in December 1872, constructed by islanders led by Amos D. Mitchell. The small shed-like structure was exceptionally plain, with no frills or decorations.

In 1874 a second station was built on the island, at Old Harbor — not only larger, but ornate, too. That building is now preserved at the Mystic Seaport, after being removed from the island by that Connecticut museum in 1968.

However, even the noteworthy design of the 1874 station was upstaged in 1886 when a much larger, immensely fancy station was built at the end of Cooneymus Road near the first station. For several decades both station buildings were in existence. Eventually only the newer one survived — now the familiar private home at the end of the road near the sea.

Of the five U.S. Life-Saving Stations constructed on the island, this 1886 building is the last remaining.

At the system’s peak here in 1899 — when the fifth and last life-saving station was constructed at Sandy Point — the lifesaver’s job seemed honed to the maximum, never to change as long as ships sailed and steamed across the seas.

But just after the turn of the century, compact gasoline motors became available for small boats.

Instead of maintaining life-saving stations directly on the most dangerous beaches where shipwrecks were most likely to occur, sheltered coves were sought for new stations, where motorized surfboats and their vulnerable propellers would be protected. With speed and power, the new boats more than made up for any extra distance that needed to be traveled to a wreck.

So on the island, the Coast Guard Station was built in 1936 at the entrance to the channel into Great Salt Pond, with docks, an assemblage of boats, maintenance buildings, a large crew and even a basketball court. That became the pinnacle of life-saving prowess — all evolved from one shed near the beach on Cooneymus Road under construction in June 1872.


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