The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island's history, January 26, 1936: Completion of Block Island’s Coast Guard Station

By Robert M. Downie | Jan 26, 2013
Courtesy of: Robert M. Downie This fine view of the Block Island Coast Guard Station shows the newly built facility in about 1940.  A decade later the eroding bank on the left was sheathed in metal sheets, creating the look that still exists today.

This week in history 77 years ago — in January 1936 — the Coast Guard Station at the New Harbor channel was completed and began operation.

Located at a waterfront site that did not even exist a half-century earlier, the building was the culmination, beginning in the 1870s, of the Federal government’s efforts to provide direct assistance to mariners in peril.

Beginning in 1872, five life-saving stations were constructed around Block Island’s perimeter at four different locations: two at the end of Cooneymus Road, one in Old Harbor near the present-day statue of Rebecca, another on Corn Neck where the Beachhead restaurant now stands, and the final one, in 1899, at Sandy Point.

At the system’s peak on Block Island in 1900, the lifesaver’s job seemed honed to the maximum, never to change as long as ships sailed or steamed across the seas.

But just after the turn of the century, compact gasoline motors became available for small boats. The Coast Guard, instead of maintaining life-saving stations directly on the most dangerous beaches, sought sheltered coves for new stations, where motorized surfboats with 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.

For some years still, though, on Block Island the oar-propelled surfboats were still hitched up to horses and taken to remote stretches of beach, night or day, when sailors were in need.

In the early 1920s the Coast Guard did finally station fast patrol boats here — not because of shipwrecks, but to control the offshore Rum Row that Prohibition-era bootleggers frequented too easily. The era of a string of life-saving stations linked by nightly foot patrols ended.

Eventually along the country’s shores relatively few new Coast Guard buildings replaced the nation’s large web of old life-saving stations. Block Island’s Coast Guard building and the adjacent 40-by-60-foot boathouse were built in 1935, tucked just inside the entrance to New Harbor; the facility was ready to operate in January 1936. A 32-by-50-foot equipment building, located a little further inland, was added in the fall of 1938.

The life-saving stations at the West Side and Sandy Point had become obsolete years earlier — and on the other side of the island, where the Beachead Restaurant was later built, the last of the old life-saving stations was closed on July 15, 1937, amid protests by island fishermen.

From then until the 1970s a large Coast Guard presence at the channel, with various styles of fast motorboats, was a year-round part of island life. Several islanders joined the Coast Guard, and conversely several Coast Guard members became islanders.

In 1981, in an ominous prelude, the Coast Guard Station’s rusting steel signal tower, used to display weather flags, was dismantled rather than repaired. Continuous marine weather forecasts had been available for several years, courtesy of the government, on a special radio frequency.

Then in the late 1980s — a half-century after the Coast Guard station opened and 116 years since the first life-saving building was constructed at the end of Cooneymus Road — the Coast Guard announced the unbelievable: that Block Island could be amply covered by its boats at Pt. Judith, some 15 miles away on the mainland.

In March 1988 the Block Island Coast Guard Station closed, but, after numerous complaints, was reopened on December 20, although in a lesser level of importance. The men now based on the island year-round were a “Search and Rescue Detachment” or SARDET, a subsidiary of the Pt. Judith Coast Guard. A reopening ceremony attracted both of Rhode Island’s senators, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee. School children were bused to the site at the channel into New Harbor, a Coast Guard jet flew overhead, a helicopter staged a water rescue and a mainland band played “America the Beautiful.”

But even this was not to be. The year-round presence became a summer one. Only the brick house further along the channel — the former Coast Guard chief’s home — was occupied.

In 1991 the town leased the wooden station buildings to house its own ever-increasing number of employees. Then, as decreed by a 1996 federal act, ownership of the entire Coast Guard property was granted to the town — with the Coast Guard leasing back the small portion needed for their summer duties.

All Coast Guard activity on Block Island is now controlled through Pt. Judith, even calls for help.

In the occasional case when a medical emergency coincides with severe weather, the Coast Guard will evacuate a patient from the island. But usually when aid is sought by boaters, and no lives are threatened, the Coast Guard just calls the ever-waiting commercial tow boats — that also now berth in New Harbor during summer months — and the boater finds himself paying stiff fees for assistance.

Just like the 1800s again — before there was a Coast Guard — when ship captains under duress had to barter with the mercenary salvagers.

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