The Times and Tides of Ocean City, Maryland
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Part Two: The United States Life-Saving Service Station
by Gordon E. Katz
January 2018

Original Life-Saving Station built in 1878 at Caroline Street


The original plat of Ocean City drawn up in 1875 laid out 204 building lots from the beach to the bay between what are now South Division Street and North Division Street. Stephen Taber, the wealthy Long Island businessman who owned over 1,500 acres on the Worcester County coast, deeded the roughly fifty-acre parcel to three trustees who were commissioned to dispose of the lots and reinvest the proceeds as they saw fit. Three of those lots (numbers 1, 2 and 3) were actually entire city blocks facing on the Atlantic Ocean, intended for the construction of hotels that would spur development in the fledgling resort. The Atlantic Hotel Company opened the “Atlantic Hotel” on lot 2, between Wicomico Street and Somerset Street, on July 4, 1875. The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad opened the “Excursion House” on lot 1, between South Division Street and Worcester Street, in July 1877. However, no developer emerged for lot 3, the northernmost hotel lot/block, located between Caroline Street and North Division Street.

In 1878 the trustees conveyed a 5,000 square foot portion of lot 3, situated on the beach on the north side of Caroline Street, to the federal government for the purpose of establishing a life-saving station. The station commenced operations on December 25 of that year. The remainder of lot 3 remained unsold until 1889, when John T. Ensor, an attorney and real estate investor from Towson, Maryland, acquired the rest of the block for $200.

Part Two: The United States Life-Saving Service Station

On February 28, 1878, U.S. Senator George R. Dennis (D., Md.), a stockholder in the Atlantic Hotel Company, presented a petition to the Senate from “[the] citizens of Worcester county, Maryland, in favor of the erection of a life-saving station at Ocean City, Maryland.” The new station would presumably help fill a gap in the string of facilities the U.S. Life-Saving Service had established along the Atlantic seaboard following its formation in 1871. At that time, the only other life-saving station located on the Maryland coastline was at Green Run Beach, which began operations in 1875 about twenty miles south of Ocean City.

Congress passed a bill in June, 1878, that reorganized and strengthened the Life-Saving Service, which was struggling at that time to meet its mission. The bill in part authorized the construction of additional stations, including two in Maryland (at Ocean City and at North Beach, about ten miles south of the resort). The newly appointed General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service, Sumner I. Kimball, and one of his assistants, John Henry Merryman, arrived in Ocean City on July 6 to select a site for the new station. They settled on a lot at the northern end of town, the aforementioned 5,000 square foot portion of lot 3, situated on the beach on the north side of Caroline Street, and wasted no time in getting construction work started. The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.) reported on July 13, 1878: “The grounds for the Life Saving Station are laid off, and work will probably begin on Monday [July 15].” The new station commenced operations on December 25 under the command of Capt. William T. West.

The trustees had executed a formal conveyance of the lot to the federal government on September 11. The deed included this clause: “… when the United States shall fail to use the said Life Saving Station, the land hereby conveyed for the purpose aforesaid shall, without any legal proceedings, suit or otherwise, revert to the said Trustees, their successors and assigns, absolutely.” That clause would become the subject of a legal controversy a century later.

USCG Station 1920s
The new station built in 1891 (today's museum) is shown in this circa 1920 photograph. To the left is the original building
The station and its crew quickly became a focal point of the small resort community, providing both entertainment and protection for summertime visitors in addition to performing life-saving duties. The Democratic Advocate (Westminster MD) gave this account on July 24, 1880: “There is also a government life-saving station, with a substantial frame building for the accommodation of life boats and the other necessary requirements of the service. Exhibitions of the practice in the surf, with manning the life boats, firing the cannon and line, provided in case of danger, are frequently given by the superintendent for the gratification of visitors and the public.”

The life-saving crew also informally served as the town’s first beach patrol. As reported in the Evening Star (Washington DC) on July 18, 1885, “Coast surf men keep in the bathing limits during bathing hours in case a bather requires assistance, and to take care of the timid.” Bathers were encouraged to stay in the area of the beach near the station on Caroline Street and to enter the water only during the prescribed bathing hours (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.).

Although the activities of the life-saving crew were popular with visitors and locals alike, the surf man’s job was neither glamorous nor well-paying. A reporter for The Baltimore Sun summed it up this way in an article published on July 26, 1890: “During three or four months of the year the crew of the life-saving station at Ocean City are not on government pay, and they turn fishermen. This station covers ten miles of the Worcester coast, and the number of vessels relieved is about two or three a year. There has not been a serious wreck, however, in ten years [referring to the wreck of the Sallie W. Kay in January, 1883]. During the winter it is dreary work guarding the coast and keeping a look-out in all kinds of weather. Sometimes the duty is extremely severe and would seem to warrant the continuance of the life-saving force on pay throughout the year.”

In 1890 the U.S. Life-Saving Service determined that a new station was needed in Ocean City. The government purchased an adjoining 5,000 square foot lot on the north side of Caroline Street from John T. Ensor in April for $100. In the spring of 1891 the original station building was moved 130 feet west, and Berlin contractor David J. Adkins began construction of a new building on the previous site. The Baltimore Sun provided this update on July 4: “The station-house with its equipment has been moved back from the old position on the beach to make room for the construction of a new and handsome building now in progress. The new life-saving station will be a handsome two-story structure, of ornamental design, having comfortable quarters for the crew and abundant room for the life boats, life cars, gun carriages, reels and other appliances of the service.” The life-saving crew, eight men including the keeper, moved into the new station in the fall.

The original station building, relegated to use as a storage facility, deteriorated over the years to the point where the town issued a condemnation order for its removal in the fall of 1928. Dr. Frank Townsend bought the dilapidated structure in November for $20. He moved the building to the rear of his Washington Pharmacy on the Boardwalk at Somerset Street, where he remodeled the old station into a garage. According to the late George Hurley, “At some point in time the Carey family, who owned the Del-Mar Hotel on N. Division St., acquired the old station house and moved it behind that hotel where it was used for housing for the maids, cooks, etc., of the hotel. As late as the 1960s it was used to rent to youngsters. Sometime during the 1970s the owners had it razed and hauled off. There was also another smaller building that was part of the original complex that was moved down Caroline St. to the Mumford residence (near the southeast corner of Philadelphia Ave. and Caroline St.) where a Mr. Mumford used it as a real estate office for years. It was demolished in the 1990s when the row of townhouses that extends from Talbot St. to Caroline St. was constructed.”

The new Coast Guard Station located on Philadelphia Avenue and South Division Street
The Coast Guard, created in 1915 by the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service, leased a site in 1936 on which it planned to build a new station. The new site, leased from the Baltimore and Eastern Railroad Company, was located on the bay between South Division Street and Worcester Street. In July 1938 the Depression-era Public Works Administration announced “the replacement of the Ocean City Coast Guard station from its present boardwalk site to a new location overlooking the Ocean City harbor near the Ocean City Inlet. The sum of $134,750 has been allotted for structures and equipment, including communication lines.” However, the project was eventually shelved after the U.S. entered World War II, although the government paid the railroad $7,500 in 1939 to acquire title to the property.

Following the end of World War II, the Coast Guard placed the Ocean City station in “caretaker’s status” and reduced the crew from ten men to four. The Mayor and City Council protested the cutback to Maryland’s congressional delegation, arguing that “the reduction in personnel at the Coast Guard station … was likely to affect seriously the off-shore sport fishing at the resort.” The Coast Guard rescinded the order and restored the crew to full strength in 1946.

On March 11, 1960 a delegation of Ocean City businessmen, headed by Chamber of Commerce president W. Preston Laws, met with Coast Guard officials in Washington, D.C. The meeting was arranged by Congressman Thomas F. Johnson “to show why Ocean City needs a new Coast Guard station.” The need was explained this way: “The hurricane, some years ago [in 1933], which created the Ocean City Inlet, also cut off the old Coast Guard station from direct contact with its boats. Now personnel must travel about two miles and cross a bridge to reach the boats required to make rescues at sea.” Mr. Laws reported after the meeting, “We were informed that the Coast Guard can not do very much toward the erection of a new station until next year.” The Coast Guard secured funding for the project in 1963 and construction of the new station commenced in July. The facility was formally dedicated on June 16, 1964.

This 1960's post card shows the station while it was being used by the Beach Patrol
After the Coast Guard abandoned the station on Caroline Street for its new bayside location, Congressman Rogers C. B. Morton announced in May 1965 “that final arrangements have been made for Ocean City to lease the U.S. Coast Guard life-saving station on the boardwalk at Caroline St., Ocean City, for the purpose of establishing a public assistance facility. The former Coast Guard headquarters, which is no longer being used because of the construction of a new installation, is ideally located in the center of the heavily used portion of the beach ... the town will establish a first aid station, a training base for life guards, a general assistance center and other badly needed services for the summer visitors' convenience ... complications involving the deed of the property presently prevent the Federal Government from conveying the title to the town.” The Beach Patrol moved its headquarters into the old station in August.

Ignoring the “complications involving the deed of the property”, the federal government sold the site to the town in 1967 for $8,500. The quitclaim deed conveyed “whatever right, title or interest which the Grantor may have” in the two contiguous lots situated on the northwest corner of Caroline Street and the Boardwalk, along with the improvements thereon on “an is, where is basis”, consisting of a three-story wood frame station dwelling with basement, a one-story wood frame garage and storage building, a 50 foot steel flag tower, a wood frame airplane marker and the wood frame walkways and concrete pavements.

In 1968 the Mayor and City Council approved the construction of a new concrete block building on the land between the old station building and the Boardwalk. The Baltimore Sun reported on May 29 that the “old Coast Guard Station will be hidden by a new structure, built explicitly for bingo and operated by charitable organizations.” As George Hurley recalled, “The bingo building was built right up against the station building; in fact, the tar and flashing connected the roof system of the bingo building to the station building to keep water rot from occurring in the inches between them. The small old Coast Guard garage and the Scott car garage stood side by side at the rear of their respective lots.” The town rented the building to the Lions Club, American Legion and Fire Department for their summer bingo operation.

The Beach Patrol moved out of the former Coast Guard station in 1971 and the building was given a new purpose. An article in The Baltimore Sun on June 9 stated, “After a two-week search for a building to house a 24-hour ‘drug crisis intervention center,’ the mayor and council last night unanimously approved the old Coast Guard station on the boardwalk at Caroline street … Ocean City plans to turn the old boathouse in front of the building and some hallway space in back into temporary treatment areas for drug users.” The Ocean City Crisis Center, later renamed the Caroline Street Health Center, opened on July 1.

On July 17, 1973 the heirs of Stephen Taber, tipped off by a local Ocean City attorney about the reversion clause in the 1878 deed from the trustees appointed by Stephen Taber to the federal government, instituted an equity action against the Mayor and City Council of Ocean City in Worcester County Circuit Court claiming the property was rightfully theirs. The motions for summary judgment were denied in 1975 and the parties filed a new action. The Baltimore Sun reported on October 14, 1975, “In a suit scheduled to be heard in Worcester County Circuit Court October 22, the heirs of Stephen Taber claim to be the rightful owners of the beachfront lot that contains the old United States Coast Guard station. The property on Caroline street and the boardwalk is estimated to be worth $100,000 today ... Its most recent use was as a youth health services center offering first aid, counseling and training in food handling ... The case has been pending for several years with little or no public notice.”

While the suit by the Taber heirs was being heard in the Circuit Court, a new proposal for the old station house was made in a City Council meeting held on February 2, 1976. At that meeting, The Daily Times reported, “The suggestion that the old Coast Guard Station at the end of Caroline St. be rebuilt and used as a museum for this resort town was suggested Monday night to Mayor Harry Kelley and the City Council. Councilman William Purnell came up with the idea. He said the structure was built in 1868 (sic) when there was one every 8-10 miles along the coast ... He agreed to table the project while a case in Worcester County Circuit Court determines who owns the building … The Crisis Center currently occupies the building and [a] new location for this operation would have to be found if the building is to be used as a museum.”

Expert House Movers begins moving the old Coast Guard station from Caroline Street in December of 1977

The Taber heirs won their case in a decision handed down in April of 1976, gaining title to the boardwalk property and the bingo building. The town retained title to the adjoining lot on the north side of Caroline Street. The old station house straddled both lots. The town appealed the decision, but the judgment was affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals on January 6, 1977.

The new owners didn’t wait long to sell the property. The town reportedly offered $100,000 for the land and building, but the offer was turned down. The Baltimore Sun provided this account of the sale on March 15, 1977: “Seven descendants of the founder of Ocean City have sold for a reported $300,000 a boardwalk lot once owned by the United States Coast Guard and believed until recently to belong to the town. The lot was sold to a group of buyers from New Jersey only a few weeks after the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the claim of the heirs of Stephen Taber ... The site reclaimed by the Taber family has a 50-foot frontage on the boardwalk, is 100 feet deep and is zoned for commercial use. It is now occupied by a bingo parlor, which is leased by the town each summer to a bingo board to raise money for three civic groups.”

The Daily Times updated the story on March 24: “A family with extensive real estate holdings on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N. J., was revealed Wednesday as being the purchaser of the former Coast Guard Station here ... On Wednesday it was revealed by the purchaser, Edward A. Devlin, of Atlantic City, that he had bought the land. His son, Dennis Bryan Devlin, will be in charge of the Ocean City property ... Edward Devlin said that he had every intention of cooperating with Mayor Harry W. Kelley and other city officials in trying to save the old Coast Guard building. He said the structure actually was 25 feet onto the lot that he purchased but that this summer, without being moved, it could continue to be used as a youth health center.” The Devlin family converted the former bingo parlor into “The Irene”, the eighth in a chain of family-owned shops selling jewelry, beachwear and other items (the other stores were located in Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey).

The City Council voted in October 1977 to pay for moving the Life-Saving/Coast Guard station to a new location at the south end of the Boardwalk where the building would be refurbished to serve as a museum. The Daily Times issued this report on December 17: “One of the town's oldest landmarks moved out on the beach Friday [December 16]. The old Coast Guard station which stood at the corner of Caroline Street and the boardwalk for 86 years started yesterday on a three day journey down the beach. It will be rebuilt on a spot near the inlet where it will be used as a museum ... a section of the pier has been removed to allow the house to pass by ... The movers expect to finish the job Sunday if the weather holds out.” After significant restoration work was completed, the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum was dedicated on December 25, 1978.

The town erected a new building on the north side of Caroline Street in 1978 to serve as a health center. As described in an article in the Morning News (Wilmington DE) published on July 1, “The Ocean City (Md.) Health Center, a joint project of the Worcester (Md.) County Health Department and the Ocean City Beach Ministry Task Force of the Delmarva Ecumenical Agency, has opened for the season at the beach resort ... The center works closely with the Ocean City police department and other agencies of the beach ministry - Diakonia House operated by the Mennonites; the Hotline, crisis telephone counseling service; the Icthus Coffee House and the Jesus House.” The health center is still operating today.

The Devlin family sold the boardwalk lot in 1989 to Donald W. Timmons, the owner of Dumser’s Dairyland, and Alfred V. Melson, Sr., the president of an insurance agency, for $2.85 million. The two men converted the building into a two-unit commercial condominium called the “Caroline Condominium” in 2001. Following Mr. Melson’s death in 2003, his family conveyed his interest in the building to Ocean City Dumsers in 2005 for $3.2 million.

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