Symbol of Narragansett’s Gilded Past Played Key Role in U.S. Maritime History

Coast Guard House Owner Intent on Telling Story of One-of-a-Kind U.S. Life-Saving Station

The U.S. Life-Saving Station at Narragansett Pier has long been recognized as an architectural treasure, but Coast Guard House co-owner Bob Leonard has recently discovered its role in innovating coastal rescues around the country.

It wasn’t until Leonard met Tim Dring, author and lifeboat historian, that he learned that the station’s historical significance extends beyond the fact that it was designed by famed New York architects McKim, Mead and White. “I quickly learned that Mr. Dring knew a heckuva lot more about this building than I did.”

After giving a tour of the old building to members of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, Leonard said, “I’ve always been about the history of the building, but after they left that day, I thought, ‘we’ve got to do more with this.’ ”

Now Leonard is eager to share stories of the building’s one-of-a-kind features and how Narragansett’s surfmen, as they were called, tested a lifeboat that became the model for maritime life-saving for the next 90 years.

Dring says the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard, has had a presence in Narragansett since the 1870s. The new federal agency, tasked with outfitting the lifesaving stations with the most modern equipment, turned to the crew at Narragansett Pier for help. Since the British had led the world in lifeboat design for decades, a boat was brought over from England so the Narragansett crew could test it for possible use in the U.S.

“The good news is that as a concept the Americans latched right onto that design and basically all the lifeboats built by the U.S. government from 1873 up until World War II were based on the original British design,” Dring says. The rugged, watertight 30-foot boat, which was self-righting and self-bailing, was only slightly altered in the U.S. to make it shorter and lighter.

At this point the life-saving station was a moveable, wooden building, located directly on the beach and north of the existing structure. Later, the 1888 granite structure was built adjacent to what is now known as the Towers, which was erected three years earlier and designed by the same architectural team. At the time, Ocean Road was lined with huge hotels and summer “cottages,” which attracted fashionable visitors from all over the country and beyond, Oscar Wilde among them.

Narragansett Bay at the time was crowded with ship traffic, and rocky outcroppings, rough surf and high winds could converge, and smashing 3-masted sail ships to bits. The highly trained swimmers on Narragansett Pier life-saving crew were expected to row the lifeboats as far as Beavertail in Jamestown and pull the shipwrecked mariners ashore – and that was after hauling the boats to the shore in wooden wagons. “They would try to save as many people as they could until they were physically exhausted,” Dring says.

By World War I, Narragansett’s popularity had faded and the boats had been retrofitted with motors, making them much heavier and impossible to haul onto the beach, even with the aid of horses. That’s when the Life-Saving Service began experimenting with railway launches, and once again, Narragansett was tapped to evaluate an advancement in marine rescue. The Pier’s railway system included a unique turntable at the top of the railway that allowed lifeboats to be turned around and backed into the boathouse so they could be launched bow first, speeding the process.

The turntable system, the first of its kind, was part of an extensive design of concrete pilings and lightweight rails that formed the model for moving lifeboats going forward. “The whole layout was prototyped in design, and that design was adopted by the Coast Guard for all the stations built after World War I,” Dring says.

The railway launch system no longer survives intact, although parts of it are stored in the restaurant basement. The building itself, the only life-saving station in the country made of stone, withstood the Hurricane of 1938, Carol in 1954 and Sandy most recently – validation that the decision was a good one. With a carved anchor on its south face as its most prominent feature, the Life-Saving Station is one of the few remnants of Narragansett’s gilded past.

While the Coast Guard House restaurant has been built around the 1888 structure, Leonard honors its history with photos and tours of the building. During an extensive post- Sandy renovation, he installed a 15-foot-long photograph of Narragansett Pier at its heyday. He says he is working with Dring, who until recently served as president of the U.S. Life-Saving Service Heritage Association, on a plaque describing the station history. History buffs can ask Leonard to stamp booklets that depict each life-saving station they’ve visited.

Dring, whose knowledge is encyclopedic, is planning to do even more research to find the names of all crew members, their ranks, rescues and noteworthy wrecks by studying annual reports and logbook entries from the 1870s through the early years of the Coast Guard, formed in 1915. He hopes to publicize the information to give longtime South County families a personal connection to local history and a glimpse into their ancestors’ daily lives.

Dring and the heritage association work hard to preserve stations that have fallen into disrepair around the country and is thrilled that the Coast Guard House still stands. The fact that it is a commercial property is all the better, he says, since very few stations can survive financially as museums alone.