When I was a child, growing up on a farm in Massachusetts, I spent all of my free hours exploring (and working) on the 100 wonderful acres that we enjoyed. In addition to falling off of the barn roof while testing my latest parachute design, I rode horses, helped bring in the hay, and a thousand other things that piqued my interest in our world of wonders that was Whippoorwill Farm in the1950s and 60s. By the time I reached the age of 16, I found another interest that would last the next 30 years – the Fire Department. I would retire as an officer after a long career in Fire and EMS. But my first contact with the profession was during my high school years, when interested youth were welcomed to “hang around” the fire station and ride the back step of the old 1952 brush fire truck and help extinguish the many brush and grass fires at the time.
Over the years, youths’ pastimes may have changed, but their interest in exciting and sometimes dangerous occupations has been passed on from generation to generation. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, America’s youth revered the work of the Life-Savers and of lighthouse keepers, but by the 1930s it was the lifeboat stations of the U.S. Coast Guard that many American boys longed to visit. Many school boys on Cape Cod and all along our coasts had grown up with one consuming ambition – to go down to the sea as their fathers did.
In July of 1975, the Cape Cod Standard Times published a story about two boys who spent a weekend at the Chatham Coast Guard Station doing chores and sharing the life of the Coast Guardsmen. This began as an idea conceived by W.O. John Taylor at the station, and the Big Brother/Big Sister organization. But this idea was not new.
Writer Peter Hartley did much the same thing beginning in 1938 at the old Chatham Morris Island Coast Guard Station, and later at the Monomoy Point Station in the summer of 1940. Hartley wrote about his adventures in the August 3, 1975 issue of the Cape Cod Standard Times.
“… It began in the old station on Morris Island, which the Weather Bureau later occupied. One of the buildings had been built as a Coast Guard boathouse / garage in the 1930s. It was built to house the two surfboats, the big Race Point-type boat and the smaller finer-lined Monomoy-type boat, the breeches buoy apparatus on its balloon-tired grey two wheeled trailer, the station tractor, and the truck.
“This was a surf station and the men who manned it were surfmen, trained by a lifetime around the water and by their particular calling to launch and land through the surf. I just wandered in one day – my family had a summer home at Little Beach, about a mile away – and more or less made myself at home. The old station, which was torn down in the 1950s, was different from the new one at Chatham Light.
“In today’s station, boys would learn technical things, including the keeping weather records and radio watches…. In the late 1930s, watches were visual watches, and while the Monomoy Point Station had a radio – a large mysterious black metal box with all kinds of heavy dials – I never saw it in use.
“But what an adventure it was to sit in the tower with a man on watch, high over the entrance to Chatham harbor, and watch him record every vessel that went in or out – 24 hours a day – and every vessel that passed the station. The man on watch could likely identify every fisherman in and out of Chatham Harbor by name…. In those pre-World War II days, there was still a substantial fleet of coasting schooners – big three and four masters – carrying lumber down from Maine…. They would hang off Chatham, tacking back and forth waiting for the right combination of wind and tide to run the channel down past Monomoy Point.
“I can remember dozens of faces, and not quite so many names. There was Sherwood “Bud” Fisher who was an especial friend of mine, and Lyman Nickerson and George Harding, and Roger Williams…and Nick the cook…. The last I particularly remember. Short, with a large, gray moustache, he cooked for a dozen or so men at the Chatham Station on the big nickel-trimmed, black iron coal range…. He was gruff with kids, but never turned me away. I drank my first cup of steaming black coffee in a mug with no handle at the station, and there was the fish chowder…. Nick, in addition to being a culinary genius, is the only person I have ever seen set a whole table for a dozen people by standing in one place at the long oak table and sliding cups and dishes, each to its appointed place. And he never misses…
“I got a particular kick out of going out in the boats. It took some careful casual hanging around…and sometimes it depended on who was detailed to patrol the Sunday afternoon races in Stage Harbor…. In those days the boats – a 36-foot motor lifeboat and a 26-foot motor surfboat – were kept in the boathouse and run down the [marine] railway when they were to be used. (In later years, the 36-foot motor lifeboat would be moored in Stage Harbor.) On this particular Sunday, the three man crew blithely ran out the surfboat, motor turning over, backed her off the cradle and we set off down the harbor….”
And night watches walking the beach with the first man south down Monomoy… There was the week that started out to be a glorious adventure as a guest of Bud Fisher at the Monomoy Point Station in 1940…but that’s another story. It is all gone now, done away with by the technology developed during World War II and later…Some station experiences were more structured, and in some cases they were a part of official programs and sponsored by local organizations. In a pre-war U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, an article entitled ‘On Old Cape Cod’ appeared on much the same subject.
“In the years before World War II, a group of high school boys in Provincetown on Cape Cod, prepared themselves to carry on the seagoing traditions of their fathers. These boys participated in a training program sponsored through the Coast Guard, W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), and the local Board of Selectmen. “They soon began to receive training by the Coast Guard at Station Race Point in the duties and responsibilities of the coast patrol. Many of the area’s youth proved to be apt pupils and rapidly mastered the skills necessary to go to sea, and in the event of an emergency, these trainees were well equipped to aid a skeleton Coast Guard crew at the station.
“The youth’s training included the fundamentals of seamanship, radio operation, signaling, rescue work, patrol operations and similar work which made up the regular duties of the Coast Guard Station at Race Point. In addition to classroom instruction at an improvised “riggers loft” at the local community center, the boys actually practiced the rescue of seamen by use of the breeches buoy. They fired the carefully loaded bronze Lyle gun at the mast of a “ship” 300 feet away, while other trainees clinging to the mast,” secure the hawsers and begin to be rescued.
“The beach patrol is an important function of the Race Point station as well, and the boys were taught this function too. Equipped with signal flares, patrol clocks and other equipment, the boys learned to patrol short stretches of beach, take observations, watch for signals of distress, and keep a log of passing ships, noting direction, time of passing and other information.
“Semaphore signals were taught, as well as the International Morse code, and as part of their training the boys were permitted to assist in the operation of a two-way radio between stations in the vicinity. In the Coast Guard manner, the boys would receive messages, decode them, and perhaps transmit them to other stations by phone. Attired in picturesque storm clothing, rubber coats, boots and hats that cover them from head to foot, the trainees are instructed in the handling of the 26-foot surf boat that is part of the station’s rescue equipment. Additional instruction includes knot-tying, rope splicing, boxing the compass, use of weather signals, and more.”
I am sure that these and other similar programs across the country over the years laid the groundwork for many a successful career on the sea.
Since the early years, a host of wonderful articles and books have been written about the life at these old Coast Guard stations. They are well worth searching out for hours of wonderful reading.
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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net
This story appeared in the
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