To visit the Oak Island Life-Saving Station, take Hwy 17 to Hwy 211. Take Hwy 211 south for 13 miles and make a right turn onto Hwy 133. Follow Hwy 133 until you cross the bridge to Oak Island. After crossing the bridge you will come to a stop light. Go straight through the light and follow the road until you reach the Oak Island Lighthouse. The life-saving station will be visible on the right, just after you pass the lighthouse. Please note that this is a residential area. Please be respectful of other's property.
The Cape Fear River, located along North Carolina’s southeastern coast has long been an important waterway used to transport goods to the inland city of Wilmington. While a lighthouse marked the mouth of the river as early as 1795, the needs of mariners prompted the US Life-Saving Service to construct a life-saving station at the mouth of the river to assist mariners in distress.
In 1886, a life-saving station was approved for construction on Oak Island, located across the mouth of the river from Bald Head Island and its lighthouse. An 1882-Type station building was then constructed in 1889 and it is believed that it was designed by J. Lake Parkinson. Located some 200 feet from the high tide line, the station building was constructed so that the boat doors were facing the ocean, allowing the stations crew to easily access the beach with their surfboat or life-saving equipment to assist mariners in danger.
The Oak Island Life-Saving Station
This view of the east side of the station (which use to face the beach) was where the boat doors were located. The boat doors were replaced by the lower windows in the photo above, designed to match the look of the west side of the building.
The original structure had a lean-to on this side of the building. In the 1940's, the lead-to portion was expanded, making an addition to the structure that runs the length of the building when it was moved to its current location.
Note the "stick-style" architecture above the windows, a style found an a number of old buildings along the North Carolina coast.
The watch room provided the surfmen a birds-eye view of the ocean as they kept watch for ships in distress.
The building as it towers over the dues.
This small door shows one of the unique features of the building. It is actually a door from a ship which dates back to 1890-1905 time frame.
The west side of the building
The station was placed into the authority of a local “keeper” who manned the station year round. From September 1st to April 30th, the keeper supervised a crew of nine men. The remainder of the year, the keeper was responsible for rounding up a crew of volunteers to assist in rescues. Keeping watch over the ocean was the responsibility of each member of the crew, as they took turns in four-hour shifts, two men per shift. One man would stand watch in the lookout tower while the other crewman would patrol the beach. After two hours of their four hour shift, they would switch places and finish out their shift. The stations crew repeated this process continually, as watch was kept twenty-four hours a day.
The station remained in active service until 1932 when a new Coast Guard station was build to replace it. The old station was then used to house a pulling surfboat and other equipment until it was sold to a gentleman from Charlotte, who had the building relocated across the road to be used as a beach cottage. When it was relocated, the building was turned one-quarter turn so that its boat doors were facing the east, with the west side of the station now facing south toward the ocean. Sometime in the 1940’s the stations lean-to portion (located on the now south (ocean) side) was expanded the length of the building and enclosed, allowing for more interior living space.
December 28, 2000, the Oak Island Life-Saving Station was placed on the National Register of Historic places. Currently used as private residence, the station is in great condition and still retains its original floor plan. As the only remaining North Carolina life-saving station south of Cape Lookout, the station stands as a tribute to those brave men who kept watch over the ocean and came to the rescue of mariners in danger.
Resource: National Register of Historic Places Registration Documents