Where the boardwalk meets the inlet lies a true treasure of Ocean City, and American, history. There, you will find the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum; and its local artifacts and exhibits that celebrate the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the “Storm Warriors” who served as part of it. Those who step off the beach and into the museum find themselves immersed in tales of deadly storms, catastrophic shipwrecks, high-seas rescue missions, and the evolution of a town and culture.
If you have never heard of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, you are not alone; although you are missing out on an exciting and important aspect of America’s past. The Life-Saving Service was organized in 1871 by Congress to serve as guardian of the seas, but its roots can be traced back to a volunteer rescue program run by the Massachusetts Humane Society as early as 1786. Initial federal efforts at keeping American waters safe relied on a loose network of boathouses along the coasts and waterways, but public outcry over wrecks and sunken ships expressed the need for a more elaborate system.
A Congressional Act from June 1878 established the Life-Saving Service as an independent agency of the Treasury Department, allowing for more federally appropriated funds to help patrol the sparsely populated barrier islands along the East Coast and other regions of the country. The Life-Saving Service responded to hundreds of shipwrecks and saved thousands of lives during its existence and remained a fixture of the American government until it was reorganized as part of what we know as the modern day Coast Guard in 1915.
The intricate systems of national life-saving stations were the backbone of the service and included nineteen along the Eastern Shore and Delaware. From 1875 to 1915, local Surfmen stationed on Delmarva saved 7502 people from over 300 shipwrecks. The Ocean City Life-Saving station was commissioned in 1878 and built on what is now Caroline Street, making it one of the first buildings erected in town. While in operation, the Ocean City station responded to seven major shipwrecks along the coast of the peninsula , including the Sallie W. Kaye in 1883 and the Fortuna in 1911, and saved the lives of numerous passengers and crews.
After 86 years as a post for the Life-Saving Service and then Coast Guard, federal operations at the station ceased in 1964 and it was briefly used by beach patrol before being totally abandoned. In the winter of 1977, after being scheduled for demolition, the dormant station was moved from its original home to its current location, where it houses the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum.
The museum’s two floors of exhibits bring to life Ocean City,Maryland’s heroic and historic past, and detail its transition from a small coastal fishing town to one of the premiere tourist attractions on the East Coast. Stories of local heroes, stormy nights at sea, infamous shipwrecks, indigenous aquatic life, and the history of the boardwalk are sure to capture the imaginations and enlighten the mind’s of locals and tourists alike. And will forever change their perspective of Ocean City, Maryland.