The Lifesaving Service on Wellfleet’s Atlantic Shore

The Atlantic shore along Cape Cod is known as the “graveyard of ships” — many accounts estimate that 3,000 or more shipwrecks occurred there.   The treacherous shoals along the Cape coast were well known by mariners and avoided when possible. Storms would ground ships pushed toward the shallow sandbars. The ships would soon break under the pressure of the raging water, with their contents and occupants thrown into the bone chilling surf. If a sailor did make it to shore, there were no houses providing refuge, as there was no ocean front property then. No wonder the ‘Back Shore’ of the Cape was viewed as a place of death and destruction.

Although Cahoon Hollow Lifesaving Station is not a South Wellfleet feature, the surfmen stationed at Cahoon Hollow who patrolled the beach covered South Wellfleet’s shore. To the north of Cahoon Hollow was the Pamet River station. To the south was Nauset Beach station in Eastham, one and ¾ miles south of Nauset Lights. The surfmen patrolled the beach, meeting their counterparts at a halfway station where they exchanged identification to prove they were on duty.  The distance between the Cahoon Hollow and Nauset stations was a bit longer than the usual five to six miles that the Life Saving Service had planned.  Descriptions of the Cahoon Hollow patrols indicate that the patrol down through South Wellfleet to meet the surfman walking north from Nauset was four miles.

(Note: in this article, I have chosen Cahoon Hollow as the designation; others call it Cahoons or Cahoon’s Hollow.)

Daniel Lombardo has a photograph of the South Wellfleet halfway house in his book Wellfleet, A Cape Cod Village.  Two of us who are familiar with Professor Hicks’ photographs of South Wellfleet find that the quality of this image suggests that it may be a Hicks photo. The Professor summered in South Wellfleet, having purchased the original Arey House off Route Six, near Old Wharf Road. But where was the building? The four miles required for the Cahoon Hollow patrol south along the beach would be around today’s Marconi Beach.

Long before there were surfmen walking the ocean beach, there were efforts to help shipwrecked sailors. The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was organized in 1786 in Boston, an idea based on the Royal Humane Society organized in 1774. The Dutch had organized a similar effort in 1767, but the first documented Society, in the early 1700s, was the Chinese Chinkiang. The Massachusetts group organized to stow lifesaving equipment and shelters in certain coastal locations, and to reward individuals who rescued people.  In another effort, the Society offered prizes to anyone who might develop a technique for reviving persons near death by drowning or overcome by smoke or gas.

One of the key Cape Cod documents in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is the 1802 “Description of the Coast of the County of Barnstable from Cape Cod or Race Point to Cape Malebarre or Sandy Point of Chatham.” This document named the places where shipwrecked seamen could look for shelter. Numerous copies were printed – though I wonder if many seamen could read – and how many were able to pick themselves up from a wintery beach and seek shelter in the huts provided by the Trustees of the Massachusetts Humane Society.  After describing Newcomb’s Hollow, the document goes on to describe a valley called “Pearce’s Hollow” a half mile south, and then Cohoon’s (sic) Hollow a half mile south of Pearce’s, with a description that it is “east by north from the Wellfleet Meeting House, “ then located at the head of Duck Creek, where today Great Pond Road meets Route 6.

Of special interest to South Wellfleet historians is the description of the “eighth valley”, called Snow’s Hollow, which today would be LeCount Hollow, sometimes called Maguire Beach for a later property owner. In one of the early property descriptions of South Wellfleet, the sailor is directed to a house just north of where the road (the King’s Highway) traverses around the head of Blackfish Creek. The writer indicates that there are houses to the left, but these are more remote. The report goes on to describe a ninth valley at Fresh Brook Hollow, and then a tenth labeled “Plum Valley”, two and one half miles south of Fresh Brook.  Between Fresh Brook and Nauset there are houses “scattered all over the plain, open country, but none of them nearer than a mile to the shore.”

In 1807 the Humane Society huts were equipped with firewood and provisions. Presumably, there were volunteers who checked the sites and kept the supplies. Later, in some locations, lifeboats were stored.  One of the Humane Society‘s projects early in the 19th century was to develop a lifeboat, a 30 foot cork-lined vessel.

In his memory piece on Wellfleet, Charles F. Cole describes a “Charity House” put up by the Humane Society and containing wood and a few other things for use of those who were cast ashore. He places one “about ½ mile north of the Hollow near Cook’s Camps.”  That Hollow would be Lecount or Maguire’s Beach.

The 1876 Humane Society report notes that there was only one hut in Wellfleet. The same report notes that the Society had lifeboats at Newcomb Hollow and Cahoon Hollow, and also a place unfortunately named “Ni**er Hollow” — this is the only reference to such a name in Wellfleet I have seen. The latter had the Hut of Refuge and a surfboat, and was the responsibility of Justus Higgins in 1849 and Seth H. Baker in 1858. These men were paid $15 a year for their work.

Since the surfmen had to walk four miles to their Halfway House, I’m not sure this structure was re-adapted in the 1870’s, as the distance from Cahoon Hollow to this location would not be sufficient.

Congress appropriated funds in 1845 to assist the Humane Society. Nevertheless, another 25 years would pass before the Humane Huts were declared inadequate for the job. In 1871, after a number of fatal disasters along the coast, the U.S. government established the Life Saving Service. The stations were to be three to five miles apart. Cahoon Hollow station was one of the first to be built, in 1872, along with Nauset and the others along the outer Cape.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury arranged for the use of the land for Cahoon Hollow station with E.P. Cook, who was mentioned in a previous blog piece as the man selling land

Cahoon Hollow Station with nearby house

Cahoon Hollow Station with nearby house

to Marconi for his operation. It does not appear that the land was actually purchased, but that the government would “use and occupy” the site for $51.00. The fee appears to have been a one-time arrangement.

William Newcomb was the first keeper of the Cahoon Hollow Station. It appears that the Service applied the same title as the Light House Service. Eventually, the military organization of the Service changed the keeper’s title to Captain. In 1879, Daniel Cole became Captain of the Cahoon Hollow station, and remained in that position until 1905, when he retired.

Captain Cole was an honored citizen of Wellfleet. His family was one Welfleet’s originals. Born in 1844, Daniel had fished off the Grand Banks, and then went to seek his fortune on

Cahoon Hollow Station with crew

Cahoon Hollow Station with crew

the Great Lakes at age 19. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted with the 12th Illinois Regiment, Company K, Second Brigade.  He fought in numerous engagements and was part of General Sherman’s “march to the sea.” He returned to Wellfleet, and joined the Life Saving Station as a surfman at the close of the fishing season in 1872. Cole’s military service, along with his knowledge as a mariner, must have made him the perfect choice as Captain.

The structures built for each station were each the same — two stories with a sitting room, mess room, kitchen, keeper’s office, and storage for the surfboat and beach apparatus. The equipment could easily be rolled out on a sloping platform. The men slept in dormitories on the second floor where there were also additional beds for rescued victims. All the

Cahoon Hollow Station with cupola

Cahoon Hollow Station with cupola

structures had a sixty-foot flagstaff where International Code signals were used to communicate with passing ships. The station was manned from August 1st to June 1st, but the keeper or Captain was on duty throughout the year.

When the Service began, keepers were paid $200 a year; by 1902, their annual pay had risen to $900.  Various writers mention the surfmen’s salary of $40 per month when the Service began, but these accounts may not be correct, as this would make the surfmen’s wages higher than their boss’.  By 1902, the surfmen were paid $65 a month.  Most stayed on the job for an average of two years.

The surfmen, numbered in terms of their seniority and accomplishment from One to Six or Seven, patrolled the beach every night and on foggy or “thick weather” days. There were six men at a station from August to November 1st , when a seventh was added.  On clear days, a watch was kept from a station lookout. The patrols could be exhausting on bad weather nights, when a surfman had to hold a wooden shingle in front of his face to keep sand out of his eyes, and walk into the wind. The night had four watches: from sunset to 8 PM; 8 to 12 AM; 12 to 4 AM; and 4 AM to sunrise. Two men went out on watch, and set out in opposite directions. If his counterpart from the neighboring station did not meet him at the halfway house,  then after a reasonable wait he had to keep walking until he met him, or even going as far as the next station to find out what happened to the other surfman. Initially, when a wreck occurred, someone had to go to the next station to round up additional rescuers, if needed. Later, a telephone signaling system provided communication between stations.

After making a number of rescues, surfmen began to develop a mythic status, as“warriors of the sea.” The surfmen’s motto was “You have to go, but you don’t have to come back.”

Life Saving Hero

Life Saving Hero

They had strong public support.  One of the historians of the Life Saving Service gives credit to the public relations skills of Sumner Kimball, the head of the Service.  Today we give such high status to firemen and other “first responders.”

Every station was run the same way, with certain duties prescribed for each day. On Monday, the station was put in order; Tuesdays were for lifeboat drills; Wednesdays for studying International code signals; Thursdays for the beach apparatus and breeches buoy drills; Fridays for resuscitation drills; Saturdays was wash day; and Sundays for religious observation and relaxation.

The Cahoon Hollow Station burned to the ground in February 1893. It was rebuilt in 1895, taking longer to construct because there were property ownership issues. The Barnstable County Deeds database refers to some transfer of property from E. P. Cook to Daniel Cole

Cahoon Hollow Station - Cole home?

Cahoon Hollow Station – Cole home?

at around that time, and later deeds refer to Cole’s property next to the three acres of Life Station land. (One of the photos shows a house near the station.) All the men lost personal possessions in the fire, and there’s an interesting document available on line that lists what each person lost and the reimbursement sought. Interestingly, Mrs. Cole lost a number of personal possessions in the fire as well — a Barnstable Patriot news article said she was living there.  Her reimbursement caused some consternation at the Service; one assumes this was outside the rules. During the time the station was being reconstructed, the crew operated out of the Coles’ barn.

Daniel Cole retired in 1905 – some accounts say he was forced to do so for health reasons. The Life Saving Service mandated an annual physical exam, and perhaps he did not pass.  In his 1902 account of the Cahoon Hollow station, Dalton counts their rescues at 16 vessels, 124 persons, with one life lost. I plan to write more about the actual shipwrecks in another post.

In 1915, the Life Saving Service was combined with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. There were other changes in play that soon came along. The life saving techniques developed for wooden ships of the 1870’s – and those in trouble had to be fairly close to shore — were now needed for more motor-driven boats, and more recreational boaters — not commercial nor passenger vessels. There were also major improvements in weather prediction. Marconi’s wireless allowed ships to signal distress while at sea, and rescues were handled by other ships. But the most important change was the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 that gave ships an alternative route to Boston Harbor.

The Coast Guard continued beach patrols until after World War II — my mother told stories of going to the “Back Shore” to the beach during the war when the patrol would seize and take the film out of any camera. The Cahoon Hollow station was deaccessioned in 1950 when the Cook family sold the land  –part to the Town of Wellfleet.

An added note: in researching the Life Saving Service for this article, I found an article in the journal Historical Archaeology about the existence of a Halfway House in South Truro, the site where the surfmen of Cahoon Hollow and Pamet River stations would have

Truro Halfway House between Cahoon Hollow and Pamet Stations

Truro Halfway House between Cahoon Hollow and Pamet Stations

exchanged their identification and rested up for the walk back to the station. The 1972 article notes that little was left of the structure but someone did take a photo of it in 1963, displayed here. When the “dig” occurred, fragments of clay pipes manufactured in Glasgow, Scotland were found, along with patent medicine bottles, a wine bottle and a whiskey bottle. The author notes that these artifacts were turned over to the Wellfleet Historical Society. There was also evidence of a coal burning stove to keep the men warm as they rested halfway through their beach patrol.


Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 8, 1802 description of the Coast of the County of Barnstable from Cape Cod or Race Point to Cape Malebarre or Sandy Point of Chatham.

Dalton, J.W. and Frank Ackerman, Life Savers of Cape Cod, The Barta Press, Boston, 1902 (available on Google Books)

Massachusetts Humane Society website:

U.S. Coastguard Station Cahoons Hollow, Massachusetts

Daniel Lombardo, Wellfleet: A Cape Cod Village,  Arcadia Publishing, 2000

Barnstable Patriot (various) online  archive:

Barnstable County Deeds available at

“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library

“The Truro Halfway House, Cape Cod, Massachusetts,” by Edward J. Lenik. Historical Archaeology, Volume 6, 1972, pp. 77-86.

History of the Humane Society of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston, 1876 (on line at

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site:







Family history researcher living in New York City.
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