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Babylon Town to preserve former lifesaving station at Oak Beach

This historic photo shows an Oak Beach Life

This historic photo shows an Oak Beach Life Saving Station in circa the 1920s.

An Oak Beach building once associated with saving lives now needs a little saving of its own.

Babylon Town officials are working to rehabilitate and preserve the Oak Beach community center, a building that once served as part of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The service was the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The lifesaving station, which was hit hard by both Tropical Storm Irene and superstorm Sandy, was recently deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and town officials will now apply for official status.

The station is believed to be the only surviving one of its kind out of 23 that were built along the South Shore in 1872 by the U.S. government. The stations, built 3 to 5 miles apart from the barrier beach in Queens to East Hampton, were constructed under the federal Treasury Department in the wake of hundreds of shipwrecks that occurred off the coast of Long Island. Oak Beach saw so many shipwrecks that many of its walkways bear the names of the sunken ships, such as Savannah and Sullivan.

According to Tom Morris, 84, a retired Newsday reporter who is writing a book on the history of Oak Beach and Oak Island, lifesaving efforts at Oak Beach date to the early 1860s, but no national service was involved.

"It was very disorganized and then things got so out of hand that Congress had to step in," Morris said. "A lot of the interests involved were mercantile, but as a national issue, the loss of life was horrendous."

Changing roles over time

The four-room building was the first official lifesaving station in Oak Beach, Morris said. The first house at Oak Beach was built in 1886 for the captain of the station.

Those at the station were all volunteers at first. Each station had a keeper and a crew of six men, who would take turns walking miles down the beach to meet someone walking from the next closest station, said Babylon's town historian, Mary Cascone. During a rescue, the crew would have to put heavy lifeboats on carts and push them over the dunes and into the surf.

The stations were all built in a particular uniform style, Cascone said. Called "red houses" due to their distinctive red roofs, the buildings had a footprint of 18 feet by 42 feet.

"We have something here that's really unique," she said. "I can stand at the water's edge and hold up an old postcard and I can see that same building from the lines and the shapes of the windows." Cascone said other lifesaving stations remain on the Island but are from a later era.

In 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service -- the maritime law enforcement service within the treasury department -- was merged with the Life-Saving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. By this time there were more than 270 stations covering the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

The Oak Beach building remained in almost continuous use by the Coast Guard until 1945. During Prohibition, the servicemen went after rum runners. In World War II, they looked for German submarines.

In 1948 the building was sold to the Town of Babylon and, starting in 1975, the Oak Beach community began using it for a variety of purposes, from a post office to chapel services and civic meetings.

When Sandy hit in October 2012, the foundation of the building -- which sits on locust posts -- was weakened. The town wants to build a new foundation and elevate the building and has applied for a $500,000 FEMA hazard mitigation grant to defray the costs.

"This is a very important building for the people of the community," said the town's deputy supervisor, Tony Martinez. "They have been displaced and it's our goal to give them their facility back."

Preservation plans

The town has also applied for a $900,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to restore the building's original features. Although modifications were made over the years -- and the building was twice moved in Oak Beach -- changes were made in such a way that they encapsulated and preserved the original building, Cascone said.

"In a way, they just kind of left it for us to discover now," Cascone said, noting that two wheels from the boat carts were found underneath the station.

Jed Meade, 64, a lifelong Oak Beach resident, said he was grateful to the town for helping preserve the building. Meade's grandfather, Joseph Meade, a sailor who came to Oak Beach in 1904, started out as a low-ranking surfman at the station, Meade said, working his way up to officer-in-charge by the 1920s.

Meade said the building represents "the history of an area and the ties to residents over the generations" as well as an important gathering place for the community.

Cascone said that after it's fixed and restored, she would like to hold specific history days at the building, which will remain a community center, where the public can take a tour.

"We're working right now to figure out how we want to interpret the history of the building going forward," she said. "We can have it look like a World War II Coast Guard station or we can try to keep all of these other elements and see how we can merge them together. And that's going to be the challenge . . . It's a huge story to tell, but the great thing is that the building helps interpret it for us."

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