A true Ocean City icon, the Life-Saving Station Museum is better than ever this summer
When a house gets moved on a tractor-trailer, it’s a spectacle all its own. But imagine seeing house movers trucking along not on a highway but on the beach in Ocean City — and they’re dismantling the town’s pier halfway through the trip.
That’s just one chapter in the fascinating story of the resort’s 125-year-old Life-Saving Station Museum, located on the southern end of the Ocean City Boardwalk.
“I would say that most people here love Ocean City the way it is today, but we show them what Ocean City was 100 years ago,” said Nancy Howard, president of the nonprofit Ocean City Museum Society. “But now, we also want to tell the story of Ocean City and what’s happened to it.”
A Storied History
The Life-Saving Station, once one of 25 along the Atlantic Coast, first opened its doors in 1891, replacing an earlier structure built in 1878. It later became the resort’s Coast Guard station. When the Coast Guard opened a new building on the bayside in 1964, the now-obsolete facility was decommissioned. The building was used for various purposes after that, including serving as headquarters for the OC Beach Patrol and as a youth- crisis counseling service.
In 1974, heirs laid claim to the land beneath the building, on the Boardwalk at Caroline Street. It became a complicated land-ownership issue that culminated in a lengthy court case. The family that won the lawsuit sold the property to another family, who made plans to demolish the building.
But then, in swooped in a group of concerned citizens called the Ocean City Museum Committee. They urged town officials to save and relocate the abandoned building. In 1977, the new owner sold the building to the town of Ocean City for $1.
“Some very forward-thinking people said, ‘Let’s move it and put it here.’ How smart of them to do that,” Howard said, adding that today, “it is the iconic building of Ocean City.”
In December of 1977, the station was hoisted from its foundations by professional house movers and trucked eight blocks down the beach. If that wasn’t enough of a spectacle, a section of the Ocean City Pier had to be removed, so the giant truckload could pass through to its destination.
Upon arrival, the old building was turned 90 degrees, and the tall boathouse doors that once opened to the ocean now faced south, over the inlet, toward Assateague Island.
Inside The Museum
Part of the museum’s mission is highlighting the role of the Life-Saving Station’s “surfmen,” whose job it was to take on dangerous ocean rescues. To that end, one of the treasures of the museum collection is an authentic surf boat, on loan from the Smithsonian. It would have been used in the 1920s and ’30s to rescue mariners from sinking ships.
Before the town’s inlet opened in 1933, men on a rescue mission would have arduously hauled the 2.5-ton boat on a wide-wheeled cart through sand and launched into the shore break, no matter the weather.
Upstairs, a narrow staircase leads to more exhibit space and to a cramped museum office. Several lifetimes ago, these areas housed the quarters and washroom for the keeper of the Life-Saving Station. Now, they showcase the history of surfing and surf culture of OC.
You’ll also find an exhibit about life on the Boardwalk during the first half of the 20th century. That one includes the famous Laughing Sal, a grotesque, retired funhouse clown whose cackling laughter can still be heard with the push of a little red button. And in June, the museum launched an exhibit on the history of Native American life in our area.
Exhibitions don’t end at the museum walls. Beginning July 3, staff and volunteers will offer free programs right outside, on the Boardwalk, on a range of topics, including knot-tying, sharks and the Beach Patrol, among others.
The Museum’s Future
In the next few years, museum officials are hoping to expand the museum into a second building, Howard said.
The proposed two-story expansion would accommodate existing exhibits, as well as an expanded gift shop, newoffice space, classrooms and more. Then, with exhibits cleared out of the old station building, they could restore the property to what it would have looked like in the late 1800s, Howard said.
For now, the current museum remains a first-class amenity for Ocean City tourists.
“Hundreds of people pass by here every day in the summer. If they would just come on in, they would add another dimension to their beach experience,” she said.
Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum
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