In 1897, the U.S. Life-Saving Service opens Peterson's Point Lifeboat Station, on Grays Harbor at what will become Westport. The station provides rescue service for mariners wrecked while passing by or entering Grays Harbor on Washington's outer coast. Grays Harbor, about 40 miles north of the mouth of the Columbia River and 93 miles south of Cape Flattery at the entrance to Puget Sound, is one of the few natural harbors on Washington's outer (Pacific Ocean) coast. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Grays Harbor was the United States' leading lumber port.
High Winds and Frequent Fogs
The Life-Saving Service established the Peterson's Point Station in keeping with its view that while waters of America's Pacific Coast were generally not dangerous, it was prudent to provide rescue facilities near entrances to rivers such as the Columbia and bays such as Grays Harbor. The Grays Harbor station was among the last such facility built on the Washington coast.
The rationale for the post included the dangerous entrance to the harbor. Although nearly three-miles wide at its widest point, the constantly shifting navigable channel was only three-eight's of a mile wide and included a bar passage recommended to be attempted only under the direction of knowledgeable local pilots. Navigation authorities deemed the bar impassable in the high winds and frequent fogs prevalent throughout winter months. In addition to the many ships entering and leaving Grays Harbor because of the booming lumber trade, numerous others passed by on voyages between ports such as San Francisco and Seattle since the coastwise shipping route was between six to seven miles offshore.
Congress responded to the Life-Saving Service's plans for Pacific Coast stations with an 1874 authorization for facilities at Cape Disappointment, 40 miles south of Grays Harbor, Shoalwater (later Willapa) Bay, 20 miles south of Grays Harbor, and Neah Bay, 93 miles north of Grays Harbor. In October 1888, Congress supplemented this original authorization for Washington coast stations by authorizing construction at Grays Harbor.
Lifeboat Station, Lighthouse, Fog Signal
Lifeboat station construction actually began at Grays Harbor only in 1897. The Life-Saving Service chose a location near the site of Grays Harbor Lighthouse, also being built that year. The lighthouse keepers' quarters and the lifeboat facility went up just east of, or behind the lighthouse, shielded from ocean winds by a primary dune. The lighthouse itself, and its fog signal building, faced the nearby surf-pounded shoreline. Although being atop the primary dune gave some protection to the lighthouse, the fog signal building sat so close to the ocean that storm-driven waves and tides could sometimes reach it.
The life saving station took its original name from Peterson's Point. This feature, named after an early settler, but later renamed Point Chehalis for a local Indian tribe, is a narrow spit of land at the southwestern tip of Grays Harbor. The station and lighthouse were about 2.5 miles southwest of the spit's northernmost tip, which shapes the lower end of the mouth of Grays Harbor. A small village on the spit, Westport, eventually surrounded the lighthouse and lifeboat station. Brown's Point, across the harbor mouth from Point Chehalis, forms the northern tip of the Grays Harbor entrance.
Patrolling the Shoreline
Once operations began, duty at Peterson's Point was much like that at other lifeboat establishments. The keeper, in charge, and assigned surfmen patrolled and practiced constantly. When the fall of night or fog obscured visibility from a lookout post at the station, surfmen patrolled miles of beach looking for flares or other signs of distress from vessels offshore. This vigilance was particularly important before ship-to-shore radio communications were common. Linkage of patrol routes, such as those between the Peterson's Point and Willapa Bay, and Willapa Bay and Cape Disappointment allowed almost complete coverage of the coastline.
In daylight hours, station personnel practiced launching a 26-foot, oar-powered boat through the surf after dragging it to water's edge. Once launched, the boat became a platform for rescue drills, including one in which the surfmen intentionally capsized their boat and then righted it. A good keeper, wags said, could keep his feet dry by leaping from the gunwale to the hull of an overturning boat while his crew thrashed about in the chilly ocean.
Life-Saving Service personnel also practiced onshore, dragging a beach cart loaded with rescue apparatus through the sands, then unloading it in a race with time. From the cart they took and set up a Lyle gun, a line-throwing cannon intended to send a messenger line from shore to stranded ship. In the absence of a ship for practice, the lifesavers erected a timber tower simulating a vessel. One or more of their colleagues clung to the tower, simulating distressed sailors clinging to a ship's mast. After firing a line from the Lyle gun to the tower, the surfmen rigged equipment, called a breeches buoy, to move "survivors" from the tower to "shore."
Forces Natural and Technological
Forces of nature and human intervention changed this nineteenth-century pattern soon after the Peterson's Point Lifeboat Station opened in 1898. About the same time station construction was underway, engineers were building long rock jetties at Peterson's Point and Brown's Point. The jetties, intended to direct tidal flow so that it scoured the navigable channel into the harbor, had a secondary effect. They slowed and obstructed inshore currents, flowing north from the mouth of the Columbia River, and carrying tons of sand and silt. Resulting deposition south of Grays Harbor gradually increased distance between the Peterson's Point Lifeboat Station and the water's edge.
At the same time, technological innovation gave the lifesavers increased flexibility. Although oar-powered surfboats remained important tools for many years, beginning about 1907 the Life-Saving Service began to introduce motor-powered 34- and 36-foot lifeboats. In 1915, the Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service joined to form a new organization, the United States Coast Guard. About this time, the Peterson's Point facility became known as Station Grays Harbor.
By the 1920s, it was just as feasible for the lifesaving crew to speed to the scene of a maritime disaster by taking a motor-powered lifeboat from the sheltered waters inside Grays Harbor as by launching a boat directly into the ocean through the surf. As a result, the station began using a dock at Pacific Avenue in Westport to house its boats, although the lifeboat station remained near the lighthouse. When alerted to a disaster, the Coast Guardsmen traveled across the spit by truck to embark on a rescue.
A Dramatic Rescue
The most dramatic of those events occurred on May 7, 1937. When high winds forced the 967-ton lumber schooner Trinidad onto a Willapa Bay spit, the lifesaving station there had its own boat at sea on another mission. Called to help, Grays Harbor sent its 38-foot motor lifeboat No. 2839 captained by Hilman Persson. A nine-hour trip in heavy seas followed. Persson and his crew of four, Roy Anderson, D. E. Hamalainan, Jess Mathews, and Roy Woods, were able to take 21 survivors off the Trinidad. The Coast Guard recognized this as its most outstanding rescue of 1937. The following year, all five rescuers received a Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest honor for such feats. Persson additionally received the American Legion Medal for Valor, presented to him in ceremonies at Washington, D.C.
Shift of rescue station boat storage from near the lighthouse to protected waters inside Grays Harbor at Westport had, by 1935, resulted in a decision to build a new station on the east side of Chehalis Point. Local residents sold land for the new station to the federal government for one dollar. Construction ended in 1939.
The new facility, a three-story Colonial Revival or "Nantucket-style" building, looked toward Grays Harbor. An adjacent equipment building provided space for vehicles and out-of-water boats. A long dock connected the main structure with a boathouse from which craft could be launched for rescue efforts. An influx of personnel to meet the demands of World War II soon overwhelmed this 1939 complex, designed to accommodate a crew of 20. The lifeboat buildings near the lighthouse stayed in service to house the expanded station complement.
War's end did not bring relief from overcrowding, however. Rapidly increasing commercial and sports fishing activity out of Westport required additional Coast Guard personnel to enforce maritime safety regulations as well as to provide rescue service. By 1971, 50 Coast Guardsmen were crowded into a building meant to provide quarters and working space for 20, although some continued to live in two buildings of the 1898 facility near Grays Harbor Lighthouse.
The Modern Coast Guard Station
Construction of a modern Coast Guard station just a few blocks south of the 1939 complex solved this problem in 1973. The 1897 buildings came down, replaced by Coast Guard family housing. The 1939 facility moved into ownership of the Port of Grays Harbor, which in turn sold it to the City of Westport in 1976.
After several years of use by a variety of government agencies and nonprofit groups, it became the Westport Maritime Museum in 1985. The Westport-South Beach Historical Society, which operates the museum, devotes much of it to displays on local Life-Saving Service and U.S. Coast Guard history, thus commemorating activity begun with opening of the Peterson's Point Lifeboat Station in 1897.