In the late 1800s, an increasing number of boats were cruising off the coasts of South Florida. With more boats came more accidents, and a call for support systems beyond lighthouses. In June 1874, Congress called for so-called “houses of refuge” to be established along the coast to help those who were shipwrecked or otherwise lost. Five houses were erected following the Congressional act, and four more 10 years later.
“Lacking the usual station crew of surfmen, keepers of houses of refuge were primarily responsible for providing shelter, food, and clothing to victims of shipwrecks,” writes Sandra Thurlow in U.S. Life-Saving Service: Florida’s East Coast. “They were also required to help survivors find transportation to civilization.”
In the days before lifeguards, the Houses of Refuge stood sentinel over Floridian shores, keeping an eye out for anyone who got on the wrong side of the treacherous shoals and reefs in the state’s waters. Keepers lived in and maintained the houses, and were charged with roaming the beaches, keeping their eyes peeled for anyone who made it to shore.
Today, only one of these houses remains. The House of Refuge at Gilbert’s Bar was the second sanctuary-from-the-surf to be built, in 1876, on the southern tip of Hutchinson Island. When the modern U.S. Coast Guard was established in 1915, the House of Refuge became a station that was in active service during World War I, and served as a submarine lookout in World War II. After the war, as the advent of lifeguard towers and, frankly, sturdier and safer vessels, took hold, the station was decommissioned.
While the other structures were dismantled or destroyed by storms, the House of Refuge at Gilbert’s Bar was made into a museum. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, a century after Congress declared its need.
Today, the museum presents the house as it appeared in 1904, a place for bewildered folks tossed about by storms to recuperate before continuing on. Since the 1960s, the waters near the House of Refuge have been a home to sea turtles, which live in the warm coastal waters nearby.