I often have sat in my office here at Chatham Light, watching the bar build with the approach of a stiff winter northeast wind. Sleet is pinging off the window, and the mournful sweep of the light ignites the bar twice every ten seconds. I will bundle up, walk to the overlook and wait for the last Chatham fishing boat to cross back into the safe waters of Aunt Lydia’s Cove. Content that the local boats are all safely inside I return to the station. The duty Surfman is always standing in the front door, binoculars in hand, watching the bar and studying the wave patterns.
I always think of the Surfman who walked the beaches of Cape Cod in years past, slinging a lantern and trying to keep his Coston signals dry beneath his oil skins in case he spots a stricken vessel. He would trudge along, usually by rote memory, until he reached the Halfway House. The Halfway house would provide a momentary shelter for the Surfman, allowing him to regain some energy and a short respite from the howling wind and biting sand. He waits for the Surfman from the next station along the beach to arrive. They exchange Surfman checks and news from their stations. Then back out into the gale he would go, back to the Life Saving Station, often more than 3 miles in the distance.
A Surfman Check from the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station
These halfway houses are gone now, their usefulness were replaced by telephone lines, radios, and mechanized vehicles. Most have disappeared, although one still exists in a Mystic Seaport Museum. Another building near the Race Point Coast Guard Station in Provincetown is believed to be a halfway house converted to an oil shed. Rumors of another Halfway house saved from destruction sent a group of USLSS Heritage Association members searching the back roads of Chatham recently, but they had no luck finding it.
My interest in the Life Saving Service History in the Chatham area has allowed me to meet many local people with direct ties to the Life Saving Service here on the Cape. Bob Ryder is the grandson of CAPT Richard Ryder, who was the Officer in Charge of several different stations here on the outer Cape. When Bob stopped in recently with an old photograph, he pointed out a halfway house barely visible on the beach in front of Chatham Light. We talked about the Halfway house, and the USLSSHA interest in them, and he exclaimed that the house was still in South Chatham!
After a few days of sleuthing, Bob sent an e-mail with the phone number of the current owner. I called and set up a time to meet Gordon Baker at the new site of the Halfway House. I drove down Forest Beach road on a cold day in January, and the distinctive outline of a Halfway House was clearly visible against the dark blue waters of Nantucket Sound. She looked like she was in great shape, and enjoying her new view of the sound.
I met Gordon Baker, a former fisherman and Chatham resident since birth. He is a descendant of the Nickerson and Eldredge families, and like the Ryders, has a wealth of knowledge stashed away. He began to describe the tale of how this Halfway House survived all these years.
This Halfway House was originally known as the North Patrol House, and was eventually abandoned by the government. Lifesavers from the Chatham Station on Morris Island would make the trek along the beach in front of the light to the Halfway house. Gordon wasn’t sure if the house was bought by, or acquired by, two local residents – Wessy Eldredge and Robert Tuttle. Wessy Eldredge passed away and his widow sold the North Patrol House to Nathaniel Thompson of Mill Hill Lane. Nathaniel and his wife had an 18’ Novi they used to make the trip over to North Beach for outings, and the Halfway house made a good storage building for their boat gear. The Halfway house originally sat on the beach below the foot of Holway Street, but was moved closer toward Chatham Light at the foot of Water Street.
After Nathaniel Thompson passed away, his wife wanted someone who would be sure to preserve the structure and sold the North Patrol House to Gordon Baker for $5 in the early 1970’s. Pietr Thompson knew Gordon well, and knew he would take good care of the building. After meeting Gordon, I know she chose well. The Halfway House sat content on the beach here until the break occurred on the barrier North Beach in 1987. Erosion and winter storms soon started to eat the beach away and threatened the Halfway House. Gordon remembers one winter storm that allowed breakers to hit the house, almost tipping her on her side. He and a friend took hurricane anchors, climbed on the roof and attempted to anchor the house. They succeeded and saved the structure, but it was obvious they need to move her back. They moved her back a safe distance, but the beach erosion continued to eat away the beach in front of her.
By the end of 1987 they had moved her back as far as she could go, and they were running out of beach. Bob Dubis, a local contractor, used a forklift to lift her up onto the steep dune. This was accomplished, but they risked losing the forklift in doing so. She sat at the top of this steep dune for a year, but the break had allowed the channel to scour back and the Halfway House was now in danger of falling into the channel. The house was lifted up on hydraulic jacks, and two 4x6 skids were fastened to the bottom. With the help of a come-along she was slid back from the edge of the cliff, little by little. Things were going well until a local Conservation Commission member noticed the commotion. Gordon and the moving team were told to cease and desist until a decision was made by the ConCom. Since this was Labor Day weekend, and no decision could be expected until midweek, Gordon and his friends waited until the concom member left, and continued to move the Halfway House to safe ground. With a storm approaching they could not wait for a decision.
The next week, the selectman all met at the site with a stop-work order in hand. Everyone made their opinions known, and the concom member from earlier I am sure was pacing off steps from where she thought the house had been when she told them to stop. Eventually everyone came to agreement and decided that work could proceed to save the Halfway house.
Again the halfway house was threatened by the rapidly retreating channel, and since Gordon had now run out of beach and was against the property line of the neighbor, the decision was made to move the house. Gordon found an old dock and float system that was no longer being used and replaced the top boards. The Halfway House was placed on top and moved to a storage area behind his family’s Hardware store.
This was a temporary storage area and Gordon knew he would have to find a suitable location to place the Halfway House. His family owned a small lot in South Chatham overlooking Nantucket Sound and soon requested permission to place the Halfway house on the property. The ConCom would not grant permission to place the Halfway house there unless she was above the flood plain. This would have meant the Halfway House would have been elevated approximately 9’ to meet the requirement.
But remember how I said that Pietr Thompson had picked the right man to sell the Halfway house to? Gordon Baker quickly applied for a mooring permit for the property. Back then it was much easier to get a permit and Gordon received one with little effort. He then registered the float as a barge, which he continues to register to this day. The North Patrol House still sits on the barge at the property, much as you would store your 17’ Boston Whaler in your back yard.
Gordon takes great care of the Halfway House. He describes the different repairs he has done, replacing the side which faced the ocean storms when she was on the beach in Chatham, re-shingling the roof and sides, and putting a new covering on the door this year after an attempted break-in by kids on the beach. The house is 6’3” wide at the front, 8’3” long and 9’8” tall at the peak.
He also described the many beach parties hosted at the Halfway house, and shows the signatures of guests on the new roof boards. He points out the initials of Life Savers from the early years, some with dates as early as 1918. Two sets are clearly visible “LWN” which is believed to be Lyman W. Nickerson, a prominent Chatham Life Saver. Gordon has been told that the shack was a popular place to take the “summer girls” from New York. Their signatures are visible on the wall boards in the back. - Written by Senior Chief David Considine
Sitting in the original North Patrol House was a great experience, and hearing her stories was as well. I think of the years she sat looking out across Chatham’s North Beach, eventually escaping destruction, and finally moving to her new home here. I am glad to know that she is a little safer here, and knowing that even if a hurricane surge does lift her up, she will float on her attached barge and land safely further inland. I keep saying to myself, “Boy, if these walls could talk.”
These pictures were take in January 2007 during my visit to the Halfway House. Click on each thumbnail for the larger version.