Keeper’s plan for Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station 

By on December 26, 2023

Keeper James Charlet in front of the old lifesaving station he wants to revamp. (Photo credit Dan Westergren)

Vision at odds with Aquariums’ desire to move 125-year-old facility

There is agreement that something needs to be done with the historic, picturesque 1898 Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station, a building whose fate has been uncertain since it was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard more than 30 years ago.

The Outer Banks Coast Guard History Preservation Group, a new non-profit formed by Keeper James Charlet, historian, author and former site manager for the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, is embarking on a plan to rescue the building—what it calls the “4R’s for Rescue-Restore-Rejuvenate-Repurpose.”

The group’s ambitious plan includes transforming the two-story building into the first visitors center for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a rest stop, a museum dedicated to the 29 lifesaving stations that operated for 44 years across the Outer Banks, a conference center for corporate meetings and retreats, a maritime research facility and a weather station, among other things.

But the North Carolina Aquariums, current owner of the building, has a different idea. For more than 10 years, the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has had the goal of moving the 125-year-old building onto its property in Manteo, but it has not been able to acquire the funds to do so.

“Mr. Charlet has made us aware of his interest, and we share his concern for preserving this important piece of North Carolina history. Given the site’s vulnerability to more intense storms and increasing shoreline erosion, the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources remains committed to moving the building to a new site as the best option for its long-term preservation. Governor Cooper included funds to move and restore the building in a previous budget proposal, and we are hopeful that the legislature will include this funding in a future budget,” said a statement emailed to the Voice by Christian Legner, communications manager for the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island.

Charlet, who authored the book “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks, Dramatic Rescues and Fantastic Wrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” is skeptical about concerns over the threat over hurricanes and erosion. He says there is actually more land on the northern end of Hatteras now than there was 10 years and believes that if the building withstood 125 years of hurricanes, it can withstand another 125 more years. “This structure has been in that location since 1898,” says Charlet. “It will certainly last quite a few more years there.”

Since the old lifesaving station is on the National Register of Historic Places, that could also play a potential role in its fate. Asked about options for the site, James Gabbert, historian at the National Register of Historic Places, stated in an email that, “I cannot speak to any specifics about the property other than to say that a search of our database does not indicate that a request for prior approval of a move has been submitted to us.”

He did cite federal regulations indicating that “Properties listed in the National Register should be moved only when there is no feasible alternative for preservation. When a property is moved, every effort should be made to reestablish its historic orientation, immediate setting, and general environment.”

The state did put $7 million dollars into elevating, weatherizing and renovating the building in 2007–08 when the NC Aquariums initially had plans to turn the building into a satellite marine and wildlife research center. But that idea was abandoned when Jennette’s Pier was turned into a $27 million education site and the fourth aquarium facility in 2011.

According to Charlet, the Outer Banks Coast Guard History Preservation Group’s plan for a visitor’s center would benefit the nearly 3 million people who visit the Cape Hatteras National Seashore each year and boost the economy. Charlet notes that the National Seashore was established in 1953 and today, it is a world-famous resort destination.

“Those millions of people are crossing that bridge and see the Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station and just pass it by now. And then what else do they see? Nothing but sand, and I hate this phrase, but I can hear people say, ‘I’m in the middle of nowhere.’ And they have to drive another twelve miles before they reach a village or anything…We desperately need a visitors center,” says Charlet.

He also believes the “forgotten heroes” of the lifesaving station deserve their own museum for their 44 years of service, saving people “one at a time, usually going out in storms and plucking them out of the shipwrecks. And hardly anybody ever has heard of them,” he says.

Charlet wants to start implementing his plans for the facility after his new 501c3 is finalized in January, hopes to raise funds through grants, donors and scholarships and then hire a site manager and fundraiser once the dollars start coming In. He will assume the position the executive director.

And despite the NC Aquariums’ goal and statement that “We will continue to advocate for this funding [to move the building] in future budget cycles,” Charlet says he is pressing on with this plans.

“If something is standing in the way of what you think is valuable, you want to fight for it,” he asserts.



Comments

  • WindyBill

    Ideas are wonderful. Here we see several good ones, perhaps a great one or 2, and some others. First off, we really do need to get serious about this historicly incredible staion! As a former Aquarium Advisory Board member, I sincerely have to ask if we really need a fourth aquarium facility in Dare County? A great place for people to join a beach or esturine educational tour, sure. Rest Stop? Well, for that necessary function both the Oregon Inlet fishing Center and the Pea Island Visitors Center have adequate facilities. Storm safety. Yes it is a dangerous location. Would 16 foot above ground pilings preserve the structure? Very doable.
    Educational visitor center, well obviously. And what kind of other uses are realisticly compatible with that? A high end B & B for the fishing center? There very well off people with very well off boats. Coorporate retreat? They might not want visitors during their occupancy. Limited overnight facilities for legitimate researchers? Maybe if they agree to give an evening public talk on their reaearch. Enough. Let us Do something and not just study it to death.

    Tuesday, Dec 26 @ 2:52 pm
  • Bill

    It would be the 2nd CAHA VC. The Bodie Lighthouse VC is the first one.

    Tuesday, Dec 26 @ 6:32 pm
  • obxron

    Moving this historic building so far away from its original location seems to be an extremely wasteful use of state funding when there are valid and intriguing alternatives. The aquarium that owns this building should think long and hard about how they could improve ocean education using the building as a nautical and educational museum. Ranger could give educational talks during tourist season and throughout the year as well as lead tours of the shore as educational tools.
    More than just a “rest stop”, the building could offer a unique vision of past life in a lifesaving station; similar to Chicamicomico but on a much larger scale.

    Tuesday, Dec 26 @ 8:17 pm
  • John Griffin

    Of course, 12 miles down the road visitors will find the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station and Museum dedicated to preserving the station’s historic buildings and the stories of the men who served in the Life Saving Service and early Coast Guard on our coast. Oregon Inlet, along with every station standing ,should be restored and open to the public to insure that the heritage of “dauntless devotion to duty” and the legacy of life saving is not lost.

    Tuesday, Dec 26 @ 10:09 pm
  • Lisa

    I find it interesting that there is no discussion of the surrounding property, which is a national wildlife refuge with pristine beach habitat – much of which is roped off when sensitive birds are nesting on the beach. How would this habitat be incorporated and protected when you build a conference center or any of the other ideas floated with all the parking, paving, and infrastructure that would need to accompany it?

    Wednesday, Dec 27 @ 6:06 am
  • Hatrasfevr

    Could not agree more with Mr. Charlet……….a proper visitors center for OBX would be the best use of this historic building.

    Wednesday, Dec 27 @ 9:53 am
  • George Collison

    Why move the building, it has stood the test of time where it is. Who knows, if it is moved it might be destroyed in the following year’s hurricane season. Surely there are enough other former U.S.Coast Guard Life Saving stations in North Carolina that could be moved. There are so many other stations that have been abandoned or replaced by newer buildings, that a person could almost take their pick. Just look at the beautiful old building @Swansboro that has been left to just waste away.

    Wednesday, Dec 27 @ 11:03 am
  • Greg

    This landmark needs to stay right where it is. I actually received aid from this station when it was the USCG Oregon Inlet Station in 1976. The let me use the phone as we had broken down about 2 miles South.

    Wednesday, Dec 27 @ 11:27 am
  • Notanisland

    Sure would be one awesome bachelor pad!!!! And that thing’s going nowhere

    Thursday, Dec 28 @ 9:35 am
  • Allen Turner

    That was my duty station from 1968–1971 would like to hear from shipmates in that timeframe

    Thursday, Dec 28 @ 10:05 am
  • Carolyn Riddick

    I visit this site whenever at the beach . I hope it is perserve right where it is. If millions can be spent to preserve Jeanette pier then why can’t the same be done for the station just where it is. A visitor center and a museum to educate people of its history and those who have served and spent there life

    Thursday, Dec 28 @ 1:52 pm
  • M

    “Those millions of people are crossing that bridge and see the Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station and just pass it by now. And then what else do they see? Nothing but sand, and I hate this phrase, but I can hear people say, ‘I’m in the middle of nowhere.’ And they have to drive another twelve miles before they reach a village or anything…We desperately need a visitors center,” says Charlet.”

    Being in the “middle of nowhere” is the appeal of the Island! Why does every inch of the OBX have to be developed? They can put a visitor center up the road by the rest stop! The building is a beautiful historic site where it stands.

    Friday, Dec 29 @ 8:54 am
  • Steven

    Pardon me, what happened to the comment about validity of ownership of the property, that the land was loaned and then to be returned to rightful owners when ‘lease’ is up.
    Did the acquisition of surrounding land just lump in the falmilys property along with it, case closed?

    Friday, Dec 29 @ 2:37 pm
  • Robin Turner

    When you start fund raising , let me know!
    My grandfather was a keeper at the Cape Hatteras light 1920 – 1929. There are several descendants that are still on Buxton and Ocracoke. We would feel it an honor to help in saving this magnificent peace of history!

    Monday, Jan 1 @ 9:28 am
  • Visitor Centers

    The claim that Cape Hatteras doesn’t have a visitor center is not true. The Bodie Island DKQ is a visitor center, the Museum of the Sea (also a DKQ) at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a visitor center, and the Ocracoke Discovery Center is a visitor center. The area around this life-saving station is managed by the Fish & Wildlife Service, which also operates a visitor center not far to the south. Maybe there is disagreement or misunderstanding of what a visitor center is or is not.

    Wednesday, Jan 3 @ 1:07 pm
  • Steven

    Bodie Island is not part of Hatteras Island, it’s the southernmost point of a peninsula originating in Virginia. Same with Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, Duck, etc. A peninsula of Virginia.

    Friday, Jan 5 @ 12:51 pm