Horseneck Lifesaving Station salvation rewarded with 25-year lease


Rescuing an old lifesaving station was a bit off the mark for a group whose three-decade task has been the protection of Westport's threatened waterways and fisheries.

"Our main mission has been our natural heritage," Westport Fishermen's Association (WFA) President Jack Reynolds said Monday at a gathering to celebrate the start of a 25-year lease that enables the WFA to manage the Horseneck Lifesaving Station into the future.

But when the Fishermen learned that the old Horseneck Lifesaving Station was about to be razed "we realized that a lot of our maritime heritage would be gone," Mr. Reynolds said. "Historical heritage is how we find ourselves here today."

It was a close call for the 125-year-old station that had been built in 1888 at Westport Point and was later moved to its present Horseneck location. Since its rescue work ended, the boathouse had seen duty as private residence and businesses of one sort and another. Along the way, additions had been tacked on to the point that its original shape could scarcely be recognized.

Eventually it fell into the hands of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation which contemplated taking down the dilapidated structure.

But in 2006 the Fishermen stepped in and approached DCR with a proposal to restore the station as a museum.

Working first with a five-year permit, a chance for the DCR to see if the Fishermen could raise the money and enthusiasm needed to accomplish their goal, the Fishermen raised $200,000, brought in matching funds and began their work in 2007. They stripped the various additions, restored the barn and an adjoining structure that would become a visitors center, and put out a call for artifacts.

Today it is a busy place, especially in the summer when it is open to visitors on weekends. It hosts a wooden boat show, a decoy show, a marine painting show and more.

Mr. Reynolds mentioned a few of the many who pitched in. Chip Gillespie was given a salute for the painstaking research he did on the building's on history and architecture. Howie Gifford was recognized for putting up the flagpole and weather station, and building (with blacksmith Newton Millham) the wagon that holds the Cuttyhunk lifeboat — you name it, "Howie got it done." He also offered his appreciation to Cukie Macomber "He's the guy looking astern", and the building's former owner, Mary Schmidt, who passed away late last year.

And "without the CPC (Community Preservation Committee), this never would have happened." The CPC, supported by town-wide vote, provided the seed money needed to get the project moving.

Although the station has been restored, Mr. Reynolds said that the Fishermen's other mission remains very much a work in progress.

Looking out onto a sun-lit Buzzards Bay, he remembered a time "when we caught codfish (there) all winter long. Now there are no more." And once abundant alewives in the Westport River "are about gone."

DCR Commissioner Ed Lambert noted the role played by DCR's Historic Curatorship Program which enables the protection of such historical icons.

"By partnering with other community groups and the town of Westport, the Westport Fishermen's Association has persevered to revive this landmark for future generations," Mr. Lambert said.

And he quoted Winston Churchill, who said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."

"We all remember Andy's (bar) new door," said State Senator Michael Rodrigues. They demolished Andy's, he said, "but before they got to this we said 'time out.'"

"The Westport Fisherman’s Association has done a tremendous job of restoring the Lifesaving Station and launching the museum and visitor’s center,” Sen. Rodrigues said. “Their tireless efforts are allowing more visitors to enjoy this historic landmark, and I’m looking forward to what the WFA and DCR will accomplish in their 25-year partnership.”

Rep Paul Schmid said that he, too, recalled Andy's, "an absolutely iconic watering hole that many of us spent far too long" inside. He likened a 25-year lease to "getting a dog you aren't going to outlive — a wonderful thing … This renewed partnership with DCR will ensure that the good work being done regarding Westport’s watershed at the station by the WFA will continue for years to come as well as preserve an important piece in Westport’s History.”

Town Council Chairman Richard Spirlet noted the day's perfect weather and how different it was from the sort of conditions into which the original rescuers rowed their lifeboat. He added that, just as Horseneck Beach is a Westport destination, so too now is the lifesaving station.



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