Few people realize the important role ten houses of refuge, built by the U. S. Life-Saving Service between 1876 and 1886, played in the development of Florida. Although Arcadia Publishers insisted that the name “Florida’s Houses of Refuge” would be misleading to modern day readers, opting for the name U. S. Life-Saving Service—Florida’s East Coast,
the facilities were indeed called houses of refuge. They were unique to Florida. The population of the east coast of Florida was so sparse there were not men available to form a crew for sea rescue. Fortunately, because of the gentle slope of the beach and the near-shore location of reefs, shipwreck survivors usually could manage to reach the beach. However, they still faced death from exposure and starvation.
A keeper and his family, if he was lucky enough to have one, manned the houses of refuges. They were not Life-Saving stations because these, by definition, had rescue crews. House of refuge keepers and their families were required to walk the beach after storms searching for victims of shipwreck. If any were found, they were brought to the house of refuge, clothed, fed, and helped to return to civilization.
Civilization was not something keepers and their families were able to enjoy on Florida’s east coast before 1900. Keepers and their families had a lonely existence but their presence provided a framework upon which travelers and settlers could depend. The houses were built before there were many pioneer settlements along the coast. Qualified men relished the opportunity to live in a real house constructed of sawn lumber and receive a government paycheck.
Even in the earliest days of U. S. Life-Saving Service, keepers traveled to the nearest post office to mail reports. Wives usually remained behind and were consequently even more isolated than their husbands. Months might pass without a conversation with anyone outside her family.
The new Arcadia book not only tells the stories of families who served in the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Florida, it carries the history of the houses of refuge beyond 1915 when they became U. S. Coast Guard Stations. Each of the sites is public land today. Readers might be surprised that a park in busy Miami Beach was once the location of Biscayne Bay House of Refuge. U. S. Life-Saving Service—Florida’s East Coast
is filled with surprising and enlightening tidbits, covering the coast from Flagler Beach, below St. Augustine, to Miami.
Want to learn more? Buy the book here.