The Coast Guard had its origin in a May, 1913 act (S.B. 2337) which combined the Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the United States Coast Guard. The Act was signed into law in January 1915.77 The statute placed the Coast Guard within the Treasury Department, but stipulated that it would operate as a branch of the Navy during war time (as it did during World War I).
During World War I, the Coast Guard operated under the U. S. Navy, which improved its performance and strengthened its law enforcement capabilities. Technological changes altered life-saving methods, and improved navigation, ship-to-shore communication, and weather forecasting. These changes and the increasing predominance of diesel-powered steel vessels allowed ships to operate further offshore, reducing the number of accidents from treacherous shoals. Coast Guard airplanes extended tracking and rescue capabilities even further.78
With the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, the Coast Guard’s interdiction of “rum runners” claimed a disproportionate share of its resources. On the Outer Banks, in particular, conditions dictated that their success in doing so was meager indeed. But the mission persisted until the repeal of prohibition in 1933.
In July 1939, as war broke out in Europe, the Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service, which dated from 1910.79 Prior to U.S. entry into the war, the Coast Guard began its wartime duties by carrying out “neutrality patrols,” but a year later it became responsible for port security. A month before Pearl Harbor, the Navy assumed control of the Coast Guard, which soon began landing troops on overseas beachheads. Long inactive stations (including the one at Portsmouth, deactivated in 1938, and the Core Bank one, deactivated two years later) were reactivated to provide coastal security. By early 1946, however, the need had passed, and the Coast Guard was handed back to the Treasury Department.80 On the Outer Banks, it was never to regain its prewar prominence; advancing radio technology, already in evidence by the late 1930s, reduced the need for physical installations on the coast.
The presence of the Coast Guard on the Outer Banks left a wealth of historical resources of the land. Like its predecessor the Life-Saving Service, some of whose buildings it took over and used, the Coast Guard made its mark upon the landscape of what was to become Cape Lookout National Seashore. Almost immediately after the passage of the 1915 legislation that created the Coast Guard, renovation of the former Cape Lookout Life-Saving station for Coast Guard use began. By late 1916, a new main building to replace the original station (built in 1887 and already moved to a new location) was under construction. A rickety old boat house was sold and a new one constructed. Over the next several years – interrupted at times by the exigencies of World War I – the Coast Guard installation was the scene of additional renovations, new construction (e.g., a stable, a galley and mess hall), and alterations to both grounds and existing buildings.81 [ILLUSTRATION: Cape LO Coast Guard Station 1917 from Cape LO CG boathouse HSR p 17; CAPTION: Fig. 6-22: Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station, 1917. Cape Lookout National Seashore archive.]
Near Portsmouth station, both the Roy Robinson House (1926) and the Jesse Babb House (1935) were occupied by Coast Guard employees. [ILLUSTRATION: JesseBabbHse dwg CALO_623_60015.pdf; CAPTION: Fig. 6-23: Drawing of Jesse Babb House. National Park Service, Denver Service Center.] Babb was a cook and machinist at the Coast Guard station, and Robinson headed the station from 1925 to 1931.82At Cape Lookout, the Lewis-Davis house was built (from two relocated fishing shacks) around 1920 by Coast Guard employee James C. Lewis. It contains some of the earliest examples of the cape’s historic architecture and illustrates how residents have adapted and reused buildings. Tommy Jones also notes that the house “is especially significant for its associations with Carrie Arrendel Davis, whose store and dance hall on the Bight were focal points for life at the Cape in the 1930s and 1940s.”83 The Gaskill-Guthrie house (ca. 1915) was home to Clem Gaskill, who worked for the Coast Guard for several years (1917-20), and to Odell Guthrie, a Coast Guard employee for upwards of twenty-five years after 1919.84
As late as the mid-1950s, the Coast Guard maintained a major presence on the Outer Banks. Dunbar’s 1955 map shows seventeen active stations (out of twenty-five that had been active at some period) between Cape Lookout and Wash Woods near the Virginia border.85 [ILLUSTRATION: Fig. 6-24: Coast Guard Stations map Dunbar Plate V p 89; CAPTION: Coast Guard Stations on the Outer Banks. Dunbar, Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks (1958), 89.]. The Portsmouth station remained in use until 1937, the Core Banks station until 1940, but the Cape Lookout station was not decommissioned until 1982.86
The impact of the Coast Guard on local employment and the economy, as well as on social structure, the cultural landscape, and cultural identity was long-lived and important. If one considers that, on average, some twenty stations were active on the Outer Banks at any one time, and that perhaps six to ten men were attached to each, it might be reasonable to conclude that between 120 and 200 men were gaining their livelihoods from the Coast Guard. If most were married and had families of four to five, then Coast Guard operations were supporting from a minimum of nearly 500 (120 families of four) to a maximum of 1000 (200 families of five) people.87 The National Register nomination for the facility notes that “Most, if not all, of the early crew men of the USCG station were from the local communities of Harkers Island, Marshallburg, Gloucester, Beaufort, etc. . . . Almost every ‘old’ family has relatives who served at this station and called it ‘home.’ Local people are very aware of their life-saving legacy. They are proud of the history of heroism and the hardships associated with the service of their family members. This station remains an important physical link to their past.”88