The history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service on Sullivan’s Island is tightly interwoven with the history of Charleston itself. Without it, Mayor Joe Riley would not exist, nor would countless others whose ancestors were saved by the crew at Station 18. As the National Park Service prepares to honor this heritage with a new museum in the old boathouse, Stratton Lawrence dives into the stories of the coastal saviors of Sullivan’s Island. Photos by Hunter McRae.
“Coming into the Charleston Harbor Friday night under the direction of a coast pilot, he made an error and instead of going up the main channel to Charleston, mistook a red light on Sullivan’s Island and steered for that light.”
Thus begins a letter by Whitney Case of Buffalo, New York, to Rear Admiral Dallard of the U.S. Coast Guard, dated November 26, 1924.
After taking the wrong turn and anchoring in the dark, Case was approached by a “very small row boat” navigating “heavy rolling” seas. The rower was Vincent Oswald Coste of the Coast Guard station on Sullivan’s Island, headed out to warn Case of the outgoing tide.
Before Case could lift his anchor, however, a gale blew in and broke the chain, sending the boat adrift.
“Coste came out to the boat again and gave us very valuable aid,” Case wrote. “He would not leave the boat all night although…the wind was being driven higher and higher on the beach and pounding severely…I wished to pay him for his help but he would not accept any money whatsoever, saying that it was his duty to give what ever aid under such circumstances that he could.”
That rescue account is one of hundreds that occurred along the shores of Sullivan’s Island between 1895 and 1973, and their stories and legacy may soon be shared in a museum currently in the works on the island.
In today’s world of GPS-equipped cell phones and Sea Tow memberships, it’s easy to take for granted that time on the water wasn’t always so safe and convenient. And in the lowcountry of South Carolina, there’s no better reminder of our ocean and rivers’ potential treachery than the well-preserved Historic Coast Guard District at 1815 Ion Avenue on Sullivan’s Island.
Although the iconic, black-and-white lighthouse (built in 1962) at the site garners most of the attention from visitors’ cameras, it’s the buildings below that tell an even more compelling story. Remarkably intact for century-old oceanfront structures, the quarters and boathouse of the U.S. Life-Saving Service play an integral role in both the history of Sullivan’s Island and the city of Charleston.
Without their existence, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s grandfather would have perished as a 12-year-old boy in 1898. He was rescued by the “surfmen” of the Life-Saving Service, one of whom lost his own life while struggling in the heavy surf. Without that sacrifice, Charleston may have never experienced the resurgence it’s enjoyed during Riley’s 40 years in office.
MORE THAN A BOATHOUSE
Recognizing that more needed to be done to save the lives of sailors (and protect seafaring commerce) at the end of the 19th century, the federal government established the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1878. Most stations were built in states where colder water meant lower survival rates after shipwrecks, primarily along the New England and Great Lakes coasts.
The government’s initial plan to construct stations every three miles along the entire East Coast never materialized, but in 1886, South Carolina’s only life-saving station was established on Morris Island. Its distance from the harbor’s mouth prompted its relocation to Sullivan’s Island in 1895.
The station’s boathouse was modeled after identical structures in Michigan and crewed by six surfmen and a captain. Their first rescue occurred just six days after the station opened, when nine people aboard the Catboat “TK” were brought ashore after the ship lost its rudder. The same year, the surfmen refloated a Norwegian ship that ran ashore in the Stono Inlet south of Folly Island. From overturned dinghys in Breach Inlet to ships hitting sandbars in Charleston Harbor, the surfmen of Sullivan’s Island were kept busy.
It was from this boathouse in 1898 that surfman James Coste swam out to rescue a drowning boy, Ned Schachte. Sadly, the 24-year-old Coste perished in the waves, but his fellow surfmen who followed were able to safely bring young Schachte to shore.
“Ned Schachte grew venturesome and went out far beyond where the surf broke to find himself in water over his head and being carried out to sea,” wrote Charleston’s The Evening Post at the time of the incident. “Instead of following the current … and swimming to shore (Coste) attempted to swim across and it swept him away.”
Fortuitously, Schachte’s oldest grandson grew up to be Mayor Joe Riley. Likewise, James Coste’s sacrifice inspired his brother, Vincent, to join the Life-Saving Service. It became a family calling, even after the Revenue Cutter Service and Life-Saving Service combined in 1915 to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
As a U.S. Coast Guard base, the boathouse kept as many as 12 sailors and rescue workers employed. Between July 1936 and July 1937 alone, 112 cases of assistance were reported there. In 1939, the base enjoyed a $27,000 overhaul, including raising the quarters’ lookout tower.
By 1961, however, the federal government determined that the base was no longer needed, and not worth the cost of dredging the creek behind the island and maintaining the boathouse and quarters. Facing its imminent closing, the communities of Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island rallied to preserve it.
“To cite examples of how much the Coast Guard Station and the personnel have done for us in the past, and how much they will do for us in the future, would be like bringing coal to Newcastle, because everyone is aware of the tremendous job they have done…” read a letter to the Coast Guard by Isle of Palms’ mayor S.V. Sottile, citing the station’s role in shuttling citizens, freight and mail across the harbor “when the Cooper River Bridge was damaged by a freighter” and “when impassable due to ice.”
The islanders’ efforts succeeded, but only for another dozen years. In 1973, the base was shut down after 82 years in operation. Custodianship was passed to the National Park Service in 1989, and the boathouse became a carpentry shop and storage shed. It wasn’t until 2013, when the Coast Guard awarded James Coste’s descendants with a Silver Lifesaving Medal for their ancestor’s bravery, that the boathouse’s future began to brighten, literally.
A MONUMENT TO BRAVERY
Entering the boathouse today, it’s hard to believe the building has weathered hurricanes and the nearby ocean for 120 years.
“This building is solid,” Hal Coste says, the greatnephew of surfman James Coste, with a smile. “It’s in really good shape.”
Coste should know—he’s built a career restoring historic homes in Charleston, but he found a passion project restoring the “wavy glass” windows on the boathouse.
After the ceremony honoring the Coste family, Hal began a friendship with Fort Sumter National Monument superintendent Timothy Stone, sparking the idea that the boathouse could one day be a museum for the public to learn about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
“It was at that point that I realized the history of this place,” Stone recalls. “There are buildings like this in Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, Cape Cod, Assateague, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes, but there isn’t anything else like this in South Carolina.”
Stone envisioned a museum that would house a model 20-foot lifeboat like the ones that used to hang from the ceiling via a pulley system, with exhibits for the public about the life of the surfmen and the importance of the Life-Saving Service.
That dream has almost come to fruition. A sign now stands outside the building explaining its history, and in late 2013, the building was cleared of its decades’ worth of stored clutter. It was then treated to a new coat of paint in the original mustard yellow and “Boathouse Green” colors that were found at the base after chipping away at subsequent layers of paint.
“It’s hard to understand, unless you were here before, what shape this building was in,” Stone says of the condition before its recent restoration. “There was junk everywhere.”
Fortunately, a structural analysis supported Coste’s initial evaluation—the building was indeed solid and able to be renovated.
Coste points out the bead board walls, installed as an alternative to plaster to prevent cracking when guns were fired in the vicinity. He remembers when the boathouse had a pool table during the 1950s, doubling as a hangout spot for the sailors stationed there.
His grandfather, Vincent, served as the station’s commander during the 1920s, and his aunt was born on-site.
Coste also served as a lifeguard on Isle of Palms as a youth, continuing a family tradition that dates as far back as his greatgreat-grandfather, Napoleon Coste, who was assigned responsibility for determining the placement of every lighthouse south of the Chesapeake Bay following the Civil War.
When the boathouse officially opens to the public, the Coste family will be a strong presence, thanks to a wealth of newspaper clippings and photographs saved in Hal’s workshop that detail the base’s history. Among those stories, for generations to come, will be the sad day when James Coste perished but Ned Schachte was spared, paving the way for a new Charleston under Mayor Joe Riley.
The Schachtes will be there too. Chris Schachte, the greatgrandson of Ned and first cousin once removed of Mayor Riley, recalls hearing the story of the fateful family rescue on a regular basis as a child on Sullivan’s Island.
“It was partially as a remembrance, and also as a warning to be careful,” Schachte says, who now lives with his wife on James Island. He adds that the friendships between the Schachte and the Coste family have persisted through multiple generations.
“Both families are still closely connected to the island,” he says. “It’s amazing to think about how the loss of one life and the saving of another can have a profound effect that echoes down through the generations. If things had not played out the way they had, my family tree would have taken a different shape, and I wouldn’t exist.”
That lesson will be conveyed to both Sullivan’s Islanders and visitors once the museum is completed. Stone expects that it will be open on weekends, and although there is no timeline for a finished project, he hopes it’ll occur in the next year, dependent upon budget.
In the meantime, the Park Service plans to open the newly restored boathouse for special events and storytelling exhibits, including on National Lighthouse Day, August 7.
“There’s a real human aspect to this place,” Stone says, standing atop the lookout of the Life-Saving Service’s quarters and admiring the grounds. “The stories remind us that every person’s life can influence a lot of other lives.