House of Refuge at Gilbert’s Bar

This final remaining rescue station was originally operated by the US Life-Saving Service – a precursor to the US Coast Guard.

Built in 1876, the House of Refuge is Martin County’s oldest building by far. Located on Hutchinson Island, just north of Stuart Inlet, it was built on one of the narrowest parts of a Florida barrier island. At high tide, the island is less than 200 feet (61 m) wide at its spot.

The House of Refuge is a unique survivor of a bygone age – It served the US Life-Saving Service from 1896 to 1915. It then became Coast Guard Station #207 from 1915 to 1940. During World War II, it was used by the US Navy as a beach patrol station and submarine lookout (1940-1945).

It’s official service came to a close when the war ended and only ten years later the Historical Society of Martin County took it over and saved it. It was subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

It currently operates as a historical museum that tells the story of this particular house of refuge as well as parts of the Life-Saving Service. It also has displays about Martin County and the Stuart area.

On the grounds, the lookout tower is the youngest structure. It was built during WWII. It gives some visitors the impression of the House’s keeper watching out for shipwrecks, but that’s not the case.

From 1955 through to the 1980s, the facility was used to protect and raise endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). A local, Ross Witham worked with the Florida Department of Natural Resources to collect sea turtle eggs from local beaches. They were then brought to the House of Refuge, hatched, and the young were raised in tanks until they reached a less-edible size. This took from about six months to a year.

Once the project had been operating for several years, the number of green sea turtles in the wild grew significantly and more and more female turtles were adding their nests to the sand dunes of Hutchinson Island. Because of their popularity as food, the green sea turtle was on the edge of becoming extinct and this project helped save them. In 1973, sea turtles were protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act and today the population of relatively stable, although still endangered.

Hutchinson Island continues to be one of the largest nesting sites for green sea turtles on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. For more information on sea turtles in Florida see the article on Key West’s Turtle Kraals.

The House of Refuge was built on land once settled by Native Americans. Archeological research shows that the settlements established at the House of Refuge go back to at least 800 BCE. Some estimates for other areas of the island show habitation as far back as 2000 BCE or over 4000 years.

The area, with the Atlantic on one side and the Indian and St. Lucie Rivers on the other, was rich in seafood and wild game as well as edible and medicinal plants. After the arrival of Europeans, the days of the Native Americans were numbered. By the mid-1700s, the population on Hutchinson Island was gone – through war, slavery and disease – the same as what happened to the indigenous population of the entire Florida peninsula.

The United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) was established in 1848 to give assistance to shipwrecked mariners and passengers from shore based stations. The first stations of the USLSS were built in New Jersey. By the 1870s the service had established three different types of stations, including the houses of refuge along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts.

Since the threat of hypothermia was less of an issue in southern shipwrecks, the houses lacked emergency lifesaving equipment. Instead, they were provided a paid keeper and a small boat along with facilities that would house survivors for a few days.

There would be a total of 10 houses of refuge in Florida – half built in 1876, half in 1885. The houses were built of Florida pine, using 8 inch (20 cm) square heartwood posts to withstand hurricanes. Each structure was built in the same pattern with the keeper and his family living on the bottom floor. The second floor was set up as a dormitory with 20 cots and provisions for shipwreck survivors.

The House of Refuge is an interesting museum to visit. It’s history is unique, especially since it’s the last of its kind. The displays do a good job telling the story of the keepers and their lives, as well as some the history of the Stuart area.

The grounds are interesting too, and outside the grounds, visitors can check out the Atlantic shore. It’s an area informally known to locals as the Rocks, for the ancient Anastasia Formation that is typically hidden under sand along the middle section of Florida’s east coast.

Personal Slide Collection 1968-70

House of Refuge Visit 2019