In the mid-19th century, this unsheltered stretch was peppered with rude huts, built by the Massachusetts Humane Society, where shipwreck survivors might ride out the storm. But most crew members marooned on the sand bars couldn’t even get as far as the beach, perishing instead as their vessels were torn apart beneath them. So the government took a more proactive role, begininng in the 1870s, through the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
The service was composed of “surfmen” who occupied stations along the coast, kept watch and jumped into action when needed, with surfboats and rescue lines known as breeches buoys.
The Peaked Hill Bars Life-Saving Station, a large boathouse and dormitory, was built in 1872. In 1880, Keeper David H. Atkins and two surfmen, Stephen Mayo and Elisha Taylor, drowned trying to save the captain and pilot of the sloop C. M. Trumbull. The station was decommissioned in 1914, but its days of greatest renown were ahead.
Sam A. Lewisohn, a wealthy art collector in New York, acquired the building for his friend Mabel Dodge, whose Fifth Avenue home was a scintillating Greenwich Village salon. For her dune retreat, she had the station’s walls painted a luminous white and the floor covered in blue linoleum for a shiplike effect. Here she spent one summer with the painter Maurice Sterne, to whom she was later married.
James O’Neill bought the place in 1919 as a wedding present for his son, Eugene O’Neill, and O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton. O’Neill was happy and very productive over the six summers the couple spent there; writing Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, among other plays. The critic Edmund Wilson and the writer Hazel Hawthorne Werner took turns renting Peaked Hill from 1927 through 1930, when O’Neill deeded it to his son, Eugene Jr. Months later, however, the steadily eroding dune cliff undermined the station and it dropped over the edge at a crazy angle before floating out to sea.