The Munising Coast Guard station at Sand Point, the present day headquarters building for the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, was built during the period 1932-33. It is typical of the small Coast Guard stations that dotted the Great Lakes during the first half of the twentieth century. Contrary to popular belief, the Munising station was never a United States Life-Saving Service station. That organization ceased to exist in 1915 when it was combined with the US Revenue Marine to form the present day Coast Guard.
Specifications called for a ". . . two story frame dwelling, 30 feet by 45 feet, with concrete foundations; a one story frame boathouse, 37 feet by 55 feet, with creosote pile foundations; creosote wood pile and timber bulkheads, each 129 feet long; and a creosote timber and pile landing wharf, 10 by 40 feet."
The bid price for the construction was $12,230 by an Iron Mountain, Michigan contractor. The lookout tower and watch house were provided by the McClintic-Marshall Corporation of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was one of eight built for the Coast Guard that year at a cost of $2,092 each. Erection on site added another $865 to the bill. The land for the station, some 7.1 acres, was acquired from the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company for the nominal fee of $1.
It was hoped the station would be in operation on May 1, 1933, but thick ice in Munising Bay prevented the transfer of necessary boats and equipment from Marquette for more than two weeks. Finally at 8 a.m. on May 16, the crew was formed up in front of the building; the activating orders read and Munising station officially placed in commission.
Throughout its operational life, the typical complement for the station included an officer-in-charge, bosun's mate first class, motor machinist's mate first class and seven surfmen.
Station equipment consisted of a 36-foot motor lifeboat, 26-foot motor surfboat, a small skiff and a cart-mounted beach apparatus. The later was used when a vessel wrecked near shore. It consisted of a Lyle gun, a small cannon used to fire a messenger line from the beach to the ship, a faking box carrying the line and a breeches buoy together with heavier ropes, blocks and tackles. The breeches buoy was a ring buoy with a canvas seat attached used to transport sailors via an overhead line from ship to shore. All of the items were carried in the cart which could be pulled to the wreck site by the crew. The station also was allotted a new truck, but since the road to the station wasn't finished until 1934, its arrival was delayed until then.
Perhaps under the theory of giving them room to grow, the first inspection of the new station was not favorable. The commander of the Eleventh Coast Guard District complained that the floors were not neat enough, especially in the corners. Such inspections included not only the facility itself, but the men were required to demonstrate proficiency in ". . . boat drill, fire drill, wigwag, semaphore, flashlight, resuscitation," as well as in the manual of arms and marksmanship. When the crew demonstrated the required drills, he found that although they were proficient, ". . . the necessary snap is not seen at this station as at other stations." He further stated, ". . . the Officer-in-Charge seems to lack the knack of properly caring for and keeping up a station."
The station itself was far from finished. Much landscaping was needed, the lawn had to be planted and sidewalks constructed among a host of other tasks. The crew was expected to accomplish all of them, in addition to their regular duties. Once the road to Munising was finished, the station truck could be used to haul the necessary materials out from town.
Five months later, the crew had apparently jelled into a cohesive unit and a new inspection found major improvements, as the station received an excellent rating.
During the years prior to World War II, the station crew varied between 10 and 13 men. Daily routine consisted of various equipment drills and normal maintenance. Actual rescues were few. The men were called out to help small craft an average of twice a month. Usually it was nothing more than towing in a boat with a balky engine. During the winter they periodically put on snow shoes and went out on the ice to look for missing ice fishermen.
From August 14 to September 3, 1936, three crewmen were sent with the 36-foot motor lifeboat to Isle Royale to help fight a forest fire that eventually consumed 34,000 acres of timber. They joined crews and boats from Portage, Eagle Harbor, North Superior, Marquette and Grand Marais to carry fire fighters and supplies around the island. By mission's end, the Coast Guard crews had hauled 9,390 men and 242,000 pounds of supplies, covering a distance of 5,983 miles.
The station's role in the November 7, 1940 SPARTA rescue is described elsewhere. Their last major rescue occurred five days later when they received word via the Michigan Conservation Department that the steel steamer SINALOA was on the rocks at Sac Bay, near Fayette, Lake Michigan, about 80 miles south of Munising. Commercial fishermen had managed to remove 23 of her 42 man crew before the mountainous waves drove them off. The remaining 19 sailors were trapped aboard. Loading their gear aboard the station truck, they rattled off to the scene. There they discovered the only way to reach the beach opposite the wreck was through the woods, without a track of any kind to guide them. In a scene reminiscent of the HARTZELL rescue in October 1880 by the Point aux Bec Scies Life-Savers, the crew fought their way through the forest, pulling the rubber-tired cart by hand.
Arriving at 12:30 a.m., they found the big freighter laying broadside to the shore and about 500 feet out. They quickly went to work and within an hour and a half had a breeches buoy rigged and the first man ashore. Three hours later, all of the steamer's 19 remaining men were safe ashore. All seven members of the Munising crew that participated in the SINALOA rescue received the Commandant's Commendation for their efficient work.
Coast Guard crews are sometimes asked to do some strange things and the Munising crew was no different. When a bull moose was trapped on a ledge along the bluff at Miner's Castle, the Michigan conservation Department asked the crew to help drive it to safety. Rough seas prevented them from immediately approaching in their boat and when they returned two days later, the animal had disappeared, whether escaping on his own or drowning in the lake was never determined.
During World War II, the station complement increased dramatically, at one time reaching 28, as the Coast Guard sent new men for initial training before going on to operational units. When the war ended, manning decreased accordingly.
The inevitable change in technology spelled the end for many small Coast Guard stations, Munising among them. Better navigation equipment, including radar and radios, made commercial vessels safer and less prone to shipwreck. Helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and offshore cutters took over the search and rescue mission. Gone were the days of the 36-foot motor lifeboat driving off into the teeth of the gale on a desperate life or death mission. Like many lake stations, Munising also suffered from sand constantly filling in around the slip area, necessitating periodic dredging.
For a while the Munising station was manned by a skeleton crew of just a few men. Eventually with its abandonment 1961, the land reverted to the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company, who later deeded it to the city. It turn the city deeded it the National Park Service for inclusion in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.