(Discover the abandoned Coast Guard stations and lookouts of the US and UK)
Throughout human history, the ocean has been a source of both wonder and terror. For thousands of years, taking to the seas was to take your life in your hands. The histories of coastal nations are full of eerie tales of maritime disasters and shipwrecks that, over the centuries, have often become steeped in legend. Vessels great and small are lost at sea even today, killing scores every year. Technology may have improved dramatically, but the world’s oceans and even in-land waterways should still be navigated with caution.
All of which only makes us appreciate the Coast Guard (or Coastguard in the UK) even more. Intrepid mariners and aviators who venture into the worst storms, taking their lives in their hands to save others, they’re some of the closest people that real life has to movie heroes. This article examines a series of the abandoned Coast Guard stations and lookouts that were once manned by these brave individuals.
Lake Erie: Abandoned Whiskey Island Coast Guard Station, Cleveland, USA
Is there any more-handsome abandoned Coast Guard station in North America than the one sat atop Whiskey Island? An understated Art Deco structure, the Cleveland station opened in 1940, not long before America’s valued peace was shattered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With its simple lines, white exterior and graceful curves, the station looked glorious from the get-go. Yet its operational life was relatively short-lived. It closed for good in 1976.
As we reported in 2015, the abandoned Coast Guard station effectively remained shuttered for the next 40 years. A nightclub venture in the ‘90s stuttered and failed, leaving only a derelict wreck that got ever sadder to look at as time went by. Thankfully, things are now starting to change.
(Image: US Government)
Since mid 2015, there has been a concerted effort by locals to revive this historic lifeboat station, including by selling local beers to raise restoration funds.
Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station, North Carolina, USA (Restored)
(Images: Martha G. Price)
A remarkable old building, perched amid the sprawling, desert-like sands of Hatteras Island, the Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station is one of the oldest buildings featured in this article. Constructed in 1897, it once stood proud and tall over the inlet, keeping a constant watch out for ships dashed against North Carolina’s treacherous shores. Used for nearly 100 years, it was finally closed in 1988 to be reclaimed by the ever-shifting sands.
By the time the 21st century rolled round, the abandoned Coast Guard station had already stood empty for more than a decade. Paint peeled off. Roof tiles were missing. Windows were boarded up. Sand seeped in through the cracks, slowly suffocating the decaying structure. Seen in the mid-2000s, the forgotten life-saving station seemed on the edge of death. Luckily, the opposite turned out to be the case. The site has now been restored to its former glory, then raised 10ft on wooden stilts to protect it from the sand around it.
Hurlstone Point Abandoned Coastguard Station, Somerset, England
(Image: Steve Daniels)
On the great coastal fringe of Britain’s seductive Exmoor National Park lies the romantic outcrop of rock known as Hurlstone. Jutting out above the waves, the point offers unmatched views across the Bristol Channel to the misty shores of Wales. Yet, as this abandoned Coastguard station can attest, the waters below Hurlstone are deceptive. Not so long ago, Somerset and north Devon were notorious for their brutal shipwrecks.
As a result, keeping an eye on this picturesque stretch of coast was a matter of life and death. Great lookout towers and Coastguard stations were constructed along its length, ready to spring into action at the first sign of a ship in trouble. Thankfully, those deadly days are now largely behind us. While it’s sad to see an old station unused and ruined like this, it’s comforting to know its abandonment is a sign that more dangerous days have passed.
Decommissioned Frying Pan Shoals Light, North Carolina, USA
Thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina sits a rusted steel platform, dashed and battered by decades of waves. All around lies nothing but seemingly endless water, with the mainland little more than a distant memory. Built as a lighthouse in 1966, it was once manned by a handful of lonely Coast Guard members, ever-ready to spring into action. Automated in 1979, it kept running into the 21st Century, only finally decommissioned in 2003.
Since then, fate has taken the Frying Pan Shoals Light on a highly unusual journey. Left empty for years, the abandoned Coast Guard station came within a hair’s breadth of being demolished and turned into an artificial reef. In the end, though, it was sold to a private owner, who turned it into an extremely isolated B&B. You can now sleep in the old tower, and experience life as it must have been all those decades ago.
Derelict Clanyard Coastguard Lookout, Dumfries And Galloway, Scotland
(Image: Barry Boxer)
The shores of Scotland have seen numerous shipwrecks over the centuries. With a coastline that looks like a china plate dropped from a great height, the potential for maritime disaster has always been ominously clear. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the fringes of this great, green country are littered with coastal lookouts, both past and present.
In this case, we’re looking at one that very much fits the description ‘past’. A broken old concrete block, the abandoned Coastguard lookout is an eerie place today. Doors gape open. Corrugated iron rusts and flaps in the sea breeze. Barbed wire keeps out intruders, while grey skies squash down on its concrete form, as if to press it into the damp earth. The overall effect is both attractive and melancholy, like witnessing the end of an era.
Abandoned Coast Guard Station in Milwaukee, USA (Demolished)
Situated on Lake Michigan’s western shore, Milwaukee, Wisconsin is perfectly positioned to capture the water traffic and boats streaming in from the Great Lakes. While the city still sees its fair share of ships now, it’s hard to explain just how busy it used to be. Hence the need for this elegant Coast Guard station. Built just before World War One hit the US, it was once the single thing standing between unlucky locals and a watery grave.
Constructed in the Prairie Style, this simple, elegant building saved countless lives across the decades. It also won its fair share of fans for its aesthetic. After the US Coast Guard closed the station down in 1975, locals campaigned for years to have it repurposed in order to preserve its exterior. Sadly, however, projects kept falling through. The abandoned Coast Guard station was ultimately demolished, leaving a sad hole in the nautical heart of Milwaukee.
Ruined South Stack Coastguard Station on Anglesey, Wales
(Image: Trevor Rickard)
Off the Anglesey coast, within spitting distance of rugged Holy Island, sits the picturesque islet of South Stack. A broken piece of rock famous today for its lighthouse, South Stack was also once the site of many a maritime wreck. As a result, it had its own dedicated HM Coastguard station, in the form of this attractive stone lookout.
A small structure, the abandoned Coastguard lookout today appears as a cross between an old rural dwelling and a bus shelter. A simple roof encloses a small viewing space, while the front remains almost entirely open to the elements. It’s all too easy to imagine how miserable it would be sitting in here one stormy night, shivering as the wind and rain battered the stone walls and the dark sea churned far below. Yet sit here people once did, one eye continuously peeled for signs of trouble off South Stack. Today, the derelict lookout stands as a reminder of their efforts; and the efforts of HM Coastguard members across the nation.
Abandoned Coastguard Station in County Donegal, Ireland
(Image: John Martin)
This abandoned Coastguard building may once have been one of the grandest of its kind in Ireland. A sturdy structure, it came complete with its own castellated tower, a pleasingly-impractical piece of design that nonetheless made the station delightful to look at. While evidence of its regal pretensions still remain (note the castellated edge of the roof above the red door), the tower itself is now long gone.
As, in fact, are the lifeboats. The former Coastguard station shut its doors for the last time back in 1947. It was later converted into the Ball Hill Youth Hostel, taking advantage of the station’s stunning surroundings to lure tourists. Closed again in 2004, the building now stands frustratingly empty, as if simply waiting for someone to come along and find a better use for it.
Abandoned Coastguard Lookout Near Brims, Orkney, Scotland
(Image: Calum McRoberts)
For first-time visitors, Orkney can feel like the end of the world. Its 70 jagged, windswept isles may be far closer to the Scottish mainland than Fair Isle or Shetland, but the tumultuous seas that separate them from the rest of the UK are frequently terrifying to behold. As a result, Orkney has had more than its fair share of HM Coastguard lookouts over the years, such as this quietly forgotten ruin on the outskirts of Brims.
Staring mournfully towards the distant mainland, the abandoned Coastguard lookout is as sad and neglected as they come. Blank windows watch the churning seas with unseeing eyes. Wild grasses gently wave from cracks amid the concrete. The lower half of the ruin, which overlooks The Mares, is now said to be used as a shelter for sheep, while the locked top half slides ever-further into dramatic disrepair. Brims, meanwhile, is now home to the Longhope Lifeboat Museum.
Shipwrecked USCGC Mesquite (WLB-305), Lake Superior, USA
(Image: US Government)
Finally, a slightly different item to end our list on. As the above photos make quite clear, the USCGC Mesquite (WLB-305) wasn’t a US Coast Guard lookout or station. Rather, it was a seagoing buoy tender; a ship designed to help others navigate the perils of the USA’s lakes and waterways when a regular buoy would not suffice. Launched in 1942, the ship only went out of action in 1989, when she was ironically grounded on a reef that she had been stationed at in order to warn off other vessels.
With major damage suffered to the hull, the US Coast Guard eventually decided to sink her in Lake Superior rather than attempt repairs. And so the Mesquite vanished beneath the waves. Yet her story doesn’t end there. Today the abandoned Coast Guard vessel is one of America’s top wreck diving attractions, with thousands descending every year to explore and document her watery grave.