The jewel of Seven Mile Island
Post 331 Commander Tom McCullough (front row, second from left) stands with a group of post and squadron members outside their historic post building. Courtesy R.C. Staab

The jewel of Seven Mile Island

In the early 2000s, Stephen C. Ludlam American Legion Post 331 in Stone Harbor, N.J., faced a crisis. It needed to fix a failing roof and remove asbestos from siding on its building, but the post didn’t have a large reserve or annual revenues to cover the anticipated expenses.

Consideration was given to selling the building, a former U.S. Life-Saving Service station built in 1895. But then-Post 331 Commander Bill Keenan had a vision of connecting the 21st-century service mission of the post to the mission of Life-Saving Service surfmen from the 19th century, who rescued people and cargo from wrecks in the turbulent Atlantic.

The journey to discover the building’s history has enlivened the post as an important cultural and historic asset to the communities of Stone Harbor and neighboring Avalon. Today, Post Commander Tom McCullough refers to the building as “the jewel of Seven Mile Island” and of the Legion’s Department of New Jersey.

Created in 1849, the Life-Saving Service was initially an all-volunteer agency working out of small boathouses. In 1871, the Treasury Department persuaded Congress to increase spending to hire full-time staff and build new stations that could accommodate larger boats, more equipment, staff lodging and rooms for rescued people who needed a place a stay before continuing their journeys. In the 1890s, the government paid $600 to the Seven Mile Beach Company to lease the land to build the station that would become Post 331.

By the turn of the century, hundreds of Life-Saving Service buildings dotted the East Coast, West Coast and Great Lakes. From 1871 to 1914, the service aided 28,121 vessels and rescued or aided 178,741 people. Its unofficial motto: “Remember, you have to go out, but nothing says you have to come back.”

In 1915, the service was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the U.S. Coast Guard, which over time had little use for stations such as Stone Harbor, blocks from the beach with no direct bay or river access for motorized boats. In 1948, the U.S. government abandoned the station and, per the lease, returned ownership to the Seven Mile Beach Company. In turn, the surviving board member sold the property to the recently formed Post 331. The price was $1 for land that 50 years later would become prime real estate in an affluent beach community.

For many years when Stone Harbor was a sleepy beach town, Post 331 was its social center, especially on Saturday nights, according to post historian Dick Pike.

Putting aside thoughts of selling the building, Keenan worked with post members Pike, Bill Lehman, Kevin Coyle and Jon Ready to uncover the history of the surfmen of Stone Harbor. “In 2006, we invited the mayor and writers to come see the building,” Pike said. “That’s when we came up with the idea of the building being one of Stone Harbor’s treasures.”
To raise funds, the post leadership sold more than 2,000 hats, 700 pavers and promoted 50/50 raffles, with all the proceeds going to repairs. From Cape May County, they applied for and received historic and art grants to collect artifacts and pay for murals painted on the rebuilt frontage. With the state’s help, the building was listed on the New Jersey and national registers of historic places.

The dig into history was revealing for everyone, Pike said. “The biggest connection between the post and its history as a Life-Saving Service Station has been that we have a lot of respect for (them) and the things they had to do to save people. They got paid only $50 a month during the winter months; if you’re going out on a mission to give up your life, a couple of dollars is not a lot to have.”

Today, when the boat doors are open, murals painted by post member J.J. Thompson depict men racing out to the ocean in harsh weather to save lives with surfboats, and a beach cart with lines and life-saving apparatus.

Another post historian, Art Faint, recounted a fascinating connection that bridges centuries of service. Richard C. Holmes, from nearby Cape May, was appointed in 1876 as keeper of the Tatham Life-Saving Service station on Seven Mile Beach, a predecessor to the current building. Holmes’ daughter married Frank Ebelhare, who served in World War I. Ebelhare became the interim commander of Post 331 while local veterans were petitioning for a charter.

Frank’s daughter, Emma Ebelhare Kemly, later became commander – the first female post commander in New Jersey. Sons of The American Legion Squadron 331 claims her late son, Ronald, a New York City firefighter. His son, Ronald Jr., followed in his footsteps; both were called to serve when the towers fell on 9/11.

There was much to be done with rebuilding, Pike said, and to help, “the local people gave a lot of money. From each borough we received $100,000. We had a lot of support once they saw we were trying to make this into a historic place people could come and see.”

This has allowed the post to concentrate on giving to veterans’ causes and the community. “I am proud to say that in each of the last five years we have given $50,000 to $70,000 to veterans less fortunate than we are, and to youth Americanism projects and programs,” McCullough said.

Free tours are available throughout the week during the busy beach season, between Flag Day and Labor Day. Even though the building is not considered a lighthouse, it attracts about 3,000 tourists during
a fall weekend for the Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey.

Even so, on an island with only about 2,000 permanent residents, post members are concerned about the building’s future. Coyle, another past post commander, said, “I think (it) will become a multicultural center – a senior citizen center, a museum, a place for Civil War re-enactors and (the) post.”

“We’d never want the building to be torn down,” Ready added. “We have full commitment from the boroughs of Stone Harbor and Avalon not to let that happen.”

R.C. Staab is an author and travel writer based in New York, New Jersey and Florida. He writes extensively about the Jersey Shore, from Cape May to Sandy Hook.