Stuart's sanctuary for shipwrecked seamen

The parlor still has its original furniture, with small Victorian tables, sofas adorned with doilies and an early Thomas Edison gramophone. The bedrooms still have beds with brass headrails and books on cracked wooden shelves. The tiny kitchen – where there's barely room for anyone to sit down – has hanging utensils and the original coal-fired, potbellied stove. Shards of light stream in through the wood-framed windows, landing on worn floors.

There was once life in this building, once laughter and celebration, sadness and struggle. But the only sounds you'll hear are surf washing onto the shore and the American flag flapping in the sea breeze.

While quiet now, this house – the House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert's Bar – and the beach in Stuart that surrounds it echo the stories of lives along the sea.

It's named after Don Pedro Gilbert, a notorious Spanish pirate in the early 1800s who used to prowl these waters in his ship, Panda. Operating from a bar of sand jutting into the ocean, Gilbert's men would light fires on the beach, fooling many a ship's captain into thinking they were victims of a shipwreck.

Once the unsuspecting victims were lured to the beach, Don Pedro's men would jump them and kill them, take their treasure and sink their ship.

In 1832, Don Pedro and his crew attacked an American ship named, interestingly, the Mexican. They removed the $20,000 worth of treasure, locked the crew below decks and set fire to the ship.

The ship's crew, though, somehow managed to unlock the door and put out the fire. They returned to port with their story, and Americans were outraged. In 1833, the British Navy caught Gilbert and his men off the coast of Africa as they were loading slaves onto the Panda for transport. Britain then extradited the men to the United States, where they were hanged for their crimes.

History is often ironic, however, and this stretch of beach eventually became a haven for several generations of shipwrecked sailors.

This area of Florida (about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach) – called the Treasure Coast – is the site of many shipwrecks and a lot of buried treasure. Shortly after the Civil War, Congress appropriated funds for the U.S. Lifesaving Service to construct 10 "houses of refuge" between St. Augustine and the Keys that could offer shelter to any shipwrecked sailors lucky enough to reach shore.

Each building housed a "keeper" and his family on the bottom floor and 10 to 20 cots on the top floor for sailors, along with enough food for all. When shipwrecked sailors were well again, the keeper would give them enough money and supplies to find their way back home.

After every storm, the keeper and his family would walk along the beaches, searching for survivors. And, in between the storms, they lived a life of isolation, fighting boredom, heat and mosquitoes.

In 1915, the facility became U.S. Coast Guard Station No. 207.

Two years later, when the U.S. entered World War I, the keeper and the crew of four were augmented by members of the local Home Guard.

During World War II, German U-boats sank several American ships off this coast, sparking huge explosions that could be seen onshore. So the facility added manpower and an observation tower. When the war ended in 1945, it was decommissioned.

Today, you can walk through the living quarters of the keepers' families. A small onsite museum showcases photographs, nautical memorabilia from sunken ships, artifacts from 19th century life in these parts, personal items from the families who lived here, and documents and news clippings about Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge and the Treasure Coast (including Stuart News photographs of American ships on fire after being torpedoed by the Germans in 1942).

If you look about 100 yards offshore, you can still see part of the Georges Valentine, an Italian brigantine that sank during a storm in 1904. Today it serves as an artificial reef and diving site.

Nine of the 10 Florida houses of refuge are gone now. But the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge still stands silent sentinel over the Treasure Coast, as it has for 150 years.

This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.

If you go

The House of Refuge Museum at Gilbert's Bar, 301 MacArthur Boulevard, in Stuart is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children 5-12. Children under 5 are free. For more information, visit the Elliott Museum website at elliottmuseumfl.org or call 772-225-1875.

Stuart's sanctuary for shipwrecked seamen 09/17/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 17, 2012 1:15pm]

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