From the road, the House of Refuge looks like any old home on Hutchinson Island. The white clapboard siding, the shingled roof, and the broad expanse of porches are all standard features in South Florida. Of course, the historical designation sign and gravel parking lot do suggest this place is special.
In 1872, our government directed that ten “houses of refuge” be built along the Florida coast for the purpose of rescuing and housing shipwrecked sailors. The houses were all very similar. Two stories high, with no glass windows, only wire-gauze mosquito netting and shutters. The first floor consisted of four rooms, all set aside for the keeper and his family. The upstairs was a dormitory with cots that could hold up to 25 persons.
Keepers were hired to patrol beaches and rescue people out at sea. It’s hard to fathom how important these services were, but they must be taken in perspective. The town of Stuart wasn’t even settled until the 1870s. A shipwreck victim who made it to shore would die of starvation, thirst or injuries before finding anyone who could help him.
The work of the keeper would always be needed because of the Anastasia Rock formation that runs alongside the Treasure Coast. Until better navigational systems became standard equipment, ships following the Gulf Stream were especially at risk if they wandered off course.
The House of Refuge museum gives you a wonderful sense of the environment that welcomed shipwrecked sailors.
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