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Houses of Refuge

PL Map01.jpg

Locations of the first five Houses of Refuge, built in
1876. Gray's Atlas Map of Florida, 1875. Courtesy

In the second half of the 19th century, the increasing number of vessels and adventurous pioneers used the ocean and beach as their roadways. On June 20, 1874, the federal government decided that more than lighthouses were needed; a Congressional act called for five houses of refuge to be built along the southeast coast of Florida to assist victims of shipwrecks and other perils of the wilderness. In 1875 contractor Albert Blaisdallo began work on the houses, named for their locations and numbered from north to south:

  • Bethel Creek (Indian River) House of Refuge No. 1: (1876 -1914) about 18 miles north of the Indian River Inlet
  • Gilbert's Bar (St. Lucie Rocks) House of Refuge No. 2: (1876-1914) on present Hutchinson Island in Martin County
  • Orange Grove House of Refuge No. 3: (1876-1896) 15 miles north of Hillsboro Inlet, near the present city of Delray Beach
  • New River (Fort Lauderdale) House of Refuge No. 4: (1876-1909) four miles north of New River Inlet
  • Biscayne Bay House of Refuge No. 5: (1876-1909) about ten miles south of New River Inlet


The Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge, now a
museum, in 2009. Courtesy Richard A. Marconi.

Ten years later, four more houses were built north to St. Augustine: Smith’s Creek (Bulow), Mosquito Lagoon, Chester Shoal, and Cape Malabar, which closed after only four years of operations. In 1896 the Orange Grove House of Refuge closed. The rest continued to fill a need into the 20th century, although only one building remains;  Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge Museum is operated by the Martin County Historical Society.


Orange Grove House of Refuge No. 3

The only house of refuge built in Palm Beach County was located about a quarter mile north of a sour orange grove, east of the ocean ridge, near the present City of Delray Beach. The two-story wood frame building was designed for hot summers, with a wraparound porch and low sloping roof. 

On the first floor were four large rooms, the residence of the keeper of the house. The second floor, one open room, had large windows at each end for cross-ventilation. This room was kept in constant readiness with cots and provisions for 20 guests for ten days. Bedding, clothing, medicine, books, and dried and salted food were on hand, which were  carefully maintained by the keeper. A separate boathouse held two lifeboats, signaling flares, and other lifesaving equipment.

Besides maintenance, the keepers’ duties included logging the weather three times per day and any passing ships or people. After a storm, they were to search the area for anyone in need. In the early 1880s the keepers also preserved unusual specimens of marinelife for the Smithsonian Institution. Most keepers sought extra income through work such as farming, boatbuilding, or beekeeping. 


The Orange Grove House of Refuge, late 19th 
century, along the beach in present-day
Delray Beach until it burned down in 1927.
Courtesy HSPBC.

The Lifesaving Service preferred keepers with families for the extra help and company they could provide in the lonely wilderness. In the early years, sailboats were common on the ocean and inland waterway, and they often stopped at the houses. The superintendent made quarterly inspections, when he paid the keeper, and Seminole Indians called to trade meat, as they did at other south Florida settlements. 

Although the houses generally proved to be an unhealthy environment, Hannibal Pierce’s wife, Margretta Moore Pierce, gave birth to Lillie Elder there, the first white girl born between Delray Beach and Biscayne Bay. Margretta missed her Hypoluxo Island home and returned with the children after 13 months; Hannibal remained until Steve Andrews replaced him in January 1878. The family also served at the Biscayne Bay House of Refuge No. 5 in 1883 and 1884, perhaps attracted by the increase in annual salary, from $400 to $500. 


Lillie Elder Pierce was born
at the Orange Grove House
of Refuge, where her father,
Hannibal Pierce, was the first
keeper. Courtesy HSPBC.

The second and last keeper of Orange Grove House of Refuge No. 3, Steve Andrews, had recently come to Biscayne Bay from England; he married Annie Hubel of Michigan a few years into his service. Andrews raised hogs and chickens, and took pride in his garden. 

From 1888 to 1892, Annie Andrews was postmistress of the Zion Post Office at House of Refuge No. 3. In 1894 Congressman William Seelye Linton led a group from Michigan to south Florida to establish a new community. In West Palm Beach they heard of land for sale near House of Refuge No. 3, which they reached by barge, down the inland waterway. Linton bought, platted, and officially recorded a new settlement, the Town of Linton. The following year, when he brought his first purchasers from Michigan, they stayed at House of Refuge No. 3 while clearing land and erecting temporary shelters.

Sharpie Heron, owned by the Gilpin family, 1890s

The sharpie Heron, owned
by the Gilpin family, 1890s.
Courtesy HSPBC.



Fast Friends

In April 1890, while visiting on Lake Worth, Emma and Annie Gilpin and friends accompanied George Potter on his sharpie sailboat, the Heron, when he took the tax collector to Miami. On the trip south, the party met mail carriers, house of refuge keepers, and sometimes stormy weather. Gilpin wrote of the return trip along the coast:

When we pass O'Neill's [New River House of Refuge No. 4], I spy a light in his window and the moonlight on the roof; Capt. P. blows a blast on his conch shell, and immediately we get the response of his brightening light, and soon after a blow from his horn, and a whine from his dog, Wusley. The musical greeting is kept up on both sides until    we drop the House altogether – a cheery good-bye from a good friend.


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