Cape Cod was known as the graveyard of the Atlantic due to the large number of shipwrecks along the jagged and dangerous coast. During the winter of 1870, a large number of fatalities from shipwrecks occurred along the Atlantic coast. Because of this, the United States Lifesaving Service was formed. The stations were manned by experienced boaters and surfmen. There were nine Life Saving Stations on the Cape and they were spread out every 5 miles. Surfmen walked the beaches with lanterns to look for vessels in distress. The Old Harbor Life-Saving Station saved over 600 lives alone.
The United States Coast Guard took over the operation in the 1930s. The station was decommissioned in 1944, abandoned and sold in 1947. It was used as a private residence for the next twenty-six years. The property returned to Federal ownership in 1973. The National Park Service acquired it as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
The Friends of Cape Cod raised $180,000 to refurnish the interior of the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station. Old Harbor is now essentially the only completely furnished, historical life-saving station in the country. Visitors can tour the museum and watch a historical re-enactment of the surfmen at work.