OCEAN CITY - A new nonprofit group is gaining momentum in preserving a former lifesaving station that was a base for rescuing mariners in distress before becoming a four-bedroom home.

U.S. Lifesaving Station 30, a registered nonprofit group, is raising money now to restore the former Fourth Street station that was part of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Garden State Preservation Trust this week announced it will award $450,000 - half in grants and half in loans - to Ocean City for the land on which the former Fourth Street Lifesaving Station sits.

This will reimburse the city in part for its 2010 purchase of the station from developer Pansini Custom Design in 2010. The city's Historic Preservation Commission named the building a historical landmark.

The grants and loans are part of a $100 million allocation through this year's Green Acres Program. The city bought the former station for about $1 million last year.

The nonprofit - named for the station number in the lifesaving service - has formed a board of trustees and is soliciting donations to restore the building. Simultaneously, the group is beginning to put together some of the artifacts that will go in the building as an interpretive center and tourist attraction.

The group is asking the city to fund $300,000 in loans for building repairs.

"The city is going to appropriate money for roof and window repairs," Councilman John Kemenosh said.

Kemenosh said the lifesaving station has been controversial ever since its former owner sold it to a developer to make way for condominiums. Voters in 2005 rejected a bond referendum to buy the station for more than $3 million.

But some residents continued to press the city to preserve the building.

"It's a great story," Kemenosh said. "There was a huge amount of taxpayer resentment about spending taxpayer money there. But there seems to be interest swinging in its favor now."

Kemenosh said it helps that the nonprofit group's board of trustees includes some prominent local residents such as historian and author Fred Miller, builder Scott Halliday and financial planner Mark Reimet.

"They have a bunch of heavy hitters with the best of intentions," he said. "It seems much more manageable and palatable for people to swallow."

"We're excited," Miller said. "Momentum is picking up. We started a charter membership drive. We're going to offer demonstrations of what the lifesaving service used to do. I think the money will be there."

When you think of architecture in Ocean City, most people conjure images of ultramodern condos. But this converted house is a big part of the city's Historic District, Miller said.

The two-story building served as one of three Ocean City lifesaving stations from 1885 to 1910. A growing beach on the city's north end rendered the building less useful for launching rescues. The U.S. Coast Guard took up residence in the building until it passed to private ownership in 1930.

"Ocean City gets a bad rap that it doesn't care about historic preservation," Miller said. "But this shows it does."

Group Chairman John Loeper has been studying the lifesaving service for years. He is busy making a reproduction of a cannon cart like the one rescuers hauled onto the beach to rescue sailors whose boats foundered offshore. The cannon fired a projectile attached to a ribbon of Egyptian cotton cloth that was designed to sail over the top of the stricken ship.

Sailors in distress would pull on a cord tethered to a rescue rope and flotation device, and rescuers would use the rope to pull the crew members safely to shore without putting themselves in danger of drowning, said Loeper, who owns the Northwood Inn a few blocks from the station on Fourth Street.

"The wheels were made of hickory by an Amish wheelwright," Loeper said. "There are only a few wheelwrights left in the country."

Incredibly, members of the nonprofit group found design specifications buried in the National Archives describing every detail of the carts down to the width of the wheels. The cart features a unique sliding axle that changes its center of gravity for easier transport after the water-laden and heavy rescue rope is re-spooled, Loeper said.

"It's pretty ingenious," Loeper said.

The cart's matching 110-pound wheels were delivered Thursday. They stand 4-feet tall with wooden spokes sturdy enough for rescuers to pull to haul the cart over the uneven sand.

Loeper recently found another gem on eBay - an original folding sight and level used exclusively for these rescue cannons. Since the beach is rarely level, rescuers would use the metal device to aim the cannon to make an accurate shot under pressure.

Eventually, he plans to build a replica cannon as well that could be used in re-enactments, he said.

The lifesaving service typically replaced each black-powder cannon after 1,000 rounds, Loeper said. Each shot created minute cracks that eventually will make the cannon to explode.

"Unless you have a cannon log, you have no idea if you're firing round 1,001 or 1,002, which could be dangerous," he said. "The lifesaving service routinely melted these down and reformed them."

And the group is starting to promote the station, which was added to last year's Lighthouse Challenge, an event in which tourists spend the day trying to visit all 12 of New Jersey's lighthouses.

"We're signed up to be on this year's Lighthouse Challenge," Loeper said. "That can bring upward of 10,000 people through."

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