Wash Woods, US Coast Guard Station #166
At first glance, one immediately senses that this structure has an extraordinary story. Situated just off the oceanfront in North Swan Beach in the 4×4 area, Wash Woods Station looks strikingly different than neighboring modern homes. This historic building and its surrounding outbuildings were purchased by the Twiddys in 1988 and restorations were completed in 1989.
Wash Woods Station was built by the United States Coast Guard in 1917 to replace an older, outmoded station a few miles north. The Lifesaving Service erected the original station, known as Deals Island Station #6, just south of the VA border in 1878. The first Officer in Charge was appointed on December 9, 1878 and three weeks later on January 1, 1879 the first crew was engaged. By 1883, the station was renamed Wash Woods for a small village that was located just north of the VA border.* In 1914, the Federal Government claimed title to the land occupied by the station. In 1915, the US Lifesaving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service. The new organization was named the United States Coast Guard. Wash Woods was numbered #166 in the chain of stations along the Atlantic coast.
Built in an architectural style referred to as Chatham style, Wash Woods was constructed according to plans drawn in 1914 by architect Victor Mendleheff. The original main building consisted of eight rooms and two bathrooms. A separate galley was situated just to its west, and a pair of cisterns was built on the northwest corner of the station. The cisterns were used to gather rainwater from the roof and served as the guardsmen’s water supply. A small lookout tower was built on the oceanside of the station.
During its years of active duty, Wash Woods Station housed many guardsmen who performed countless brave rescues. With German U-boats thick off the coast during World War II, Coast Guard stations along the Virginia and North Carolina shores prepared for conflict. At this time, Wash Woods was home to about 30 guardsmen. The lookout tower was constantly utilized and armed patrolmen strode the beach searching for signs of the enemy.
After the war, the need for personnel decreased and crews were reduced. Wash Woods reverted back to standard pre-war-sized crew until 1949. Records indicate that the station remained active from thereafter with only a single caretaker until officially decommissioned in late 1954 or early 1955.
In the years to come, Wash Woods Station served as a private vacation home. In 1988, the owners approached Doug and Sharon Twiddy to see if they would be interested in purchasing the station. They had heard of the Twiddy’s restoration of the old Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station and thought Wash Woods may also be of interest. The Twiddys were happy for the opportunity to ensure the future of another historic Outer Banks landmark, and began the process of transforming the station back to its authentic state soon after the purchase. The sale included the original main building, cisterns, kitchen, lookout tower and chicken coop. Concrete pilings were all the remained of the original flagpole and radio antennas. The stable, which was situated on a nearby lot, was not part of the sale and later fell.
The first order of business was to move the dune that shifting sands had built up around the station. The main building was lifted and set on wood pilings. Those involved in this process estimated the heart pine structure weighed a whopping 50 tons. The dune was leveled, and Wash Woods was lowered back down, coming to rest 12 feet higher than its original position. The bones of the building guided additional restorations. As modern wood paneling was pulled away from the walls, the original plaster revealed itself. Carpet was stripped to unveil the original heart pine floors. Walls were decorated with a collection of old photos of Wash Woods and Coast Guard memorabilia. The only adjustment made that was a departure from the station’s original state was to add a bathroom and remove a wall on the second level, creating a master suite.
When restorations were completed in 1989, Wash Woods was used as a real estate sales office. The real estate market crash later eliminated the need for an office on the 4×4 Beaches, and the Twiddys then placed the station in their property management program. Adventuresome vacationers were provided the opportunity to trade in some of the more plush amenities offered by newer homes to experience the rustic beauty and historic character of Wash Woods. Wash Woods was later used privately by the Twiddys. They remember curious vacationers knocking on the door and asking for tours, assuming that surely this old structure was a museum of some sort. In 2007, the Twiddys rebuilt the boathouse in the likeness of to the original structure, 150 feet from its original footprint. In 2008, the cisterns were rebuilt and steps were taken to begin building a replica of the original lookout tower.
The original tower was built in 1917, and destroyed by a hurricane in 1933. After finding the plans from archives in Washington DC, a replica was completed in 2011. The new tower took master craftsman, Chris Thompson, over a year to create.
Wash Woods has been declared by some to have a resident ghost by the name of Mose. While some – including old timers who once pulled duty in the station – claim that they have seen, heard and felt things that have made the hairs on the back of their neck stand, others suspect that Mose was created long ago as a means of keeping the station safe from thieves and intruders.
Now, Wash Woods Station serves as a Twiddy & Company real estate office once again, and the walls are decorated with a collection of old photos and Coast Guard memorabilia. Stop by for a visit and enjoy the history of this unique place.
* It is believed that the Wash Woods settlement was established somewhere between 1889 and 1895 by the survivors of a shipwreck. Where this village’s name originated is debated. One thought is that the name developed from how easily a storm would wash over the dunes and into Back Bay. Another theory is that the name came from the stumps of an old maritime forest that pepper the water line at low tide. The settlers built two churches, two general stores, a school and other structures from wood that washed ashore from shipwrecks. Around the turn of the 20th century, approximately 300 people lived in the village working as hunting guides, fishermen, farmers and manning lifeboats.
Ironically, the same harsh conditions that beached wood for the community of Wash Woods’s structures eventually drove residents away. The once fertile farm land was overcome by shifting sands and live oak trees. The community of Wash Woods began to clear out in the 1920s, and was completely empty by the 1930s. Later used as hunting grounds, the area now rests inside Virginia’s False Cape State Park. Today, all that remains of Wash Woods is a small cemetery.