By Doreen Leggett
December 2, 2014
In the teeth of a nor’easter in 1952, Orleans Police Chief Jack Higgins got a call from Chatham for assistance with a boat rescue, hopped into the department’s only car and sped out of town.
“He pulled into the fish pier with lights and siren,” said Orleans Police Lt. Kevin Higgins, recalling family stories about his uncle.
When the chief arrived in the 1946 Chevrolet Cruiser that blustery February night, Lt. Higgins said, his uncle had no idea that a four-man coast guard crew on the CG36500 had rescued 32 men from the stern of the sinking Pendleton.
Although how Higgins helped that night is lost to time, his nephew expects the ‘46 along with the long-disappeared tri-town ambulance (which served Brewster, Eastham and Orleans) helped take some of the rescued men to the hospital in Hyannis.
“Some of the history of the car has drifted off into never, never land,” admitted Higgins.
Since the events of Feb. 18, 1952 are soon to hit the silver screen, Higgins thought a rendezvous was in order. So the restored CG36500 – which also happened to be built in 1946, said Donald St. Pierre, of Chatham, who has helped watch over the boat – motored up to River Road Landing late last week to meet the antique, curvy police car.
“That (was) the first time the two vessels, so to speak have been near each other since ’52,” said Higgins.
The Chevy Cruiser, which was the first police car the town bought for $1,247 when town meeting formed a police department by a vote of 45-38 (before that the chairman of the board of selectmen was the acting chief), will be in the Disney movie, “The Finest Hours,” about the rescue. The movie tells the story of what is known as the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history and will be filmed in Chatham beginning Dec. 3.
The star of the movie, (Casey Affleck notwithstanding) the CG36500, won’t be in the film because of worries that the boat, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, could be damaged.
The ’46, like the Gold Medal boat CG36500, was forgotten and allowed to fall into disrepair before being rescued by local folks, but has some experience in the limelight. The antique car had a starring role in the W.B. Mason commercials, featuring the “low price budget detectives.” Higgins said about 36 advertisements were shot.
“Everyone has seen the commercials but you just don’t realize it’s our cruiser,” he said.
Those commercials stuck in the minds of the staff of Boston Productions, which is working on “The Finest Hours.” So Higgins got a call asking if the car would be available for filming when the Disney crew comes to Chatham to film and the answer was yes.
The ’46 is a bit of a local celebrity, too, but it was lost to the town for many decades.
The car was traded in 1952, sold to another dealer, and about 30 years later former Orleans Police Lt. John Fitzpatrick was able to track the car down in New Hampshire.
“They found it up there in a garage,” said Lt. Higgins. Fitzpatrick, with help from the police association and local mechanics were able to bring it to its “former splendor.”
The CG36500 also had to be rescued by locals who remembered it.
The Coast Guard’s plucky boat had been donated to the Cape Cod National Seashore and the federal government was going to turn it into a living museum. But lack of funding left the boat outdoors, and freshwater and wooden boats don’t mix well.
Thanks to town historian and noted photographer William Quinn, the boat was turned over to the Orleans Historical Society for some still photos of pivotal moments in Cape history.
The famous boat was repaired modestly but by 2003, when Peter Kennedy came on the scene, it was in need of serious work.
After hearing the historical society wanted some help fixing the boat, Kennedy – who has been in and around boats since he was a youngster – got involved. And once he started doing research he was struck by how important the boat was in the history of the nation and how few people knew about it.
“I don’t think it was widely known how significant this boat was,” he said.
Kennedy, and others, raised about a quarter of a million dollars to restore the boat and by features in local and national publications raised its profile as well.
“My motivation was to get it the recognition it deserves,” he said.
So it was only natural that when authors Casey Sherman and Michael Tougias called him for details on the boat he gave them an armful of research and earful of knowledge. He also told the two authors, who were working separately at the time, about one another and they collaborated on the book “The Finest Hours,” which Kennedy calls an amazing read.
When it came to having the movie made, Kennedy was called by the producer of the film and asked to come take a look at the set in Quincy.
“It was my first time on a movie set and it was just amazing what they do do,” he said.
Kennedy is hopeful that the movie, like the book, will introduce more people to the almost unbelievable rescue in 70-knot winds and huge seas. “You get an appreciation for what a phenomenal task that was,” he said. “The boat is just a national treasure.”
Although the boat isn’t in the movie, it will still be on hand and at the fish pier during part of the filming of the movie, and people are invited to go and see it.
The ’46 is also busy cruising about and has a penchant for appearing at different locales all over town.
For more information on the boat, visit CG36500.org