Filmmaker and Corvallis native Eileen Torpey explores the history of the Amagansett Life-Saving Station
In 1902, the citizens of Long Island, New York, erected the Amagansett Life-Saving Station. Over the course of 110 years, thousands of lives were saved, four Nazi saboteurs were thwarted, $1 was paid and the station itself was moved — twice. It was the station’s second move in 2007 from Bluff Road back to its original place on Atlantic Avenue that caught filmmaker and Corvallis native Eileen Torpey’s cinematic imagination, resulting in her film, “Ocean Keeper,” which has its West Coast debut Dec. 23 at Darkside Cinema.
“(The film’s an) if-these-walls-could-talk documentary about the history, the memories and the lives that have moved through and have been about this life-saving station over a hundred-plus years of history,” she said.
Torpey had an existing creative partnership with the film’s executive producer, Deborah Carmichael, whose family owns the Amagansett Life-Saving Station. When Carmichael described the station’s then-upcoming move to Torpey, the creative cogs started to move.
“In my mind’s eye I knew immediately this was a film,” she said. “And I didn’t even know anything more than that. All I knew was this gorgeous, interesting, historic life-saving station house that the family lived in for 40 years was going to be moved back down the street to its original location.
“As I started interviewing people — her brother, her sister, Deborah herself — I started learning about these stories, and so it started unfolding before my eyes.”
One such story occurred in in June 1942 during World War II. Four Nazi saboteurs ran aground in U-boats onto the beach near the station, intending to blow up power stations. Before any damage could be inflicted, they were spotted in front of the station by coastguardsman John Cullen during a nightly beach patrol.
“I remember being in the middle of the interview with David Carmichael, who is one of the siblings, and he started talking about the Nazi saboteurs who arrived on the beach right in front of the house,” Torpey said. “My jaw just dropped. I said, ‘What? I never knew the Nazis came ashore during World War II.’”
Another story occurred in 1966, when Joel Carmichael — Deborah’s father — saved the building from imminent demolition by purchasing it for $1. (Really, $1.) His family lived there for the next 40 years, then donated the building back to Amagansett for historical preservation after Carmichael’s death in 2006.
To flesh out the station’s history, Torpey interviewed and spoke with the East Hampton Historical Society and members of the community, some of whom — like Milton Miller* — came from generations of Amagansett residents and whose fathers worked at the station.
According to Torpey, it isn’t the big moments in the station’s history that are the most fascinating.
“I actually think it’s more of the mundane, ordinary, heroic actions of the men who worked at the station,” she said. “It was their livelihood to go out and rescue people they didn’t know. I find that very moving, that they would risk their own lives to save the lives of strangers.”
By recounting the Amagansett Life-Saving Station’s history, “Ocean Keeper” also explores the people who were integral to that history, and examines the different backgrounds and lifestyles of those who were involved.
“I love that (the film) has a working class history,” Torpey said. “The people who were working there and the people they were saving, who were shipping coal and goods to and from New York.
“And then the Carmichael family took it over — they bought it from the town of East Hampton for a dollar — they saved it. They rescued this building. ... Joel Carmichael, who was a writer, bought this building, saved it, and then when he passed away he willed it to his children who then gave it back to the town.
“There’s this beautiful blend of the working class history and the philanthropy of the family. And I love that. I love when different lives and different lifestyles blend.”
Torpey, who grew up in Corvallis and attended Crescent Valley High School, has been involved in the arts since she was young. Her dad would bring her to The Arts Center where she studied pottery. She studied pottery and ceramics until her mid-20s, when she found herself attracted to photography, which eventually led to filmmaking.
“My father is a really good photographer. He documented all of our family events on super 8 film,” she said. “At a very young age I was influenced by his filming.”
Torpey, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., said she is excited to return to Corvallis and share her film with her family, friends and community. “I am so happy that I get to invite my parents, Jim and Dot Torpey. They’ve lived in Corvallis for 41 years,” she said.
The West Coast premiere of “Ocean Keeper” also happens to fall on another important date in Torpey’s life: her birthday. “It’s just amazing to host my West Coast premiere in my hometown on my birthday,” she said.
“Ocean Keeper” will be screened Dec. 23 through Dec. 27 as a companion piece to “Chasing Ice” at the Darkside Cinema. For a screening schedule, see www.darksidecinema.com. For more information about “Ocean Keeper,” see www.ocean
* At the time of the interview, Milton Miller, who is featured in the film, had just recently passed away at age 97.