In 1872 Congress established the Life-Saving Service, and the plans for the structure were drawn two years later by the federal government. The station at Indian River was not the only building to be constructed under the plan; four stations were in operation by 1882. Originally the station was located beyond the dunes on the beach.
A one-and-a-half story board-and-batten frame structure is an original portion. The roof line has wide overhanging eaves. A shed-roofed wing is connected in the back, while a porch runs along the front of the station. A clipped gable was shown in the original plans, but it is not there today. However, a lookout cupola was not drawn in the plans, but was added to the building. A boat house was placed about one mile south of the station. Previously a feed house, a barn, a stable, a meat house, and a privy stood as surrounding outbuildings. The first floor and porch sections were occupied by a boat room and a mess room. Communications rooms and offices later replaced this area. The second floor was where the keeper and crew stayed.
The purpose of the Life Saving Station, at that time, was to rescue ships which had gotten caught up in the nearby dangerous shoals. Since colonial times, the Delaware coast line has been the home to many shipwrecks. This was also the reason for building the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse which was constructed in 1765. When a ship in trouble was spotted, before the Life Saving Service was founded, farmers would rush out to rescue any survivors and gather the wreckage. The Life Saving Station allowed for a regular patrol to monitor the area. Patrols along the beaches and Fire Control Towers were used to scan the ocean for wrecks. When a disaster occurred, a lifeboat would be sent from either the station or additional boat house. Walking patrols became nonexistent when new technologies were introduced.
Since 1880 the station has been altered and was moved at least once due to beach erosion. It was moved to the west of the dunes and no longer used as a Life Saving Station. Weather has sometimes been an issue with the Life Saving Station. One storm in particular left the building buried in sand all the way up to the first floor. This resulted in the station being abandoned. Two years later the Coast Guard built a new station at another location. The old station was used as a state maintenance facility.
The Indian River Life Saving Station was added to the National Register on September 29, 1976. The original Indian River Life Saving Station has been restored as a museum. The Indian River Life Saving Station, owned by DNREC, showcases the history of the station throughout its century of existence.