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The following is one of a half-dozen chapters written about the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. The Life-Saving Service described here was absorbed into the Coast Guard in 1915.
n the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the nation's eastern coast was unpopulated and uncharted. Ships plying the "coasting" trade along the shore might strike reefs, or be hurled ashore by storms with little warning. As early as 1786 the Massachusetts Humane Society built a shelter near Boston Harbor. Two decades later, the society installed a boathouse and surf-boat at Cohasset.

But these were volunteer efforts located near major population centers. Survivors of shipwreck elsewhere often found themselves cold, wet, injured, with no provisions, and lying upon a deserted shore with help days or even weeks off.

The fate of the crew of the schooner Nottingham Galley gruesomely illustrated what could happen even if the crew survived the initial shipwreck. Stranded upon Boon Island, Maine during a winter storm in 1710, they ate mussels scraped from the rocks, and then the seaweed. They lost their fingers and toes to frostbite. Finally they fell to eating one another.

A later wreck showed, equally gruesomely, how hard it was just to survive a wreck, even upon relatively benign shores. On January 2, 1837, as it approached the New York harbor entrance, the American bark Mexico hit a sandbar between 300 and 800 yards off the New Jersey shore. Few people could survive a 300-yard swim in 40-degree surf. Not one of the 112 emigrant passengers of the Mexico did.

In 1848, congress appropriated $10,000 to provide a system of "surf-boats, rockets, carronades and other necessary apparatus for the better preservation of life and property from ship wrecks on the coast of New Jersey." At the same time the Massachusetts Humane Society received federal funds for its stations. The U.S. Revenue Marine was given the duty of oversight.

The system worked poorly. Often the equipment was in place during an emergency, but no one thought to use it. After a storm in 1854 killed many sailors along the east coast inspectors found that there were too few stations and that the equipment had not been maintained. One town, the report said, was using its surf-boat, "Alternately as a trough for mixing mortar and a tub for scalding hogs."

Congress ordered a full-time keeper for each station and several superintendents. But the keeper still needed to round up a crew in time of need. The system limped along, neglected during the Civil War, neglected after the war, neglected until the great storm of 1870, which killed so many sailors that the newspapers clamored for reform.

In 1871, Sumner Increase Kimball, a young lawyer from Maine, was made the chief of the Treasury Department's Revenue Marine Division. Kimbell ordered an immediate overhaul of the lifesaving system. Henceforth there were to be crews of paid surfmen wherever they were needed, and for as long as they were needed. Boats were standardized. Regulations, station routines, and performance standards were established. There were even physical standards to be met.

By 1875, the network extended from Maine to Florida. In 1878, the service was organized as a separate agency of the Treasury Department and named the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Kimbell became General Superintendent, and stayed there until 1914.

The Service was composed of three types of stations. Lifesaving Stations were set up at need, usually during the winter, sometimes year-round, and consisted of a 700 or 1000-pound surf-boat, a Lyle gun and breeches buoy for firing a line out to a stranded vessel and hauling victims ashore, hand-drawn carts for the transport along the beach of the aforementioned, and a gung-ho crew.

Surfmen also patrolled remote beaches day and night in all weather. In 1899 alone, surfmen with Coston flares warned off 143 ships in danger of running aground.

In October of that year, North Carolina surfman Rasmus Midgett came upon a ship rapidly disintegrating on an offshore bar. Not having time to assemble the remainder of the team, Midgett singlehandedly saved the entire ten-man crew, swimming out to the wreck again and again and bringing back one man each trip.

Joshua James, a Hull, Massachusetts surfman, saved more than 600 lives, earning his first medal for heroism at age 23. On March 19, 1902, he took his crew out for practice during a storm. James drilled his men virtually every day and in all weather. Just two days earlier most of the crew of the Monomoy Point Life-Saving Station had died in a rescue attempt and James understood that only incessant practice enabled the relatively light surf-boats to bring home crew and victims alike.

After an hour of steering the boat in and out of rough surf he beached the boat, climbed out and looked seaward, told his men, "The tide is ebbing," and fell dead at their feet. He was 75 and his crew buried him sitting at the tiller of his beloved surf-boat.

Along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Houses of Refuge were established. These had a keeper and small boat, but did not attempt active lifesaving measures. They were to provide succor to mariners who managed to reach shore in desolate areas. The last house of refuge still standing is located at Gilbert's Bar, on Hutchinson Island near Stuart, Florida. It's now part of a larger museum, and doubles as a sea turtle hatchery — still providing refuge for another type of mariner.

Life-boat Stations were located in or near port cities. The two-to-four-ton life-boats were regarded by their crews with awe. Based upon a Royal Lifeboat Society of England design, they were self-righting and self-bailing. The seven-man crew (six oarsmen and a tillerman) entered the boat while it was still inside the shed. Then someone with a mallet knocked away a restraining chock, the boat shot down a railway and into the water, and the crew pulled for their lives with 12- to 18-foot oars. Practice sessions usually drew a crowd of admiring townspeople, and rescues drew the admiration of correspondents.

" It seemed impossible for a boat to live in such a sea," wrote a witness to the rescue of the crew of the English brig Kate Upham in 1880. "On every hand the sea was breaking, and the life-boat, with her noble crew, seemed but the sport of the angry waves; one moment hidden in the trough of the sea, the next borne rapidly on a vast comber toward the ill-fated brig. While I could but admire the spirit that prompted the daring men to risk their lives, it seemed a suicidal attempt. By almost superhuman efforts they reached the brig and saved the crew of eleven men."

Some attempts were suicidal; many surfmen died over the years. But their motto, "You have to go out; you don't have to come back," backed by rigorous training and tough equipment, saw them through more often than not.

In 1915, Sumner Kimbell oversaw the merger of his beloved Life-Saving Service back into the U.S. Revenue Cutter System, creating the U.S. Coast Guard. The Life-Saving Service had, in its forty-four years of existence, gone to the help of 28,121 vessels and rescued 178,741 persons. They had failed to save just 1,455 imperiled lives, less than one percent.

In his biography of Joshua James, Sumner Kimbell described the men of the Life-Saving Service:

"They are hardly known to their countrymen living inland; but to the inhabitants of the coast they are well known indeed! To the latter, when the hurricane or the chilling winter storm is driving their helpless craft into danger and possible destruction, or when the fog envelopes them for days at a time, the assurance that a practically continuous line of keen-eyed and sleepless sentinels march and countermarch along the surf-beaten beaches or stand guard with warning signals in hand upon the jutting cliffs, lends a comfortable sense of security."

— end —

Copyright, Stephen Morrill


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