Return to Life Saving Service


1848 – 28 January 1915

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large sections of the United States’ eastern seaboard were sparsely populated. The crew of any ship running aground could expect very little, if any, help. As maritime trade increased, so did the demand for assistance for those wrecked near the shore.

The concept of assistance to shipwrecked mariners from shore-based stations began with volunteer lifesaving services. It was recognized that only small boats stood a chance in assisting those close to the beach. The Massachusetts Humane Society founded the first lifeboat station at Cohassett, Massachusetts. The stations were small shed-like structures, holding rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. The stations, however, were only near the approaches to busy ports and large gaps of coastline remained without lifesaving equipment.

In 1848, the government entered the lifesaving business. The Revenue Marine was tasked with operating stations in New Jersey. Lack of funding and the Civil War doomed this early Federal attempt and stations deteriorated into uselessness.

In 1871, Sumner Increase Kimball, a young lawyer from Maine, was appointed the chief of the Revenue Marine. He sent Captain John Faunce on an inspection of the lifesaving network and was appalled by the report. Kimball convinced Congress to set aside money for improvements.

In 1874, the stations were expanded to include the coast of Maine and ten locations south of Cape Henry, Virginia, including the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The next year, the network expanded to include the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia peninsula, the Great Lakes, and the coast of Florida. Eventually, the Gulf and West Coasts would be included, as well as one station at Nome, Alaska.

In 1878 the growing network of lifesaving stations was finally organized as a separate agency of the Treasury Department and named the US Life-Saving Service. Sumner I. Kimball was chosen as the General Superintendent of the Service, a position he held for 37 years.

The first stations consisted of one building that housed everything. The early buildings were strictly utilitarian. By the 1880s, stations were becoming more fashionable and usually were made up of two or three structures. The main building contained the offices, boat house, and berthing area for the crew. It usually had a lookout tower on the roof. Some were built to resemble a Swiss chalet and one was even designed with a clock tower. By the 1890s, the architect A. B. Bibb designed stations that looked much like beach resort homes with lookout towers.

The first choice for a rescue was the lifeboat. The Service’s boats were either a 700 to 1,000 pound, self-bailing, self-righting surfboat pulled by six surfmen with twelve to eighteen foot oars, or a two to four ton lifeboat. The surfboat could be pulled on a cart by crewmen, or horses, to a site near a wreck and then launched into the surf. The lifeboat, following a design originated in England, could be fitted with sails for work further offshore and was used in very heavy weather. Some crews, at first, viewed the lifeboat with skepticism because of its great weight and bulk. The skepticism soon changed and crews began to regard it as “something almost supernatural,” for it enabled them to provide assistance “when the most powerful tugs and steam-craft refused to go out of the harbor. …”

When a ship wrecked close to shore and the seas were too rough for boats, a life car would be used. The life car looked like a tiny, primitive submarine. A Lyle gun, which looked like a small canon, was used to propel a small messenger line up to 600 yards to the ship. Using the messenger line, the ship’s crew would haul a heavy hawser to the ship and secure it. Once the line was secure, the life car could be pulled back and forth between the wreck and the safety of the shore. The life car could be hauled over, through, or even under the seas. After the hatch in the top of the car was sealed, there was enough air within the device to accommodate eleven people for three minutes.

As those in distress evolved from crowded immigrant packets with many on board to small commercial schooners with less than a dozen on board, the life car was widely replaced by the breeches buoy. A breeches buoy resembles a life preserver ring with canvas pants attached. It could be pulled out to the ship by pulleys, enabling the endangered sailor to step into the life ring and pants and then be pulled to safety much more easily than the heavier life car. A beach apparatus cart carried all the equipment needed to rig the breeches buoy and could be pulled by the crew or horses to the wreck site.

Stations were originally manned by a Keeper and six to eight surfmen. Later, the crew was increased to at least ten men.

The rescues performed by the men of the USLSS captured the attention of nineteenth century America. The sight of a keeper standing erect in the stern of his small boat, grasping his sweep oar, urging on his men at their oars as the boat rose and fell in high surf, could cause a reporter to write exciting copy. Terms such as “soldiers of the surf” and “storm warriors” were used to describe the lifesavers.

The LSS regulations stated, “In attempting a rescue the keeper will select either the boat, breeches buoy, or life car, as in his judgment is best suited to effectively cope with the existing conditions. If the device first selected fails after such trial as satisfies him that no further attempt with it is feasible, he will resort to one of the others, and if that fails, then to the remaining one, and he will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial the impossibility of effecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast–as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc.–is such as to unquestionable preclude the use of a boat.”

A legend was born at Hatteras Station in 1885. Patrick Etheridge was Assistant Station Keeper at Hatteras Station. A ship was stranded off Cape Hatteras on the Diamond Shoals. The Keeper gave the command to man the lifeboat. One of the men shouted “we might make it out to the wreck but we would never make it back.” Etheridge looked around and said, “The Blue Book says we’ve got to go out and it doesn’t say a damn thing about having to come back.”

The men did perform amazing rescues, but by far the largest amount of work for the crews revolved around drilling with the rescue equipment, patrol and lookout duty, and general station upkeep. This was, and still is, called hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.

During the daylight hours, a surfman was assigned to scan the nearby water areas from the lookout tower. No seats were kept in the tower in order to prevent inattention to duty. At night, or when the weather grew foul, the surfmen performed beach patrols. Surfmen carried a pouch of coston signals. The coston signal was much like a flare and was used to warn ships that were approaching too close to the beach, or to let grounded ships know that they had been spotted and help was on the way. In 1899 surfmen burning coston signals warned off 143 ships in danger of running aground. In October of the same year, Surfman Rasmus Midgett, of the Gull Shoals, North Carolina, Station, accomplished the amazing feat of rescuing ten people single-handedly from the wrecked Priscilla while on patrol.

The greatest days of the Service covered the ten years from 1871 to 1881. These were the years of its greatest growth and some of its greatest rescues were performed luring this period.

The service also looked at new territories. Life Saving stations were usually established in areas known to be treacherous to ships. The nature of shipping, terrain and weather in the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii dictated that the islands would have no stations. Alaska met all the requirements of terrain and weather, but for many years the amount of shipping did not warrant the establishment of stations. The Alaskan gold rush drew thousands of fortune-seekers to the town of Nome. Nome’s offshore anchorage provided no shelter and is extremely shallow, so passengers and freight had to be transferred to shore from two miles out by small boats. This eventually led to the establishment of a Life Saving station there in 1905. This station marked the northern-most of all units in the service. Keeper Thomas A. Ross and his crew of surfmen performed lookout duties and beach patrols. The surfmen rescued people from ice floes, grounded ships and capsized boats. The lifesavers also helped the local fire department fight fires. The surfmen performed other humanitarian services. Between 1918 and 1919, a devastating influenza epidemic swept Alaska. Keeper Ross sent a dog sled with surfman Levi Edward Ashton and driver Anders Peter Brandt, to Cape Prince of Wales and other villages with medicine and supplies. The two men were gone for almost two months.

The twentieth century saw the advent of steam power and advanced navigation techniques. Shipping lanes moved further offshore and ships were in less danger of grounding. Recreational boating became popular. The structure of the LSS did not allow it to adapt to the new demand. Further, there was no retirement system for the aging surfmen.

These pressures, and pressures on the Revenue Cutter Service, led to an agreement to merge the two services (ironic because the LSS was originally part of the RCS). The law which created the US Coast Guard, on 28 January 1915, by combining the two services, also provided for the retirement of Kimball and many of the older keepers and surfmen. The US Life-Saving Service performed nobly over its forty-four years of existence. During this period, 28,121 vessels and 178,741 persons became involved with its services. Only 1,455 individuals lost their lives while exposed within the scope of Life-Saving Service operations.