History – Milestones of the U.S. Life-Saving Service

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Post Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian

Life-Saving Station crew
A U.S. Life-Saving Station crew pulls a Monomoy surf boat on it's beach trailer. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard history has been shaped in no small part by the nation’s response to natural and man-made disasters. Nowhere is that lesson clearer than in the evolution of the service’s search and rescue mission. Interestingly, many milestones in the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service took place in the month of December. This was due in part to the heavy loss of life resulting from severe weather experienced during the autumn and early winter.

Life-Saving Station crew
The crew of the Vermillion Point Life-Saving Station in July 1914. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A series of marine accidents that befell the East Coast beginning in 1837 highlighted the need for a formal search and rescue organization. That year, the Barque Mexico came ashore near New York Harbor with the loss of over 100 passengers and crew. This tragedy is what led Congress to recognize the need for government assistance to vessels in distress. On December 22, Congress passed legislation assigning naval vessels and, later, Revenue Cutter Service vessels the responsibility for patrolling during severe weather and aiding ships in distress.

Two major maritime disasters in 1854 led Congress to enact one of the most sweeping bills in the history of the Life-Saving Service. In April, more than two hundred lives were lost when the Powhattan wrecked off the New Jersey shore and, in November, nearly 220 lives were lost when the New Era also came ashore. These incidents demonstrated flaws in earlier lifesaving legislation – legislation which provided funding to build and furnish lifesaving stations, but left the facilities manned by disorganized groups of local volunteers that were untrained and unreliable during severe weather.

Life-Saving Service Superintendents
U.S. Life-Saving Service Superintendents around 1898-1901. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Station Chatham website.

In response to this horrific loss of life, Congress passed what came to be known as the Act of December 15, 1854. This act greatly expanded the ability of the federal government to support lifesaving operations. It allowed for the construction of new stations along the New Jersey and Long Island coasts and a superintendent for both districts to oversee their operation. Furthermore, it provided upgrades necessary to existing stations and their gear. Most importantly, it funded the appointment of a salaried keeper for each station. These paid keepers were responsible for maintaining the stations, their boats and gear; as well as training volunteers. And these keepers led the volunteer crews in carrying out rescue operations and responding to vessels in distress.

The late summer and early winter of 1870 proved a deadly season for ships in U.S. waters. Storms and severe weather swept the Great Lakes and East Coast, blowing ashore numerous ships with the loss of countless lives. These fatalities pointed to the need for further improvements in the government’s effort to prevent loss of life in marine accidents.

Sumner I. Kimball
Sumner I. Kimball

George S. Boutwell, Treasury Secretary under President U.S. Grant, responded in part by appointing a qualified superintendent to oversee a Revenue Marine Division which included steamboat inspection, marine hospitals and lifesaving stations. By December 1870, Secretary Boutwell had in mind a skillful manager and administrator named Sumner Kimball. Appointed in February 1, 1871, Kimball oversaw the expansion of the lifesaving station network from the Long Island and New Jersey to encompassing the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and all of the East Coast. His appointment initiated a rapid expansion of the government’s lifesaving service and, in 1878, he oversaw the formal establishment of the U.S. Life-Saving Service as a separate agency within the Treasury Department.

The marine accidents listed above are but a few of many that helped shape the U.S. Life-Saving Service. After its official founding in 1878, the service would continue to experience growing pains, but the shipwrecks and maritime disasters that helped start the service would continue to help shape its development into an effective shore-based search and rescue organization. And, in much the same way, marine accidents would help shape other Coast Guard missions, such as marine safety, marine environmental protection, law enforcement and several others.

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