This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
The principle of regional control of the U.S. Coast Guard stemmed from three federal maritime agencies. These agencies were the U.S. Lighthouse Service, U.S. Lifesaving Service and U.S. Navy.
The Coast Guard’s original predecessor service of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service did not rely on a regional system. Established by Alexander Hamilton, the first fleet of cutters were stationed at 10 seaports along the Atlantic Coast. Control of the revenue cutters came from the local customs collector who received his orders from the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. This system of control by local customs collectors remained in place for much of the 19th century.
Established in 1789, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was the first agency to develop a district system to administer its lighthouses and buoy depots. On June 7, 1838, Congress established six Lighthouse Service districts on the Atlantic Coast and two on the Great Lakes. This number increased as the nation expanded westward and acquired Alaska and Hawaii. The Lighthouse Service relied on this basic district system until its absorption by the Coast Guard in 1939.
In 1878, Congress established the U.S. Life Saving Service led by agency head Sumner Kimball. Under Kimball, the service devised a unique district system to administer its network of boat stations. By 1881, the Life Saving Service had 183 stations organized into 12 districts. These districts included District 1 (Maine and New Hampshire), District 2 (Massachusetts), District 3 (Rhode Island and Long Island), District 4 (New Jersey), District 5 (Cape Henlopen to Cape Charles), District 6 (Cape Henry to Cape Hatteras), District 7 (eastern Florida), District 8 (Gulf Coast), District 9 (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario), District 10 (Lake Huron and Lake Superior), District 11 (Lake Michigan), and District 12 (Pacific Coast).
In 1915, Congress signed legislation merging the Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service into the modern Coast Guard. Kimball and Revenue Cutter Service Captain Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf engineered the transition of the two services into one agency with the Lifesaving Service district system adopted service-wide. This system remained in place for the next two decades, even though the district borders and names were modified over time. For example, the original District 1 and parts of District 3 were combined into the new Boston District. Other districts included the Norfolk District and the New York District. During the 1930s, under the direction of Russell Waesche, later Coast Guard commandant, the service instituted an “Area” command structure layered over the districts with an Eastern Area, Western Area, Northern Area and Southern Area. This tiered system formed the basis of the organizational model used today by the Coast Guard.
During the 1800s, the U.S. Navy organized its shore establishment around its navy yards to defend them against outside attack. On the East Coast, navy yards were located in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Charleston. From the Civil War through the 1898 Spanish-American War, naval authorities increasingly feared attack from the sea and interest grew in systematizing shore installations to defend against such an attack. On May 7, 1903, the Navy established a naval district organization based on the system used by the Lighthouse Service. Each naval district came under the command of a senior officer or commandant.
In November 1941, with war clouds forming on the horizon, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Navy. After the war began, in 1942, the Coast Guard adopted the Navy’s district system, which was based on the old Lighthouse Service model. Thus, the service transitioned from a district system based on the Lifesaving Service model to the Navy’s numbered district system based on the Lighthouse Service model. By 1944, Coast Guard districts had been re-aligned and each district’s numeric designation established. The service incorporated 14 naval districts with the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and the Panama Canal Zone, each constituting a separate district.
After World War II, the Coast Guard retained the Area system with the districts layered underneath. The districts were each overseen by a flag officer who held authority over all Coast Guard operations and activities in each district. With slight modifications, this is the organizational model retained by the service today. These modifications included the consolidation of the four areas to just an Eastern Area and Western Area. In January 1973, these two areas were renamed Atlantic Area and Pacific Area, respectively.
Other modifications have included district consolidations. By 1987, district mergers had diminished the number of Coast Guard districts to 10. On May 30, 1996, districts 8 and 2 (Western Rivers) were combined to form a larger District 8. As a result, the Coast Guard’s current district organization numbers nine districts, including District 1 (Boston), District 5 (Portsmouth, Virginia), District 7 (Miami), District 8 (New Orleans), District 9 (Cleveland), District 11 (Alameda, California), District 13 (Seattle), District 14 (Honolulu), and District 17 (Juneau, Alaska).
The U.S. Coast Guard has experienced continuous growth in its geographic area of responsibility and its adoption of a number of maritime agencies. This continuous change has demanded remarkable flexibility of the Coast Guard. The service has lived up to its motto Semper Paratus by adapting and evolving to meet these ever-changing organizational changes.