CDR Timothy R. Dring, U.S. Navy Reserve (retired)
U.S. Lifesaving Service Heritage Association, member
As it has for other enlisted heroes, the United States Coast Guard will be commissioning a new Fast Response Cutter in honor of William Chadwick, recipient of the Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal. This essay tells the story of Chadwick, including his life, his service in the United States Lifesaving Service and his famous rescue of the George Taulane, which pitted man against Mother Nature.
William P. Chadwick was born in 1830 in Dover, New Jersey. Chadwick’s ancestors emigrated from Great Britain prior to the American Revolution and were among the earliest settlers in New Jersey. The Chadwicks eventually settled along the coastline near the Manasquan River. Members of the family served with distinction during the Revolutionary War on the side of the patriots in nearly all battles fought in the state. Well before the creation of the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1878, the Chadwicks became known as watermen in the Barnegat Bay area.
In February 1854, Chadwick married Anne Maxson, daughter of wreckmaster John Maxson. Maxson was a local hero who had led a team of volunteers to rescue survivors of the British sailing ship Ayrshirein in 1850. This rescue was the first successful use of lifesaving equipment provided by the Federal Government in un-manned boathouses along the New Jersey coastline. Chadwick and his wife had nine children, three of whom died in infancy.
In October 1868, likely due to his work with local shipwrecks and his experience as a local waterman, Chadwick was appointed a station keeper. He became keeper of the Green Island Lifesaving Station, one of New Jersey’s un-manned rescue boathouses. Up until 1855, the station had been in the charge of his father-in-law John Maxson. After Maxson died in 1855, until his official appointment in 1868, Chadwick had served as the station’s unpaid keeper. Chadwick was well qualified for the role of keeper as noted in an 1874 report by Third Lifesaving Service District Superintendent William Ware to Treasury Secretary William Richardson. Ware described Chadwick as an “accomplished surfman and strictly attentive to duty.” During the winter season of 1870-1871, for the first time, surfmen were enrolled to serve with Keeper Chadwick at the Green Island Station.
Like most New Jersey lifesaving stations, Green Island was equipped with standard lifesaving equipment. This included a 26-foot pulling surfboat transported on a two-axle boat wagon. The station gear also included a lifecar and a single axle beach cart equipped with everything needed to rig the beach apparatus, including a breeches buoy. Since the station was not provided with a horse, all of this equipment had to be hauled to stranded vessels by the surfmen tethered to the wagon with rope slings. At that time, there were no roads, which meant that the equipment had to be dragged over dunes, and through wet sand or dry powdery sand.
On February 3, 1880, 140 years ago, Chadwick and his crew of surfmen engaged in a battle to save the lives of mariners at the mercy of Mother Nature. This extreme test of their skills and endurance began with the grounding of the American-flagged schooner George Taulaneon a sandbar located a few miles north of the station. The schooner had been sailing from Virginia to New York with a cargo of wood and a crew of the captain and six men.
The George Taulane arrived off of the Highlands of Navesink, New Jersey, just below the entrance to New York Harbor. However, a severe nor’easter caused the Taulane’s cargo to shift and somehow catch fire. Although the burning cargo was successfully thrown overboard and the vessel’s anchors set, the damaged vessel began to drift southward along the shore. The Taulane initially ran aground on a sandbar about two miles south of the Mantoloking Station, which was the next station north of Chadwick’s Green Island Station.
Spotted by both the Mantoloking and Green Island station lookouts, Keeper Chadwick and his crew quickly responded. They hauled the beach cart up the beach to the wreck and met the surfmen from the Mantoloking Station. The heavy seas jerked the Taulane off the first sandbar and forced it south down the shoreline killing two crewmembers in the process. Despite dangerous waist-deep surf along the beach and wet quicksand slowing their progress, the two lifesaving crews under Chadwick’s command moved south to keep up with the schooner.
The men fought to move the lifesaving equipment equipment through the waves and soft sand, stopping periodically to set-up their Lyle Gun and fire a shotline out to the drifting vessel. Large pieces of the schooner’s hull and superstructure began breaking off, coming ashore and wounding the rescuers, including Chadwick. Finally, a team of horses was volunteered to pull the beach cart along. Regardless, it was difficult to keep up with the drifting schooner. At one point, the heavy surf overturned the station’s beach cart dumping the Lyle Gun into five feet of water. The small cannon was recovered, but had to be hand-carried from then on.
On the sixth attempt, a shotline was successfully attached to the Taulane. By that time, the schooner had settled over a mile south of the Green Island Station. A breeches buoy was rigged, but the rolling of the schooner required a team of men to pull on the hawser to maintain tension. Fortunately, local volunteers joined the two station crews to add enough muscle power to keep the hawser taught. Meanwhile, the lifesavers operated the whiplines of the beach apparatus to pull the breeches buoy back and forth saving the five desperate survivors.
The fight to save the crew of the George Taulane took Keeper Chadwick and his crew over six hours. During that time, Chadwick’s lifesavers fought high winds, heavy rain, dangerous surf laced with wreckage, and sheer exhaustion. The battle with Mother Nature for the poor souls desperately clinging to life on the Taulane stretched over three miles of waist-high water and soggy sand. Based on their review of the rescue report, the Lifesaving Service deemed Keeper Chadwick, both station crews and volunteer lifesavers worthy of the Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal.
William Chadwick remained Green Island Station’s keeper until August 1886, when he retired. In retirement, he remained active in the local community and was highly respected for his Lifesaving Service achievements. Chadwick lived out his days in Southern New Jersey, passing away in 1914, just shy of his 84th birthday. His two sons and extended family carried on the family tradition serving in the Lifesaving Service and Coast Guard in the years leading up to World War II.