The men of the United States Life Saving Service, and various private
benevolent societies such as the Massachusetts Humane Society, played a
vital role in America's maritime heyday. These men -- volunteers at
first, later part-time federal employees -- braved terrific storms lashing
the nation's coastlines to rescue crews and passengers from wrecked ships.
The hours were long, the work difficult and incredibly dangerous -- many
lifesavers became victims themselves -- but these men are often forgotten
Haze Gray Photo Feature
"That Others Might Live"
This feature presents various pictures of the lifesavers' equipment,
lifesavers in action, and some of the nation's most famous lifesavers.
For more information, visit the U.S.
Life-Saving Service Heritage Association
The Men and the Equipment
A typical Lifesaving Station.
Most U.S. Life Saving Service facilities were built to similar designs;
this is Station Deer Park, Michigan. Stations were manned by 7 surfmen
(6 of whom are seen here) and a keeper, who was responsible for all aspects
of the station's operation. Although the stations were only manned in
winter, the keeper was responsible for mustering a volunteer crew and
carrying out the rescue in the event of a summer shipwreck.
The loneliest job -- beach patrol.
Surfmen maintained beach patrols 24 hours a day during storms, and in
hours of darkness during calm weather. Surfmen would walk patrols
of at least 5 miles round trip, and sometimes up to 10 miles. In the event
of a wreck, the surfman on beach patrol would light his flare to let the ship
know they had been spotted, then rush back to the station to give the alarm.
In pre-telephone days, the dash back to the station seriously slowed the
rescuers, but there was an odd resistance to giving beach patrols horses
so they could make haste more quickly. In populated areas beach patrols
often enlisted the assistance of residents to speed word of a wreck, but
in isolated areas they simply had to trek back to the station.
Time did not always allow for the surfman to return to the station for help.
Surfman R. S. Midgett, walking beach patrol from a North Carolina station,
single handedly rescued 10 people from a ship wrecked some three miles
from the station. Although he was on horseback and thus could return to
the station quickly, beach conditions would have held up arrival of
the lifesavers for hours. Realizing there was only one hope for the
crew, Midgett dashed into the surf 10 times, each time
bringing back one of the ship's crew. The last three trips were made
carrying injured members of the crew. Although the keeper thought his
actions did not warrant special recognition, he received the Gold Life Saving
Medal and became one of the Life Saving Service's, and later the Coast
Guard's, most celebrated figures.
The lifesavers' mainstay -- the surfboat.
Surfmen from Station Manomet Point, Plymouth, Mass. pull towards
a ship stranded offshore. Three men from this station were lost when
their boat capsized during the first attempt to reach the stranded ship,
which was in no danger of breaking up. This picture was shot after
the storm had subsided.
When surfboats won't do -- the Breeches Buoy.
When ships were too close to shore for surfboat rescue, or when seas
were too high to launch the boats, the breeches buoy was used. A heavy
line was passed out to the ship, a sort of "life-ring with trousers" was
hung beneath it, and people were brought in from the ship one at a time.
The beach apparatus associated with the breeches buoy was complex and
cumbersome, but many times it was the only way.
In this view most of the beach gear is laid out: at left rear are the
shovels and pick used to dig in the sand anchor, the crossed wooden boards
directly in front of the shovels. The sand anchor secured the inshore end of
the main hawser. The cannon-like device is the Lyle gun, used to shoot
a line out to the stricken ship. Its shot is the cylinder leaning against
the wooden box; the box holds the shotline itself. The spike-like devices
were used to coil the shotline so it would run freely when the gun was fired.
The lightweight line running under the sand anchor is the whip line, used
to haul the breeches buoy back and forth from ship to shore. The heavy line
run through blocks in the center foreground was used to tension the main
hawser. The A-frame-like wooden timbers at right are the crutch used to
support the inshore end of the hawser. Atop the crutch is the breeches
buoy itself; the main hawser runs through the block resting atop the buoy.
All this equipment, along with the hundreds of feet of line required for
the setup, were carried on a beach cart. This cart was usually drawn by
the lifesavers themselves, but sometimes a horse was employed. Dragging
the cart to the scene of the shipwreck could be the worst part of the
The breeches buoy in action.
At center is the crutch supporting the main hawser, which disappears
seaward. The sand anchor is out of view to the right. The buoy itself
appears to be out aboard the ship.
Joshua James, Keeper of Station Point Allerton, the nation's most
James joined a Massachusetts Humane Society volunteer crew in 1842, at
age 15. In 1876 he became keeper of four volunteer stations along
the Hull, Mass. coastline. In 1889, at the age of 62, he became the
first keeper of the USLSS station at Point Allerton (Hull), Mass. He was
then 17 years "too old" by USLSS standards, but an exception was made for
an exceptional man.
On November 25-26, 1888 he and his crew rescued 29 people from five ships.
During the great Portland Gale of 1898, he saved 20 people from six
ships, despite seas so large the surfboats could not be launched along
the open shore. During the time he was keeper of the Point Allerton
station, 86 vessels were wrecked along his shoreline.
Massachusetts Humane Society surfboat Nantasket and Joshua James.
Nantasket was a truly huge surfboat, built for the exceptionally
rough seas around Hull, the shoreline just to the south of then-busy
Boston Harbor. Contrary to U.S.L.S.S. practice, the boat is drawn by a
team of horses, due to its great weight. This boat and its station
survive to this day, preserved as the Hull Lifesaving Museum. The cart
in the foreground carries breeches buoy gear.
Joshua James and his U.S. Lifesaving Service crew.
With the coming of the U.S.L.S.S., the equipment changed. The boat in
the foreground is a standard U.S.L.S.S. surfboat, considerably smaller
than Nantasket. In the rear is a Beebe surfboat, a lightweight boat
meant for distant rescues where transportation of the boat became a major
issue. The three small carts carry breeches buoy gear.
The entire 8-man station crew is seen here. The men hauled the boats
and beach carts themselves, although horses were often volunteered,
borrowed, stolen, commandeered or otherwise employed to haul the boats
and gear when long distances were involved. Word of a shipwreck usually
brought volunteers running, often with horses to assist in moving the carts.
Since the station crew could haul the breeches buoy or the boat, but not
both, it was left to volunteers, or the crew from a distant station, to
follow along with whatever the first crew couldn't drag.
Joshua James and crew pose in Station Point Allerton.
The equipment of their trade is well displayed. The gentleman on
the keeper's left holds the breeches buoy; men in the rear hold flares.
At far left is the lantern used to light beach operations; this was
often supplemented by large bonfires. The Lyle gun is at the keeper's
feet. Hanging behind the flag is a lifecar, an enclosed variant on
the breeches buoy concept. The station and the gear are today maintained
in functioning condition by the Hull Lifesaving Museum.
Joshua James goes to his grave in a lifeboat.
On March 17, 1902, tragedy struck the Monomoy Point (Mass.) station
when all but one of their crew died in a rescue attempt. This disaster
is said to have affected Joshua James deeply, and two days later he
called his crew out for an extra drill, despite a northeast gale. At
the conclusion of the drill, after the boat was landed, James looked
at the surf, said "The tide is ebbing", and fell dead, aged 75 years.
His last journey through the streets of Hull was in this lifeboat.
Although the U.S. Lifesaving Service is long gone, its legacy lives
on in the form of U.S. Coast Guard small craft designed specifically
for surf rescue operations.
A U.S. Coast Guard 30 foot motor surfboat in heavy breaking seas.
Modern successor to U.S.L.S.S's light, fast surfboats, these craft can dash
into the surf, make a rescue, and get clear before larger craft
can even arrive.
A USCG 44 foot motor lifeboat crossing a bar.
These "unsinkable" lifeboats are successors to the big, heavy, reliable
lifeboats of the Humane Societies and the U.S.L.S.S. Capable of operating
under unbelievably rough conditions, these boats can roll 360 degrees in
any direction and right themselves. In 30 years of service, only two
of these craft have ever been wrecked, and there have been but three
fatalities among "44" crews.
The new 47 foot motor lifeboat.
Successor to the venerable 44 footer, these boats promise to be twice
as fast as the "44's", and they will be twice as seaworthy.
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