U.S. Life-Saving Service

A Life-Saving Service crew and their horse pull their equipment to the water’s edge.

“Here are people who have been on the ocean for a week at least, no land seen, and nothing seen on the coast yet but the red light on shore, in trouble now, in danger of their lives, and here comes a man from the unseen world, in a pair of short canvas trousers, riding on a rope, to tell them of the succor near and bid them be of good heart.”

— William Drysdale, November 16, 1890.

On July 28, 1988, President Ronald Reagan spoke to representatives from the Future Farmers of America in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. About five minutes into his speech, Reagan told his audience, “There seems to be an increasing awareness of something we Americans have known for some time: that the 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’” (Cue laughter.)

The anti-government, pro-market politicians may be having a field day with this famous quote today, particularly in light of the Affordable Care Act. But for more than 177,000 people who were rescued by the U.S. Life-Saving Services between 1871 and 1915, those 10 words were a gift from the heavens above.

Life-Saving Services

In a storm, any ship stranded on a sandbar usually fell to pieces within a few hours, leaving a swim to shore the only chance for survival. But few people could survive in 40-degree turbulent waters. Even if a few sailors managed to reach the beach in winter, they stood a good chance of perishing from exposure on the largely uninhabited shore.

The U.S. Life-Saving Services (USLSS) – a forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard — was established by Congress in 1871 in response to the high loss of life in ship wrecks along America’s coastlines, particularly on the Atlantic coast. Not only were thousands of people killed in wrecks, but survivors often succumbed to their injuries because there was no one to help them. Many survivors also fell prey to pirates who would rob and attack them.

Sumner Increase Kimball  General Superintendent USLSS

Sumner Increase Kimball, a young lawyer from Maine, was appointed General Superintendent of the USLSS in 1871. He remained the only General Superintendent: The law which created the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915 also provided for his retirement.

By 1880, the USLSS had 183 live-saving stations: 7 along the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire; 15 in Massachusetts; 37 along the coasts of Rhode Island and Long Island; 40 in New Jersey; 44 south of Cape May, N.J. and in the Gulf; 34 on the Great Lakes; and 6 along the Pacific Coast. In its ninth year of operations, the USLSS responded to 250 ship disasters in which 1,854 people were rescued and only 24 lives were lost.

USLSS Life Car

In 1842, Boston inventor Joseph Francis invented the corrugated metallic life car. The first life car was placed on the coast of New Jersey, near Long Branch, in the autumn of 1849. It was first called into use in January 1850, when the British emigrant vessel Ayrshire was wrecked on Squan Beach near Manasquan in a violent winter storm. Of the 201 persons on board, 200 were saved by the life car. Unfortunately, few stations had access to these boats because Congress had not provided enough funding to provide for the horses that were needed to haul the two-ton vessels.

A Day in the Life of a Surfman
Each life-saving station was manned by a crew of surfmen who lived at the station for eight to ten months a year (usually from November to April, which was called the “active season”). Station surfmen were paid $40 a month; the keeper, also known to the men as the captain, was employed all year and paid $400. These men patrolled the shores either on foot or on horseback to look for ships that were in distress or coming too close to shore. When faced with an ocean rescue situation their motto was, “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”

USLSS Surfmen

In this photo, the two surfmen in center bury the sand anchor, the surfman at right carries the breeches buoy and a support for the hawser, and the other three haul in the line that has been shot over the vessel.

In the Spring 1992 issue of Naval History, Lieutenant Commander Robert V. Hulse of the Coast Guard vividly describes the typical duties of a surfman and his 16-year-old horse, Bill, at Blue Point Station on Fire Island. Commander Hulse worked at this station in the 1930s, shortly after the USLSS and the Revenue Cutter Service merged together to form the Coast Guard.

USLSS crew with three-horse hitch

A 7-member USLSS crew with a rare three-horse hitch, 1910.

“Sitting atop the roof of each two-storied lifesaving station was an observation tower. There a lookout was stationed during the daylight hour to note in his log every vessel that passed. He had a pair of binoculars as well as a spyglass to aid in his observations. Once night had fallen, foot patrols would start out from each station to keep a watchful eye on any ship passing by. If we saw red and green running lights too clearly, it usually indicated that the vessel had strayed in too close to shore. If the ship kept on her present course she was bound to plow right into the outer sandbar.

LSS Surfman uses a Coston flare

If a ship came too close to shore, a surfman would strike his red Coston flare against a rock, which could be seen for 20 miles. The flare warned the captain that he was too close and alerted the station crew of a pending disaster.

In such a case you had to quickly haul a Coston flare out of your knapsack. A few seconds sufficed to twist off the outer cover and ignite the light. You held it aloft so that the reddish-orange glow would clearly be seen out at sea. The signal burned for a good five minutes. Its clear message was: “You are coming in too close to shore. Change course immediately. You are in danger.”

Rushing topside to the crew’s dormitory, you go from bunk to bunk to wake up your shipmates. A minute later and you are outside putting the harness over old Bill. Rolling the cart out of the boathouse is easy. Just ahead, however, is deep, loose sand, and all eight surfmen are now positioned on either side of the cart to keep it moving forward. Poor old Bill would never be able to drag it over to the water’s edge without such help. The surfboat weighs a good thousand pounds, and that’s not counting the gear.

A Life-Saving crew

A Life-Saving crew with their surfboat on a carriage and a team of horses participate in a parade, circa 1900.

Finally, you and your mates have drawn abreast of the shipwreck. The rescue attempt is about to begin. Captain Bennett, of course, is in total command; many lives depend on his experience and judgment.

Carefully, you help slide the surfboat off the cart into the freezing cold water swirling around your feet. Captain Bennett is studying the sea. It is he who must decide on the most propitious moment to launch. You and the others are knee-deep in the numbing cold water, steadying the surfboat whose bow is pointed straight out into that ugly, unforgiving ocean. After a split second more of appraisal, your gruff old skipper suddenly roars out, “All right, men, let’s go!”

U.S. Life-Saving Services surfmen

1896: The Wreck of English Steamship Lamington
In the 19th century, the number of ships that wrecked along the beaches and sandbars of Fire Island were almost countless. Raging gales drove ships of every type and nation onto the outer bar, some never to return to the sea again.

On February 4, 1896, the English steamship Lamington, with a cargo of fruit from Valencia, Spain, forged at full speed through the dense fog into the sand bar of Great South Beach, two miles east of the Blue Point Life Saving Station. Jetur Rose Payne, the number-one surfman at Blue Point, saw the lights of the ship at 8 p.m. as he was returning from the sundown patrol. The ship was moving too fast, though, and it crashed before he could warn the ship’s captain. Payne ran to the station and notified Captain Frank Rorke and the crew. A telephone message was also sent for assistance to the Bellport, Long Hill, and Patchogue stations.

Lyle Gun

The Lyle rescue gun is named after its inventor, U.S. Army Colonel David A. Lyle (West Point Class of 1869). A line was fastened to a weighted projectile and shot from the gun toward the ship in distress. The sailors would grab the line as it passed over the ship, and use the line to pull out the heavier hawser cable rope. (Attached to the line were small wooden tags with instructions in English, French, and Spanish: “Pull on this line.”) The Lyle gun could reach over 600 yards, and could sometimes be shot from a boat if the water was calm enough. Lyle guns were used from the late 19th century to 1952, when they were replaced by rockets.

Launching a lifeboat was out of the question, so the crew used a Lyle gun to fire a line about 150 yards to the ship in distress. The first sailor to be rescued by the breeches buoy was 16-year-old Jimmie Holbrook. One by one, 17 more crew members were brought ashore, including James Brady of Buffalo, New York, who paid his way home from London by working on the ship.

David A. Lyle

Colonel David A. Lyle

The crews worked for almost 48 hours trying to rescue the remaining crew on board, including Captain G.W. Duff, the master of the freighter, the chief officer, and three engineers. Two days after the wreck, the newspapers reported that the men were still on board the doomed ship. Tremendous breakers were making rescue impossible, and it was feared all six men would perish as the ship continued to fall apart in the turbulent seas.

As it was, all of the crew survived, albeit, Captain Rorke and his life-saving crew had to make two more rescues in the following weeks to save some wreckers and engineers of a wrecking corps that were trying to salvage the steamer.

Homer The Life Line

The Life Line, by Winslow Homer, 1884, depicts a woman overwhelmed as she’s carried ashore with her rescuer in a breeches buoy. A breeches buoy resembled a life-preserver ring with canvas pants attached. It could be pulled out to the ship by pulleys, enabling a sailor to step into the pants and then be pulled to safety. The men drilled using the breeches buoy once a week – if after a month’s practice the crew could not rescue a person in five minutes they were reprimanded. Many crews could set it up and make the rescue in under three minutes, even during night drills when there were no light sources. Photo, Philadelphia Museum of Art

A Cat and Dog Are Rescued
In addition to the 18 rescued sailors, several animals were also onboard the Lamington. A large cat weighing 18 pounds, which had been the sailors’ pet, was carried ashore by one of the sailors on the breeches buoy (I’d love to see them try this with my cat). The cat was presented to Harrison Craig Dare, a newspaper editor from Patchogue, Long Island. A terrier was also rescued via the breeches buoy and given to Frank Soper of Ocean Beach, Fire Island.

Four Trick Ponies Are Lost
On board were four trained ponies that were being transported from Spain to Jose Aymor of the Cambridge Hotel in New York. (There had been five, but one died shortly before the ship struck the sand bar.) Unfortunately, all four ponies drowned two days after the ship crashed into the sandbar.

Life-Saving Stations of the Long Island Coast

In the late 19th century, there were 30 life-saving stations scattered along the Long Island Coast from Montauk Point to Rockaway Point. The following is a list of those stations and the keepers in about 1880:
Ditch Plain, William B. Miller
Hither Plain, William D. Parsons
Napeague, John S. Edwards
Amagansett, Jesse B. Edwards
Georgica, Nathaniel Dominy
Mecox, John W. Hedges
Southampton, Nelson Burnett

Life-Saving Service Station

An 1871 Red House-Type station at Fire Island.

Shinnecock, Alanson G. Penny
Tiana, John E. Carter
Quogue, Charles H. Herman
Potunk, Isaac Gildersleeve.
Moriches, Gilbert H. Seaman
Forge River, Ira G. Ketcham

U. S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps Sheepshead Bay

The U. S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps was an early supplement to the USLSS. This photo of the crew of the VLSC station at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, was taken around 1900.

Smith’s Point, John Penny
Bellport, Henry Kremer
Blue Point, Frank Rorke
Lone Hill, George E. Stoddard
Point O’ Woods, William H. Miller
Fire Island, J.T. Doxsee

U.S. Life Saving Station, Ditch Plains, Long Island, New York.

U.S. Life Saving Station, Ditch Plains, Long Island, New York. This 1882-type life saving station was just southwest of the Montauk Lighthouse.

Oak Island, Edgar Freese
Gilgo, William E. Austin
Jones Beach, Steven Austin
Zach’s Inlet, Philip K. Chichester
Short Beach, John Edwards
Point Lookout, Andrew Rhode

Rockaway Point Lifeboat

Rockaway Point Lifeboat, August 4, 1890

Long Beach, Richard Van Wicklen
Rockaway, William Rhinehart
Rockaway Point, Daniel B. Abrams (today this is Beach 129th Street)
Eatons Neck, Henry E. Ketcham
Rocky Point, Harvey S. Brown

The Blue Point Life-Saving Station

The Blue Point Life-Saving Station

USLSS Station #22, Third District: Blue Point
The Blue Point Life-Saving Station, constructed in 1856, was located on the beach of Great South Bay near the community of Water Island (about 10 miles east of the Fire Island Lighthouse and about 4 miles south of Patchogue). In its first year of operation, Charles R. Smith was appointed keeper.

In 1896, when the wreck of the Lamington took place, Frank Rorke was the keeper. Rorke was appointed to this position on July 5, 1887, and remained at Blue Point until his retirement with thirty years of service on May 31, 1919. Although the USLSS merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, Blue Point stayed in operation until 1937.

Blue Point LIfe-Saving Station

The Blue Point Station was abandoned after the war in 1946.

The End of an Era
The era of rescuing shipwrecked sailors by surfboat and breeches buoy ended in 1915, when the USLSS merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the U.S. Coast Guard. Some of the old stations, however, continued to be manned by surfmen who helped rescue mariners until the end of World War II. Improvements in navigation, radar, sonar, and the helicopter combined to render these stations obsolete. Unfortunately, most of them were sold at auction or torn down.

The good news though, is that while the Life-Saving Services only existed as a separate entity for 44 years, during that time the brave surfmen and their horses came to the rescue of 178,741 men, women, and children — 177,286 of whom were saved. That’s an outstanding record, considering the limited equipment they had.

If you enjoyed this story, you may like reading about Tim, the shipwrecked cat rescued by the men of the Eatons Neck Life-Saving Station on Fire Island.

  1. […] you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about Bill, the life-saving horse of Fire Island, which has more details about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving […]

  2. Ed Eschmann says:

    THis was a great article. I own the Point o Woods station, now known as the Fire Isaldn Hotel. I am looking for more info on this station if you have found any other info on this property and topic.