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The US Life Saving Service
1848 – 28 January 1915

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large sections of the United States’ eastern seaboard were sparsely populated. The crew of any ship running aground could expect very little, if any, help. As maritime trade increased, so did the demand for assistance for those wrecked near the shore.

The concept of assistance to shipwrecked mariners from shore-based stations began with volunteer lifesaving services. It was recognized that only small boats stood a chance in assisting those close to the beach. The Massachusetts Humane Society founded the first lifeboat station at Cohassett, Massachusetts. The stations were small shed-like structures, holding rescue equipment that was to be used by volunteers in case of a wreck. The stations, however, were only near the approaches to busy ports and large gaps of coastline remained without lifesaving equipment.

In 1848, the government entered the lifesaving business. The Revenue Marine was tasked with operating stations in New Jersey. Lack of funding and the Civil War doomed this early Federal attempt and stations deteriorated into uselessness.

In 1871, Sumner Increase Kimball, a young lawyer from Maine, was appointed the chief of the Revenue Marine. He sent Captain John Faunce on an inspection of the lifesaving network and was appalled by the report. Kimball convinced Congress to set aside money for improvements.

In 1874, the stations were expanded to include the coast of Maine and ten locations south of Cape Henry, Virginia, including the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The next year, the network expanded to include the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia peninsula, the Great Lakes, and the coast of Florida. Eventually, the Gulf and West Coasts would be included, as well as one station at Nome, Alaska.

In 1878 the growing network of lifesaving stations was finally organized as a separate agency of the Treasury Department and named the US Life-Saving Service. Sumner I. Kimball was chosen as the General Superintendent of the Service, a position he held for 37 years.

The first stations consisted of one building that housed everything. The early buildings were strictly utilitarian. By the 1880s, stations were becoming more fashionable and usually were made up of two or three structures. The main building contained the offices, boat house, and berthing area for the crew. It usually had a lookout tower on the roof. Some were built to resemble a Swiss chalet and one was even designed with a clock tower. By the 1890s, the architect A. B. Bibb designed stations that looked much like beach resort homes with lookout towers.

The first choice for a rescue was the lifeboat. The Service’s boats were either a 700 to 1,000 pound, self-bailing, self-righting surfboat pulled by six surfmen with twelve to eighteen foot oars, or a two to four ton lifeboat. The surfboat could be pulled on a cart by crewmen, or horses, to a site near a wreck and then launched into the surf. The lifeboat, following a design originated in England, could be fitted with sails for work further offshore and was used in very heavy weather. Some crews, at first, viewed the lifeboat with skepticism because of its great weight and bulk. The skepticism soon changed and crews began to regard it as "something almost supernatural," for it enabled them to provide assistance "when the most powerful tugs and steam-craft refused to go out of the harbor. ..."

When a ship wrecked close to shore and the seas were too rough for boats, a life car would be used. The life car looked like a tiny, primitive submarine. A Lyle gun, which looked like a small canon, was used to propel a small messenger line up to 600 yards to the ship. Using the messenger line, the ship’s crew would haul a heavy hawser to the ship and secure it. Once the line was secure, the life car could be pulled back and forth between the wreck and the safety of the shore. The life car could be hauled over, through, or even under the seas. After the hatch in the top of the car was sealed, there was enough air within the device to accommodate eleven people for three minutes.

As those in distress evolved from crowded immigrant packets with many on board to small commercial schooners with less than a dozen on board, the life car was widely replaced by the breeches buoy. A breeches buoy resembles a life preserver ring with canvas pants attached. It could be pulled out to the ship by pulleys, enabling the endangered sailor to step into the life ring and pants and then be pulled to safety much more easily than the heavier life car. A beach apparatus cart carried all the equipment needed to rig the breeches buoy and could be pulled by the crew or horses to the wreck site.

Stations were originally manned by a Keeper and six to eight surfmen. Later, the crew was increased to at least ten men.

The rescues performed by the men of the USLSS captured the attention of nineteenth century America. The sight of a keeper standing erect in the stern of his small boat, grasping his sweep oar, urging on his men at their oars as the boat rose and fell in high surf, could cause a reporter to write exciting copy. Terms such as "soldiers of the surf" and "storm warriors" were used to describe the lifesavers.

The LSS regulations stated, "In attempting a rescue the keeper will select either the boat, breeches buoy, or life car, as in his judgment is best suited to effectively cope with the existing conditions. If the device first selected fails after such trial as satisfies him that no further attempt with it is feasible, he will resort to one of the others, and if that fails, then to the remaining one, and he will not desist from his efforts until by actual trial the impossibility of effecting a rescue is demonstrated. The statement of the keeper that he did not try to use the boat because the sea or surf was too heavy will not be accepted unless attempts to launch it were actually made and failed, or unless the conformation of the coast--as bluffs, precipitous banks, etc.--is such as to unquestionable preclude the use of a boat."

A legend was born at Hatteras Station in 1885. Patrick Etheridge was Assistant Station Keeper at Hatteras Station. A ship was stranded off Cape Hatteras on the Diamond Shoals. The Keeper gave the command to man the lifeboat. One of the men shouted “we might make it out to the wreck but we would never make it back.” Etheridge looked around and said, “The Blue Book says we've got to go out and it doesn't say a damn thing about having to come back.”

The men did perform amazing rescues, but by far the largest amount of work for the crews revolved around drilling with the rescue equipment, patrol and lookout duty, and general station upkeep. This was, and still is, called hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.

During the daylight hours, a surfman was assigned to scan the nearby water areas from the lookout tower. No seats were kept in the tower in order to prevent inattention to duty. At night, or when the weather grew foul, the surfmen performed beach patrols. Surfmen carried a pouch of coston signals. The coston signal was much like a flare and was used to warn ships that were approaching too close to the beach, or to let grounded ships know that they had been spotted and help was on the way. In 1899 surfmen burning coston signals warned off 143 ships in danger of running aground. In October of the same year, Surfman Rasmus Midgett, of the Gull Shoals, North Carolina, Station, accomplished the amazing feat of rescuing ten people single-handedly from the wrecked Priscilla while on patrol.

The greatest days of the Service covered the ten years from 1871 to 1881. These were the years of its greatest growth and some of its greatest rescues were performed luring this period.

The service also looked at new territories. Life Saving stations were usually established in areas known to be treacherous to ships. The nature of shipping, terrain and weather in the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii dictated that the islands would have no stations. Alaska met all the requirements of terrain and weather, but for many years the amount of shipping did not warrant the establishment of stations. The Alaskan gold rush drew thousands of fortune-seekers to the town of Nome. Nome’s offshore anchorage provided no shelter and is extremely shallow, so passengers and freight had to be transferred to shore from two miles out by small boats. This eventually led to the establishment of a Life Saving station there in 1905. This station marked the northern-most of all units in the service. Keeper Thomas A. Ross and his crew of surfmen performed lookout duties and beach patrols. The surfmen rescued people from ice floes, grounded ships and capsized boats. The lifesavers also helped the local fire department fight fires. The surfmen performed other humanitarian services. Between 1918 and 1919, a devastating influenza epidemic swept Alaska. Keeper Ross sent a dog sled with surfman Levi Edward Ashton and driver Anders Peter Brandt, to Cape Prince of Wales and other villages with medicine and supplies. The two men were gone for almost two months.

The twentieth century saw the advent of steam power and advanced navigation techniques. Shipping lanes moved further offshore and ships were in less danger of grounding. Recreational boating became popular. The structure of the LSS did not allow it to adapt to the new demand. Further, there was no retirement system for the aging surfmen.

These pressures, and pressures on the Revenue Cutter Service, led to an agreement to merge the two services (ironic because the LSS was originally part of the RCS). The law which created the US Coast Guard, on 28 January 1915, by combining the two services, also provided for the retirement of Kimball and many of the older keepers and surfmen. The US Life-Saving Service performed nobly over its forty-four years of existence. During this period, 28,121 vessels and 178,741 persons became involved with its services. Only 1,455 individuals lost their lives while exposed within the scope of Life-Saving Service operations.

Joshua James

Joshua James was born on 22 November 1826. A natural seaman, Joshua also applied himself to practical books, and started going to sea early in life with his father and brothers. One night when the helmsman lost his bearing in unfamiliar waters, Joshua was roused from a sound sleep and brought on deck. Yawning and with half-opened eyes, he scanned the heavens, laid down a course, remarked that a certain light would be sighted in two hours, and went back to bed. The light was sighted one hour and 55 minutes later. On another occasion Joshua was sailing a yacht in dense fog, all bearings apparently lost. Someone asked him where they were. He replied "We are just off Long Island head." "How can you tell that?" he was asked. "I can hear the land talk," he answered. He went into business with his father hauling, lightering, and freight carrying.

He joined the Massachusetts Humane Society in 1841 at age 15 and participate din his first rescue the same year. He was awarded a bronze medal on 1 April 1850 for the rescue of the crew of Delaware on Toddy Rocks. In 1864 he helped rescue the crew of Swordfish. In 1871 he helped in the rescue of a schooner. In 1873 he helped with the rescue of the crew of Helene. In 1876 he was appointed keeper of four Massachusetts Humane Society life-boats at Stony Beach, Point Allerton, and Nantasket Beach. On 1 February 1882, Joshua and his crew of volunteers launched a boat in a very heavy gale and thick snowstorm to rescue the crew of Bucephalus, and also on the same day they rescued the crews of Nellie Walker.

On 1 December 1885, he and his crew rescued ten people from Anita Owen. It was midnight, dark, with a northeast gale blowing a thick snow. Joshua and his crew got to a wrecked vessel under hazardous conditions, and found ten persons on board. They could only take five at a time. The captain's wife was taken off first, then four others in the first load. On the trip to the beach the boat was hit by a huge wave and filled, but everyone reached shore. The second trip was more dangerous. The steering oar was lost and wreckage was all about. Nevertheless they managed to get the remaining five crewmen ashore.

On 9 January 1886, Joshua and his men rescued the captain of Millie Trim, but were unable to save the rest of the crew.

A special silver medal was struck for Joshua by the Humane Society in 1886, for "brave and faithful service of more than 40 years." The report said "During this time he assisted in saving over 100 lives."

The most famous rescue of his career, for which he received the Humane Society's gold medal, as well as the Gold Life-Saving Medal from the United States Government, took place between 25 and 26 November, 1888. During that period he and his men saved the lives of 29 persons from five vessels.

An unusual rescue was made on 16 December 1896 when the three-masted schooner Ulrica was wrecked in a northeast gale and a thick snowstorm three miles south of the Point Allerton station. Joshua engaged a local farmer and two horses to rush the boat to the scene. The trainmaster of the electric train from Boston, hearing of the emergency, put the train at the service of the life-saving crew and rushed them to the scene. The schooner was 500 yards offshore. On the first two tries, the boat was thrown back on the beach. On the third try Joshua was thrown from the boat. The boat passed over him. He came up, grabbed the end of an oar, and was dragged back to shore with the boat. Realizing that he could not get the boat out, Joshua took command of the beach apparatus. A line was fired to the ship and secured, but it was too low for a breeches buoy. Joshua and his men got back in the boat and used the rope as a trolley line to pull themselves out to the vessel. The stranded sailors were so numb with cold that one of the lifesavers had to climb on board and help them off the schooner.

The crowning achievement of Joshua's career was the rescue work in the storm of November 1898. On the morning of 27 November Joshua and his men rescued two survivors of thirteen men in two vessels dashed upon Toddy Rocks. Then they took in a family whose home was threatened by the storm. Next, by breeches buoy, they removed seven men from a schooner. After that they fought their way to a barge in the surf and rescued five men. All that night they kept a constant patrol. The second day they rescued three men from a schooner, then three men from Black Rock. For 48 hours they were engaged in continuous rescue work. Joshua said of the storm "We succeeded in getting every man that was alive at the time we started for him, and we started at the earliest moment in each case."

Joshua James died on 19 March 1902. Two days earlier the entire crew save one of the Monomoy Point Life-Saving Station perished in a rescue attempt. This tragedy affected Joshua deeply, and convinced him of the need for even more rigid training of his own crew. At 0700 19 March, with a northeast gale blowing, he called his crew for a drill. For more than an hour, the 75-year-old man maneuvered the boat through the boisterous sea. He was pleased with the boat and with the crew. Upon grounding the boat he sprang onto the wet sand, glanced at the sea and stated, "The tide is ebbing," and dropped dead on the beach.

With a lifeboat for a coffin, Joshua was buried, and another lifeboat made of flowers was placed on his grave. His tombstone shows the Massachusetts Humane Society seal and bears the inscription "Greater love hath no man than this -- that a man lay down his life for his friends."


The LSS had two basic boats; surfboats and lifeboats. The terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference. Either type can be rowed or powered.

The lifeboat was created in 1784 in England by a coach-builder named Lionel Lukin. He was obsessed by the fact that the crew and passengers of a stricken hip would take to the small boats only to lose their lives when it would overturn or sink in rough weather. He redesigned a 20-foot Norwegian yawlby installing water-tight chambers filled with cork in the double-ended bow and stern. He then installed a heavy cast iron keel to make it right itself if it would turn over in heavy seas. He then installed a deck inside with scuppers on the sides above the water line. This would make it self-bailing. He called it an "unimmersible" and named it The Experiment. His concept was successful and the true lifeboat was born.

The design was also applied to a rescue boat on-shore to go out when a ship was in distress. The first American rescue lifeboat came on line in 1851. It was 30 feet in length, typically with air chambers, weighted keel, self-bailing, and self-righting. These were manned by volunteers who would function like today's volunteer fire department.

By 1873, the latest design was.34 feet long. It required eight oarsmen and a coxswain, have two removable masts, four sails, a jib, and centerboard. In 1899 at the Marquette Life Saving Station on Lake Superior in Michigan, the first motorized lifeboat was born. A 34-foot lifeboat was brought in from a Life Saving Station in New Jersey, and, under the watchful eyes of Captain Henry Cleary and the Lake Shore Engine Company of Marquette, a 2-cylinder 12 horsepower Superior engine was installed. This proved successful and the process of equipping other lifeboats began. By 1909 the engines were increased to 35 and 40 horsepower. They still had provisions for sails and rowing. By the 1930s, newer boats were soon being built (E Class) and the length was increased to 36 feet. These would serve until the mid 1970s.

Surfboats were lighter weight, smaller, and of shallower draft than the lifeboats. They were easier to transport over the beach and more easily maneuvered in the surf. They were designed to be hand launched and were typically 23 to 27 feet long and weighed between 700 and 1,100 pounds. They were self-bailing. They were not self-righting, but were fairly easy to right. Though the boat was designed to be pulled and launched by hand, some station personnel acquired horses to help on long beach trips.

David Dobbins, a LSS Superintendent, developed a compromise. The Dobbins lifeboat was self-bailing and self-righting, but it was only 24 to 30 feet long and weighed between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds. It could be launched by hand, but did not carry as many people as the 36-foot lifeboat.

For a complete list of boats used by the LSS go to this Link.